How insect farming could save the world's broken food chain

The sustainability of the human race has often been questioned - and never more so than now. But the answer many be right under our noses

Better Origin can farm the same amount of protein in one square metre as soil crops can produce in 1,500 square metres. Photo: Better Origin
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In his 2016 book Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients, former UN agricultural adviser RT Gahukar said the “[global] food supply will decrease, government aid schemes will become more restricted, and the human population will continue to increase, posing a serious threat of survival”.

If anything, the warning has proved too sanguine, with extreme weather events and the war in Ukraine placing even greater stress on the food chain.

Sustainably future-proofing the chain against such phenomena is a refractory but not insoluble challenge — and salvation may well be found in the superpowers of insects.

Fans of Ant-Man are well versed in these superpowers, but as yet no Marvel comic book has featured the hero munching on a plate of deep-fried scorpions for survival.

Insect farming's three stages

Yet this nutritional alchemy is the founding principle behind insect farming, a foodstuff now being harnessed by Cambridge-based UK start-up Better Origin.

“You can split insect farming into three stages,” its founder Fotis Fotiadis told The National.

“First you have the breeding of the insects to produce the eggs.

"Then you have the actual growing of the insects … the stage where you feed them as much as required where they grow 5000 times their initial body mass in under 14 days.

“Finally you have the processing phase to extract the different nutrients - the protein, the fats and the chitin that come out of the process … and there's also a byproduct called frass which is the food residue and insect excrement, and is a very good soil booster and fertiliser.”

Better Origin founder Fotis Fotiadis, left, believes insect farming has transformative potential. Photo: Better Origin

The threefold breeding-growing-rendering process is an agricultural staple and not the only thing insect farming has in common with more conventional forms.

“Genetics is extremely important in insect farming, and there are two avenues,” Mr Fotiadis said.

“One is selective breeding where you select [insects] for traits you care about. The other option is genetic modification.”

Given the latter is illegal in Europe and comes with many attendant ethical considerations, Better Origin solely practises the former.

Mr Fotiadis said that in the seven years his company has been perfecting the process, they have learnt many “hidden tricks” including, counter-intuitively, that bigger larvae don’t necessarily breed better or eat more waste.

This learning curve has been assisted by the company’s location.

“[It’s] the great thing about being based in Cambridge and having very close ties with he University of Cambridge, they're naturally amazing at genetics and sequencing,” Mr Fotiadis said.

"And there are lot of things you can select for. You might want to select for high protein percentage, or larger size."

Different insects for different waste

This specificity is set to shape the future of insect breeding, with larvae bred according to their ability to tackle the multifarious forms in which waste comes.

"[You could breed] a strain for agricultural residues like grains [or] a strain to process all sorts of fruits, [or] one that is very good at growing in manure substrates,” Mr Fotiadis said.

“So you'd have this range, because make no mistake, insects are a great solution to treat all sorts of waste.

"I think we're going to have a library of strains in 10 years’ time, where you're going to be able to use a specific strains for specific inputs and outputs.”

Of course with a such a library comes an almost unimaginable number of bugs, and if the technology is to be scaled to a global level, these bugs will need to be transported around the world.

Could such a worldwide entomological market imbalance existing ecosystems? Mr Fotiadis thinks not.

“There are a lot of measures you can take to make sure you don't have escapees,” he said, all of which Better Origin practices.

“We harvest the larvae way before they turn into flies.

“We have very close monitoring, visual and sensor wise, in all our systems.

“We have not had a problem so far but if flies start emerging before we harvest ... you can lower the temperature of the system which would slow them down and you have enough time to intervene”

Mr Fotiadis also pointed out the bugs they use are not a pest species that can “go around and create problems”.

Undemanding on water and space

Indeed, insect farming appears to assist with existing problems, like water scarcity, rather than create new ones.

Compared with water-intensive conventional farming methods, insect farming is far less aqueously demanding.

“The food waste we feed the larvae is high in water content and so we don’t usually need to add any extra water,” Mr Fotiadis said.

As well as being less water intensive, insect farming is unsurprisingly less space intensive and can be run vertically.

Better Origin harvests the larvae before they turn into flies. Photo: Better Origin

Better Origin can farm the same amount of protein in one square metre as 1,500 square metres of soil crops produce, and it isn't alone in seeing the practice's revolutionary potential.

“Insect farming for food and feed has the potential to be transformative in many ways,” Dr Tilly Collins of Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy told The National.

“Firstly [insects] enable us to generate valuable and highly nutritious protein products from the waste products of our agricultural activities and food supply chains … using insect farming could create a circular system that creates substantial value from [this] waste.

“Secondly, the efficiency with which [insects] do this is unparalleled in the animal world. Whether used for human consumption or for animal feed, the environmental impact of insect-produced protein is much lower than for other animals and their farming will contribute to decarbonising the food chain and promote local food security.”

Critter carbonara, anyone?

In western societies the prospect of insects as a mainstay of the human diet may be met with some scepticism, but the practice “is a historically established one and the nutritional benefits are often superior to vertebrate meat", Dr Collins said.

Mr Fotiadis also emphasised the proteinous benefits of bugs and said that while they were currently primarily being bred for livestock, humans will have to start consuming them “because every country can have their own insect farming operation [meaning they] significantly reduce the need to import protein, protecting them from shocks in food prices and the food supply chain”.

 

As for western qualms over insects as food, Mr Fotiadis believes that “with the right marketing, the right tasting and the right formula”, people can be converted to the cause — although he acknowledges the change will come more from necessity than epicurean instincts.

“It will need to be done right, taste and look good,” he said.

“The insects wont be visible in the food but instead … it will have to be used as a powder ingredient in food or a protein shake.”

For now Better Origin is currently focused on the UK market, but it has plans to expand its scope.

“We're very much exploring new markets,” said Mr Fotiadis “and I think we'll be able to provide a lot of technological innovation to the Gulf and UAE as weather conditions there mean farming can get difficult - but as long as there is food waste you can farm insects.”

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Updated: September 09, 2022, 6:00 PM
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