Insects as food: Belgium takes a bite

Insects as food: Belgium takes a bite

The first EU permits for insects as a “novel food” should be issued in mid-2020. This will end the legal uncertainty about breeding insects for human consumption in Europe. Now is the time to draw lessons from Belgium, which has served as a sandbox for the fledgling industry, about its future prospects. Are we really ready to eat insects?

Romy is an adorable little blond girl who, like all children under the age of 2½ in Belgium, goes to the crèche most weekdays. Her parents spend 20 minutes every evening preparing her lunch, carefully weighing out some carbs, freshly cooked vegetables, a protein-rich ingredient, some high-quality fat and a sprinkling of chopped herbs. It's the recommended diet for a child her age. But unlike most of Belgium’s children, Romy gets a meal that eventually includes a teaspoon of cricket powder. In fact, she even loves to snack on some whole locusts from time to time. All this thanks to Belgian’s progressive regulatory system, which allowed a whole new sector in the Western agrifood landscape to open up here a few years ago.

In theory, Romy is well on track to help fulfil the prediction, or rather prescription, of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for insects to become “a high-value source of animal protein for the rapidly growing world population.” But the challenges ahead are huge and Belgium, as a test ground, has gained some valuable experience. Along with a few other countries in Europe, Belgium has taken a bite at insects. But sometimes it hurts.

An awakening

It all started in 2014 when the Belgian food safety agency AFSCA, known for its conservatism, issued official advice on the food safety aspects of insects destined for human consumption. “In the search for alternative dietary protein sources, insects appear to offer great potential,” it said and approved 10 species of worm and cricket for sale on the Belgian market.

Belgium’s tolerance policy was based on a loose interpretation of a 1997 EU law on ‘novel food’, which decreed that “food or food ingredients which were not used for human consumption to a significant degree within the European Union prior to 15 May 1997” are ‘novel food’ and hence subject to a permit. But this EU law did not strictly mention whole animals. Insects were therefore authorised for consumption in the Netherlands, UK, Denmark and Finland, and tolerated in Belgium. Other countries, such as France, interpreted the EU law differently and banned them. A case is pending at the EU Court of Justice on the French ban.

A new EU law on ‘novel food’, introduced in 2018, clarified the matter. It extended the ‘novel food’ label to all insect-based products, including “whole insects and their preparations”. Hence whole insects now have to be authorised by the EU to be sold for human consumption. However, the 2018 regulation introduced a transitional period, extending the legality of products nationally authorised before 2018, provided they applied for an EU permit by 1 January 2019. Through their national federation, Belgian companies sent applications to the EU for three insects: crickets, mealworms and locusts.

In the meantime, “the general food legislation provides for a comprehensive framework that is likely to ensure the compliance and the safety of these products during the transition period,” says Christophe Derrien, secretary general at IPIFF, the umbrella association for the European insect production industry in Brussels.

Regulatory sandbox

Belgium's favourable regulatory framework also attracted foreign insect producers looking to test their products. “The great advantage of Belgians is that we are not too patriotic about our food – unlike countries with a strong gastronomic culture, such as Italy – even among young people. It’s easier for us to introduce insects here,” says Michiel Van Meervenne, founder of Kriket, an energy bar that includes cricket powder. “If the Dutch are more progressive, the Belgians are ready to pay for something special – we care more about what we eat,” adds Nico Coen, co-founder of Nimavert, a Belgian retailer of insect-based products.

Start-ups flourished to seize a slice of the cake. But the most emblematic project was the launch of Europe’s largest urban insect farm in June 2017 by Little Food. Little Food has been a pioneer in the Belgian insect industry since 2016. It has sold tens of thousands of products to a large number of end customers, and thousands have visited its unique urban farm near Tour & Taxis.

It was a success story until recently: production ended in late 2019. A number of Little Foods' signature products, such as its seasoned dried crickets, are now being commercialised by Nimavert under its own brand. “Little Foods management team and board are reviewing various options in relation to the rest of our business activities to decide the best way forward,” David Mellett, Little Food's co-founder told The Brussels Times.

“Perhaps we were too hasty and the proposed products didn’t bring enough added value," suggests Rudy Caparros, who works at the entomology unit of Gembloux University. "We still don’t know what strategy to adopt today. We took the pain for being pioneers.” Good point: did anyone ask people if they actually wanted to eat insects?

Changing perceptions

The biggest obstacle to human insect consumption – fish and chicken already love them – is cultural. In fact, two billion humans already consume insects, but none of them are in the Western world. Here we eat frogs, snails and other Molluscs, as well as Crustaceans, but we still associate insects with pests and filth, in spite of honeybees and silkworms. This alternative to our traditional meat, despite its environmental and health benefits (see info boxes), is only slowly making its way to our plates.

