Insects are the future. Or in any case, they’ll be part of our culinary future. This is probably not the first time that you hear something about the use of insects in the food industry. True adventurers among us may even already have tried a juicy larvae burger or some crunchy cricket cookies. But the potential of insects is much bigger than you might expect. In fact, insects could serve as a fundamental resource for the production of numerous nutritious or industrial end products. Even applications in the pharmaceutical industry are not unheard of.
So, we’re technically able to use insects in various production chains. Good. That doesn’t mean that we should, right? Why would we want to explore the potential of the creepy little creatures that give so many of us nightmares?
There are several reasons. As mentioned earlier, the grensregio is moving towards a biobased economy. We want to reduce our negative impact on the climate and natural environment, which we can partially achieve by using more biobased and less non-renewable resources. The Flemish government, for example, has developed an action plan for more sustainably produced proteins for livestock nutrition, trying to reduce local dependency on imported soy products. Being gold-medallists in the upcycling of waste streams, insects could really help us out here. They feed on many different types of organic ‘waste’ and are able to convert this into useful raw materials, such as proteins, fats and chitin. While doing so, they hardly emit any greenhouse gases and need only very little water and space. Insects could therefore lie at the heart of new, sustainable value chains in the biobased economy.
A new question comes to mind: if insects are indeed tiny recycling climate-heroes, then why don’t we already use them all the time? This is partially because investors face high risks due to the premature and uncertain status of the insect market. Today, there’s still a lack of expertise concerning the cultivation and processing of insects. The existing research projects in Flanders are still operating in laboratories. In order to upscale the cultivation, harvesting and processing of insects to a commercially interesting level, we will first need to gain knowledge from pilot projects. Once this knowledge is ready to be disseminated among those who take an interest in insect resources, the insect industry can truly spread its wings.
To encourage the shift towards a biobased economy, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) invests in research and experimentation with insects in the grensregio. Indeed, the Campine/Kempen region now even goes under the name of “Insect Valley”. This Valley was opened only two weeks ago by the Belgian Minister of Employment, Economy and Innovation. It covers two separate, yet cooperating projects: the Kempen Insect Cluster and the Insect Pilot Plant. Another ERDF funded project, Entomospeed, is running within the Interreg Flanders – the Netherlands programme.
The Kempen Chamber of Commerce (Voka), the Belgian Insect Industry Federation and insect-cultivation company Millibeter cooperate in the Kempen Insect Cluster. This is a platform where companies come together to research opportunities in the insect industry and develop new products and services. This cooperative research has already led to a technology that separates the proteins, fats and chitin that the tested larvae contain. Once separated, these resources are of great value. In the Insect Pilot Plant, the University of Leuven, the Thomas More University College in Kempen, and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito) cooperate to develop a pilot plant for insect cultivation. This pilot helps researchers and stakeholders better understand how insects could be used for commercial/industrial purposes, for example by analysing the cost-efficiency of the production process. Dr. Mik Van Der Borght, Project coordinator of the Insect Pilot Plan explains in an online interview that “[the] pilot plant will be able to process a few tens of kilograms of insects a day into high-quality raw materials as a step towards industrial production, processing up to 1 ton of insects a day. The intention is to show the market that upscaling is indeed possible and that insects can truly realise their perceived potential.” The knowledge that can be gathered from this pilot project will be shared with private and public parties involved with organic waste streams, nutrition for people and livestock, chemistry and pharmacy. Finally, Entomospeed performs similar research across the Dutch-Belgian border, focusing specifically on the black soldier fly (tested in Flanders) and mealworms (tested in the Netherlands) for nutrition purposes. Entomospeed also investigates opportunities for the automisation of the insect industry in order to reduce production costs.
Together, these ERDF-funded initiatives deliver a vast amount of knowledge which can lay out the path for a fully functioning insect market. They’ll answer questions related to the production and market potential of insect products. Which waste streams can best be used to feed insects? Can this cultivation process be automised? Where will the area of distribution for cultivating companies lie? Regional SMEs and large companies alike can benefit from the answers to these questions. So, if you’re interested in insects and their potential to boost the biobased economy, the grensregio is the place to be.