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Insect Farming | How Insects Help Reduce Food Waste

When you think about bugs, you might think of the alarming drop in insect populations that we are seeing across the globe. And you're not wrong. A global scientific review has found that 40% of insect species are declining, and a third of species are endangered. But did you know that insect protein can play a vital role in food security today and in the future?

I interviewed Miha Pipan to clarify the sustainability of edible insects, how insect farms work, and find out more about other insect tech. Miha is the co-founder and scientific officer of BetterOrigin, a start-up tackling food waste through insect biomass conversion. Here’s what he has to say:

Hey Miha! Thanks a ton for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do?

Hi Jane, great to have this opportunity with FoodUnfolded. So, where to start—how did I end up in the world of maggots? A lot of serendipity.

I was studying at the University of Cambridge when I cofounded BetterOrigin with my fellow students. BetterOrigin was created to address the challenge of food waste through insect biomass conversion.

Wait, pause…What is insect biomass conversion? And how does it help food waste?

Insect biomass conversion, or insect farming in short, is when insects turn organic wastes (such as used grains from beer-making or expired fruit and vegetables from packaging facilities) into highly nutritious outputs, like proteins and other nutrients. 

And, we can even mitigate organic waste greenhouse gas emissions by feeding the waste to insects. If food waste emissions were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter after the US and China!

Oh wow! I have so many questions. But first, what exactly do you do at BetterOrigin?

Over the past 3 years, together with my cofounders Matt and Fotis and a growing team, we’ve been working towards developing new technologies that will help bring insects to the forefront of sustainable future food & feed.

I’m personally in charge of our scientific vision & research. I spend a lot of time working with insects, especially black soldier fly maggots.

What role do insects currently have in food production?

When we talk about the role of insects in food, they’re absolutely essential. The vast majority of our food production depends on insect pollination. Not to mention their role in biomass recycling and soil health. 

It’s especially disheartening seeing the recent reports on worldwide insect population declines when one knows how essential these critters are to our global food production.

But insect biomass conversion can empower communities across the globe to convert local organic wastes into useful resources, to be fed back into the food production system. The technology of insect farming is simple and requires low inputs, so this is something that can be applied in low-resource and high-resource countries alike, which means a lot in terms of its true global impact.

So, what can you tell us about insects as food?

Well, they are rather wonderful from a scientific perspective. They are incredibly efficient at converting what they eat into their own biomass – which makes them excellent food & other waste recyclers.

They manage to achieve this conversion very quickly, particularly the black soldier fly larvae. A couple of grams of black soldier fly eggs will yield kilos of maggots in as little as two weeks. That’s stunning! There is a real potential here to convert the millions of agricultural waste tonnes produced globally each year into tonnes of highly nutritious foods & feeds.

Of course, there’s a stigma against eating insects in some cultures. Why do you think this is? Do you think we can ever overcome that stigma?

Stigma is the key reason why BetterOrigin (and many other producers and tech developers in this sector) is focusing on animal feed, as opposed to human food. It’s still possible to change stigma, but currently, the industry still requires focus on improvements in technology and scalability.

Having said that, I think stigma can be overcome. Look at sushi in Western countries, for example. Raw fish was a no-no back in the day, whereas now, people pay fortunes for ‘good sushi’. The bottom line here is that sushi can be delicious. So, once a person tries it and ends up liking it, the raw fish stigma evaporates.

I think the same approach should and can be taken with insects in Western countries. First, it is up to us (the industry) to develop tasty insect products that can be used in every kitchen, irrespective of the sustainability fervour. The best way to do this is to create a genuinely tasty and healthy product (but flavour-wise…there’s still way to go to develop truly delicious insect foods!).

Which insects have you tried? And which one did you think tasted the best?

I try as many as I can (haha). Crickets are my favourite (shrimp of the land, anyone?)—although, they are also the most resource demanding when it comes to insect-farming. Mealworms taste pretty good, too. As for black soldier fly larvae…the really high-fat content makes them a bit of an ‘acquired taste’ at the moment, but I’ve had exceptionally ‘tastes like chicken’ experiences with them too.

Natural flavour-wise, crickets & locusts offer the broadest spectrum of taste. It’s quite easy to marinate them ‘from the inside out’ by feeding them herbs a couple of days prior to cooking. It’s not too different from the concepts used in cooking with escargot (land snails). But as with most things, the vast majority of off-the-shelf insect foods are roasted, so they really do end up tasting rather umami—most people would say they taste like chicken.

Are there any insects you don’t like?

They key thing when eating insects from my experience is to be ready for the chitin, which is the insect shell. It’s quite ‘paper-y’, and not very ‘Western palate 2019’. Hence, most insect products currently sold on European shelves are very finely milled powders or dechitinated products.

