Now We Know Why She Swallowed a Fly: These Insects Feed Fish That Feed People

The idea of roasted, pulverized black soldier fly larvae may not make your mouth water.

But farmed fish and other livestock are starting to feast on feed made from these fast-growing maggots, which means you’ll likely be eating more of them as well, at least indirectly. It gets even better: the black soldier fly larvae are themselves fattening up on rotting food waste.

6d654867-2b2d-4e56-af11-cf368cadd9c3Welcome to the future of feed for aquaculture and other protein-producing businesses. Nutritious, economical and sustainable, insects are a growing part of the solution to the global protein deficit.

Enterra Feed Corp., based in Vancouver, is operating what appears to be the world’s first commercial-scale facility to turn black soldier fly larvae into feed for farmed fish, livestock and pets. The company’s $7.5 million insect-rearing production facility in Langley, British Columbia, has the capacity to transform 36,000 tons of food waste each year into 2,500 tons of protein and oil and 3,000 tons of organic fertilizer. The company has secured approval to sell its products in Washington state, Oregon, California, Indiana, Illinois, and Idaho.

Fish meal consumption going into feed is a huge problem…That’s where the collective action needs to be focused.Chris Ninnes, Aquaculture Stewardship Council

In the past four years, Enterra has raised $20 million dollars and is planning projects in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., says CEO Brad Marchant.  One plant under consideration in the US could eventually be five times the size of the Langley operation.

Enterra is among a growing number of companies harvesting soldier fly larvae to make feed components, including AgriProtein Technologies in South Africa, Entologics in Brazil, Protix Biosystems in the Netherlands, Ynsect in France and EnviroFlight in Ohio.

Rising Demand

The insect-based feed suppliers are riding powerful trends. Rising global demand for seafood has depleted wild fisheries, and fish farming is growing fast as an efficient protein source. By 2030, the World Bank estimates, 62 percent of all the fish we eat will be farm raised, up from less than 50 percent today. Measured by pounds of protein produced globally, aquaculture passed beef production in 2011.

But feeding farmed fish smaller fish scooped up in the wild does little to relieve pressure on the oceans. It takes two to three pounds of wild-caught marine fish such as menhaden, anchovies or sardines to produce a pound of farmed fish.

“Fish meal consumption going into feed is a huge problem…That’s where the collective action needs to be focused” said Chris Ninnes, head of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, a certification and labeling body for farmed seafood. “If not, aquaculture will drive further deterioration of those resources.”

For fish farmers, even more urgent may be the soaring price of conventionally produced fishmeal, which can account for as much as 80 percent of the costs of a fish-farming operation. Prices have surged to more than $2000 a ton, a four-fold increase in the last decade, as catches of marine fish like mackerel, sardines and anchovies have dropped amid climbing demand. Peru is the largest exporter of fishmeal in the world.

Enter the humble black soldier fly, or rather, its plump larvae. Non-invasive, sanitary, and abundantly available, the black soldier doesn’t bite, sting, or spread disease. Harvested at two weeks, the hearty larvae are rendered into two products – powdered meal and oil. Feed manufacturers buy the meal and oil to make high protein and omega 3-rich feed pellets. Several decades worth of research done in the US, Russia, Mexico, Eastern Europe, and China have confirmed its use in sustainable agriculture.

Food Waste

The larvae themselves eat materials usually tossed in landfills and compost bins. Drawn to rotting materials, the larvae gobble down the food waste before it fully rots, recapturing food nutrients that would otherwise be lost in the decay process. Even their waste is useful, their poop turned into organic fertilizer, much like worm castings. And there’s a plentiful source of food waste, 1. 3 billion tons annually or about a third of the food produced worldwide for human consumption, according to the United Nations.

Enterra, founded in 2007, is based on the vision of David Suzuki, a scientist, salmon fish-farm activist and founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Suzuki and Marchant met on a rafting trip in northern Canada and became friends. The idea for Enterra percolated for a few years and gained more shape by 2009. Twenty seed funders invested $5 million between 2011 and 2013.

In March of 2014, Canada-based Avrio Capital put in $5 million, acquiring a 30 percent stake in the company. Wheatsheaf Investments, based in the UK, followed in September, 2014, adding $5 million for a 22 percent stake in the company. Another group of investors, among them Suzuki, provided nearly $3 million more in 2015. Suzuki has transferred his share of the company to the David Suzuki Foundation.

Enterra is seeking to build new production facilities close to food waste sources, often working through joint ventures or municipal partnerships. “They will allow us to keep the local-to-local mode,” says Marchant. “If you build a facility in Hong Kong, you take the food waste from Hong Kong and the product from that facility would go to feed manufacturers locally to make feed for the local aquaculture and poultry industries.”

Enterra’s low- or no-cost materials and simple production process keeps costs competitive. It feeds its larvae a mix of traceable pre-consumer waste fruits, vegetables, and grain remnants, scooped up from nearby food processing plants and retail distributors. It has cut out even the small amounts of fish bits in its original mix. “They were a pain to deal with, required major clean-up, and had a risk of odors, without any benefit to the final product,” Marchant says.

Competition and Collaboration

Insects appears to have advantages over other alternative sources of fish feed. The soybean industry has heavily promoted soy, sometimes combined with corn, barley, and other grains. Some critics say fish can’t digest soy well and point to the resources and land needed to grow soy for use in feed, as well as concerns about genetically modified foods. Heavily soy-based diets can affect the taste and texture as well.

Other approaches may have more promise. Algae and seaweed may be good sources, as may be microbes. Calysta, a Silicon Valley biotech startup, uses technology first developed in the oil and gas industry. The bacterium Methylococcus turns readily available methane gas into a microbial protein, a cost-effective fishmeal substitute. Calysta is targeting 2018 for its product to hit the commercial market. The company is now raising funds to build a commercial processing plant.

The various soldier-fly companies feed different mixes to their larvae. EnviroFlight feeds its larvae pre-consumer food waste, along with waste from breweries and ethanol production. AgriProtein uses meat and blood waste in its mix. They’re united by a focus on upcycling waste nutrients and working together on regulatory and permitting issues.

“On a basic level, we’re all competitors. But it’s a big world, and there’s a lot of food waste out there,” Marchant says. “I think it’s better to have more people involved because it brings credibility to the whole technology and whole idea.”

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