Grubs up! Why bugs may assist us save the planet

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More than two billion people around the world routinely eat insects. And with good reason too.

For example, barbecues contain three times more protein per unit weight than beef or chicken. They also require much less land to grow than livestock or grain.

While many of us are too squeamish to feed on insects, several UK startups are working with Tesco to study how insect protein can be used to feed fish and livestock – helping tackle some of the most pressing environmental problems we face from food waste to deforestation.

Tesco has been researching how to increase the use of insect protein in animal feed by partnering with a number of startups, including AgriGrub

Several UK startups are working with Tesco to investigate how insect protein can be used to feed fish and livestock

Several UK startups are working with Tesco to investigate how insect protein can be used to feed fish and livestock

Laurence (l) and Joe (r) from Tesco and his colleagues from AgriGrub have worked to understand how fruit and vegetable waste can be fed to insects such as black soldier fly larvae, which are then used as feed for animals once they are fully grown are

Laurence (l) and Joe (r) from Tesco and his colleagues from AgriGrub have worked to understand how fruit and vegetable waste can be fed to insects such as black soldier fly larvae, which are then used as feed for animals once they are fully grown are

“Sending all of the UK’s food waste to insect farms would cut UK emissions by around 1%, just as it would take 2.2 million cars off the road.”

Food waste is a natural part of an insect’s diet – and maggots like black soldier fly larvae can consume it surprisingly quickly.

That sparked an idea – what if these tiny maggots could help tackle the big problem of food waste?

Why use black soldier flies?

Black soldier flies can eat twice their body weight in waste food every day

Black soldier flies can eat twice their body weight in waste food every day

Joe from AgriGrub explains why the flies are the ideal species for insect protein production.

“They like warm climates, which means that they grow quickly in our indoor farm.

“The adult flies do not eat at all, which means that they are not pests or pathogens. It is for this reason that maggots get so fat that they have fuel for their adult life cycle.

“To get fat, they like to eat a lot of food waste – about twice their body weight a day.”

This idea caught the imagination of Joe and his colleagues at the UK start-up AgriGrub, which in the UK led the work to understand how waste fruit and vegetables can be fed to insects like black soldier fly larvae. The maggots on their insect farm can ingest 300 kg of food waste a day before they are converted into feed for animals as they grow.

A third of the world’s food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted – whether on farms or in private homes, contributing 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Tesco aims to cut food waste in half by 2030 and AgriGrub’s work caught the eye of the environmental team.

AgriGrub has started working with Tesco’s citrus and soft fruit suppliers so they can try to feed the insects various types of food waste.

The process is more environmentally friendly than other disposal methods. “Disposing of all food waste in the UK at insect farms would cut UK emissions by around 1% – just like taking 2.2 million cars off the road,” said Jo Halstead, General Manager of AgriGrub.

AgriGrub will now expand its activities even further. By the end of the year, AgriGrub will process 10 tons of food waste per day and by 2022 it will increase to ten times that number.

The AgriGrub team is currently exploring ways of using the food their maggots produce as a natural fertilizer and pesticide on fruit trees

The AgriGrub team is currently exploring ways of using the food their maggots produce as a natural fertilizer and pesticide on fruit trees

“If we get all of our protein from maggots, we can get all of the protein Britain needs for animal feed in an area about the size of Hyde Park.”

However, tackling food waste isn’t the only way insects can help make our food system greener.

Even small amounts of insects are used to feed farmed salmon and other fish. However, their use in chicken and fish could be expanded even further to reduce the amount of soy, one of the most common ingredients in animal feed.

“The cultivation of soy is resource-intensive, places high demands on water and soil and requires a high use of agrochemicals,” explains Mollie Gupta, Forest Commodities Manager at WWF.

“Soy production is a leading driver of deforestation and the transformation of natural habitats in valuable environments such as the Brazilian cerrado, which is home to around 5% of all species on earth.”

Tesco has set challenging goals to prevent deforestation and last year it achieved zero deforestation by purchasing certified sustainable soy. There are plans to go further and source soy from entire areas certified as deforestation free by 2025.

In addition to buying more sustainable soy, alternatives like using insect protein to replace soy in chicken and fish feed could be part of the solution.

“If we get all of our animal feed protein from maggots instead, we can get all of the protein Britain needs in an area about the size of Hyde Park,” says Joe.

By the end of the year, AgriGrub will process 10 tons of food waste per day and by 2022 it will increase to ten times that number. By the end of the year, AgriGrub will process 10 tons of food waste per day and by 2022 it will increase to ten times that number.

By the end of the year, AgriGrub will process 10 tons of food waste per day and by 2022 it will increase to ten times that number

The animal feed of the future?

Tesco has been researching how to increase the use of insect protein in animal feed by partnering with a number of startups, including AgriGrub.

What’s the fuss about Frass?

Another benefit of using black soldier flies is a by-product that their maggots refer to as feed.

Made from castings that are repelled by the maggots, it makes a unique fertilizer and biological repellant that could replace carbon-intensive and polluting chemical pesticides.

To understand its potential, the AgriGrub team is currently exploring ways of using the food their maggots produce as a natural fertilizer and pesticide on the trees of the fruit supplier DPS, whose fruit waste is used to feed the larvae.

Hopefully this can lead to a fully circular supply chain.

While the company is thriving, current UK laws and high costs still stand in the way of making insect protein the animal feed of the future.

“Although we can feed live maggots to chickens, we are still not allowed to feed processed insect proteins to livestock, so we can’t replace soy yet, even though we’re ready,” says AgriGrub’s Joe.

“There must be some serious changes to UK regulations that cannot be made without more public support.”

Tesco and WWF are currently supporting research on how the UK insect industry can thrive.

“The bottom line is that the total amount of insect protein produced worldwide is tiny compared to traditional ingredients like soy,” says Laurence Webb, Responsible Sourcing Manager at Tesco.

‘It’s also a lot more expensive right now. That’s why we worked with WWF to support research into how the insect industry can be scaled up to provide a realistic alternative to the animal feeds used today. ‘

Mollie at WWF feels positive and points out what research has found about the environmental benefits of insect farming.

“Insect protein is already used in salmon farming,” she says.

“We therefore urge the industry to work with policy makers to ensure that this potential is also achieved in poultry and pig farming.”