From Food Waste to Fish Food: The Magic of Maggots

03 August 2018

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Bins filled with food

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I arrived at the Veterinary Department of Medicine in Cambridge as any eager Naked Scientists intern would: with my headphones around my neck and my microphone at the ready. I was scheduled to interview a scientist regarding the latest innovation in sustainable fish feed, but the story I learned that day was much bigger than that.

Shortly after arriving, I was greeted by Miha Pipan, the Chief Scientific Officer and cofounder of a company called Entomics. He is by far the youngest scientist I have interviewed. I remember wondering to myself, ‘how can someone this young be doing such innovative work already?’

It turns out the secret to success is a combination of initiative, serendipity, and an idea. “It was a very serendipitous beginning for Entomics. The co founders independently joined a business competition that was happening in Cambridge,” Pipan explained, “it was the Sustainable Futures Challenge, and we all ended up there as students from different backgrounds: I am a biochemist, our technology lead is a sustainable engineer, and our CEO was studying towards his MBA at the time.”

The CEO, Matt McLaren, reminisced on the start of Entomics, “It really is one of those stories where we came together at the pub over a pint, talking about weird ideas,” said McLaren. The problem they were trying to solve was food waste, and their ‘weird idea’ evolved into a company and a sustainable solution.

Globally, we waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year1. To surmount this, Entomics has found some hungry individuals who are not bothered by bruised apples or rotten food. The diners are maggots; or more accurately, black soldier fly larvae, which will eat just about anything.

“We take food waste from farms, packaging and sorting plants, and blend it. The maggots like the diversity of the food, so it's good to have a mixture. We then feed it to the maggots, and they fatten up,” said Pipan. It's safe to say these maggots get their 5 A day!

The maggots usually start out weighing less than a milligram; they are so small that you can barely see them. However, over a course of about 14 days of feasting, the maggots grow up to about 5000 times their original bodyweight. Rather than just getting fat from this feeding frenzy, the maggots metabolise the food waste quickly and efficiently.

“You start with food waste that is rather high in water and sugar content. There isn’t much nutritional value there,” explained Pipan, “but the maggots eat this food waste and grow to be high in fat and protein content, making them a great source of biomass.”

Biomass refers to an organic source for energy. So what are these maggots providing energy for? Entomics first aimed their efforts to the fish farming industry, specifically the salmon farms in Scotland.

Farmed salmon in Scotland are predominantly fed fish meal that is made up of anchovies, which are caught in faraway countries such as Chile and Peru. The anchovies are then shipped all the way across the world to feed the fish in Scotland. Rather than spending the resources to transport fish food across an entire ocean, maggots from Entomics have the potential to serve as a local, environmentally friendly alternative.

The maggots, however, are not directly fed to the fish in raw form. The insects are processed into fish food in a laboratory. The steps to developing the fish food is where Entomics specialises.  “The insects are taken aside and processed as a meal. It’s very similar to the process of fermentation. We really try to unlock the full nutritional, health, and well-being impact for the end consumer,” said Pipan.

Pipan took me into the laboratory where all of this work is done. Although I didn’t get to see the creepy-crawly maggots, I did get to explore “where the magic happens,” as Pipan put it. The lab was full of beakers and instruments that my naive, non-chemist eyes have never seen before. I was amazed to see all of the high-tech gadgets involved in making maggot-based fish food.

I was eager to see some samples. Pipan walked to a shelf a pulled out a bunch of bags filled with what looked like some glorious, highly scientific, bioengineered, dirt.

“They actually smell quite good, too!” Pipan mused. Being the naturally curious, ever daring scientist that I am, I had to take a smell for myself. I was quite surprised to realise that it smelled similar to dog food.

“What type of dog food have you been sniffing?” Pipan laughed. “One of our technicians says this sample smells like chocolate. I think I smell a hint of coffee in this one over here actually.”

Whether it was dog food, chocolate, or dirt, these samples smelled like the future of sustainable food. I noticed that there was quite a variety of samples, which made me wonder just how specialised these meals could be. It turns out, the possibilities are endless.

The team at Entomics is conducting extensive studies on varying the type of food waste given to the maggots, as well as varying the bioprocessing of the maggots into feed. At the final step of the process, Entomics also collects data on fish performance to ensure that the nutrient-rich food has the desired health effects on the fish. Pipan was happy to report that “so far the results have been quite favorable; fish have loved it.”

With the combined data on the effects of food waste used, the success of the bioprocessing steps, and the outcomes of the fish feeding trails, Entomics is able to move forward and explore different ways to specialise the feed.

“We’ve developed a bioprocessing step which allows us to optimize and tweak these types of insect based profiles to target specific nutritional applications for specific animals,” said McLaren. What types of other animals can we feed maggot-based food to?

“We hope to explore pets soon, like cats and dogs,” said Pipan. Perhaps my dog-food-smelling nose can predict the future. If this food has the potential to be specialised for dogs and cats, what about humans?

“From the human perspective, being the person who actually tries these things, I would say there is still some room for improvement in the taste,” said Pipan. He has taken it upon himself to taste-test some of the samples. “Someone has to, and if I am not going to do it myself, then how can I expect someone else to do it?”

Pipan eating insect-based food is not a new concept. Although it is not as popular in Western cultures, more than 1,000 types of insects are eaten around the world. “Currently we’re focused on animals, but you could easily apply this science to developing human food as well,” concluded Pipan.

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