Using insect larvae to help solve some of our topsy-turvy world’s food problems

Alice: Nobody ever tells us to study the right things we do. We’re only supposed to learn from the wrong things. But we are permitted to study the right things other people do. And sometimes we’re even told to copy them.

Mad Hatter: That’s cheating!

Alice: You’re quite right, Mr. Hatter. I do live in a topsy-turvy world. It seems like I have to do something wrong first, in order to learn from what not to do. And then, by not doing what I’m not supposed to do, perhaps I’ll be right. But I’d rather be right the first time, wouldn’t you?

So just how upside-down is our dear planet earth? Chances are, most of those reading this already know about the crazy shenanigans us humans have carelessly subjected earth to.

As a quick refresher course, see if you can guess the following true or false statements about our modern-day agriculture industry:

True or False!

  1. Cattle are fed skittles
  2. Farmed fish are fed wild fish
  3. 67% of total US crop yield is used to feed livestock
  4. One-third of food for human consumption is wasted annually
  5. Farms in China hire labourers to hand-pollinate crops due to the decimation of bees

Answers:

  1. True1A candy-based diet for cattle is fine and also helps the environment by reducing the amount of candy waste that ends up in landfills” – John Waller, a University of Tennessee animal nutrition professor.
  2. True2 Many farmed fish species are fed wild caught fish, which are processed into fish meal. Other, non-carnivorous farmed fish are fed on diets of GMO corn and soy. It takes over 5 pounds of wild fish to grow 1 pound of farmed salmon, thus defeating the purpose of farming fish to protect the oceans.
  3. True3 100 calories of crop will produce just 3 calories of beef.
  4. True 4 One quarter of this waste is enough to feed the starving 870 million people worldwide.
  5. True5 Natural pollination by bees has declined due to pesticide use in the “world’s pear-capital”, Hanyuan county. Even still, some farmers choose to hire human labour teams to pollinate pear trees as they are cheaper than renting a bee colony to do the job.
Kevin Frayer via Getty Images – Labourer hired to hand-pollinate pear trees in China

While all of the above deserve thorough research and understanding (and maybe even a little outrage!), I will only be talking about how we can help solve the aquaculture industry’s feed problem – using insects.

The aquaculture industry is facing a slew of hurdles, making the businesses’ already fishy reputation even more so. Issues include: pollution, biodiversity impacts, spread of disease, rise of antibiotic resistance, pesticide usage and the unsustainability of fishmeal as a feed source for farmed fish.

For the first time ever, world farmed fish production has topped beef production2 – propelled by a strikingly increasing demand for fish by consumers. The industry has been unable to keep up with this demand, and, together with other events such as natural disasters and climate change, they just aren’t able to feed their stocks enough to meet the demands of consumers.

This unsustainable, unnatural “cycle” has reached its breaking point. A call has been made for researchers and entrepreneurs to find solutions to the problem – to discover a sustainable alternative to the 30 million tons of wild caught fish that are currently used to feed our farmed fish.6 Some of the current alternatives such as soy are incredibly unsustainable and rely heavily on chemical and GMO technology.

Hexafly is one of these solution-makers.

Soon to officially open the first commercial insect production plant in the UK and Ireland, Hexafly is buzzing with innovation.

The team have developed an alternative, sustainable feed, wiping out the need for the catching and killing of wild caught fish to feed farmed fish.

The young start-up has already received lots of attention and multiple awards such as:

Winner of the Innovation Award at the National Enterprise Awards (2017)

Winner of Demo Day – World AgTech Innovation Summit – 2017

Overall National Winner of Best New Idea – Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur Competition – 2016 Finalist – Global Nutreco FeedTech Challenge – 2017

Seal of Excellence – part of Horizon 2020, delivered by the European Commission – 2017

Best New Business – Meath Business and Tourism Awards – 2016

The main product to date, a proteinaceous insect meal, not only has the ability to replace one of the most unsustainable farming practices in the world, but ensures the new feed will be produced in an environmentally-friendly way and is part of a recycling method that solves other environmental problems at the same time. The feed is made from Black Soldier Fly larvae, who’s recycling life cycle produces zero waste, and actually takes in waste as a key part of the process. This insect has digestive superpowers which we are only beginning to learn about.

