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The need for sustainable food production in the context of a circular economy

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

April 2021

Rachel Toaff-Rosenstein, VMD, Ph.D, DACAW

The Black Soldier Fly – a small but mighty player in the context of a circular economy

According to UN predictions, the human population, which expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, will require 50% more food between 2010 and 2050, and demand a 70% increase in animal-based protein. We currently rely on increasing agricultural production, including livestock, aquaculture, and crops to supply this demand, but in the course of production create a huge amount of environmental havoc. For example, fish and soybean meal, two heavily-used protein sources in livestock feeds, result in depleted wild fish stocks and deforestation, respectively. Furthermore, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides widely used for crop production, have many negative effects including groundwater pollution and killing beneficial soil microorganisms. Stunningly, despite requiring so many inputs to produce, and a huge portion of the global population whose nutritional needs are unmet, 30% of food produced globally is lost or wasted. When this organic material is landfilled, burned, or simply left behind in fields, it creates breeding grounds for pests and pathogens and wastes valuable resources, in terms of the land, water, fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs that were used in producing the ultimately-wasted food. Finally, when landfilled, organic waste anaerobically decomposes and contributes to 8% of global GHG emissions.

The above-described situation is characteristic of a linear consumption model: take-make-consume-throwaway. Limited resources are used inefficiently, despite the need to be much more diligent in their management if we are to sustain current and future populations of all the earth’s organisms. Indeed, one of today’s biggest challenges is to address the gap between current food production and that needed for future demand, while considering limited planetary resources especially in the face of climate change.

Are there any alternatives?

In contrast to a linear consumption model, there is a naturally-occurring solution just waiting to be utilized at-scale, to help circularize agricultural production systems: the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens; BSF). The BSF has a 45-day lifecycle, beginning with eggs, followed by larvae, prepupae and ending with adult flies.

BSF as part of a circular economy to produce feed and fertilizer

BSF evolved as essential decomposers, breaking down organic materials and returning nutrients to the soil. Their natural tendencies can be co-opted in modern, commercial agricultural operations. Specifically, rather than being landfilled or becoming an environmental nuisance, organic waste streams can be converted by BSF into valuable products. BSF feed on a variety of agricultural by-products, municipal food waste and manure. These organic wastes are efficiently converted by BSF into high-quality protein meal and oil, bio-fertilizer and plant health-enhancers, and other novel compounds.

When raised for feed, the larvae are harvested after approximately 21 days, before they pupate. The protein and fat most commonly are used to replace non-sustainable feed ingredient sources in poultry, fish and pet-food diets, and the remaining material, which includes unconsumed feed and excrement, used as fertilizer to grow crops. Organic fertilizers increase soil organic matter, improving its fertility and crop productivity. Indeed, BSF can play a key role in feed and food production and waste-treatment systems in the context of a circular economy.

BSF vs. other insects

BSF are a particularly attractive species compared to other insects grown as food and feed:

- They consume and grow well on a variety of materials, ranging from animal manure and sewage to kitchen and restaurant scraps. This is in contrast to insects such as crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms which must be fed more limited and specific diets.

- BSF lends itself to growing in intensive conditions while having a short lifecycle –large-scale production can occur in a short time and in limited space.

- The larvae nutritional profile is very desirable and has a huge potential for producing novel anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-fungal compounds – adding to beneficial future applications from this industry. Amazingly, BSF larvae can even neutralize common pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella and organic pollutants as well as bio-concentrate heavy metals in their bodies. This means that they can be used to decontaminate manure and other waste streams. In this case, end-products can include non-consumable materials such as biodiesel and bioplastics.

- Importantly, these insects are not known to be a vector of any human or animal diseases or act as pests.

The industry today and in the future

The BSF market expected to be worth $2.57 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of 33.3% from 2019 to 2025. Currently, Asia-Pacific has the largest share of the BSF market, but Europe is expected to experience a rapid growth in the coming years. There are at least 14 major BSF players worldwide, and many additional start-ups already using or aiming to use BSF in industrial-scale bioconversion processes. Although a few species of insects are grown commercially for food and feed, 90% of companies use BSF, emphasizing the viability and the potential of this industry. Worldwide, some leading BSF biotechnology companies, including Nutrition Technologies (Malaysia), InnovaFeed (France), Protix (Holland), and EnviroFlight (USA), have already built industrial-scale factories.

Currently, there are also a few Israeli start-ups involved in BSF production, including Freeze-em and Entoprotech, as well as companies using BSF to produce pet and fish feed - Tzemach feed mills, Dan Fish Farms, and Genufeed. There is also ongoing BSF research, both basic and applied, at Migal Galilee R&D Center.

Challenges facing this growing industry

Although showing promising growth, the BSF industry still faces several major challenges. They include the need to upscale production, so that the products have increased price competitiveness and stability compared to conventional protein sources such as fish meal. Ideally, BSF larvae would be used to produce human food directly, and eliminate the inefficiency of first feeding the BSF larvae to the livestock and fish that later eaten by people. Indeed, even though consuming insects is commonplace in certain parts of the world, there are still cultural aversion issues to be addressed in order for direct consumption of insects to become commonplace.

Additionally, the industry could become even more sustainable if BSF feeding substrates were expanded to include additional by-product streams such as post-consumer food waste and animal manure. Today, legislation in many countries limits what can be fed to BSF to limit the likelihood that harmful materials enter the food supply.

Overall, the BSF industry is showing exciting growth and positioning itself as a viable, large-scale solution to sustainable feed and food production as part of a circular economy.

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