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Six legs forward

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Black Soldier Fly Larvae. Image credit: Flickr

Six legs forward

The global food supply chain is vast and resource intensive, with more than one third of all food produced left to rot. Yet most solutions ignore the waste problem to focus on “Future Food”, typically based on monocropping or cell cultures. 

By Josh Galt

There is a present-day solution to the waste and calorie challenges which also supports Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) core principles: Insects!

Various six-legged species, and in particular Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSFL), can be used to solve the food waste problem and the issue of food insecurity, irrespective of the reasons: supply chain breakdown, poor soil health, smallholder production challenges, climate change difficulties, etc.

Such a broadly applicable solution may sound like a mythical form of agricultural alchemy, but it is very real and happening globally.

BSFL: Bridging food waste and food security (Six legs forward)

While BSFL have been known to a niche community for decades, it has only been since the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations’ (FAO) report on insects as feed and food that they’ve begun to be studied and implemented at scale.

In recent years it has become clear that BSFL are useful in upcycling food waste and are a valuable source of protein and nutrients. But how does this support ESG and the low-carbon economy, and what expectations should investors and corporations have?

BSFL and ESG fundamentals (Six legs forward)

Environmental:

The species is Hermetia Illucens (Soldier Fly), but it’s the pre-pupae stage grubs who yield the most environmental benefits.

The flies do little other than hatch, mate, lay eggs, and return to the earth as natural fertiliser. They do not eat (their mouths can only drink water) and do not bite or sting. As there is no risk of zoonotic transmission, they are not a pest like other types of flies.

Their larvae, however, are voracious eaters of nearly all organic matter: fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, bread, agro-industrial waste, and even manure.

Organic waste disposal (Six legs forward)

BSFL consume 5 times their body weight in just 13 to 15 days, meaning that for every one ton (t) of live larvae produced, five tons of food waste will have been upcycled.

This helps with environmental issues, as rotting food waste gives off significant greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe). Larvae contain enzymes in their stomachs allowing them to process and remove harmful bacteria which could otherwise cause disease or foul odours.

Because their consumption process takes just days, the amount of GHGe released into the atmosphere is greatly minimised compared to other systems of food waste management or composting.

This first environmental benefit of cleaning the food waste and eliminating gaseous rotting material is on the input side of the BSFL equation. It is through this waste upcycling process that grubs are able to grow rapidly and become a source of value-added components on the output side.

Organic fertiliser (Six legs forward)

Before looking at the value of grubs themselves there’s an output worth highlighting amidst current global fertiliser shortages. The geopolitical instability in Russia and Ukraine have made access to raw ingredients difficult, while chemical fertiliser governance changes in various countries have created massive supply shortages.

The excrement of the grubs (called frass) was once just a waste product, but now has become as valuable as the larvae themselves.

BSFL frass contains the only plant-digestible form of chitin, which naturally produces antimicrobial peptides when under environmental stress, acting as a protective barrier.

In Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) terms it is an excellent source of nitrogen along with other minerals vital for plant health and contributes to a more optimal pH range in soil, benefiting plant growth and production.

For every one ton of live larvae produced, in general it is expected to achieve the same tonnage in frass, which can be used alone or mixed into other bio-fertilisers.

Animal feed (Six legs forward)

BSFL holds the most potential as animal feed. Soldier grubs as defatted meal, whole oven-dried, or even live larvae are a viable replacement to environmentally damaging fishmeal and soymeal.

Within the larvae themselves there is a significant amount of protein, but nutritionally they’re much more than just protein!

BSFL is a nutrient-rich food source containing omega fatty acids including omegas 3, 6, and 9. They contain the highest amount of lauric acid besides coconut oil, along with minerals such as phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), sodium (Na), manganese (Mn), magnesium (Mg), and iron (Fe).

Grubs also have important enzymes and antimicrobial peptides, which have been shown effective at improving gut health in piglets and poultry among other potential medicinal uses.

Larvae also deliver a better feed conversion rate (FCR) for aquaculture, poultry, and swine. Researchers are currently also looking into BSFL as a feedstock for cattle, which could result in a significantly lower carbon footprint for beef production.

Grub protein content typically ranges between 40-55%, although percentages in the high 60’s have been achieved. The nutritional make-up can be varied by adjusting the inputs, in order to increase or decrease the fat and protein levels for the desired end use.

Dog food brands may prefer grubs with higher protein and lower fat, while a piglet feed formulator may prefer a higher lipid content. This controllable variability in the nutrient content is what makes grubs so valuable as animal feed.

Additional outputs (Six legs forward)

The usage of grubs goes further than just feed. Lipids have been used in award-winning clean-beauty cosmetics such as Point68 and can be used as a replacement for palm oil in many products ranging from pizza dough to laundry detergent. BSFL oil is also being studied as a source of biofuel.

