TUNISIA – It may sound like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but insects have already become part of the fight against climate change, food insecurity and waste as well as offering a business opportunity that is attracting a growing number of investors.
French-Tunisian start-up nextProtein makes protein powder from fly larvae for use in animal feed and fertilizers, providing a sustainable alternative to staple products like soybean and wheat.
Syrine Chaalala, a former consultant with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and her husband Mohamed Gastli, a chemical engineer, launched the company “from scratch” in 2014.
Chaalala was inspired to pursue the venture during an FAO trip to Madagascar when she saw farmers stand by helplessly as their crops were devoured by swarms of locusts.
Shortly after, the couple decided to carry out tests in her parents’ garage, cultivating black soldier flies in plastic containers.
The species, hermetia illucens, was specifically chosen due the fact it is found in every corner of the planet, does not spread zoonotic diseases and has a short lifespan of between 10-18 days.
A PIONEERING INDUSTRY
The industrial-scale farm, located in Grombalia, some 40 kilometers (24 miles) south of the capital Tunis, operates with a zero-waste ethos.
Each female fly produces a minimum of 1,000 eggs on average and once the maggots have hatched, a week-long process of fattening them up begins. In that short space of time, they grow from two millimeters to two centimeters in length.
The millions of larvae in each of the plastic containers feast on a puree made from surplus fruit and vegetables collected from local traders. The recipe has been tailored by specialist dieticians and it is closely guarded by the owners of the farm.
As well as the sustenance, a team of biologists must carefully control the microclimate inside the farm, monitoring temperature, humidity, ventilation and light.
In a region heavily dependent on tourism with an unemployment rate of 18 percent, the start-up has provided new economic opportunities, as well as offering a solution to local farmers, who have found a new outlet for their waste.
“Organic waste is used in the methanation process (energy production) or as fertilizer, but few had thought of introducing it back into the food chain,” Gastli says.
When the time comes to harvest the produce, the content of the container is sieved to separate fly excrement and remaining organic waste, which can be used as fertilizer, and the larvae, which will be processed by a specialized machine to make oil or flour.
As the world population continues to grow – humans currently number 7.8 billion – and cultivable land and water grows ever more scarce, this new industry is presenting itself as a solution to some of the future challenges we face.
One of the advantages of insect farming, Chaalala says, is its efficient use of space and time.
The containers used to cultivate the larvae are stacked vertically and eggs can be harvested on a daily basis.
In comparison, soy, the most widely used vegetable protein in the world, can only be harvested once or twice a year.
A third advantage is the use of a controlled atmosphere, meaning the crop is not exposed to unpredictable weather.
According to their calculations, 100 square meters of insect cultivation produces the same quantity of protein as 100 hectares of soybean plantations.
“Its capacity is 10,000 times greater,” Chaalala says.
While many parts of the world the consumption of insects is still considered exotic, the FOA in 2013 recommended it as part of a nutritious and sustainable diet that could someday replace meat and fish.
There are around 2,000 confirmed edible species of insects – beetles, ants and crickets being among the most popular –, but Chaalala points out that the West is still not ready for a change of diet.
“Our flies taste like sunflower seeds,” she says with a smile.
Chaalala and Gastli are part of Promoting Insects for Human Consumption & Animal Feed, a European Union lobbying group pushing for legislation on the commercialization of insect products, which until now has sat in regulatory and legal limbo.
The European Commission has since 2017 permitted the use of insect-based flour for use at fish farms.
This growing insect protein market is currently served by just a dozen companies around the world that annually produce a billion tons of flour.
NextProtein, which employs around 40 people, including an investigation and development team in Paris, has its eyes on opening new farms in South America or Asia with the aim of producing 100,000 tons of protein flour compared to the 500 tons it has produced so far this year.
The business is prosperous to the point that COVID-19 has failed to dent production. Even in the depths of lockdown, nextProtein managed to take in €10.2 million ($11.2 million) in funds to expand its cultivation space to 10,000 square meters in the coming months.