Black Soldier Fly Lifecycle

The story begins, as most of them do, with a bit of romance. The adult male flies avail of lekking sites in order to start up a courtship with a female black soldier fly. They choose a suitable space, such as a large leaf, and, if successful, will attract a female to the site. They must mate in sunlight and mid-air.

Two days later, the female fly is ready to lay up to 900 eggs. In the wild, females will seek out decaying food and organic waste as a suitable location to lay her eggs, so that when they hatch they have a meal ready and waiting for them. Who said insects aren’t known for their parental care?

Once the eggs hatch, tiny, starving, larvae emerge. They will feed constantly for two to three weeks. They can end up weighing a quarter of a gram each, pretty impressive for their short feeding period. These pudgy larvae are full of good fats and protein. They are clean, scent-free larvae, as, during the process, they have destroyed many of the bacteria and fungi thriving in the decaying matter they consumed. This is all thanks to the array of Antimicrobial Peptides (AMPs) possessed by the Black Soldier Fly (BSF).

One study investigating the potential uses of BSF in the emerging field of “Nutritional Immunology”, dubbed BSF as “the most important insect in the world for bioconversion”14.

This study also found that, in Hermetia illucens, the number of predicted AMPs belonging to different families was higher than in most other insect species. And, only one other insect species (Harmonia axyridis) has been found to have over 50 identified genes encoding for AMPs14. Families of AMPs present include: Defensins, Cecropins, Diptericins and non-AMPs like Lysozymes and Peptidoglycan Recognition Proteins which are used to identify bacteria and their unique cell wall component, peptidoglycan.

The study also confirmed that diets with more bacteria induced more AMP expression, a consideration that may need to be taken into account for producers when devising the ideal waste substrate to feed their stock14.

Photo: larvae (white) feeding with pupae (black) exiting

These AMPs are expressed upon the larva’s exposure to different microbes and it allows them to power through potentially pathogenic material and convert it into a clean, potent, fertilizer. The larvae themselves get an all-clear medical check, they have virtually killed the microbes internally and are healthy organisms by the end of the process.

When the larva is finally full, pupation is stimulated. The larva begins to darken in colour, eventually turning black, and it’s once chomping mouthparts evolve to a claw-like dragging tool. This allows the new prepupa escape the feeding environment in search of a dry, dark and safe place to pupate.

Once this location is found, the prepupa hardens and, over the next two weeks, develops into an adult fly inside this protective shell.

Once ready to hatch, the tail of the pupa bends and the adult fly emerges.

This fly has left behind his gluttonous childhood and is now focused on mating alone, and so, the cycle begins again. The adults do not possess any functioning feeding mouthparts although they can drink water if necessary.

Their wings are iridescent, possibly used as a mating signal when fanning themselves out on their lekking sites under the intense UV-radiating sunlight. They can be observed preening their long antennae using their white-tipped legs.

The females have an extended ovipositor. It is amazing to watch her neatly lay hundreds of eggs, one by one, in a string-like form.

Sustainability

Taking in multiple waste streams from many different industries such as the brewing industry, Hexafly helps eliminate the tonnes of grain and other materials that would otherwise end up dumped. The process is a closed, recycling cycle, driven by the Black Soldier Fly’s own life cycle.

Credit: Rochester Institute of Technology
Credit: Rochester Institute of Technology

The main products produced are an insect meal protein (comparable if not exceeding in quality to that of fish meal and soy meal), insect oil (with a similar fatty acid profile to that of coconut oil) and insect frass (a high-valued fertilizer, this is the larvae’s poop). The protein is currently being trialled by a number of fish feed companies who have all reported very positive results. The oil is in demand for a range of applications such as feed additives for livestock, cooking oil, biodiesel and cosmetics. The frass has been used to test crop growth against traditional, chemical fertilizers and results have been extremely promising. There is research the support the frass also being a natural pest repellent, possibly due to its chitin content. It is so exciting to imagine the existence of a chemical free, potent fertilizer produced naturally from waste ingredients and also having the added benefit of being a crop-pest repellent.

The knock-on impacts of the BSF farming system are endless and thrilling to imagine the number of solutions that could emerge from the process.

