Mag­gots con­sid­ered food source

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page -

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.”

PHOTO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST BY LOREN EL­LIOT

Jonathan Cam­mack, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer at EVO Con­ver­sion Sys­tems, dis­plays dried black sol­dier fly lar­vae at the com­pany’s fa­cil­i­ties in Col­lege Sta­tion, Texas.

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