Food and feed security are predicted to be put under great stress in the coming decades, due to the steep rise in the world’s population and the ensuing increase in animal protein demand. Within this context, the need for new sources of nutrients becomes evident.
The two most promising options to relieve this stress on food and feed security are insects and algae, which show potential as alternatives to animal proteins for both human consumption and feed applications. Insect consumption, known as entomophagy, entails many nutritional benefits including high protein content, minerals and vitamins. Although not currently integrated in animal feed, insects have comparable properties to traditional feed components such as fishmeal. Algae, which comprise seaweeds and microalgae, are also rich in nutrients. Seaweeds can be consumed directly as whole algae, whereas microalgae are mainly used for the extraction of food and feed complements.
Alternative proteins are estimated to make up 33% (i.e. 311 million metric tonnes, MMTs) of global protein consumption by 2054, with algae and insects accounting for about 18% and 11% of the alternative protein market, respectively. This implies that about 56 MMT of algae and 34 MMT of insects will be consumed globally by 2054. The edible insect industry alone could become a EUR 320 million business in the US and Europe within the next decade. High-value microalgal products also have a very good potential, with the market for astaxanthin being expected to treble by 2017.
New nutrient sources also have a considerable social impact across several interlinked areas. Their large scale production could revive the European agricultural industry, offer opportunities for economic diversification for both men and women, and offset job losses across the sector. From a public health perspective, new sources of nutrients could help ensure food security and decrease the incidence of cardiovascular diseases related to unhealthy food. Moreover, they will contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal rearing, as well as preventing ocean depletion and lessening the stress on land availability.
Increased awareness of the health and environmental benefits of novel nutrient sources is undoubtedly the main driver that supports the uptake of the trend. Public and private initiatives are actively promoting insects and algae production and commercialisation. The results are visible both at an industry level, with the fitness and health food sectors booming, and at the community level, with local educational establishments adopting new nutrient sources as didactic material.
However, companies active in the production and commercialisation of insects and algae for food and feed face several obstacles. These are related to customer aversion and to the unclear regulatory environment, particularly related to the classification of insects and algae as “novel foods”. This and other legislative barriers result in the cautious and hesitant attitude of investors and retailers towards the financial and commercial support of insect- and algae-based products, thus limiting production volumes and threatening the competitiveness of the business.
To unlock the large potential of novel nutrient sources, action is required at the EU level. Namely, it is recommended that the Novel Foods regulation be harmonised across Member States and that animal feed regulations be adapted to new protein sources. Moreover, it is important to evaluate the side-effects of other policies that might indirectly affect the development of the alternative nutrient source industry. To this end, close collaboration with expert associations such as the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) and the European Algae Biomass Association (EABA) should be a crucial component of the decision-making process.