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  • Writer's pictureTim Hammerich

AgTech, Insects, and Reducing Food Waste

You’ve probably heard the statistic: we waste about a third of our food.

One challenge to reducing food waste is that it is prevalent all along the value chain. Food is lost from farm to storage to processing to wholesaler to retailer to restaurant, grocer, and/or home.

“So what?”

Well, for starters it’s extremely wasteful of the labor, land, money, water, energy, nutrients, etc. that went into producing that food.

“But it’s biodegradable, right?”

It is estimated that over 90% of this wasted food ends up in a landfill. Not only is this a waste of nutrients and the resources to produce these nutrients, but as the food decomposes it generates methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

I recently sat down with Olympia Yarger, CEO of GOTERRA to talk about the food waste problem and potential solutions.

Recycling Food Waste

Some of this food waste can be composted, fed to livestock, or converted into a fertilizer. Most food waste is about 70% water, which makes it economically and logistically challenging to transport very far.

Also, the value of compost and low nutrient fertilizers make recycling food waste into these products a tough economic model. Livestock are generally far enough from urban waste streams that the cost and logistics of getting the food waste to them becomes a barrier.

Another challenge is the lack of consistency and quality of food waste. It is generally not segregated in terms of meat, vegetables, fruit, dairy, etc. Some still has packaging. Not all of it can be utilized.

Biodigesters, which convert waste into energy, have show promise. But they are expensive to build and can take a very long time to pay for themselves.

Enter insect farming.

Olympia and her team at GOTERRA have designed a way to farm insects, Black Soldier Fly to be precise, in robotic shipping containers. One of these insect farm containers can consume up to 5 tons of food waste PER DAY.

“The proposition that the fly that we work with, that the larvae of that fly can process food waste so efficiently and so rapidly and then with the added benefit of having the insects you use potentially as livestock feed on the back end was just super compelling.” — Olympia Yarger of GOTERRA

The setup is portable, compact, and fairly self-sustaining in order to process food waste without having to transport it very far. “We designed a system that farms insects automatically” says Yarger “using sort of a sensor-driven IoT system”.

So essentially, GOTERRA is farming maggots on food waste in robots.

According to Yarger “There’s no standard way to farm insects yet. Everybody got their own kind of bend on what things look like. For us, we kind of just look like a lot of shipping containers in a room. So we have an incubator, which is a big cool room, we have a grow room, which is a shipping container, we have an aviary which is a shipping container and they’re all inside another big shed. For other farms it looks like a lot of bins sort of stacked up on top of each other that sort of stretch the length of a factory floor.”

Why farm insects?

GOTERRA really focuses on the utility of processing food waste as a service. The reason they chose the Black Soldier Fly is not just for their voracious eating habits, although their consumption is impressive. They will eat almost anything, including manure which is also something GOTERRA is testing.

The other reason insect farming is a viable solution is the output of this process. Once the Black Soldier Fly Larvae have reached the harvesting stage, they are like a little living oilseed, packed with nutritious fat and protein.

Not very appetizing for us humans, but quite appealing for animal production, especially aquaculture and poultry.

Essentially, this process biologically processes food waste, and converts the waste into a usable, nutrient-rich feed ingredient.

This may sound like some form of alchemy, but Olympia cautions that it’s not so straight-forward. She recalls when she started her insect farming journey:

“I’m going to be a black soldier fly farmer. How hard can this be? I’ve grown maggots accidentally in my bin. I think we’ve all been a maggot farmer at some stage when we’ve not taken the bin out on time or whatever. And so you sort of go, ‘how hard can this be?’ Then you start the spiral of despair where you find yourself maybe three months later staring at an aviary of sort of the last 5 flies of the pupae that you’ve grown still not mating and you can’t figure out why and such is the life of an insect farming entrepreneur.”

As it turns out, utilizing nature to process waste at scale is a lot more complicated than it sounds. To maintain production at profitable levels, the GOTERRA team has had to do a lot of trial and error. She continues on the extreme challenge of breeding the flies consistently:

“We need to breed and collect a lot of eggs. Breed a lot of flies, collect a lot of eggs and refine that system in a way that’s commercially viable. Because it’s one thing to get them to do the act and get viable eggs, it’s another to manage consistency of production at any kind of scale let alone to grow and to increase that number.”

This may not be the first time you’ve heard about utilizing Black Soldier Fly production for managing waste streams. Many have tried and many have failed. Some couldn’t figure out how to keep their production consistent. Others had systems that were too labor intensive. In some cases, companies trying to sell the larvae as feed were met with customer adoption and regulatory hurdles.

GOTERRA has been smart in my opinion to focus on the waste removal service aspect of this business and design a portable and self-contained system.

Insects as feed still have a long way to go to gain widespread market adoption. Part of the challenge is that the makeup of the larvae itself is heavily influenced by what it is eating. So, if an insect farmer wants to market their harvest as a high-quality feed ingredient, he or she must have control over the waste stream one which they are feeding.

Even this concern could be remedied by GOTERRA’s localized approach. The company is currently testing various waste streams to create a more consistent feed product and add value to their output. But waste removal service remains the focus of their business model.

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