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Insect Farms are Scaling Up—and Crossing the Atlantic—in a Play for Sustainable Protein

When they’re raised in indoor farms, black soldier flies (BSF) will only mate with the lights on. Each female lays 500 eggs and, after they hatch, the larvae also have a bit of a Goldilocks complex, preferring just the right levels of warmth and humidity.

But when it comes to their diet, the little maggots aren’t fussy. They crunch through any and all food waste, consuming twice their body mass daily. When they’re satiated, they crawl up the sides of their rearing bins toward a high, clean place, a behavior insect researchers enthusiastically refer to as “self-harvesting.”

What insect farmers collect is valuable biomass that contains as much as 40 percent protein and 30 percent fat. And all in about two weeks.

Now, some leading European insect-farming companies are betting on growing the opportunity to turn this biomass into feed for fish, livestock, and pets by expanding to the U.S. These companies run high-tech, commercial-scale operations in France and the Netherlands, and they’re coming to America amid a swarm of multi-year deals and big investments, such as the $250 million that the Paris-headquartered InnovaFeed raised in September.

The magnet drawing them across the Atlantic is not a market of 335 million people, though.  It’s America’s waste. Instead of smoldering in landfills, the byproducts of the vast U.S. agricultural system can be given a second life—as feed for insects.

“We are interested in accessing the feedstock, rather than the market,” the newly announced general manager of Innovafeed’s U.S. venture Maye Walraven said on a recent phone call while in a cab to O’Hare Airport on her way back to Paris. InnovaFeed is on track to break ground in Decatur, Illinois, in January—just “over the fence” from the world’s largest corn processing complex, owned by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

“We risk creating an industry that replaces one environmental problem with another, as occurred with biofuel,” where the promise of plant-based fuel has been thwarted by the realities of using land, water, and fertilizer.

But while some see the black soldier fly as a more sustainable ingredient for aquaculture and animal feed—compared to soy and fishmeal—concerns about high energy use continue to hover over the fast-developing insect production industry.

“Are we going to use fossil fuels for heating and cooling the facilities where insects are grown? What about transportation?” Åsa Berggren asked in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation following a 2019 article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution that fixed a spotlight on unanswered questions about the right species to grow, feed options, use of insect waste, and more.

A professor of ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Berggren and her colleagues called for more research and an “empirical measure of ecological impact and sustainability of production,” saying they were “critical” for the emerging industry.

“Otherwise we risk creating an industry that replaces one environmental problem with another, as occurred with biofuel,” where the promise of plant-based fuel has been thwarted by the realities of using land, water, and fertilizer, she added.

What’s happening now, especially as E.U. insect companies expand to the U.S., begins to answer some of Berggren’s clarion questions.

InnovaFeed and ADM: The Deal

ADM and InnovaFeed may seem like strange partners, but each has something the other wants. For the French biotech company, it’s a “very deep” supply of competitively priced feedstock, Walraven said. For the food processing and commodities trading giant, it’s the opportunity to burnish its image with new sustainability credentials and bolster its relationship with city and state officials by bringing in a new employer.

The two firms plan to “collaborate on the construction and operation of the world’s largest insect production site.” InnovaFeed will own and operate the facility, which will be co-located with ADM’s corn processing plant. ADM will supply corn byproducts to feed the insects, as well as waste heat, water recycling, and other utilities services, according to ADM spokesperson Jackie Anderson. Some 60 percent of the new plant’s energy requirement will be supplied by ADM’s waste energy, Walraven said.

An overhead view of the facility where InnovaFeed and ADM will colocate production of insect protein. (Photo courtesy of InnovaFeed)

The factory is scheduled to open in late 2024 and, when it’s running at full capacity, it will produce an annual volume of 60,000 metric tons of protein meal (a brown powder that looks like cocoa), 20,000 metric tons of oil (a source of essential fatty acids and energy), and 400,000 metric tons of fertilizer.

In a second deal, announced last February, InnovaFeed agreed to supply insect protein to ADM’s pet food division. But ADM will not claim all of the Decatur plant’s output.

InnovaFeed is also working with Cargill, and the two companies announced in June that they would extend their existing partnership from three years to 10 to supply insect-based feed for aquaculture, as well as for chicks and piglets. Hello Nature, an organic fertilizer producer operating in 80 countries, uses InnovaFeed’s insect frasse (excrement) fertilizer.

As all of this happens, InnovaFeed’s first commercial-scale factory in northern France, which opened in 2020, continues to pump out black soldier fly products. Located next to a starch plant that supplies its byproducts through a pipeline, it also operates under what Walraven referred to as the “symbiosis model” and yields 15,000 tons of protein annually.

The Circular Economy at Work

Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, the black soldier fly is the bioconverter at the beginning of the circle that yields all of this.

Its frenetic eating could be part of a solution to daunting global challenges: feeding a growing world population, countering overfishing of wild stocks for fishmeal, and managing waste.

Much of the appeal of insect farming, in fact, is that the wastes of one process become the resources for another. And in the process of converting a low-value input to a high-value output, insect farms have the potential to use less land and water and emit fewer greenhouse gases than the production of the vast quantity of soy that goes into animal feed. It also means that consumers don’t have to grapple directly with the stigma of eating organisms that eat waste themselves.

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