Crunch time

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In an effort to make a more sustainable form of animal feed, an innovative local business is breeding insects and turning them into protein-rich flour—with a little help from some of Borough Market’s traders

Words: Ellie Costigan

The idea that insects can offer a vital source of protein is not new or novel. Indeed, in other parts of the world, the eating of insects is not unusual in the slightest—in parts of southern Africa, for example, certain caterpillars are even considered a delicacy—and chefs in restaurants both here and in the USA have for several years been sautéing and roasting locusts and larvae in an attempt to bring their consumption into the mainstream. Insects have even started turning up on supermarket shelves, deep fried and heavily seasoned. Yet while most environmentally conscious consumers (which, since you’re reading this article, presumably means you) are aware that we need to do something about the increasingly intensive systems of meat and fish production that are wreaking havoc on our planet, for most of us the thought of chomping on creepy crawlies remains an unappealing one.

“Ultimately I would like to see humans eat insects, but we can’t sit by and wait for change,” points out Keiran Whitaker, founder of Entocycle. But while the people of Britain aren’t quite ready to consume insects in large quantities, our livestock certainly are.

In essence, Entocycle is an insect farm; one that takes would-be food waste and uses it to feed insects (namely, black soldier fly larvae), which in turn are dried and ground into animal feed. “We’re just copying nature,” Keiran continues. “The apple falls from the tree, the insect eats the apple, the bird eats the insect and off you go up the food chain.” But to describe Entocycle as an insect farm is to gloss over the level of technical innovation involved in its invention and operation. “We have built very specialist, cutting-edge technology using computer vision and automation for egg production, then we use retrofitted equipment to fatten the insects. It’s a 12-day process, so it’s incredibly rapid.”

The waste the insects produce during bioconversion is known as ‘frass’: a valuable natural fertiliser, which can in turn be used by farmers to aid plant growth. Once separated and ready to harvest, two per cent of the larvae are saved for breeding, thus continuing the farming cycle, while the rest are processed into a protein-rich powder and sold to feed companies.

Upsetting the balance
While still in its infancy, the potential of the Entocycle system is huge: not only is it a fast way of producing animal feed, it’s a sustainable and environmentally friendly one, too. Intensive livestock production and fish farming typically involve the use of feed pellets which, among other things, contain soya protein and fishmeal. Huge swathes of land are required to produce enough soya to meet demand—contributing to deforestation and monoculture, and the loss of animal habitat and decreased biodiversity along with it.

Use of fishmeal (that is, bycatch fish, offal, and increasingly, fish that would ordinarily be caught for direct human consumption such as anchovies and mackerel), meanwhile, not only upsets the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem, but ever-increasing demand is creating more and more competition with human food sources: according to research in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, more than a third of all fish landed are used for fishmeal. And with the threat of climate change and rising sea temperatures, the situation is only set to worsen.

Entocycle, conversely, operates indoors on vertical shelving, therefore requiring comparatively little space. There’s no need for resource-sapping irrigation (the insects get enough water from that naturally occurring in the fruit), pesticides, fertilisers or any added agricultural processes, either. What’s more, the insects are fed off entirely recycled materials and the farm operates on a local level. “We don’t want to move food waste around: we want to work with farmers, manufacturers and processing plants to handle the food waste and process it as close to the source as possible,” says Keiran. “We are currently looking at handling 15 tonnes of food waste a day—to give context, in the UK we waste something like a third of what we produce. Were we able to figure out the logistics of rolling it out on scale, we probably have enough food waste to run 500 facilities here alone.”

Recycled food waste
We’re not quite there yet—but Borough Market is playing its part. “I hate any form of waste, so I am always pleased when we find a way for it to be used in other forms,” says Kath at Ted’s Veg, which will be placing any surplus fruit and veg into bins for Entocycle to collect each week. “That’s why we donate to Plan Zheroes”—the food waste initiative that collects surplus food from several Market traders each week and redistributes it to local charities—“and our waste at home goes back on the field. Anything else we can’t sell, along with trimmings from our prep kitchen, will go to Entocycle.”

“It’s an ideal partnership. You guys produce food waste; we recycle food waste. Plus, we’re only 150 metres away,” Keiran adds. “Borough Market is an oasis in what is a very built up, commercial area. It’s forward looking; it’s ethical and sustainable in many ways. It stands out from the crowd for doing something good—it’s not a big, dominating corporate player doing questionable things to the world. And that is what I want Entocycle to be. People know and trust the Market, so hopefully it will be a springboard to bigger things.”