In nature, chickens are known as foragers of grass, weeds and insects. But in mass production of eggs, they are much more likely to subsist on a diet of soya, which has caused consternation for farmers trying to minimise their impact on the environment. 

Insects have long been proposed as an environmentally-friendly alternative protein, not just for humans but for livestock too. And with that in mind, Cambridge-based agritech business Better Origin has developed a solution in its shipping container bug farms, which repurpose food waste as feed for black soldier fly larvae, which in turn go on to become feed for laying hens, reducing their reliance on soya.

Like soya, larvae are rich in protein but 1,500 times more land-efficient. In one year, the bug farms can repurpose 150 tonnes of food waste, and prevent 574 tonnes of CO2 emissions from reaching the atmosphere (the equivalent of taking 122 cars off the road) as a result of replacing soya feed in the supply chain and preventing food waste emissions. That comes in addition to saving 5.6 hectares of land from deforestation, according to Better Origin. 

Inside the container, conditions are hot and humid, ideal for the larvae to thrive. The bugs are fed on a diet of liquidised supermarket food waste for 14 days, during which time they grow 5,000 times their body mass, says Better Origin founder and CEO Fotis Fotiadis.

The fully automated system rotates hundreds of crates of black soldier fly larvae to be fed, then once a day at the end of a batch’s two-week cycle, sends the grown specimens to the back of the container for farmers to pick up and feed to their hens. In a bid to minimise the workload of the farmers who take the X1 shipping containers onto their farms, the AI process can be monitored and controlled remotely by Better Origin’s Cambridge-based staff.

“The system has two main inputs, one is the food waste, the other is the neonate larvae that Better Origin supplies. We ship them every few days of the week, and they arrive on day three when they immediately get fed and grow in the trays,” explains Fotiadis.

Farmers simply need to input the food waste and remove the larvae from the other end of the shipping container ready to feed the chickens. “They don’t need to know anything about farming insects,” Fotiadis adds. “We have algorithms running and performing the farming.”

The first farm to trial Better Origin was Wood Farm in Bedfordshire, having first installed a prototype and recently upgraded to the AI-powered X1 containers to replace a small proportion of their hens’ diets with larvae. The farm’s owners Charles and Jo Mear have been working towards carbon neutral eggs since 2012, installing on-site solar panels and an anaerobic digestor that now power the carbon negative bug farm.

“Pursuing a soy-free diet was the next stage for us,” says Charles Mear. “Larvae are a nice, natural enrichment, probably the best enrichment you could ever offer a hen. She loves black soldier fly larvae. We’re currently working on a trial to create a total soya replacement meal for the hens with black soldier fly larvae as the main thing to base the ration around.”

Better Origin’s farmer partners have reported changes in behaviour among hens fed with black soldier fly larvae, including an increase in productivity alongside more time spent foraging and less time spent pecking other hens. 

From launching its prototype in early 2020 to securing a deal with Morrisons less than two years later, Better Origin hopes to prove the technology to make farming green isn’t just a pipe dream.