A growing movement of entrepreneurs is using nature’s perfect decomposers to further close the loop in how we raise our livestock and handle our organic waste. As we continue our search for farming models that can feed a growing planet with diminishing resources, and keep a firm eye towards the agricultural impacts on our climate, the question of what we feed to animals looms large. Research continues to show the efficacy of specialized insect species, like the Black Soldier Fly, as a tool for upcycling organic nutrients into high-quality livestock feed ingredients.
The Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSFL) are the grubs of the Black Soldier Fly. These grubs are a complete protein with high levels of beneficial fats, vitamins and minerals. In livestock feed for chickens, pigs and aquaculture, BSFL can supplement or even replace water-intensive food crops like soy that could instead go toward feeding people. It can also supplement or replace fishmeal, which contributes to overfishing around the world. Both of these proteins, fishmeal and soy, require vast resources to harvest and grow, from fossil fuels to fresh water, and could be put to a better use feeding people instead of being used as livestock feed.
On the other hand, BSFL can be raised on a variety of organic waste streams with little or no economic value (currently). One stream is pre-consumer organic by-products, such as brewery waste, vegetable peelings and juice pulps; another is post-consumer wasted food from cafeterias and restaurants. If we use these organic waste streams to fatten grubs for livestock feed, we can keep them out of landfills, and so reduce greenhouse gas emissions while turning a low value output into a high value input. While many other compostable products like soiled napkins and pizza boxes should be composted, organic food waste contains many valuable nutrients, such as fats and proteins, which are lost through composting.
Moreover, BSFL can also transform another waste stream into a source of value. When BSFL fed on manure and slaughterhouse waste, they produce oils which can be used for biofuels or as industrial lubricants.
Using BSFL as both a waste management tool and a livestock feed allows us a unique opportunity to keep these nutrients in the local ecosystem, retaining and increasing their value and availability to the local food shed and economy. In turn, when farmers are able to reduce their feed costs for livestock they have the margins and incentives to increase the size of their flock. This allows more locally grown food to be put back into the surrounding community.
Black Soldier Flies are found throughout the world. Unlike other common fly species, they are not a vector for disease. Food waste is an issue found across the planet, and farmers everywhere need cheap, nutritious and sustainable feed sources for their livestock. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of how to utilize this incredible resource that has been ignored for too long, but I see BSFL as a key livestock for the 21st century.
Here in Austin, Texas, we're working on a pilot project showing the environmental and economic potential for BSFL in finally bringing farms and cities into harmony. By taking wasted food from restaurants and feeding it to grubs on local poultry farms, we're fighting food waste, supporting local farmers and increasing our community's access to nutritious and delicious food.
Author Michael Pollan was on The Diane Rehm Show recently discussing insects for food and feed and had this to say about black soldier fly farming:
“I have had eggs from chickens who have eaten insects, and they are the most delicious eggs you will ever have. We can put our chickens on a diet of more insects…they’re omnivores, they love to eat insects. Ditto with many kinds of fish. If we could take the pressures off the world’s fisheries by switching [poultry and] aquaculture to a basis of insects as opposed to now where they eat bycatch and little fishes, which is really destroying the world’s fisheries; that would be a tremendous contribution to the climate change problem and to the fisheries problem.”
Whether raising insects and grubs on an industrial scale in commercial factory models, or raising them on a small scale in distributed micro-farms, these dedicated decomposers can bridge the gap between table and farm, further closing the loop in sustainable agricultural systems of the present and future.