I'll Have the Fly-Fed Beef, Please
Bugs for dinner. A cadre of scientists and the United Nations thinks it’s the solution to the world’s looming food crisis, a way to feed the 2 billion extra people expected by 2050 without taxing the environment. The only problem—and it’s a big one—is that a large chunk of humanity hasn’t acquired a taste for insects.
Glen Courtright says he has a more palatable solution. His startup, EnviroFlight, is asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to sell livestock feed made from insects. “We can produce 225 pounds of clean, safe feed ingredients for aquaculture, poultry, and crustacea—that’s the holy trinity of fish, shrimp, and chicken—in a 3-foot-by-5-foot space,” he says.
Bugs are cheap, plentiful, and full of protein, yet the FDA doesn’t allow companies to sell bug-based feeds across state lines. Much of the developed world banned them after Europe found in the late 1990s that British cattle eating feed made from other cattle were contracting mad cow disease, says Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Bugs “were considered animal feed,” Vantomme says. “They have been outlawed even though fish in a river eat insects, free-range chickens peck the earth for insects, and pigs eat insects, too.”
The protein in most livestock diets comes from fish or soybean additives mixed into feed. For the past three years, EnviroFlight has been developing a substitute for that food made from one bug in particular: the black soldier fly , found in temperate climate zones all over the world. “As adults, they just drink and screw,” Courtright says. “These guys are little miracles.” The money is in the fly’s young larva, a compost-loving creature with a voracious appetite.
At EnviroFlight’s feed plant in Yellow Springs, Ohio, manufacturing starts in a mating chamber nicknamed “the love shack” where employees breed adult flies. The offspring then bulk up on a special diet of vitamins, minerals, and plant-based feed. As young larvae, they feast for up to two weeks on scraps from potato chip factories and tortilla processing plants, plus spent grains from the Yellow Springs Brewery across the street. When the larvae reach 2 centimeters long, workers boil them in industrial-size kettles and ground the cooked bugs into a powder along with a proprietary mix of vitamins, minerals, and grains.
Last summer food scientists at Ohio State and Kentucky State universities pitted a traditional feed for shrimp, made from catfish, against EnviroFlight’s bug-based food. “We wanted to see if the prawns would like it, and they did,” says head researcher Laura Tiu. Shrimp that dined on the bugs produced similar yields as those that ate the standard blend, and the taste was the same, Tiu says. The only major difference was price: EnviroFlight’s feed is 20 percent cheaper than insect-free versions. The company has sold the product in Ohio under a state permit for the past year.
The lower cost is a major selling point, says Tony Forshey, chief of the animal health division for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “For farmers, about 65 to 70 percent of production cost is feed,” he says. “That’s because soybean, corn, and fish feed costs are so high.” Fish feed is a roughly $500 million market in the U.S., according to the American Feed Industry Association. Two other companies—Entologics in Belgium and AgriProtein Technologies in South Africa—are also developing bug feeds for livestock. Alexandra de Athayde, executive director of the International Feed Industry Federation, a trade group that represents agribusiness corporations, calls the innovation “promising”—so long as bug feeds aren’t derived from critters that live on manure, which could introduce contaminants into the food chain.
The UN has been pushing countries to lift their bans on bug-based feed, and the European Union is expected to issue new rules allowing it this summer. It’s less clear when the U.S. might act on EnviroFlight’s request, made in March. Shelly Burgess, a spokeswoman for the FDA, declined to comment. The federal approval process for a new feed additive is exhaustive, says Forshey, the Ohio official. The FDA has to verify that it’s safe for animals, and thus human consumption, and conduct environmental analyses. Then there’s the issue of getting Americans to stomach the idea of eating seared shrimp that fed on flies. “There’s always a concern with consumers about where their food comes from,” as Forshey puts it. “Mind you, this isn’t Survivor.”