Last week, I attended an evening organised by Heeren XVII, the biosystems engineers’ society at Wageningen University. The theme was insects. A presentation was given by Bart de Ruiter, director of R&D at Proti-Farm, a Dutch company producing insects.
This post is an overview of some of the things Bart mentioned that evening. The insect industry is quite secretive at the moment, to say the least, so it was interesting to hear from Proti-Farm despite the fact that they too have lots of protected information. Proti-Farm and its subsidiary Kreca have been growing insects since the late 1970s.
Kreca are currently growing ten types of insects, but the focus of tonight was mealworms. Proti-Farm sell functional ingredients to the food industry, which is more profitable than selling insects on their own. Why are insect-based products going into human food?
The main benefit at the moment, Bart said, was the positive image associated with insects – or in other words, for marketing purposes. Not everyone finds the idea of eating insects appetising, but they do have a sustainable image. Insects are more sustainable than conventional sources of animal protein, but may even be better than plant protein. Insects have a better amino acid profile and their vitamins are more concentrated. As a result, you would need less protein from insects – two thirds less, Bart claimed – compared to plant protein. Where the insects get their protein from is another question though.
Other than that, insects are very similar to other livestock, except for the fact that they are hard to register individually. The same regulations apply to insects as for other livestock under EU law, something Proti-Farm are trying to change by talking to the European Commission, as there isn’t that much knowledge on insects at the moment. The biggest barrier to using insects to process waste inside the EU is regulation. Once waste can be legally fed to insects, their protein will be more sustainable than it is now.
On the other end of the process, regulation is obstructing the efficient use of waste. Insect farms produce residues from the substrate, but also insect frass, which is full of chitin. The EU has three categories of animal waste, and their current classifications do not do insects justice. Currently, Proti-Farm send all residues to a biodigester. However, if they can separate the chitin from the rest of the residues, this could be used as high-grade animal feed. Although this is currently illegal, it was interesting to hear that insect waste can be fed to animals too.
When talking about using insects to process waste, black soldier flies have become a household name. Why are Proti-Farm using lesser mealworms instead?
Firstly, Proti-Farm’s products are for human food, not animal feed. Bart inserted an anecdote about how even chimpanzees don’t eat black soldier fly larvae. This is congruent with my friend Seppe Salari’s findings. He has tried dozens of ways to prepare black soldier fly larvae, but has yet to find a way to make them taste good.
According to Bart, mealworms also produce fewer emissions than black soldier fly (BSF) larvae. This is also related to the feed used to grow them – feed, climate, and growth all affect each other a lot in insect production. BSF are the ‘pigs of insects’. Mealworms thrive on drier and cleaner substrate compared to BSF. This explains why I ended up killing my mealworms when treating them like BSF larvae. Mealworms are also disease-resistant. In the 30 years Kreca and Proti-Farm have been breeding mealworms, there hasn’t been a single case of disease.
In terms of efficiency, Proti-Farm are currently achieving a similar feed conversion ratio to chickens. This seemed quite low to me, and it is far lower than the theoretically attainable values. Why is it so low? Cost. There are trade-offs to making mealworm production more efficient. Also, Proti-Farm have only been growing mealworms at this scale for 2-3 years.
In the end, it all depends on the grower’s goal. If the goal is to process waste, BSF are better but are not suitable for humans. If the goal is to produce human food, mealworms are better despite their lower efficiency.
Proti-Farm’s current setups mostly involve manual labour. Insects are tricky to automate, and everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Relying on manual labour is fine for small-scale insect farms, where unprocessed larvae is the main product. ‘Small-scale’ in this case means around a tonne per week.
Proti-Farm, however, want to produce eight tonnes of larvae per day, and process it into functional ingredients (soluble insect protein and insect texture concentrate). All of this makes automation worthwhile. It is also easier to automate in the Netherlands than other places, due to the available know-how and the fact that labour is expensive. Proti-Farm are experimenting with automated harvesting. They also transport their crates (of which there will be hundreds of thousands) on conveyor belts, like at Ter Laak Orchids. But there’s still a long way to go. Main challenges include monitoring the insects, which is done visually at the moment. Time for computer vision and machine learning?