Grub’s Up: Meet the Entomics team using insects to seek new solutions to the food waste problem

How do you solve a problem like food waste? Fly larvae, apparently - millions of them.

Cambridge-based start-up Entomics has recently received a £900,000 grant from Innovate UK for its new process which sees organic waste broken down by fly larvae to produce animal feed and organic fertiliser - a solution that the company hopes can address both the huge levels of food waste (around 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste is thrown away every year globally) and the pressures created by a growing need for food production (the UN predicts that 70 per cent more food will have to be created by 2050).

The funding will go towards further developing the process and exploring its viability as a commercial animal feed production process, with the team set to look at its application in salmon farming in particular.

Grub’s Up: Meet the Entomics team using insects to seek new solutions to the food waste problem
The Entomics team, from left to right: Joe Halstead, Miha Pipan, Matt McLaren and Fotis Fotiadis.

This represents but the latest step in a heady rise for Matt McLaren, Joe Halstead, Fotis Fotiadis and Miha Pipan - all former students at the University of Cambridge - since coming together around two years ago to develop an innovative approach to dealing with food waste, a cause that united them all.

McLaren explains to Resource: “We were all passionate about food waste as a problem to be solved. So using our different skills - some of the team have an engineering background, some have a biological and biochemistry background – we looked at the issue as a blank page problem and leveraged some existing scientific literature around insect bioconversion.”

Putting their heads together, the team turned to an unlikely source of inspiration - the black soldier fly - which soon after gave wings to their idea.

McLaren continued: “We turned to insects, given that dealing with food waste and detritus is part of what they do in nature – they’re very good at quickly breaking down food and organic matter. The black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) is one we came across as being one of the most efficient and one of the safest.”

A simple process

The basic idea is easy enough to grasp: the black soldier fly larvae are extremely voracious eaters, and can eat enormous quantities of food waste.  As McLaren describes: “In doing so, they get rid of 95 per cent of the food waste by volume and metabolise this relatively low value feedstock into proteins and fats. Those two compounds are a lot more chemically complex and useful and have a higher value in the market.”

Carving out a niche – an alternative to AD

As left-field as the Entomics team’s idea may seem, they’re actively applying their process in a commercially viable way. And the team appear to have found their niche.

Anyone hoping to enter the food waste treatment sector will inevitably have to understand existing technologies such as composting and anaerobic digestion (AD), but McLaren feels that there are opportunities to provide new solutions: “There’s obviously some great initiatives involving AD, and that’s pretty much the gold standard for treatment of food and organic waste in the UK. So for us it’s about looking at what AD does well and where we can try and target certain niches where we think we can generate some high value products.

“Looking at our whole system end-to-end, applying our process could be a much more sustainable way of producing animal feed, compared to existing ingredients such as soya and fishmeal. As an example, most fishmeal is currently sourced from wild-caught forage fish like anchovies in Chile and Peru, before being sent to Scotland to feed farmed salmon.

“So overall there are sustainability benefits, but in the UK it also comes down to the value to food waste producers and to the end animal feed customers.

“If we want to do anything in the food waste space we have to at least be competitive with AD and I think there’s certain parts of the market where that makes sense. As an example, feedstock variability can be an issue for the microbial communities within an AD system, but insects are a bit more flexible and resilient given that they are multi-cellular organisms. So there are certainly niche opportunities for us there.”

Many challenges to come

While Entomics has made relatively rapid progress up until this point, the team still face several significant hurdles before any insect-derived feed produced by the company arrives on the market.

One of the principle barriers for the team to contend with will be in ensuring that their product is industry-compliant. Food waste-derived fertilisers and animal feeds are subject to strict controls to ensure their safe application through certification schemes, such as the PAS 100 and PAS 110 certifications for digestate (AD-derived fertiliser) and compost.

The team are well aware of the task, however. “We know there’s lots of other types of food and organic wastes, like slurry, for us to look at in the future,” says Mclaren. “But of course, with our industry there is quite a bit of regulation about the end product. For animal feed there’s more regulations we have to consider in terms of tracebability, safety and pathogen risk. They’re all challenges but through the right scientific experiments and data, we can push it forward.”

One significant hurdle that has been overcome recently was the previous illegality of insect-derived protein being used as animal feed in the EU, preventing its use in aquaculture. Since it was such a new approach, it had not been written into EU legislation and didn’t comply with the technical prescription that all animal-derived fish food must be made from animals killed in an official slaughterhouse - a difficulty when it comes to insects. That legislation has since been amended (coming into effect on 1 July) and opens the way for Entomics to make their first steps in the commercial market.

The focus of the team is on creating a product that unlocks to value of insect-derived feeds as opposed to a mass-marketable commodity. And with backing from Innovate UK and other organisations , McLaren is confident that they have the platform to do it: “The core concept of insect bio-conversion is quite cool. But having a few smart guys from Cambridge in the team, we’re actually trying to focus not so much on developing cheap commodities at massive scale, but on how we can unlock the value of insect meal and make it a more effective source of nutrition.

“We’ve been working on a number of biological enhancements to take this end product from a commodity to a highly specialised health and welfare feed additive. A lot of the work we’ve been doing has been on how we can upcycle the product at its end-of-life. And also on the engineering side, developing some smart technologies to make sure the rearing of the insects themselves is going to be efficient and low-labour.”

Entomics plans to scale up its technology in 2018 as we, and doubtless many others, will be keeping a keen eye on the team’s future progress.

You can read more about Entomics and their innovative process on the team’s website.