Why eat bugs? Insect biotechnology solutions with entomics.
Insect eating is a hot topic at the moment. We asked Miha Pipan of entomics all about entomophagy, biotechnology and the future of food, as well as how industry & public research can work together to achieve common goals.
We were very happy to recently welcome Miha Pipan to Earlham Institute, who is co-founder of startup company entomics, looking toward sustainable development of insects for animal feed. How are entomics approaching this from a biotechnological perspective, and how can startups & industry collaborate with research institutes such as EI?
Insect eating is a hot area of discussion at the moment, with around two billion people regularly wolfing down plates of escamoles in Mexico, leafcutter ants in Colombia or sago grubs in South East Asia. In Indonesia, one intrepid team called Biteback are even making cooking oil out of mealworms to offset destructive palm oil plantation.
However, to a Western palate this can be a hard sell, which is where companies such as entomics are stepping into the fold. Insects are, essentially, way more sustainable than other easily producible protein sources, something which Miha filled us in with with gusto.
We asked Miha all about insects, biotechnology and the future of food (as well as how Earlham Institute might contribute to his company’s fascinating research).
What turned you on to the world of insects as food?
Although I ended up in the insectosphere somewhat by accident, it became quickly clear the power these critters hold in regards to building a food ecosystem that works for the future.
For me, it always comes down to their extraordinary ability to convert & accumulate biomass efficiently over a short period of time: a single gram of black soldier fly eggs is capable of producing at least a couple of kilos of larvae over the course of a fortnight - all while getting rid of dozens of kilos of waste biomass (such as food waste).
When this technology reaches maturity over the coming years, we may finally achieve a truly global and efficient solution for dealing with low value biomass waste products, whilst turning it into food & feed. How awesome is that?
Sounds like you guys hate food waste. What are you doing with it?
Food waste is what got us into this, its how Entomics came to be. Insects provide an excellent solution for addressing the global issue of food & general biomass wastage, since they add value by turning it into fats, proteins and prebiotic fibre (chitin). Thus, insects fed on food waste effectively upcycle this biomass into sustainable inputs for livestock (and in the future, people).
It’s a beautiful example of a circular economy approach.
A more umami slice of toast with extra protein and that’s good for the environment? Sign me up.
Why is it difficult to get people to eat insects regularly? Is this even necessary?
A tough question, since there are multiple factors leading to our current aversion for entomophagy.
For starters, eating insects is rather novel in the West - there is no existing tradition or custom of doing so (at least not on a large / significant scale). Convincing people to eat new things is always difficult, especially since it would be hard to compare insects & derivatives to filet mignon or caviar in terms of mouthfeel. Insect foods are still rather niche, and often not the cheapest due to their relative novelty as foodstuff - making it quite hard to form an argument one should keep away from the £3/kg chicken from most ‘high street’ supermarkets.
But we must also face the facts: current livestock production practices will not support our growing appetite for meat indefinitely. Factor in a growing population, along with the detrimental environmental impacts of most livestock practices - and insects start looking pretty appealing. As this technology matures, and more insect farmers emerge, the cost of insect derivatives will drop - making it a mainstream option, rather than a hipster privilege.
Current livestock production practices will not support our growing appetite for meat indefinitely.
What about the “yeuck” factor?
There is the unavoidable ‘icky’ factor - most people don’t really enjoy the idea of insects in their house, so you cannot expect them to be overjoyed by the idea of eating insects.
This factor can be addressed by producing insect derivatives, like flours, which actually taste rather nice (most of them are quite umami, and often they really do taste like chicken…). These can in turn be integrated into more accepted recipes and formulations.
Think insect flour in bread, tortilla chips, cereal and such; and less 6 legged creatures (or even worse, maggots) on a plate with a side of chips. Therefore, on this front, we really need more insect cooking pioneers - going beyond the protein bar & niche products, and really bringing insects and their derivatives into mainstream food products that people can more easily adopt.
A more umami slice of toast with extra protein and that’s good for the environment? Sign me up.
Due to all these barriers to direct insect consumption, most of the industry is now focussing on feeding insects to animals. In this way, we can start to get people accustomed to insects entering the food chain (indirectly), while new products that fit the Western palate are developed; maybe start with buying salmon that’s been fed insects instead of fish meal.
What are the benefits to using insects as animal feed?
For starters, insects are often part of many farmed animals’ diets in nature - meaning it’s more of a ‘back to the roots’ approach, rather than trying to feed livestock on soy-based diets.
