The organic waste created by the country could support the production of up to 12 million tons of insect protein annually. However, this market innovation competes with protein suppliers from the soybean market, who have started lobbying in response.
The preparations for some intriguing and pioneering trials on how insect protein can be incorporated into domestic animal feed recipes have already started in Hungary. This innovative effort is driven by a protein shortage in Europe and across the world which, together with the rapid rise in the world’s population, has created a need for affordable alternative sources for protein in animal feed.
Insect protein and similar protein substitutes could, in part or entirely, replace hundreds of thousands of tons of imported soybean meal per year. Further, most of this imported protein source for animal feed material is genetically modified (GM).
In 2017, the government approved the Ministry of Agriculture’s program to reduce GM soybean meal import and to explore alternative feed sources. The execution of the program is coordinated by the National Agricultural Research and Innovation Center (NAIK), an entity supervised by the ministry. The NAIK has won a total of HUF 780 million grant money from the Ministry for Innovation and Technology to explore alternative sources of animal feed components. Much of these funds will be spent on experiments related to using insects as alternative protein sources.
Under EU legislation, insect protein today can be used in fish feed and pet food, but no other livestock feed can legally contain it.
This restriction exists even though pigs and poultry are the two largest sources of meat consumed by the country’s population and require the highest amounts of protein relative to other livestock.
This implies there would be great potential benefits for the Hungarian government to convince the European Union to allow the use of insect protein in pig and poultry diets. After all, insect protein serves as natural food sources for backyard pig and poultry livestock. Experiments with fish such as the common carp are also ongoing, focusing on discovering how insect proteins can best be used in all forms of food livestock.
The program is not geared towards producing insect protein products for direct human consumption. Rather, insect protein could become an indirect food source through consuming livestock that is fed with animal protein. As for pig and poultry farming, the goal is to first have a working technology prototype ready by 2020, followed by wide-spread feeding tests.
Insect farming could represent a breakthrough in organic waste management as well. In Hungary, around 70-75 million tons of waste are generated annually. Most of this waste can be suitable for insect protein production.
Of the usable, non-hazardous material, 35 million tons come from agricultural sources and 25 million tons come from other sectors. Much of these sources may qualify as so-called substrates that are suitable for animal feeding. Initial tests would involve crickets, mealworm and darkling beetles, as these species tend to utilize substrates well. Also, protein comprises an extraordinarily high ratio of their physiology, amounting to 58%-60% of their total bodyweight.
Preliminary calculations indicate that up to 12 million tons of clear insect protein could be produced each year. This represents tremendous potential capacity, as the animal feed industry currently produces four million tons of feed mixture annually.
The organic by-products of insect protein production could also be used in arable crop production and horticulture. This would supply nutrients to soils and create a virtuous cycle of production from new technology.
Experts say that the use of insect proteins is an inevitable evolution in future animal feeding. Soybean importers, however, may create a stiff political challenge to the widespread expansion of this innovation. Hungary imports nearly 600,000 tons of soybean annually, mostly from South America. These soybean importers stand to lose much of their profitable market from any wide-spread adoption of this new protein source.
Still, the government is committed to banning genetic modification in agricultural applications. Replacing imported soybean meal can be a significant step towards this goal. The Hungarian Constitution states that the country’s agriculture should remain GM free, but this ban doesn’t apply to imported raw materials.
Currently, livestock feeding would not be viable domestically without imported soy protein.
The only way to reduce GM imports of feed source proteins with the current technology is to increase the amount of GM-free protein sources produced domestically. However, Hungary offers only a fraction of the climate-appropriate farmland necessary to replace current levels of such imports. This is the primary impetus of finding alternative domestic protein sources and many see insect-farming as the most promising option available.