New Food Group For Chickens: Larvae?

DAVID MADEY / COURTESY

UC Davis Poultry Farm supplements chickens’ diets with black soldier fly larvae to boost nutrition, make farm more sustainable

Since the world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, food production will be a major challenge in the upcoming decades. Ongoing research at UC Davis is examining whether larvae can replace corn and soy in chicken feed, shifting those resources away from livestock and into human food production.

In 2015, the USDA allowed farmers to use synthetic protein in chicken feed to ensure that hens are obtaining the essential amino acids for their diets. Dr. Maurice Pitesky and his team of researchers are testing whether black soldier fly larvae can be used as an equivalent protein supplement.  

Organic poultry diets tend to lack methionine, an essential amino acid required for egg production.

“So what we’re trying to do is find an organic supplement,” Pitesky said.

And that’s where the black soldier fly larvae came into play. The question is one of taste — whether fly larvae will affect the taste of eggs.

“We want to see if feeding the chickens black soldier fly larvae impact the productivity and welfare of the chickens and the taste and quality of the eggs,” said Pitesky, whose focus is on poultry health and food safety epidemiology.  “A lot of that we can do in the lab, but the taste test we have to do in the field. The best way to measure any changes in the taste is via taste tests.”

The taste tests were performed at the Memorial Union about a month ago, hoping to unravel the mystery of this question. It was a double-blind test, which meant that the distributors and participants were unaware which eggs came from hens with and without the larvae supplement.  

Each participant was given three pairs of sliced hard-boiled eggs on a paper plate, and asked if there was a difference in taste between each egg.  Anny Huang, a recent UC Davis animal science graduate, and Nicole Fernandez, a fourth-year animal science undergraduate, tabled at the Memorial Union and shared their research scope with fellow Aggies.  

“We’re trying to ensure there are no weird flavors in the eggs,” Fernandez said.  

This sentiment is not surprising, as there have been effects on taste in the past.  

The organic industry have used other forms of synthetic protein, like fish-meal, “and that’s actually affected the taste of the egg,” Huang said. “So we just want to make sure that isn’t happening with black soldier fly larvae.”

The next focus of the research will be on the taste of the chicken meat.  The egg data is ready for analysis and the meat taste tests will soon follow.  

Cost is a another relevant question.  Naturally, egg producers want to know if using black soldier fly larvae as a supplement would increase or decrease costs.

“We are in the ‘proof of concept phase,’” Pitesky said. “Once we have determined that the diet is effective, then we will address issues of scale.”  

The hope is that the insect supplement will provide as many essential amino acids as traditional feed, and not affect the eggs and meat in the process. In a larger market, larvae could potentially replace traditional corn and soy in animal feed, shifting those resources away from livestock and into human grocery products.

“We’re trying to find a viable option,” Huang said.  

One-third of all produced food goes to waste, while nearly 13 percent of the world population is undernourished.

“If we are able to displace 5,10, 15 or even 20 percent of a chickens ration, which is normally made up of corn and soy, with something that humans don’t consume, like black soldier fly larvae, then we can produce eggs in a more sustainable fashion,” Pitesky said.  

The UC Davis Poultry Farm, located off of Old Davis Road, houses 170 chickens, and each one lays about an egg per day.

“The goal is to make this farm as sustainable as possible economically […] and make the farm pay for itself. That’s the real challenge,” Pitesky said.  

The poultry farm is also a local food provider, selling some of the meat and the eggs to Campus Dining Services as well as the Yolo County Food Bank. The eggs studied for research are not sold commercially. However, should the larvae not impact the taste of the egg or meat, the FDA could allow black soldier fly larvae in chicken feed.

In the spring, Huang and her colleagues, along with Pitesky, will be presenting some of the results at the Western Poultry Disease Conference .

 

Written by: David Madey — science@theaggie.org