Flies buzz around landfill sites for a good reason – it’s where they can fill up on nutrients. What is waste to us is valuable to them. A new company called Entomics is looking to recruit the black soldier fly to process food waste for quality animal feed, meaning that waste can become valuable for us too.
Set up in late 2015, Entomics has won the backing of supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, along with farmers’ association Agri-Tech East, the Financial Times, Cambridge University and others.
Its patented system is touted as an alternative to anaerobic digestion (AD) processing. Instead of breaking down food waste, the fly builds up more complex compounds as it feeds during its larval stage. The resulting products include protein meal, bio-oil and organic fertiliser.
Head of strategy and growth Matt McLaren says the insects have been optimised by nature to produce the “best outcome with minimal inputs”. He sees the use of the fly as part of a “macro solution” to worldwide issues about squeezing the maximum out of existing farmland and food stocks.
“The flies are voracious eaters in their larval stage,” he says. “They can reduce food waste by 95% during a two-week growing cycle, so it is pretty powerful compared with other technologies out there today. They are not a pest species, do not sting and have no moving mouth parts so don’t eat crops.”
McLaren is one of Entomics’ team of four. The idea of using the black soldier fly came from Joe Halstead, a Devon pig farmer; McLaren has background in business; while Fotis Fotiadis and Miha Pipan provide the engineering and biochemical expertise.
“We met at university during what’s called a ‘sustainability hackathon’, which was organised by one of the university societies that focuses on sustainability and technology,” says McLaren. “When we graduated [all at the same time], we thought, why not crack on with it and make it into a company?
“I was interested in things like vertical and urban farming. We all came at it from our different angles and this was the technology we thought was a logical way forward, given that insects – which is the weird and wonderful part of what we do – are very good conversion engines.”
“Flies can reduce food waste by 95% during a two-week growing cycle, so it is pretty powerful compared with other technologies out there.”
The team saw the UK as being advanced in terms of food waste technology, thanks to the development of the AD industry and its related supply chains. Although he does not see his fledgling firm as competing with AD, McLaren does see the subsidies needed via the feed-in tariff to get AD schemes going as a drawback.
“We heard anecdotally from within the AD sector that it was not always going to be as attractive as now for ever, with the Government lowering its support. As time goes on, there is always the need to keep looking to optimise existing AD technology as well as look for alternatives that may be more efficient.”
A proof-of-concept plant is now up and running in Soham, East Anglia. The team took systems designed in a lab into a ‘big shed’, which can process a couple of tonnes of food waste a week. The idea is to prove the process is commercially viable and scalable.
The team is working on the next, bigger, version and looking for partners and funding, including from the waste industry. At this early stage, Entomics is looking to sell to the aquaculture industry – namely, Scottish salmon farms.
“It is an interesting challenge,” says McLaren. “There are a lot of regulations that govern this area, and they’re not always clear because it is such a new space. The AD industry has done a great job in carving out its own set of specific regulations – including on digestate quality. We see that as a model in engaging with the Government.”
The company is not the first to use the black soldier fly as a commercial enterprise; the idea was first put forward in the 1960s. Enterra in Canada and AgriProtein in South Africa have been up and running for a number of years. But a recent green light by the EU Parliament to allow insect meal as a legal feed in EU aquaculture markets from July 2017 heralds the start of a new industry in the UK, says McLaren.
“While there is not an insect factory in the UK at the moment, I think it will become mainstream in the food waste and recycling industry. This is a milestone year for us. The insect-for-protein concept should be as ubiquitous as poultry farming.
“Being the first to market would be great, if it happens. If not, then I think there is no reason to suggest that is the end-all-be-all. We almost hope other people get involved because this is too big for one company to tackle on its own.”