“We are in a niche market [and] it will be slow to create a proper market,” says Emmanuel Baeten, spokesperson for the Belgian Insect Industry Federation. Caparros explains: “It took us ten years to adopt sushi. We knew rice, but the raw fish was an obstacle. Insects are unknown and not even considered edible.” He continues: “There is interest: every time I hold an event, a conference or a tasting, it’s packed. I get two or three phone calls every week from would-be producers or researchers who are looking for advice.Other stakeholders such as Coen confirm this: “We see a change from two years ago. Now people are more open to trying insects. Ecology has become more mainstream. Everybody agrees we have to do something about it.”

So what’s the best strategy going forward? “We have production facilities but we don't have products,” says Gabrielle Wittock, who just founded her own insect start-up, Yuma. "There is a gap in the marketing.” So far, the winning strategy seems to include two elements: it targets young people, who are more sensitive to the ‘save our planet’ message, and/or it uses insects as an invisible ingredient.

Snacks are the way forward, for Wittock, since “you should not start messing with a product which holds too much symbolic value for Westerners.” Michiel Van Meervenne, co-founder of the highly successful Kriket snack bar, agrees: “In our marketing, everything is around being accessible and mainstream.” In April, Kriket will launch a granola “to reach a bigger group of customers.”

Golden opportunities

“If everything goes smoothly, 2020 will be a very important milestone for the consumption of insects in Europe,” Van Meervenne adds, referring to the EU authorisations expected in June. “We already work with big retailers, but they need the guarantee of the EU to be more confident, to promote insects, and it’s the same for investors,” he explains.

What about insects for animal consumption, or insects as feed, which are subject to a distinct legal framework, as a means of boosting the insect market? Could feed insects enable food insects? There is far greater acceptance of farm animals such as poultry or fish eating insects. The EU is also working on specific authorisations for this. But price remains an obstacle, as feed insects are in direct competition with other protein commodities such as soy. This is why giants like the French company Ynsect are growing ever bigger, to reap economies of scale.

So is there a viable business model for breeding both food and feed insects? Lies Hackelbracht of Tor Royal, another Belgian insect start-up, which currently works with four farmers, believes that, given the difficulties farmers currently face: “It can be an opportunity to breed mealworm and insects for food and feed. It’s easy to do for a farmer.” For her, the best business model is diversification and circular economy.

Caparros confirms that the only way to make insect breeding viable is to be circular, i.e. to feed insects with organic waste. It doesn’t require much investment or additional work, and they will yield either fertiliser or feed for other farm animals. This is perhaps why the European insect farming industry sees the publication of the European Commission’s 'European Green Deal’ last December as “positive”. While insects are not directly mentioned in the paper, a future ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy is supposed to play a key role in improving the circularity of EU food production. This perfectly fits the philosophy behind insect farming, which relies on upcycling underused materials, including food waste, into higher-value products, such as protein and lipids.

One lesson is clear from Belgium's experience as an insect pioneer: “You cannot do everything: breeding, transformation and retail. You must focus on one of them,” Coen, Baeten and Wittock say. Their future focus is on marketing, so that one day, little Romy and her pals become mainstream customers.

Good for the planet

Animal farming already covers 70% of agricultural land. To maintain a sustainable world, we cannot go on eating meat like we do today. According to the FAO, insects could solve the challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050, because their protein yield is much higher, and their environmental impact is much lower than for other animals.

Insect breeding requires far less water and emits far less CO2 and nitrates than conventional animal production. On top of that, they are circular economy champions, since they love agricultural by-products and food waste. Their manure, although small in volume, is highly concentrated in fertilisers.

Insects do not pose an animal welfare problem: they live in colonies and do not mind intensive breeding. How do you slaughter them? They are frozen or blanched in 80°C water, which kills them instantaneously.

Good for your health

If there was one reason to eat insects, it would be this one: they are a superfood. Packed with quality proteins, i.e. essential amino acids, their protein rate ranges from 45-70%. The Orthoptera (crickets and locusts) invading the European market are at the high end of that. They are also rich in essential nutrients: fatty acids, the B vitamins and minerals (iron, zinc, copper, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese).

Beware however, if you are allergic to Crustaceans or Acari: they are all Arthropods and share the same kind of allergens. Don’t eat insects alive, as their bacterial content exceeds health and safety standards. And only eat insects bred by registered companies, which abide by EU and national rules. Their nutritional quality hangs mainly from their food, which is regulated, as it is for any animals intended for human consumption.

By Hughes Belin

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