Russia’s turkey tycoon catches insect bug

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The Volga Plain in western Russia is best known as one of the world’s bread baskets, a major producer of wheat and other grains.

In a small storage unit in the middle of endless fields outside the city of Penza, the Russian poultry and milk magnate Naum Babaev grows food in another way: through insects.

Babaev’s millions of black soldier flies, either buzzing around in net cages or twisting as larvae through plastic tubs of organic waste, are at the forefront of Russia’s belated efforts to introduce new agritech methods and adapt to the shift of Western countries to more sustainable and lower ones -emission food industry.

His Russian-Israeli Entoprotech project comes as Moscow tries to improve its huge but inefficient agribusiness and President Vladimir Putin tries to lure foreign investors into green business ventures.

“It’s all about the circular economy,” Babaev said as he walked through the Penza site, where wriggling larvae feed on moldy vegetables before they are killed and ground into flour that can be fed to fish and cattle. “You basically just take garbage and make food. It’s circular, green, and far better for the planet than alternatives. “

Around 10 percent of black soldier fly larvae are allowed to hatch into flies that live exclusively on the water for up to 10 days. Female flies lay hundreds of eggs which start the cycle again. Supermarkets pay Babaev to take unsold vegetables from his hands, while companies like Mars supply him with waste products from their factories that the larvae feed on.

The larvae feed on moldy vegetables before they are killed and fed to fish and livestock

According to a Swiss academic study from 2019, when black soldier flies eat the organic matter, 1 percent of the methane and half of the carbon dioxide is produced when composting landfills, including the energy required for heating and ventilation. Since commissioning in 2015, the Penza site has processed more than 17,000 tons of waste.

Babaev is not an eco-warrior. Most of his fortune comes from his holdings by Damate, Russia’s largest turkey producer, and he flies a private jet between Moscow and Penza. The carbon footprint of his turkey and dairy company dwarfs the savings made by the black soldier fly project. But he believes Entoprotech will make the food industry more sustainable while making a profit if it can be scaled up.

Babaev’s start-up is one of many developing flies on an industrial scale. AgriProtein in the UK and Protix, which operates the world’s largest insect factory in the Netherlands, are more than a decade old.

“Now everyone is talking about insects and food, but it sounded pretty crazy back then,” said Alexander Babitsky, Managing Director of Entoprotech. “Fifteen thousand years ago in [Penza] They domesticated goats and sheep. We only domesticate one fly. “

At the US President Joe Biden’s climate conference last month, Putin said Russia, the world’s fourth largest CO2 emitter and second largest oil producer, is taking climate change seriously and is “ready to present a number of joint projects and consider possible benefits as well for foreign companies wishing to invest in clean technologies in our country ”.

Entoprotech will close an initial $ 10 million funding round this month, targeting primarily investors in Israel, where it has its research and development team. This money will triple the size of the Russian company and build new production facilities in Israel and the EU, Babaev said.

Naum Babaev

Naum Babaev: “You basically just take garbage and make food.”

Besides expanding, the biggest challenge Entoprotech faces is government legislation and public acceptance of the product. The US allows black soldier fly larvae to be fed to farm animals, while the EU has strict rules on what the flies can eat and what they can eat. Both Babaev and Babitsky don’t expect people to eat them directly for some time.

“Of course it’s a lot sexy to talk about food instead of food,” said Babitsky. “But that’s not the fight we want to choose. We provide the meat industry with sustainable feed and reduce the pressure on the planet. ”

Entoprotech is also investigating the potential uses of fats from the larvae in the health and cosmetics industries and has a joint venture with a Russian skin care company.

“This fly lived in excrement for 200 million years. During that time, it has developed insane antibacterial, antifungal, and disease-resistant properties, ”said Babitsky. “If we can use them, the potential for all types of products is enormous.”