Plate of insects       Pixabay

While insects are not part of a traditional Western diet, it is common in Asia, as well as Africa and South America

A new European training programme involving the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has been launched in response to the increasing commercial production of insects for human food and animal feed.

Global demand for reared insects to provide animal protein in livestock and human diets is expected to increase in the coming decades, due to a rapidly growing population and significant pressure on water, agricultural, forestry and other natural resources.

This would lead to increased large-scale insect production. However, insect populations that are mass reared in close proximity and high densities are prone to disease outbreak and spread of pathogens. To remain sustainable, producers urgently need more knowledge about the pathogens that threaten mass reared insects.

Therefore, the new three-year Insect Doctors programme, which is receiving 4.2 million Euros from the European Union, will train 15 PhD students to monitor, prevent and control a variety of diseases.

There are eight main training institutes – Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), the Universities of Copenhagen, Valencia and Exeter, the Julius Kühn Institute in Germany, plus the National Centre for Scientific Research and the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France – as well as several research and industry partners.

Dr Helen Hesketh, a Pathogen Ecologist at UKCEH, who will be one of the supervisors, says: “More than two billion people, mainly in Asia, Africa, and South America, eat insects as part of their diet, and there are more than 2,000 edible species. While this has not been widely practised in Western culture, the way we are eating is changing and more people are willing to try insect-based food.

“Edible insects provide a promising alternative solution to achieving food security. They have significant nutritional benefits for humans and animals, including high protein, amino acids, fats, energy and various micronutrients. Compared with livestock, insect rearing has a lower environmental impact because various food sources can be used such as organic waste, greenhouse gas emissions are low, and the water and space requirements are less. ”

In large-scale industrial production systems, there is a higher risk of epidemics - Dr Helen Hesketh

Insects commonly eaten by animals and humans include beetle larvae, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets and silkworm.

Dr Hesketh says: “In large-scale industrial production systems, there is a higher risk of epidemics due to a massive number of insects living in a relatively small area. Insects are exposed to pathogens that are introduced, including those transported on workers’ clothing, which might not be typical of those they experience in their natural habitat.

"Diseases can kill insects or weaken them in many ways, including causing reduced fertility and ability to move. This leads to population decline and significant economic impacts for producers.”

In order to carry out research to improve the health of mass reared populations, the Insect Doctors programme is divided into three themes:

  • study of the interactions between insects and their pathogens to determine the causes of the onset of diseases in mass production
  • development of new methods of detecting pathogens, which will support prevention of disease outbreaks
  • investigation of insect populations’ resistance to pathogens, in order to establish how their diet can be adapted to improve their health

The Insect Doctors initiative is part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie ITN (Innovative Training Networks) European joint doctoral programme (EJD), funded by the European Horizon 2020 programme. The research will also be supported by companies in the insect rearing sector.

For more details about the Insect Doctors programme, including information on how to apply for one of the 15 new PhD positions, see www.insectdoctors.eu

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