Innovation & Design

The Power of Flies to Save Barbecue Season


The Power of Flies to Save Barbecue Season

Photograph by Gabriela Herman/Gallery Stock

Attention, steak eaters: We are nearing a livestock crisis. With the planet expected to add another 2 billion people by 2050, it will be more difficult and more expensive than ever to keep eating poultry, fish, and beef at nearly every meal.

To meet global demand, the food industry could crank up the factory-food production model, but, as Arnold van Huis, a professor of tropical entomology at Wageningen University and Research Center, warns, “this puts heavy pressure on already limited resources of land, fertilizers and energy, while greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and environmental degradation will increase.” And it would do little to keep the cost of chicken, pork, beef, and fish under control.

There is a environmentally friendlier, more economical alternative, although it’s one that is high on the ick factor. We could introduce protein-rich insects into our diets.

Glen Courtright, a systems engineer and entrepreneur, is betting on the bugs. The Yellow Springs (Ohio)-based company he founded, EnviroFlight, has pioneered over the past three years a new bio-conversion facility powered by millions of mating black soldier flies and tens of millions of their wriggly offspring. The business is in the larvae.

“At our plant we can produce a few million black soldier fly eggs daily,” Courtright says. “That’s about 2,000 tons of a formulated animal feed every year.” For years, conservationists have been keen to exploit the voracious appetite of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) to speed up composting of food wastes. Anglers know the species for their pupae, which make ideal bait. Chicken and pigs like the fatty, protein-rich larvae, too. EnviroFlight is among the first to industrialize the production of black soldier fly larvae to introduce a sustainable, chemical-free, protein-rich feed source for the food-processing industry. It’s part of a larger movement to tap insects (PDF) as a plentiful, more energy-efficient feed substitute that, it is hoped, could wean the food industry off the use of potentially harmful hormones and antibiotics to increase yields.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently warned that global food production must increase 60 percent by 2050 to keep up with population growth. “Every 12 days we can produce 225 pounds of clean safe feed ingredients for aquaculture, poultry, and crustacea—that’s the holy trinity of fish, shrimp, and chicken—in a three-foot-by-five-foot space. You can grow the equivalent of one of me every 12 days,” says Courtright.

It all starts in a high-density mating chamber that EnviroFlight employees have nicknamed “‘the love shack,’ or ‘the Barry White room,’” Courtright says. After a whole lot of buzzing, the hatchlings are collected and raised in a nursery where they feed on a formulated “bug baby food” of vitamins, minerals, and plant-based feed. The larvae are then harvested and moved to the “reactor room,” where they fatten up some more, dining over a two-week period on food manufacturing waste—scraps from, say, potato chip factories and tortilla processing plants—plus spent distiller grains from nearby breweries. (The Yellow Springs Brewery is across the street.) When they reach about 2 centimeters in length, the larvae are collected and prepared for feed production. A smaller number of flies grow to be adults and are sent back to the breeding room.

To make the feed, the larvae are cooked and ground into a powder. Vitamins, minerals, and grain are added to the insect meal before it is extruded into feed pellets. “We’re testing a yellow perch feed at the moment,” he says. “This is the second year we’ve produced and sold feed for freshwater prawns. In the future, it will be trout and tilapia. Each fish or organism has a specific dietary need and we develop feeds based on each.”

Today, EnviroFlight has the permit to sell insect-based feeds and fertilizer in its native Ohio. It expects to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Association of Feed Control Officials as soon as next year to sell across the country. Enviroflight’s entire patent-pending production process is designed to be exported. “Black soldier flies can mate in any climate, and it’s a low-energy production process. The externalities are zero. There’s no waste, no odor,” he says. It’s a chemical free process, regulatory approval is relatively quick to achieve, and it can be classified as “organic.”

According to Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at FAO, regulatory restrictions on insect feeds are close to toppling, first in Europe, which is expected to introduce the first EU-wide usage rules this summer, and afterwards in the United States. “This is seen as part of a larger food-security issue,” says Vantomme. (FAO has been pushing an awareness campaign to get the public to eat more insects as part of their daily diet, an idea mocked by Stephen Colbert, among others. Vantomme acknowledges that in the U.S. and Europe, insects’ biggest role in the food supply in the near term will be as feed, not food.)

The International Feed Industry Federation, a trade group, is closely following the early development of insect-based feeds because its members are getting clobbered by rising prices for conventional feed sources, namely soybeans and fish feed. “In principle, the use of insects as a sustainable protein-rich feed ingredient is something that is promising based on the latest research,” says Alexandra de Athayde, executive director of IFIF. The organization draws a line at insects that feed on manure, which, she says, could introduce contaminants into the food chain and become a health issue.

Courtright says that’s why he chose black soldier flies. Unlike house flies, adult black soldier flies drink, but do not eat, meaning that even in the wild, they are not likely to come into contact with animal or human waste. “As adults, they just drink and screw,” he says, adding, “These little guys are little miracles.”

At your next barbecue, don’t be so quick to swat the black soldier flies. They may, some day, have fed the chicken on your plate.

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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