Maggots considered food source
It may be hard to understand the appeal of plunging your hands into a pile of writhing maggots. But the sensation is uniquely tactile, not at all unpleasant, as thousands of soft, plump grubs, each the size of a grain of rice, wriggle against your skin, tiny mouthparts gently poking your flesh.
For Lauren Taranow and her employees, it’s just another day at work.
Taranow is the president of Symton BSF, where the larvae of black soldier flies are harvested and sold as food for exotic pets such as lizards, birds, even hedgehogs. Her “maggot farm,” as she styles it, is part of a burgeoning industry, one with the potential to revolutionize the way we feed the world. That’s because of the black soldier fly larva’s remarkable ability to transform nearly any kind of organic waste – cafeteria refuse, manure, even toxic algae – into high-quality protein, all while leaving a smaller carbon footprint than it found.
In one year, a single acre of black soldier fly larvae can produce more protein than 3,000 acres of cattle or 130 acres of soybeans. Such yields, combined with the need to find cheap, reliable protein for a global population projected to jump 30 percent, to 9.8 billion by 2050, present big opportunity for the black soldier fly. The United Nations, which already warns that animal-rich diets cannot stretch that far long term, is encouraging governments and businesses to turn to insects to fulfill the planet’s protein needs.
People who’ve seen what black soldier fly larvae can do often speak of them in evangelical tones. Jeff Tomberlin, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University, said the bug industry could “save lives, stabilize economies, create jobs and protect the environment.”
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing this at some scale throughout the world,” he said.
So why aren’t we?
When the LED lights are flipped on in the fly-breeding room at Evo Conversion Systems, the whir of thousands of tiny wings fills the air as flies careen about their screened-in enclosures in search of a mate. Evo, which was founded by Tomberlin, shares a wall with Symton. The companies are separate but symbiotic: Evo hatches fly larvae and sells them to Symton, which fattens them up on a proprietary grain blend that ensures optimal nutrition for the animals that eventually will consume them.
The adult flies resemble small black wasps, minus a stinger and are generally harmless to humans. After they’ve mated, the females deposit clutches of several hundred eggs into small pieces of corrugated cardboard. Evo employees collect the cardboard and deposit them into glass Mason jars to incubate. Several days later, a brood of maggots – each no bigger than a speck of pepper – hatches.
Entomologists have known of the soldier fly’s promise for decades. Researchers proposed using them to convert manure into protein as early as the 1970s. But raising them at anything approaching a commercial scale seemed like a dead end: no one knew how to get captive flies to reliably mate and deposit eggs.
That changed in 2002 with the publication of a paper by Tomberlin, his adviser D. Craig Sheppard and others, which described a system for raising the insects in captivity. The key, they found, was finding the precise mixture of temperature, humidity and, especially, lighting to stimulate the flies to breed.
Before the paper, “people thought we were crazy” for trying to grow soldier flies, Tomberlin said. The fact that the technology to properly cultivate fly colonies didn’t even exist 20 years ago underscores how new the industry is, he added.
A black soldier fly larva can consume twice its weight in food each day. On its 14day journey from hatchling to pupa, a single larva will grow nearly an inch long and increase its weight by a factor of 10,000. That’s akin to an eight-pound baby swelling to the size of a 40-ton humpback whale. They binge eat to store up nutrients for their two-week life span as adults, when they typically don’t eat anything at all.
The larvae at Evo feast on spent grains from a handful of Texas distilleries and breweries, as much as 15 tons of it each month. Nathan Barkman of Rio Brazos Distillery said Evo eliminates close to half of his company’s weekly output of waste. It’s hot, sopping wet, highly acidic and sticky – “like lava,” he said – making it difficult to dispose. Local sanitation companies won’t take it. Pig farmers sometimes will, but the closest farms are miles outside of town, and nobody wants to be driving molten grain mash that far.
The flies, however, love it.
Their ability to rapidly devour waste has inspired a number of commercial applications. A pilot program at Louisiana State University deploys a small colony of soldier flies to consume the food its students toss out at one dining hall. The entomologist overseeing the project hopes it will be expanded to eliminate all campus food waste by the end of the year.
Using larvae to eliminate food waste could be an ecological game-changer. A 2011 U.N. report detailed how rotting food emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accounting for about seven percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But when maggots consume food waste, they take all that carbon with them.
Soldier flies are “where carbon goes to die,” Tomberlin said. “It goes into this system and comes out the other end as all these beneficial ingredients.”
Such as food for animals.
“Insect protein feed can be a solution and a renewable source of protein to feed fish and ultimately feed the world,” said Maye Walraven, InnovaFeed’s head of business development, in a video announcing the partnership.
The UN agrees. It forecast in a 2013 report that insect farming would have to play a key role – both as animal feed and to feed people – if the world is going to be fed sustainably in coming decades.
Back at Symton, Taranow pops a couple of oven-dried soldier fly larvae into her mouth.
“Honestly, they taste like Fritos,” she said. They have a pleasant, neutral, nutty flavour to them.
Close to two billion people worldwide already include insects in their diets, according to the 2013 U.N. report.
Insect-based snacks are commonly seen in open-air markets in places such as Thailand and China, for instance.
The practice hasn’t caught on in Europe or the United States, in part, because of longstanding cultural attitudes toward insects. This is somewhat puzzling, considering many Westerners happily consume foods such as crab and lobster, which are really just giant sea bugs.
“I absolutely think there will be applications [for the soldier fly] in the human food market,” said EnviroFlight’s Koutsos.
“The challenge is getting over the cringe factor.”
One potential path to human consumption is via insect-based protein powders, which can be mixed with other foods, thus lessening the ick factor.
Several companies are already doing this with crickets.
“There’s been a lot of effort put into cricket flour or mealworms for protein ingredients for everything from pasta to cookies to chips,” Tomberlin said.
He expects soldier fly protein to follow a similar path.
“When you walk in these facilities in the next 10 years, we’ll look back at this era and say we were just getting started.”
Jonathan Cammack, chief operating officer at EVO Conversion Systems, displays dried black soldier fly larvae at the company’s facilities in College Station, Texas.