The first batch of insect veterinarians is set to be trained at the University of Copenhagen. This new breed of veterinarian will help the growing insect industry to keep their insect micro stocks healthy and abuzz.
Mealworms, crickets and black soldier flies. Growing insects and using their protein-rich bodies as food sources for humans and livestock is a growing industry in Denmark and across the globe. However, we still don't know enough about how to ensure for healthy stocks among these small creatures in the same way that we do for pigs, cows and larger livestock.
"Insect micro stock, like all other livestock, get sick from microorganisms. To address this, we are in the process of training a new generation of 'insect veterinarians' who can treat and prevent disease in micro stock populations," explains Professor Jørgen Eilenberg of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.
The training of insect vets is part of a large European Marie Curie grant, in which a total of 15 PhD students have been hired to learn more about insect diseases. The projects are being conducted via a collaboration between European universities and the insect industry. Three of the PhD students are now employed in Denmark.
"Their research is intended to shed new fundamental scientific knowledge that can be used by the research community and insect producers," says Jørgen Eilenberg.
A new farm animal
Insects are fundamentally different from other animals that we humans have domesticated, bred and used for food through the ages. As such, we do not know too much about how to keep massive populations of millions of insects healthy and free from various diseases.
Typically, an array of viral diseases can pose a threat to insects, diseases that can cause a total shutdown in production. Viral diseases that affect insects are very special and distinct from other viruses, such as bird flu, that can impact typical livestock populations.
"The diseases are different because insects are a very different type of animal," says Eilenberg.
Aiming to help entire populations
The new researchers will not be treating individual insects as traditional veterinarians do with domesticated animals. First and foremost, they need to find out what makes insects sick and how best to prevent epidemics in insect production.
"The intention is for insect vets to help producers become aware of their insects' health. A big difference is that individual animals don't need to be saved. In the case of a sick cow, it is important for the individual cow to be treated. With diseased insects, entire populations must be helped," explains Professor Eilenberg.
Roughly 6,000 tonnes of insects are produced annually for livestock feed and food in the EU. The sector expects this figure to rise to more than one-million tonnes in 2028, corresponding to annual average growth of at least 65% (source: Institut for Fødevare -og Ressourceøkonomi)