Lord of the Flies Rebecca L. Weber | Forward Thinkers

AgriProtein co-founder Jason Drew sees fly farming as key to waste-free protein products.

Black Soldier Fly

Flies may be pesky nuisances at a picnic, but their relentless pursuit of sustenance makes them ideal partners for reducing waste during food production, says fly farmer Jason Drew.

“Flies, in nature, break down organic waste, recycle nutrients, and kill the bacteria in that organic waste,” explains Drew, who helped found Cape Town, South Africa–based AgriProtein in 2009 to develop large-scale, sustainable sources of natural protein. A UK native, Drew is a passionate fly-vangelist whose vision of farming flies on an industrial level builds on existing research at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. In the past decade, AgriProtein has tested and refined its approach to producing animal protein that, unlike mainstream farming practices, leaves no waste.

Producing Protein for Agriculture, Aquaculture
Jason DrewAgriProtein’s first factory, which became operational in 2016 in Cape Town, largely creates product being tested in other countries. But as other planned factories open, the “objective is to make protein locally, from local waste, to serve to local markets,” says Drew.

At the Cape Town factory, black soldier fly larvae in digitally controlled cage space feast on a diet of biodegradable waste—leftovers such as veggie peels and pig intestines can be sourced from restaurants and abattoirs—and are harvested a few days later. Once washed, dried, milled and bagged, the shelf-stable, protein-rich MagMeal is ready to be used in agriculture and aquaculture. Animals thrive on it, and the cost is about the same as traditional feed—without the environmental impact.

Normally it takes 1 to 8 kilos of marine-caught material, for example, to produce 1 kilo of farmed fish. AgriProtein’s approach changes the equation dramatically: Fish no longer need to be raised to become fishmeal to feed other fish.

“Birds have always eaten flies and worms and grubs,” says Drew. “The reason fish leap out of streams to get hold of flies is because the [fish] that do, do better than the ones that don’t.”

French supermarket chain Auchan was the first to pilot AgriProtein’s insect-fed trout in its shops. Rather than hide the trout’s origins, ads used it as a distinguishing feature. On a larger scale, the Middle East and Asia are likely to be the first areas to have insect-fed protein readily available in stores, followed by Europe and the Americas. In addition, insect-fed pet foods are already available commercially in South Africa, and this market will likely spread to other countries quickly.

Numerous honors, such as the BBC’s first Food Chain Global Champion Award, have helped raise AgriProtein’s profile and boost its research efforts.

“Last year, we won the Indian Ocean Challenge, which was to look at how to save the remaining fish stocks of the Indian Ocean,” says Drew. “And the prize money we won from that—thank you to the Australian government—we put into looking at how we use product in shrimp and shrimp farming in the region. [It] causes a lot of reduction of fish stocks, because they need the fishmeal to grow shrimp and prawns.”

Global Growth Plans
AgriProtein’s ambitious growth target is to build 100 factories by 2024 with partners in diverse locations, including Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America; 20 plants are planned for the United States and Canada.

Differing legislative challenges, climates, and species mean a lot of local testing, and waste stream analysis also varies by region and culture. For instance, in Hong Kong and other Asian markets, Drew says the amount of oil typically used in cooking provides a substrate that is marginally too oily for AgriProtein’s larvae to eat, and the food waste must first be de-oiled.

In Dubai, which aims to become the first zero waste landfill city, AgriProtein is part of the United Arab Emirates’ accelerator program, focusing on recycling nutrients that would otherwise be lost to landfills. The larvae will be used for fish feed in the region’s emerging aquaculture businesses, from the west coast of Saudi Arabia to the UAE itself.

Expanding the Benefits of Fly Farming
Maintaining genetic diversity and investigating the antimicrobial effect of larvae are other key benefits of fly farming that AgriProtein is exploring.

“There’s renewed interest around the world in reducing the amount of organics to landfill, which cause potential issues for the water tables . . . and the general understanding that it takes as much water, energy, and fuel to make the food you throw away as the food you eat,” says Drew. “We think that 15 years from now, you will consider it as normal to recycle your waste nutrients as you think it is normal to recycle your paper, your tin, and your plastic today.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist based in South Africa who covers social justice, health and food, often with a sustainability and/or business angle. She writes for CNN, the New York Times, USA Today, and many other publications.

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