Researchers and industry leaders gathered at Texas A&M University for the first Insects as Food and Feed Symposium to diversify and expand the burgeoning field.

two hands holding black soldier fly larvae
Black soldier fly larvae are a key insect being studied by the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming for their potential as feed for livestock and fish grown for human consumption. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

The symposium was hosted by the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, a multi-institutional center based at Texas A&M in Bryan-College Station and includes collaborators from Mississippi State University and Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. The center is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Jeff Tomberlin, Ph.D., Department of Entomology, and Del Gatlin, Ph.D., Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, both in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are providing leadership for the center.

The center strives to find solutions for sustainable food production, Tomberlin said. Scientists are exploring insects as a way to produce food to feed livestock, poultry and fish, and for direct human consumption. Insects are also being investigated as a potential food for pets.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates traditional agriculture will fall about 40% short of the world’s food supply needs by 2050. Insect farming has been identified as a practical, economical, environmentally sound and sustainable method for producing high-value protein.

“Agriculture is continuously evolving and diversifying, and this is just a natural process of ideas around sustainability and circular economies and efficiencies,” Tomberlin said. “This symposium was not just necessary; it was appropriate to create opportunities for researchers outside agriculture to participate and bridge the disciplinary knowledge that will help us all push the potential of this field.”

Bringing ‘insects as food and feed’ leaders together

The symposium was organized to connect and engage researchers, industry leaders and stakeholders. Its goals were to create more interest in the field’s potential and garner interest in launching income-generating programs or projects that could fund education for the insects as food and feed sector at partnering universities.

Tomberlin standing in the lab
Insect farming has been identified as a practical, economical, environmentally sound and sustainable method for producing high-value protein. Jeff Tomberlin, Ph.D., is a driver of the emerging industry of using insects as food and feed. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

The symposium also provided a platform to introduce next-generation scientists, entrepreneurs and industry leaders to potential opportunities within the field’s circular economic model. For example, researchers are investigating how black soldier fly larvae can help dispose of food waste and provide a nutrient-rich source of feed for animals like poultry and fish being produced for human consumption.

The event included presentations by experts on subjects ranging from the economic potential and the supply chain for soldier fly production, human and companion animal nutrition and harvesting refuse. Discussions included the use of degradable plastic for insect feedstocks and inclusive research programs for students with disabilities.

Tomberlin said there is incredible interest in public and private investment that is propelling the insect for food and feed sector. Stakeholders view the field as a way to address climate change and food security challenges in sustainable ways that also incorporate nutritional benefits of insects into feed for livestock, poultry and fish as well as pets.

“It’s hard to say how this field will evolve because it is evolving quite quickly,” Tomberlin said. “That is exciting because you really don’t know where it could go or how big it could become. I do know bringing people here who bridge the spectrum of what we know now creates opportunities to continue that evolution and positions Texas A&M AgriLife as a leader in the field.”

Sparking collaboration within an evolving field  

Dr. Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D., presenting during a symposium.
Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Advancing Health through Agriculture, speaks about insect farming’s role in precision nutrition for humans during a presentation at the symposium. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Umberto Ferrero)

Tomberlin said it was an important opportunity for scientists representing the range of expertise working in the field of insects for food and feed to come together with other leading-edge researchers. He said the symposium offered stakeholders a moment to step away from their focus and see the bigger picture of rapidly expanding science.

The symposium was an “inspirational” event that connected stakeholders from around the globe virtually, Tomberlin said. Researchers immediately identified areas of expansion within the field. The symposium sparked research collaborations to be facilitated through the center that would not have happened without the event. 

Having researchers from disciplines ranging across entomology, engineering, economics, chemistry and human nutrition share their work and ideas with symposium attendees primed the environment for innovation, Tomberlin said.

“The collaboration element seems like a bottomless well of opportunity for programs and projects,” he said. “Just watching the rate of increase with regards to research citations on the topic over the last few years shows how the field is growing as more labs and more people are getting involved across disciplines.”

Speakers presented a range of topics about their work in fields related to collaborations with the center or within the field of insects for feed and food.

Speakers representing the Texas A&M University System included Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Advancing Health through Agriculture, IHA, at Texas A&M AgriLife Research; Karen Wooley, Ph.D., W.T. Doherty-Welch Chair in the Department of Chemistry, and Anita Lang, assistant program director for Aggie ACHIEVE.

Other speakers included David Zilberman, Ph.D., Robinson Chair in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at the University of California, Berkley; Maria Cattai de Godoy, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences; Eric Benbow, Ph.D., professor and Global Scholar at Michigan State University; Chris Dallager, ACCESS program director at Mississippi State University; Juan Morales-Ramos, Ph.D., research entomologist at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service National Biological Control Laboratory; and Aaron Hobbs, executive director of the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture.

Symposium scratches the surface of potential

Phillip Kaufman, Ph.D., head of the Department of Entomology, said insects for food and feed meets all four of AgriLife Research’s strategic planning priorities. It is a leading-edge and innovative science, which has the potential to answer global sustainability questions. It would also provide local and international economic opportunities while creating a burgeoning link between agriculture and human health.

“Dr. Tomberlin and other scientists are passionate about this field because they see the range of problems it can solve for humanity,” Kaufman said. “To have Texas A&M host a symposium like this indicates we are facilitating its expansion in a meaningful way.”

Tomberlin said he was grateful to the speakers for investing their time and energy to present at the symposium.

“These speakers are heavy-hitters in the field,” he said. “To have all these amazing researchers take the time to come together for this is a big moment in the field of insect agriculture. That connection is already springboarding new initiatives at Texas A&M AgriLife that will ripple throughout the state, nation and world. We’re just scratching the surface of where this could lead.”

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