Secondly, their amino acid profile is superior to most plant-based protein sources. For a range of species, particularly carnivorous ones like salmon, insect present a more digestible input of high quality protein.
Finally, insect feeds can be produced locally: instead of hauling inputs from the other side of the world, one will be able to supply locally upcycled biomass as a livestock food input. It doesn’t need much more explanation to say why this is better in terms of long-term sustainability.
Why black soldier fly larvae?
They are an absolutely fantastic species, and what is proving to be the workhorse of this industry. I am still to find something these maggots won’t eat, making them incredibly versatile in terms of inputs for production of insect food & feed.They are not very fussy in terms of environment, either - making their large scale cultivation easier than crickets (they also don’t climb or make a lot of noise on that front, which is good).
They have a fast life cycle, and a favourable one at that - the risk of transmitting and carrying disease is minimised with the adult flies really only existing to have sex and lay eggs - they don’t hang around filth like the common house flies. Furthermore, the species is cosmopolitan - meaning any release into the environment is not an environmental catastrophe.
I’m sure that as time goes by, more species will emerge as useful to this particular purpose - after all, insects are one of the largest and most weird & wonderful taxons out there.
Who knows, we may even get one that tastes like bacon in the future… [PB - apparently bee larvae are the ‘bacon of the insect world’]
What’s bioprocessing? Why is this a step up compared to other sources of animal feed?
It’s a step up from the context of the insect industry.
We’ve developed this methodology (or pipeline, as the industry would term it) which enables us to maximise the nutritional value from raw insect biomass. We call it Metamorphosis.
It’s a series of processes and stages, where insect biomass is processed using food-grade biological agents, in turn yielding nutritionally optimised outputs.
The way insects are processed now in 95% of the factories is equivalent to taking a cow, cooking it and drying it down whole, and then pulverising it. We like to think we’re combining the arts of butchery and making a roast to this sector with Metamorphosis.
A dash of olive oil, and a bunch of blanched grasshoppers that have been previously fed on garlic & parsley (marinade from the inside out!). Season to taste.
How can resources at EI help you develop your solution, or investigate other directions?
The Earlham Institute is incredibly well-equipped and full of exceptional talent, all of which can help Entomics navigate this new and exciting galaxy. We’ve gained an understanding of how to work with the public research base over the past three years, meaning we understand what an academic needs to get out of a project to make it appealing on their side, as well as how to locate, apply and secure appropriate resources.
The science in this sector is super under-explored and remains largely unknown - much remains to be done on this topic, to understand the full potential of insects as food & feed of the future. It is really hard for an SME to explore so many avenues of research at once, making a private-public partnership the only real option for making sure the UK develops an advantage in this promising sector of the bioeconomy.
What would your dream synthetic blackfly bioprocess look like?
One that can convert excrement into medicine? That would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it? Alas, the amount of red tape on this, and technological hurdles to be explored, makes a dream at present, indeed.
Are maggots still a hard sell, even as animal feed?
These days not so much. After the European Commission legalised insect feeds in aquaculture in July 2017, a much needed inflexion point was reached for this sector: one that now makes the usage of insects and derivatives in the context of feed in the EU a possibility. Since then, the field has really accelerated - both in terms of capital going in, as well as the production volumes starting to sprout up.
What is the future of insect protein? What other products do you reckon you could make down the line?
There really are a lot of opportunities here. Where the field is now, it’s essentially insects as nutrient recyclers. But there is real potential for them to act as chemical producers (green solvents from fats, biodegradable plastics from chitin derivatives, nutrient media for cell cultures) and even mini biofactories for therapeutics and biologics in the future. It’s therefore hard to see how this will exactly play out - but I am confident to say we haven’t seen the start of it.
What are we all going to be eating in 30 years’ time?
What’s your favourite insect snack?
Of the fresh variety, it would have to be pan-fried grasshoppers - a dash of olive oil, and a bunch of blanched grasshoppers that have been previously fed on garlic & parsley (marinade from the inside out!). Season to taste.
Of the more realistic market variety, it would have to be insect flours as part of bread. I think this could be the avenue to mainstream entomophagy adoption, since the bread really does taste great and sports some wonderful nutritional metrics.
Any tips on founding a startup for those people with awesome ideas that need to be realised?
Just do it - take the leap. Especially if you are young and carefree, as it seems to get somewhat more difficult as time moves on. Make sure to surround yourself with a good team. At the end of the day, that is key.