How to create sustainable protein from black soldier fly insects

Published on 2022-05-06

Startup Story

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Giacomo Zeni, co-founder of BugsLife, explained the steps leading to the creation of a sustainable protein: from bio-conversion of agricultural byproducts through black soldier fly insects.


A few years ago, I spent my master's in food biotechnology in Wageningen, in the Netherlands. In that university, the concept of sustainability was broader. In every lecture, there was always this main topic: "we need to become sustainable, we need to make the transition". And that's where I met Katerina, who later became the other co-founder of Bugs Life. In fact, it was at the university that we first came into contact with the concept of insects for sustainable protein production. 

To do a little bit of recap, in 2018 I was doing my master thesis and I was studying the microbiome: the bacteria that live inside a specific insect called the black soldier fly, which is the insect that now we are growing. After my thesis, I did an internship in Rotterdam in a company named Koppert where we were already rearing several tons of larva every week, reaching an industrial level of insect production.

Me and Katrina came back to Italy in 2019 and we founded Bugs Life because we knew the concept pretty well. 

We figured out that in Italy nobody was following this topic and nobody was putting effort into developing the technologies. So we said "okay, let's try this" and today we are three years later and we have made some progress, not there yet, but we definitely have made some progress. 

The different perceptions of food made by insects

I guess that  Italians are pretty innovators, but maybe in other fields of knowledge. I'm not sure if entomology - the science that studies insects- is underrated in Italy, but there is surely not much attention in this field. 

This is not the case in the Netherlands, because in fact, I've done several courses at the university about insects: the students are more trained in the concept of growing insects. Is something way broader at the university level and more familiar for the university people that later become working people, so: if you don't train your students, you don't have people that know. 

Also in the Netherlands, there are some products made by insects at the supermarket.

We can already introduce differentiation in the field of insects: we have insects for food - which are these that we find in the supermarkets- and then there are insects for feed for our animals. My topic, especially with the black soldier fly, is the insect for feeding pets, poultry, fishes, and so on.

How to overcome Italy's dependence on protein imports

Protein is the basis of why we eat, so it's very important to be able to produce the protein that we consume. 

This is not the case for Europe and especially for Italy: we are highly dependent on protein import, and we cannot manage to produce all the protein that we consume every year. This strong dependency puts Europe and Italy in a not so good situation because they are always susceptible to the fluctuation of the market or to geopolitical crises. 

So this is the problem that we are trying to face with Bugs Life, the protein gap, and with the insect rearing, we can produce our protein locally. 

The optimum factor of the black soldier fly in particular is that you can feed the larva with some waste food: in that way we tackle a second problem, the waste food. So every year we in Europe generate millions of tons of wasted food. With the black soldier fly, we can actually close the circle: we can take this food waste - which is difficult to treat most of the time - and feed the larva, the larva in 10 days can make a bioconversion.

Bioconversion is the conversion of organic materials, such as plant or animal waste, into usable products or energy sources by living organisms. So the larva can treat the food waste by simply growing. 

Then we have to kill the larva - there is a little ethical problem - but then we have the protein, which is a sustainable protein that we can eat or use to feed our animals. 

The technology of Bugs Life

In a black soldier fly plant, you need to think about all the life stages of the larva and so we have several areas in our plant.

First of all, we don't really have an industrial plant - we are at the pilot phase - so we don't sell the insect protein, but we are starting to sell it.

In the first area, we produced the eggs. We have big cages where the fly can fly inside the cages and then can lay eggs.  We have actually a trap for the eggs because the black soldier fly wants to lay its larva closer to a bad smell or source of organic spoiling. 

In the second area, we need to fatten the larva. So in this area, we have a lot of boxes in which we put food waste in a liquid form.    
Then we stack on the boxes vertically - so it's like vertical farming - and in every box, we have to put like 50 kilos of food waste and a bunch of insects. And then we close the door.    
We come back 7-10 days later and instead of food waste, we now have grown-up larva and also the larva leftover, which is called the frass, the faeces of the larva.    
Both of these are our products because the larva is our sustainable protein and the faeces of the larva actually are a fertilizer. 

In the third area, there is the rendering of the larvae where, in fact, we take the live larva and we render them into protein powder. So we got rid of the water, and we separated the fats. 

And so, from our plants enters food waste and exits both fertiliser and sustainable insect proteins.

