How can insect farming contribute to food security? One British firm believes it has the answer.
Some 820 million people go hungry globally, yet a third of all food produced is wasted, which equates to 1.3 billion tonnes of biomass waste across the food value chain, and an economic loss of around $1tn (£734bn) each year. A lot of that waste ends up rotting in landfill, leading to 4.4 gigatonnes CO2-equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions, which is similar to that of a large country.
Incredibly, part of the solution to this massive problem may lie with small grubs.
A Cambridge-based university spin-out is growing a network of decentralised AI-powered insect mini-farms that can be attached to animal-rearing farms, to reduce waste and increase food production at the same time.
Better Origin’s mission is to establish the ‘Internet of Insects’ – a global network converting excess nutrients into essential nutrients. “By doing so, the Internet of Insects will bring about a new symbiosis between nature and technology to transform livestock productivity and welfare, reduce carbon emissions and achieve food security,” the company says.
Currently there are just two X1 mini-farms in use, with two more coming in spring, but the start-up wants its high-tech larvae factories to be used by farmers across the world. “We like to think that we found a method to democratise insect farming, and empower people who want to become more sustainable to enter our sector,” says Fotis Fotiadis, CEO and founder of Better Origin.
The X1’s tech is housed in a shipping container, meaning it can be used by almost any farm that has access to waste streams and electricity and wants to diversify its portfolio. Essentially, the mini-farm is a box of insect tricks that converts waste biomass, such as excess feed or food waste, into insect biomass, by feeding trays of black soldier fly larvae until the bugs are rich in proteins and fats, making them perfect to feed to chickens, or turn into any animal feed.
A good protein source
While the precise technology is a closely guarded secret, the farm is designed to be simple to use. Farmers need only shovel feedstock into a module that makes sure the biomass is free from bad bacteria, so an ‘insect farming matrix’ can ensure it is the right consistency and pump the processed feedstock into the trays of seed larvae.
Then the ‘brain’ of the farm takes over, using AI to oversee the feeding and inspection of the larvae’s health, managing the process on the farmer’s behalf and showing them results on an app. Essentially it looks for signs of health just as a human farmer might, and automatically adjusts the farm accordingly.
While you might imagine gross trays full of wriggling maggot-like creatures, Fotiadis says each larva is ‘pretty dry’ and they don’t smell at all. The larvae are grown over a seven to 14-day period and can then be harvested and delivered directly to the animals on the farm, without any processing or additives, and a new batch of seed larvae can be installed so the process can begin again.
“It’s important to highlight that we haven’t gone for a fully roboticised factory,” Fotiadis says, adding that Better Origin wants to create jobs in farming. “It’s really important to find a way where you allow automation and human ingenuity to work together.”
Better Origins has been awarded a £10m package from the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which it says is the largest investment by the UK to date in insect protein.
It plans to use some of the funding to explore making new products. “We’re building a facility next year in Cambridge with facilities geared towards processing insects for pet food and human food,” Fotiadis says.
Better Origin is currently focusing its efforts in the UK and other economically developed nations where a lot of food is wasted and ends up in landfill, but it hopes to roll out internationally. “Our model for decentralised production, especially around containers, is very scalable and can be exported globally,” says Fotiadis.
While the start-up may have big ambitions to tackle an enormous problem, it believes its strength is doing so without making extra work for farmers. “What we’re saying is that we have an option here that can improve welfare, sustainability and productivity at the same time. And that’s why we think it’s a big winner.”
Let them eat bugs.
■ Sustainability The X1 system is designed for more sustainable farming, avoiding emissions associated with landfill. As the mini farm is on site and produces high-quality protein locally, it saves greenhouse gas emissions from shipping in food, and also plays a role in reducing deforestation associated with soya farming, for example. “We can take waste streams as an input and use it to convert into feedstock. That’s very significant going forward, because it allows farmers to offset their carbon footprint and reduce their carbon emissions,” Fotiadis explains.
■ Nutrition One X1 farm can produce up to five tonnes of protein per year from a range of biomasses. “With the highest protein yield per square metre per annum, this is a massive boost to food security,” says Better Origin.
■ Welfare With the company currently focused on the poultry sector, Fotiadis says that most chickens currently have minimal or no insects, making their foraging behaviour on farms different from in the wild. “By being able to reintroduce that very important element in the diet, we have seen a significant improvement in activity, a reduction in stress, stronger gut health, and various other health benefits.”
■Financial “Importantly, all this happens while we also improve productivity,” adds Fotiadis. The start-up says its farm adds value, improves productivity and yield, while delivering 130 per cent return on investment. In short, it helps farmers cut waste, reach sustainability goals and produce more with less.