Black soldier flies never eat as adults, so they have to eat while they are still larvae (see illustration). … [+]
The agricultural frontier is about to become mainstream.
Chicago-based food processing company Archer Daniels Midland ADM (ADM) and InnovaFeed, a French company that makes insect protein for animal feed, plan to build the world’s largest insect protein facility in the city of Decatur, central Illinois in 2021.
The partnership between ADM, a $ 28 billion giant, and startup InnovaFeed is a vote of confidence in an emerging industry that could one day play a key role in the global agricultural sector.
“I am in awe. If they can do that, it’ll be great, ”said Jeffrey Tomberlin, professor and entomologist at Texas A&M University who conducted pioneering research on insect proteins. “This system will be many times larger than anything else in the world,” said Tomberlin.
ADM and InnovaFeed plan to breed and harvest billions of an extraordinary insect called the Black Soldier Fly, the larvae of which consume staggering amounts of organic matter and convert it into nutrient-rich protein that can then be sold as animal feed. ADM and InnovaFeed aim to produce up to 60,000 tons of animal feed protein per year as well as 20,000 tons of oils for poultry and pig rations and 400,000 tons of fertilizer.
Black soldier fly larvae eat almost anything organic – including non-compostable food waste destined for landfill – and produce hundreds of times more protein per acre than traditional animal feed sources. With the new facility, ADM and InnovaFeed can gain a foothold in the burgeoning market for sustainably produced food at a time when environmental awareness is growing.
The plant would be a major step towards mainstreaming the insect protein industry, which aims to feed farm animals and aquacultures not corn, soybeans, or fishmeal – common types of animal feed – but rather larvae of black soldier flies and other maggots. Extensive expansion would mean that the CO2 footprint and land requirements of farm animals, especially slaughter animals, would be significantly reduced. For every kilogram of meat they produce, it is estimated that cows and sheep need around eight kilograms of grain, pigs around four kilograms and chickens 1.6 kilograms. In order to grow so much grain, land and water have to be used intensively.
The process of efficiently cultivating black soldier flies was not well understood until the early 2000s – an important reason why the insect protein industry is still small today and consists almost entirely of start-ups, many of them in Europe, said Tomberlin, professor for A&M in Texas. InnovaFeed, itself only a few years old, currently operates the world’s largest plant in Nesle, France. Around four times as much animal feed is produced in the new Decatur plant each year.
Early supporters see great potential as the demand for sustainably produced food continues to grow. According to a 2019 survey by the International Food Information Council, a nonprofit, more than half of US consumers want sustainable food. According to a survey of three people in the UK by professional services company GHD published in November, three in five people are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly food.
The success of plant-based meat companies like Impossible Foods this year has raised hopes of reducing the agricultural sector’s carbon footprint: the food industry is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The black soldier flies in the new facility operated by InnovaFeed and will enjoy various corn products that ADM is already producing at its Decatur facilities. Normally, these corn products would go through several rounds of additional processing before they were finally shipped to an end customer, said Sapna Sanders, InnovaFeed project manager for North America, in an interview.
“We can avoid all of these energy-intensive steps,” said Sanders.
The arrangement suits both. ADM avoids the cost and effort of further processing its corn products. InnovaFeed can produce and sell its animal feed, oils and fertilizers to a range of customers. One of his contracts is with the food and drink giant Cargill, the second largest private company in America.
In the future, black soldier fly larvae could be even more environmentally friendly in commercial facilities – by eating up mountains of leftover food and other human leftovers that would otherwise end up in landfills.
About a third of all food produced worldwide for human consumption each year, 1.3 billion tons, is lost or wasted, according to the United Nations. Much of it ends up in landfills where it can’t naturally biodegrade and belch methane, a greenhouse gas that is dozens of times more potent than CO2.
One reason so much food ends up in landfills is because there are no suitable alternatives, especially for waste that is not compostable. But black soldier flies would love to eat up all of this landfill-based waste: Researchers have found that they even like to eat food that can’t be composted. (They don’t seem interested in hair and bones, however.)
The biggest barrier to further scaling the insect protein industry is cost. Insect protein is still more expensive as an animal feed product than, for example, fish meal or parts of fish caught by commercial fishing companies that are not consumed by humans (such as offal or bones). Tomberlin has estimated that it will take about five years for insect protein to be affordable over traditional animal feed sources, although the industry is still too young to know how far and quickly costs will drop.
The US may not be the first to get there. Compared to Europe, the US government has shown relatively little interest in helping the emerging industry to put up a leg, said Tomberlin. Even more so than Europe, China appears to be most interested in bringing the insect protein industry to commercial scale, he said. It already has some of the largest and most efficient flight facilities for black soldiers in the world and, according to Tomberlin, is extremely innovative.
Still, the fact that one of America’s largest food companies sees commercial value in insect protein is possibly a sign that a widespread role in the heart of the agricultural sector isn’t too far off.
Correction: An earlier photo accompanying this story showed a different species of larva, not black soldier fly larvae, as the caption shows.