Can insects help save the planet? How Tesco is working on innovative ways to reduce deforestation
21 September 2020
In partnership with Mail Metro Media, we’re sharing stories of how Tesco and our supplier partners are tackling some of the key environmental issues associated with food production.
Walking through one of London's busiest stations, you would never suspect you were just a stone's throw away from the UK's largest insect farm.
But tucked away beneath some of the capital's iconic railway arches, insect farming company Entocycle is raising black soldier flies to be turned into insect protein for animal feed.
Why? Because they believe insects can help protect the world's forests and are working with Tesco to explore how their idea can be scaled up to become a reality. To understand how, we need to take a step back to understand what causes deforestation.
The causes of deforestation
The world's forests are home to wildlife and act as the 'lungs' of our planet. They are also home to many indigenous communities. But these forests are under threat - every two seconds we lose forest the size of a football pitch. And a lot of this is driven by unsustainable practices in our food system.
Every two seconds we lose forest the size of a football pitch
'In addition to being home to precious wildlife, the world's forests play a critical role in our everyday lives,' explains Dr Emma Keller, Head of Food Commodities at WWF. 'They play a key role in climate regulation, storing huge amounts of carbon in the trees and soil. And of course forests are home to indigenous people who depend on them for their homes and livelihoods.'
See how insects might be helping to save the planet
Half of the Cerrado region in Brazil, a large savannah which is home to 5% of the planet's animal and plant species, and around 17% of the Amazon, have already been lost due to land being cleared for crops or grazing. And the problem is getting worse. Last summer saw the worst deforestation in a decade and extensive fires that made headlines globally.
'If we lose forests like the Amazon, we lose in the fight against climate change and push iconic and important species even closer to the brink of extinction,' says Emma. 'We need a food system that works in harmony with nature. We know this is possible; now we need to see the will and the action to make this happen.'
Laurence Webb, Responsible Sourcing Manager at Tesco, agrees, 'We've all seen the terrible images of the Amazon burning. Clearing even more land for crops or cattle ranching is destroying precious habitats like the Brazilian rainforest.'
Soy used in animal feed is one of the key agricultural crops driving deforestation in Brazil. Huge areas of land being cleared in the Amazon and the Cerrado regions is used to grow soy which goes into animal feed for the chicken, pork and beef we consume. The UK alone imports over 3.3 million tonnes of soy each year, much of it from these regions.
Making our food more environmentally friendly
Tesco is working in partnership with WWF to halve the environmental impact of the average UK shopping basket, which includes the impact our food has on forests.
'Tesco and WWF are working together to better understand where our soy comes from and how it is produced, to help ensure that soy coming to the UK is deforestation-free. We’re also calling on the UK government to set world leading new laws to exclude deforestation for all forest-risk products,’ explains Emma at WWF.
Laurence is part of Tesco’s Responsible Sourcing team which is leading this work.
'As the UK's largest retailer, we have a responsibility to lead on this issue,' he says. 'We are on track to meet our target to achieve zero net deforestation for soy through certification by 2020 and we’ve set ourselves an additional target to make sure our soy comes from whole regions that are verified as deforestation free.’
'Since 2006, we've been a founding member and vocal supporter of the Amazon Soy Moratorium established to protect the Amazon, and we have committed £10 million to protect the Cerrado region of Brazil.'
But finding alternatives to soy must also be part of the solution. 'As the global population grows, the demand for meat and dairy is increasing. If the world continues to rely solely on soy protein to feed the animals we eat, we'll cause irreparable damage to precious natural habitats. Alternative animal feeds, like insects, can help reduce the environmental damage.'
Insects? Seriously? Yes, says Laurence. 'Insect protein is a really promising ingredient in animal feed, and is already used, in small quantities, to feed farmed salmon and other fish.'
Land being cleared for soy production for animal feed is a big driver for deforestation, so it's essential to find alternatives that reduce this demand
Do insects hold the answer?
Enter Entocycle, a UK start-up specialising in insect protein production. Its founder, Keiran Whitaker, became passionate about environmental protection while travelling the world as a scuba-diving instructor.
'I was fortunate enough to live on the sun-kissed beaches of some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Sadly, it also meant I witnessed first-hand the destruction human activity and lifestyles are having on our planet. One day, I decided I had to intervene. I quit my job and decided to leverage my background in Environmental Design to fulfil what had become my life's mission: to develop a more efficient and sustainable way to feed the world.'
Entocycle is doing this by helping companies to replace traditional sources of protein in animal feed, with nutritious and sustainable insect-based protein. The team feed local food waste – surplus fruit and veg, brewer's grains and coffee grounds – to the insects, which can then be used as a source of protein in animal feed, instead of soy.
'We farm the black soldier fly. It's the fastest-growing insect and consumes a wide variety of food waste, which means it's very effective at tackling another major global problem of food waste. It requires significantly less land than soy, and as it can be farmed indoors and under controlled conditions, it can be produced locally, anywhere in the world.'
It’s an idea that has attracted interest from Tesco in their quest to make meat and fish more sustainable. ‘Insects are a more natural protein source in the diets of chickens and fish than soy, farmed in South America. If insect protein reduces the demand for soy, it can help protect our planet.’
Tesco’s partnership with Entocycle started in 2016, as part of Tesco’s search for new sustainability innovations. Following a series of meetings with Entocycle and having been inspired by their approach, Tesco provided some seed funding that enabled Entocycle to attract even more investment and scale up their operations.
But the partnership hasn’t stopped there. Tesco also connected Entocycle to some their suppliers. ‘We introduced Entocycle to a range of our suppliers, so they can trial feeding the insects different types of food waste, and to explore how the insect protein can be included in animal feed,’ explains Laurence.
The insects grown by Entocycle are protein rich and can provide a sustainable alternative to soy
Scaling up insect protein
Entocycle is now looking to scale up its operations. 'This is an entirely new industry’, continues Kieran. ‘As a founder, there's been no handbook of how things are done. Tesco has been supportive since the beginning. The team there provided funding to help us develop our technologies as the business has grown from concept to the commercialisation stage we're moving into now.'
'Next we're exploring ways to recycle food waste from Tesco's supermarkets and suppliers, and use our technology to convert it into sustainable protein as feed for their farmers. A prime example is with a large Scottish salmon farming company. We hope to supply insect-based ingredients to their feed mill to use in trials feeding salmon from January 2021.'
So will insect-protein soon become the norm in animal feed? Laurence explains this is still some time away. 'The bottom line is that the total amount of insect protein being produced globally is tiny when compared to conventional ingredients like soy. That's why we are supporting research with WWF which will explore how the insect industry can be scaled up to provide a long-term solution, not just for us but the entire industry.'
'Transformational change is needed to deliver affordable, healthy sustainable food. Sustainable farming as well as alternative proteins that reduce the pressures on nature is a critical part of protecting ecosystems like the Amazon and Cerrado. Only by working together can we achieve this and ensure all Britain's food is deforestation-free.'
'We need to produce enough food to feed the world's growing population, whilst ensuring we have a healthy planet,' Keiran adds. 'Those concepts don't have to be mutually exclusive. I would like to see deforestation brought to an end, our rainforests restored. It's all possible. And it starts with what's on our plate. We just have to really want it.'