Insect flour: the potential stakeholders

Bugs Life is a many stakeholders scenario: this is the case for the circular economy, which also connects to the concept of the industrial symbiosis. 

If we have a symbiosis we have many entities that need to interact, in our case these entities are actually our stakeholders. We can differentiate: there are stakeholders who want sustainable proteins. These would be some pet food producers, aquaculture producers or also shrimp producers.

We have a second group: the people who want to get rid of organic byproducts. Many industrial transformations have byproducts and all these industrial plants could be interested in providing their waste.   
Also, big cities in China and the municipalities of the big cities, collect all the organic waste and treat all this waste feeding the black soldier fly. 

The third group of stakeholders are people who want fertiliser like farmers. Now, because of the war in Ukraine, the fertilizer prices have skyrocketed, reaching prices more than double. Instead, we can provide a fertilizer that is constant in price and very good also.

Then we have the fourth group of stakeholders: people that want to invest in green technologies. So we have these large funds or whatever entities with money, which look at the future and say, "okay, green technology it's the idea", which is a critical factor to making the technology proceed.

Is the production of insect flour entirely scalable?

With our technologies, you can definitely meet different size phases but transferring the technology is not so straightforward. 

In fact, this is an industrial symbiosis: we need the feed from someone, and then we need to sell the protein. The closer are these entities - the stakeholders - the better is the symbiosis. Finding the right spot with the right feed, with the right inputs, it's not so easy and the technology is at the end 10/20% of the whole story.

For the moment, the impact of the insect sector it's very little and it will be kind of little for many years still because it's not software that you just do a copy paste and you are all over the world. It's definitely part of the future of sustainability for food production. So for sure, it's going to be a part of the economy but it's going to take some time.

The main difficulty in spreading a new insect farming technique

Compared to France and Netherlands, Italy is definitely behind in what is concerned about food made by insects. 

The major resistance is the price for sure because this protein is still quite expensive. There are several reasons for this high price.    
It exists as a standard for the feed industry and it is the fish meal. 

Those who produce this feed go into the seas where nobody can control them. They just fish whatever they want, then they come back home and they produce aquaculture with other fish: they make fish out of fish. This is not efficient from a mass transfer point of view, because for every 4 kilograms of wild catch fish can just produce 1 kilo. But it's very cheap because they have no rules on the sea and also the governments are actually helping them to keep artificially low prices of the fishmeal.    
This is a problem for us because the price of the fish meal is so low that reaching that price with the insect protein is going to take a while.

Our product is sustainable, local, secure, and super cool, but it's still a little bit pricey: this is the main problem. 

The problem of creating insect flour in Europe

Our idea is to do a circular economy: you can do a circular economy if you are allowed to feed through waste larva and this is not happening in Europe. 

In Europe everything is so regulated, we are so couches about everything. So today we can just feed our black soldier fly larvae with the conventional feed. 

In our studies we discovered that in China, Africa and North America they are actually allowed to feed insects through waste: I'm not talking about dead bodies, but just something a little more biologically active.

So in Europe and in Italy, we are still quite constrained from the feed, from what we can provide, and that would for sure lower prices.

The moment that the regulation will be more open and the technology will be a little bit more advanced with incremental innovation, we can go quite close to the fishmeal price and that is gonna open a huge market for the new sector product.

The Potential of Industrial Symbiosis

The industrial symbiosis concept is our power, but also our weakness. The black soldier fly plant is most sustainable if it's inserted in a symbiosis model: we take the feed from an entity, which should be closed by like a 500 meters, and then we need also a lot of heat to grow our larva, maybe we need to recover also this heat, then we need to sell all our products.

This has to happen in a symbiosis environment, which is fascinating, but very difficult to build because you need to make agreements with so many people that they still do not know the concept. And so also the people that should put some money in are a little bit reluctant because they say, "okay, this is so cool but so difficult to achieve".

I would say that integrating into the normal system, it's quite a challenge, but it's also the very reason why we are doing this. 

The future of Bugs Life

In Italy, we don't have any kind of plant on an industrial scale and as far as I know, we are the first that is so serious about the planning. 

We are planning a plant which would be able to absorb between 5 and 10 thousand tonnes of food waste every year, and it would produce between 3 and 600 tons per year of proteins.

It's not so much, it's just enough to launch, for example, a snack for the dogs. You can not even make a proper complete meal because the numbers of the industry are bigger, but this will be the first plant among many to come.    

About the author

Giacomo Zeni

Co-founder at BugsLife