How An Insect And A Microbe Are Being Used To Upcycle Tropical Crop Waste Streams

Food & Drink

In the process of generating the main component or components for which a crop is grown there are usually low value byproducts or even waste streams. One way to increase the sustainability of agriculture is to find ways to “up-cycle” these materials so that they increase overall food, feed, or fiber productivity without requiring any more farmed land. One way to do this is to enlist the help of a remarkable insect called the Black Soldier Fly, a species whose larvae can thrive on diverse substrates, and which can then be harvested and processed to make highly nutritious feed ingredients for animal production or for pet food. This approach is being used at scale with byproducts from fruit and vegetable production and with consumer level food waste. In 2021 the insect protein market was estimated to be worth $343 million and it is projected to be worth $1.3 billion by 2027.

There is a company called Nutrition Technologies that has expanded the upcycling spectrum of the Black Soldier Fly system by including a symbiotic microbial “partner” in the process so that it can be used in large scale up-cycling of the byproducts from tropical crops such as oil palm. They have an operating facility in Johor, Malaysia that upcycles hundred metric tons of what might otherwise be waste to generate desirable animal feed products and a biofertilizer. They recently closed a US$20 million venture round which will be used to add another production facility somewhere else in Southeast Asia and launch new products.

In a typical upcycling operation using Black Soldier Flies the starting material is sterilized before the insect larvae are added. Nick Piggott, the co-founder, and Co-CEO of Nutrition Technologies, observed that in nature the flies are attracted to decomposing materials to lay their eggs and when the larvae hatch what they will be eating is already partially digested and their own digestive track is then aided by some of those microbes. Based on that model, Nutrition Technologies adds a specific bacterial strain to an unsterilized feedstock mixture of palm oil processing waste, brewers spent grain and soy pulp.

The bacterium they selected is able to outcompete the background microbial population and provides the enzymes that enable the larvae to utilize the palm oil byproducts. Because this is being done in the tropics, there is no heating requirement during this stage as there might be in other regions. At the end of their growth cycle the larvae are separated from their frass (insect manure), ground up, pasteurized, and then pressed to extract an oil fraction. The “press cake” is then ground to make a high protein flour (>50% crude protein).

The oil product is mainly used in pig feed. It is high in medium chain fats such as lauric acid and pork producers observe gut health benefits particularly for piglets. The protein flour is a more sustainable, functional, and mercury-free substitute for fish meal used in aquaculture. This insect alternative is mainly being fed to sea bass and shrimp. The fertilizer byproduct from this system has a 4-2-2 nutrient content and some biological control effects attributable to the inoculated bacteria strain. It is used on banana and durian plantations. Nutrition Technologies sources only palm oil byproducts that are from RSPO certified producers (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) that are not linked to deforestation.

The new round of Nutrition Technologies investors Led by PTT Ventures includes Sumitomo Corporation whose Life Science Division general manager sees this advancement in protein production as a solution to some environmental issues and w means through which to address Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Other new investors also include ING Sustainable Investments and Mandala Capital. The initial investors are Openspace Ventures, SEEDs Capital and Hera Capital. In a world with increasing demand for protein, this microbial enhancement of insect-based upcycling is a welcome contributor to the efficiency of both agriculture and aquaculture.

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