An array of co-products are produced in the system, all of them with environmentally-friendly uses. One of these co-products are the Antimicrobial Peptides which can be extracted from the larvae and used as “prebiotics”, a much-desired new pharmaceutical product in the rise of antibiotic resistance. Even if not extracted, the AMPs remain active in the insect protein product where they will enhance the natural immune system of the livestock that consumes them. This has the potential to drastically reduce the use of antibiotics in farmed animals and therefore potentially slow antibiotic resistance in a game of keeping-up-with-the-bacteria that farmers are tired of playing.

Many studies have found that BSF larvae reduce pathogenic microbial loads in the substrate they feed on 7, 8. Feeding chicks BSF larvae was shown to improve body weight gain as well as increase the frequency of CD4+ T lymphocyte, serum lysozyme activity and spleen lymphocyte proliferation 7. Other positive impacts included the increased survival of the chicks and a “reinforced bacterial clearance”. The authors believe that the immune-stimulating nature of the AMPs produced by BSF larvae causes this health boost in the livestock which feeds on it. Another study 8 , found that Salmonella and E. coli burdens were reduced in chicken manure fed to BSF larvae. This also brings up the possible use of BSF larvae in treating waste streams such as sewage and manure.

Chitin is another high-value product obtained by the system. A biopolymer found in crustacean shells and insect exoskeletons, it has applications in pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. It is an immune-stimulant, and, when paired with a vaccination, can help increase the efficacy of the vaccine. Nothing is wasted at Hexafly, and so, even from the adult flies who have reached the end of their life cycle, we can extract this high-value, natural immune-stimulant.

The innovation never ceases at Hexafly with new discoveries through research and development coming about on a weekly basis. It seems like the world is only catching up with the idea, and the protein can’t be produced fast enough for the array of customers interested.

The trend can be attributed in part to the now widespread availability of information about our agricultural systems and people are asking, more than ever, where their food comes from. The rise of veganism, investigative documentaries and media exposés, are to be thanked in the speeding up of this process, although it feels like change couldn’t come fast enough.

Start-ups in the AgTech industry are sprouting up like dandelions9. Companies like Memphis Meats10  and Impossible Foods11 vow to bring us cruelty-free, environmentally-friendly burgers. Insects for human food is also gaining some traction with a company from France serving up cricket pasta, sweets and snacks12, and Ikea jumping on the bandwagon too with a range of insect protein snacks13.

We are heading straight into the next food revolution, possibly the biggest since intense agriculture practices begun. We are at the cusp of opportunity – to reinvent how we approach our farming systems with the environment’s wellbeing as our guideline.

Our time is precious, and we shouldn’t spend it too freely while we have solutions at our finger tips.

                                      

References:

1 National Geographic: https://bit.ly/2KQQGuU

2 Huffington Post: https://bit.ly/2G4MO5Z

3 National Geographic:  https://bit.ly/1RAPVar

4 Food and Agriculture Organisation:  http://www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/

5 Huffington Post: https://bit.ly/2I5eCgk

6 AgFunder: https://bit.ly/2oX3U1T

7 Erickson et al. (2003) Reduction of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella enterica Serovar Enteritidis in Chicken Manure by Larvae of the Black Soldier Fly. Journal of Food Protection.

8 Lee et al. (2018) Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens) Larvae Enhances Immune Activities and Increases Survivability of 4 Broiler Chicks Against Experimental Infection of Salmonella Gallinarum.  Journal of Veterinary Medical Science.

9 AgFunder News: https://bit.ly/2wEJKOL

10 Memphis Meats: https://bit.ly/1m88NyH

11 Impossible Foods: https://bit.ly/2dc0qij

12 Jimini’s: https://bit.ly/2Kmrqf7

13CNBC: https://cnb.cx/2u1uB8x

14 Vogel et al. (2018) Nutritional immunology: Diversification and diet-dependent expression of antimicrobial peptides in the black soldier fly Hermetia illucens. Devlopmental and Comparative Immunology.

15 White Rabbit: https://bit.ly/2IbctMb

Laura Ellen Healy
About Laura Ellen Healy 2 Articles
I am a zoology graduate from Trinity College Dublin, and a MSc graduate in Entomology from Harper Adams University (U.K.). I've conducted research on scarab beetles from Borneo in the Natural History Museum in London. Currently working as the chief scientific officer of Hexafly, please check out our site!
Contact: Website

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