How Black Soldier Fly Maggots Could Help Feed the World

Using insect larvae to convert food waste into high-protein feed for animals is a burgeoning industry, and has quickly become a promising component of sustainable agriculture.

If the idea of munching on insects has you wrinkling your nose in disgust, perhaps you'd settle for eating meat from animals raised on insects?

A handful of companies around the world see the value of turning insects, including mealworms, crickets, and black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens), into high-protein animal feed for fish, pigs, and chickens. Thanks to new investments and updated laws, insect farms have lately been gaining traction as an emerging component of sustainable agriculture.

“Insect proteins are a full-on new category of animal feed, and with a broad range of applications and opportunities,” Kees Aarts, CEO and co-founder of Protix, a Netherlands-based insect farm that raises black soldier flies, told Seeker. “They are sustainable, low-footprint, rich in nutrients and hold great taste potential.”

In mid-June, Protix announced that it had raised $50.5 million in funding. Aarts said that the company will primarily use the money to ramp up production in response to a new EU regulation that went into effect July 1 that authorizes the use of insect proteins to feed fish. Protix already ships its product to 12 countries and has partnered with the Switzerland-based Buhler Group, a food processing and production company, to build additional insect production plants across the globe.

Black soldier flies have become an attractive insect to raise at industrial scales because they grow fast and reproduce in high numbers. Under the right conditions, a single female fly can lay about 500 eggs, which take about two weeks after hatching to grow into the final larval stage, pre-pupa, which is when the maggots are harvested.

At this stage, the larvae contain high amounts of essential amino acids and valuable fatty acids. They’re dried into a powder or processed into a purified oil and a concentrated protein meal, depending on the need, and then combined with other ingredients to make food for fish.

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“Insect proteins are already a natural part of the fish diet, and in many cases fish grow even faster on insect protein than any other protein source,” said Aarts.

He sees insect proteins as a first step in addressing world hunger without negatively impacting the environment. Black soldier flies, for example, can effectively convert tons of organic food waste into tons of insect protein and organic fertilizer.

“We’re trying to move to a food system that provides food to everyone, but with a lower footprint,” Aarts remarked.

Farmed fish are traditionally given fishmeal, which is typically a mixture of wild-caught fish and vegetable matter, such as soy. But using fish to feed fish is inefficient, and detrimental to the environment. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it takes 1.3 pounds of fish to create the fishmeal necessary to produce one pound of salmon. Overall, 10 percent of global fish production goes to making fishmeal, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

That partly explains why a third of commercial fish stocks are being fished at unsustainable levels. In the Mediterranean and Black Seas, almost 60 percent of fish stocks are overfished, reports the UN agency's the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.

“Our oceans are already depleted and it’s predicted they will be virtual deserts by 2050,” said Aarts.

“Replacing fishmeal with insect protein could conserve 16 million tons of fish a year,” said Jason Drew, CEO of AgriProtein, an insect farm that was founded in Cape Town, South Africa, and which also focuses on black soldier flies.

Insect protein has already been approved as feed for fish and poultry in China, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. In anticipation of the new law in the EU, AgriProtein announced at the end of June that it was moving its headquarters from Cape Town to London in response to the EU law.

In March, the company began exploring opportunities to expand operations to the United States, where regulators have approved dried black soldier fly larvae as food for salmon and trout. Project development teams are investigating potential sites in New York, Mississippi, and California, with the goal of building 20 fly farms in the US and Canada within the next 10 years. They’re also licensing their technology, most recently to the Australia-based Twynam Agricultural Group, which plans to build some 20 facilities.

By 2027, AgriProtein wants to have 200 fly farms operating globally, each one producing up to 5,000 tons of insect meal and 2,000 tons of insect oil per year.

Scaling up production is key, said Cheryl Preyer, a business developer at Bachhuber Consulting, which works with the edible insect industry. She is also a policy administrator with the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture. In order for insect protein to overtake fish as fishmeal, Preyer said, it needs to go up in quantity and come down in price.

“Fishmeal is expensive right now, and insects tend to be more expensive than fishmeal,” she noted. “It needs greater capacity in the industry to bring down the cost so that it can compete with fishmeal.”

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The insect feed business is a burgeoning industry. Other insect farms ramping up production include Ynsect, based in Paris, which has raised a total of $37 million in investments; Enterra, based in Vancouver, Canada, which raised $5 million in capital; and Dayton, Ohio’s EnviroFlight, which was recently acquired by Intrexon and announced this past May that it was building a second facility in Kentucky.

As insect farms decrease global reliance on fishmeal made from fish they can also reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in landfills. Roughly a third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — is wasted, according to the FAO.

“Organic waste accounts for nearly half of all solid municipal waste,” Drew told Seeker. “Disposing of it to a landfill is a costly environmental hazard, which is why countries are setting reduction targets or banning it altogether.”

AgriProtein uses organic waste to feed its larvae. An 81,000-square-foot AgriProtein factory housing an armada of 8.5 billion flies can process about 250 tons of organic waste per day, keeping it out of the waste stream.

Drew thinks insect farming could reduce CO2 emissions, too.

“Trawlers run on diesel and the fish they catch has to be transported to where it is processed, which also burns energy and creates greenhouse gases, and then transported to where it is required — more greenhouse gases,” he said. “Whereas our fly farms are located near sources of waste and the product is then distributed locally.”

AgriProtein estimates that 2,000 fly farms could save the CO2 absorbed by 13.3 million hectares of forest — half the size of New Zealand.

But the change will not happen overnight, Aarts cautioned.

“You can’t accelerate your way into acceptance in the feed and the food industry,” he said. “You need to come up with a quality product, you need to become a reliable supplier to your customers, and the customers need to understand what the product is all about.”

At the same time, regulations need to be updated and supply chains and distribution systems need to become more flexible and more local.

As Aarts put it, “We’re talking about a full system overhaul.”

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