But the way an insect tastes can also be changed. This is where food processing technologies, like BetterOrigin's insect fermentation technology, can open up opportunities for developing innate insect aroma and flavour into something that is much more palatable, perhaps even delicious, to people who normally wouldn’t ever consider eating insects.

But, aren’t insects dirty? How do they even ‘wash’ the insects? Don’t they carry diseases?

I wouldn’t say insects are any dirtier than the livestock animals we currently farm. Most of the insect products for food or feed available today are processed – washed, pasteurised or even sterilised, before being dried. All these steps eliminate the risks of disease.

What is more, all insect products available ‘off-the-shelf’ already undergo strict health and safety checks and passes, and have to comply with current standards, so there is no reason to worry about insect products being any dirtier than other products you find in store now.

How do insect farmers make sure their insects are safe to eat?

Farmers feed insects cleaner wastes than those they theoretically are able to grow on. This is a good strategy to reduce the inherent microbiological & chemical risks. In Europe, insect farmers can currently only grow insects using ‘low-risk’ stocks (not too far from those used in farming other animals).

If anything, due to insects being so new on the scene, producers have to go the extra mile to show their products are safe for consumption. The quality control in this sector is perhaps even higher than a lot of traditional food products, which can simply rely on their long track records of human usage.

Much work remains to be done here, and of course, as the sector grows, so will our knowledge around this topic.

Do we already consume insects in some of our food products? I know some food producers in America use red cochineal beetles as red dye, but are insect-based ingredients common?

Large-scale insect farming (particularly in the West) is so new that any widespread adoption of insect ingredients is not quite there yet. Of course, we can consume insects in, say, salads (by accident, hopefully), but I’d say our accidental consumption of insects is rather low.

What are the different forms of food you can find insects in? I know there are whole crickets you can eat, or cricket flour, but what other products can they be made into?

Flour-like products made with insects seem to be the key thing on the market as of now. This makes sense since flour can be easily integrated into staple foods, such as breads, crackers, pasta, tortillas, any baked goods & cakes.

Insect protein extracts are also popular, often used in protein shakes and bars for sustainability-minded gym-goers. Furthermore, finely milling insects removes the unpleasant mouth feel of chitin (which I personally think is rather important).

But of course, one can also buy whole insects (dried or canned), frozen or even fresh (subject to being close to suppliers).

Which insects have the highest amount of protein?

This is an interesting question. For starters, there is a trend in insect products to (perhaps accidentally) overestimate the amount of crude protein. The reason for this is that insect shells (chitin) interfere with standard protein measurement methods and tend to boost the protein content by up to 25%, depending on the species.

Having said that, when it comes to mainstream farmed insects, it would appear crickets and locusts boast the highest protein content. I have seen products with as much as 70% crude protein in a dry powder form.

But it is also possible to turn lower protein content insects (such as black soldier fly larvae) into high protein content concentrates & isolates with the right processing steps. This is something we’ve been perfecting at BetterOrigin.

What other nutritional qualities do edible insects provide?

These creatures are rich in essential amino acids, which can be scarce in plant-based foods. We also found them to be rich in minerals like iron, often beyond what one would find in mainstream meats.

Even the less desirable elements of an insect (such as their shells which are made from chitin) have functional applications in human and animal nutrition. Apparently, chitin & its derivatives have fat-binding properties…

There’s a lot of talk about how edible insects can be a sustainable alternative protein, but what other aspects of sustainability can insects help?

Insects have immense potential to help humanity deal with the facing threat of climate change and food production resilience. From the inherently low usage of land to the ability of insects to eat decomposing wastes (which is a major cause of methane emissions worldwide), to the marginal lower water usage per kilo of protein produced. I could go on for a while on this topic…

We could even start using insects to convert other types of waste – for example, plastic waste. There were a couple of research articles showcasing the ability of waxworms to eat plastic bags (which are otherwise poorly recyclable and would naturally take aeons to self-degrade). Then there is animal manure and sewage – of course, again, this would not be for food production purposes, but with growing cities and concentrated populations, insects may help clear the waste and maintain a cleaner environment and water supply.

That’s really cool! It sounds like we’re going to have to have another interview on insects and plastic waste! But to wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to add?

We may even end up using insects as living factories for the production of medicines! We know many insect species can naturally produce antimicrobial compounds. Given increasing issues of antimicrobial resistance, these insects are likely to gain in importance going forward.

As the insect biomass conversion technology matures and evolves, who knows what the future may hold – we are only really farming a teeny tiny fraction of insect species at any meaningful scale as of now (black soldier flies, mealworms, crickets, buffalo worm, silkworm), where insect diversity it truly stupendous (like 80% of all known living organisms described to date are insects!).

This is certainly a space to watch.

Huge thank you to Miha for sitting with us to talk about insect farming!

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