Ed­i­ble in­sects are all the buzz

Grow­ing meal­worms as a pro­tein feed source is sim­ple com­mon sense as chick­ens and fish eat in­sects nat­u­rally in the wild.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By KARA CARL­SON

SEAT­TLE’S only com­mer­cial in­sect farm is home to tens of mil­lions of wrig­gling crea­tures at var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment.

Walls of heavy plas­tic sheet­ing and stacked trays help keep or­gan­ised the in­sects that call it home, but with an aver­age size at just over 3cm per oc­cu­pant, there’s plenty of room to spare.

Vir­ginia Emery, a PhD holder and self-pro­claimed in­sect en­tre­pre­neur, spends her days rear­ing these teem­ing masses of meal­worms.

Her com­pany, Beta Hatch, ul­ti­mately hopes to con­vince peo­ple to think of in­sects as an un­de­vel­oped pro­tein source, although for now the business is sell­ing them as feed for live­stock and fish.

But Beta Hatch does have a prod­uct for the home con­sumer, too: It is pack­ag­ing their poop, or frass, for fer­tiliser. Emery, who has a doc­tor­ate in en­to­mol­ogy from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, has a pas­sion for business and started the com­pany in 2015.

And she’s not alone.

“Right now, there’s a wave of in­sect in­dus­try,” Emery said.

She be­lieves she’s the only one farm­ing in­sects in the state so far, but there are oth­ers in the United States and around the world.

Agripro­tein, a South African farm­ing com­pany that sells Mag­meal (mag­gots) for live­stock con­sump­tion, at­tracted the eye of Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates, as well as his fi­nan­cial back­ing.

Tiny Farms in Cal­i­for­nia raises crick­ets for hu­man con­sump­tion. Crick­ets are pop­u­lar (in some cir­cles) for grind­ing up into flour. One startup, Exo sells cricket pro­tein bars.

The idea of eat­ing in­sects might seem gross, but it may not be far off. With in­creas­ing world pop­u­la­tion, some sci­en­tists and en­trepreneurs are look­ing to in­sects be­cause they have less need for space and wa­ter.

For now, Emery is only fo­cused on rais­ing in­sects for live­stock – she knows most peo­ple aren’t yet ready to eat them.

From her perspective, grow­ing meal­worms as a pro­tein feed source is sim­ple com­mon sense. Chick­ens and fish eat in­sects nat­u­rally in the wild, and meal­worms of­fer a more eco-friendly and sus­tain­able op­tion than fish meal.

When scaled up, she thinks, meal­worms will also be more cost ef­fi­cient than other feeds.

Cur­rently many fish farms use fish meal, which means smaller wild fish must be caught for feed. These smaller fish are only avail­able for part of the year, and the prac­tice can cause over­fish­ing, dis­rupt ecosys­tems and drive up prices.

Meal­worms are es­pe­cially sus­tain­able be­cause un­like other farmed in­sects like crick­ets, meal­worms can be grown dry, tak­ing the mois­ture they need from the air. Cur­rently the en­tire Beta Hatch op­er­a­tion is nes­tled in a 650 sq m con­verted of­fice space above an auto shop in SeaTac.

Save a few bugs milling around on the floor, the area looks more like an of­fice or lab than an area hous­ing mil­lions of in­sects. Plas­tic bar­ri­ers di­vide the areas, and the en­tire process is ster­ile: The in­sect han­dlers usu­ally wear gloves and some­times even clean suits.

Some areas, such as in the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion rooms, are sealed to all but a cou­ple of Beta Hatch em­ploy­ees. Plas­tic win­dows pro­vide the only peek in­side.

On aver­age each batch starts with 200,000 to 400,000 eggs, but Emery said they are ramp­ing up to pro­duce a batch of 25 mil­lion a week.

For scale, one mil­lion meal­worm eggs can fit in a pitcher of beer. The op­er­a­tions are op­ti­mised – from feed to hu­mid­ity lev­els – to help in­crease ef­fi­ciency.

The hatch­ery is home to some of the in­sects which live a full life cy­cle, from eggs to adult dark­ling bee­tles, and will act as breed­ers for the next batch.

But most of the in­sects are in what em­ploy­ees call the “ranch”, which Emery said is pretty much “heaven for meal­worms”, since they are sur­rounded by food. There the in­sects start as eggs ly­ing in trays of food that are stacked ver­ti­cally in a hu­mid­i­fied room. The meal­worms then hatch and be­gin to munch.

As the in­sects grow, the Beta Hatch team removes the frass the meal­worms pro­duce, and re­plen­ishes their food. At two to four months, the meal­worms are har­vested.

Pro­cess­ing rooms hold sifters where Beta Hatch sorts the in­sects. The in­sects are frozen, and stored un­til they are de­liv­ered.

Their ex­oskele­tons, the outer skin that in­sects shed as they grow, are also col­lected and saved.

These contain chitin, which has po­ten­tial uses in make-up, soil amend­ments and bio­med­i­cal prod­ucts. The sys­tem has po­ten­tial for zero waste over­all.

Emery said re­searchers at Stanford re­cently have tested and found meal­worms can con­sume plas­tic.

Beta Hatch now has a grant in part­ner­ship with those sci­en­tists to find out if the bugs can still be con­sumed by live­stock, and if the frass will still be safe for plants if they are fed an all-plas­tic diet. They are see­ing how it will ef­fect taste and ef­fi­ciency.

Emery has her eye on We­natchee for a full-scale ware­house that would allow for 20 times the cur­rent pro­duc­tion with more au­to­ma­tion. She hopes to move in a year or so.

The smaller pro­duc­tion level has its ad­van­tages though.

“It’s im­por­tant we learn at this scale, so we don’t deal with it at the next scale,” Emery said.

For ex­am­ple, a re­cent food ship­ment for the meal­worms con­tained moth eggs, which hatched. That was man­age­able but would have been a dis­as­ter on a large com­mer­cial level, she said.

— TNS

En­to­mol­o­gist Rein­gard Rieger hold­ing a hand­ful of meal­worms in the SeaTac bug farm where mil­lions of meal­worms are raised for chick­ens, aqua­cul­ture and re­search.

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