The exoskeleton of the grubs is high in chitin, normally harvested from shrimp or crab shells. Utilising the chitin from BSFL to extract chitosan for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and biodegradable manufacturing presents the opportunity for industrial-scale applications with improved sustainability.

Thanks to myriad uses for every component of the black soldier fly larvae, the result is a system which upcycles waste material and creates sustainable, beneficial outputs including animal feed, biofertilizer, and eco-friendly manufacturing.

Social components (Six legs forward)

The social component of BSFL farming holds great potential but is often overlooked, as the bulk of investment money has gone towards temperature-controlled facilities managed by robotics in colder climates such as Europe.

These industrial insect farms can and do make an ecological impact in terms of the waste upcycled into feed – e.g. replacing fishmeal – but they miss out on the opportunity insect farming holds for creating employment in warmer climates of the developing world.

BSFL can be easily farmed by unskilled workers with low education levels, making grubs ideal for private and public sector programs geared toward rural development of smallholder farmers in emerging markets.

This social benefit was a core tenet of the FAO report in 2013 which kickstarted today’s entomophagy movement. Sadly, the human focus has been mostly lost in the frenzy of easy-money fundraising and the endless pursuit of technological innovation, regardless of necessity.

Yet putting resources into developing human capital, rather than just investing capex into energy-intensive heating systems or robotics, ensures that the social element of ESG is not overlooked, and is maximised for widespread human benefit.

We must not detach humanity from the social component of ESG.

From a simple Capex and Opex standpoint, farming insects in the developing world means expenses are lower and production is more sustainable.

Providing jobs to rural workers who farm grubs utilising ambient temperatures, rather than spending excessive cash on robotics and enclosed facilities depending on grid energy, has the added benefits of cash savings in the short-term and positive community impact in the long-term.

Environmental sustainability cannot be separated from human (social) impact, and governance directly guides both. Properly implemented, they all become true ESG features of a sustainable and resilient agricultural framework.

Within this structure, a legitimately ESG-focused waste-to-value system built around insects can:

  • Educate youthful enthusiastic farmers with broad knowledge of food production and axiology built around sustainable farming methods, incorporating the powerful zero-waste BSFL component at the heart of the system
  • Provide agricultural job training programs including life skills, supporting the individual’s growth within their job and developing future career options
  • Maximize the use of human labour, positively impacting the highest number of people in a geographic area to create resilient communities
  • Improve nutrition and food security for their region

Over time, the emphasis on human benefits will encourage trends in food production which contribute to the well-being of the largest number of people, while simultaneously improving the standard of living, the quality of life, and future employment opportunities of each individual who participates.

Governance to improve lives ((Six legs forward)

Governing bodies at all levels are tasked with improving the lives of their citizens, which includes policymaking related to sanitation, food security, and economic development.

Insect farming is a ready-made solution for governments with either of the major issues related to the agricultural supply chain: food waste or food security.

Insect companies can thus provide a single, measurable, turnkey solution to governments from the municipal to national levels, who are dealing with multiple challenging environmental and social issues simultaneously.

These include food waste, food security, fertiliser shortages, economic development, and at the heart of it all, climate change concerns.

Corporations producing insects at scale should seek to educate governing bodies in order to influence environmental policy in a productive direction, along with developing regulations which do not unnecessarily restrict research and development or the natural growth of the market.

Companies should also collaborate on consistent industry standards for improved food waste management, bringing the supply of organic material into the insect system efficiently and cost-effectively.

Pulling it all together (Six legs forward)

Insects epitomise value-add: the entire system is built around upcycling waste material which would otherwise rot, turning it into multiple streams of ESG-positive revenue.

From rural backyard gardeners to large-scale family farms and industrial production, grubs can be plugged into existing systems to make them more ecologically friendly and productive, while raising the standard of living for workers at farm and corporate levels.

Insects, particularly BSFL, make the strongest case as a scalable Environmental, Social, and Governance solution.

Rotting organic matter gets upcycled creating valuable, sustainable outputs, generating revenue, and building a foundation of food security across the entire crop and livestock production network, with zero waste.

BSFL are true eco-champions at the foundation of a low-carbon ESG model!

Josh Galt is an insect industry professional with experience in all facets of the supply chain from farm to fork. As the original Entovegan he spent three years testing the efficacy of insect protein on his own body, and he has presented on insects as food and feed at various universities, expos, and start-up events.

 Along with creating the award-winning Point68 Insect Beauty brand Josh has been a consultant and held executive roles with international associations, NGO’s, and start-ups related to insects as a core component of ESG strategy. He divides his physical time between SE Asia and Latin America, and can be reached digitally at LinkedIn.com/in/JoshGalt

 Six legs forward

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Six legs forward

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AgricultureEnvironmental Management & Climate ChangeEnergyESGInfrastructureMiningPolitical EconomyTourism and ConservationWater Management