There are 7.5 billion people on the planet and counting, and they all produce food waste and need protein. This is one of the biggest issues of our time. One solution is bugs. Or more specifically, flies.

What if there was an efficient way to turn food and veg wastes into high-value protein? What if that protein could be used to feed fish? And what if there were other valuable resources that could be made available from this waste conversion process?

These are some of the questions which Zero Waste Scotland sought to address at last month’s Insect Farming in Scotland event. In the lead-up, there was plenty of buzz around the event (The Scotsman, Envitrotec Magazine). But on the day, it wasn’t all jokes; there were serious scientific, regulatory, and business questions to be addressed.

Representatives from each part of the would-be value chain got together at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) to start to close the information gaps on all aspects of insect farming: the necessity for alternative protein sources, EU and local regulation around these potential farms, the companies investigating business models for farming flies, the unique opportunity for insect feed in Scotland, the existing support structure for these businesses. Delegates also heard the story of one such business, Protix, already established in the Netherlands.

Along with ZWS, the event was co-presented by the University of Stirling Institute for Aquaculture, the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), Scottish Enterprise, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The conference was attended by people with varied expertise, including entomologists, farmers, government organization representatives, fish feed producers, biotech experts, and food and drink producers.

So what was learned? Here are a few take-aways from my perspective:

Simply put, there are >7.5 billion people in the world, with accelerated growth likely to come.

While efforts to curb food waste have been successful to an extent, the truth is that people still generate a consistent, steady stream of food waste from agriculture, food and drink processing, and household/catering waste streams.

These same people also require dietary protein, with many choosing to eat fish to get this protein. However, the protein aquaculture farmers provide to fish during rearing comes from sources which are questionable with regard to sustainable or are sensitive to global market turbulences due to geographical sourcing.

Insect farming has the potential to address both of these challenges in a circular economy approach. Insects can be grown (fed) on a large number of substrates (food sources), which can reduce the amount of waste that is disposed of and finds its way to landfill. These insects (and their larvae) can then be used as a source of protein in feed for fish, providing a sustainable, local alternative to current protein sources in fish feed.

If rearing insects on food wastes is such a great idea, why isn’t this already happening?

A few reasons…

1) EU and local regulations currently treat flies as animals, so there are strict rules as to what they can be fed, and accordingly, what they can be fed to. There will need to be discussions amongst the public, legislators, farmers, and industry experts to sort out a framework that is fit for purpose for insect farming.
2) The insect supply-side is relatively nascent compared to the current protein sources. Many of the companies with ambition to develop insect farming at the industrial scale in the UK are currently start-ups in search of the capital required to develop the requisite research and infrastructure. In addition, there will need to be improvements in business models to ensure that insect farming economically viable.
3) The market for insect protein isn’t quite established yet. One fish feed manufacturer suggested that they would need a minimum of 500 T/year of insect protein at a price comparable to alternative sources to even begin to consider the venture. 

The good news is that these issues appear to be solvable problems, provided the right people are having the right conversations. To this end, the Insect Farming in Scotland event was a great success!

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By Steven Asiala, Senior Business Development Co-ordinator, IBioIC