In central London, Entocycle’s insect farm is making progress on breeding millions of black soldier flies with a view to changing the way animals – and humans – get their protein. This feature is part of our food technology special which includes insight into startup clean meat labs around the world and how 3D printing could help prevent food waste

Keiran Whitaker plucks a black soldier fly from the air and holds it between his fingers. Slim like a wasp, the insect is about an inch long. Originally from the Americas, it now lives across all five continents, even flying as far north as the Czech Republic. But proliferation isn’t what makes it ideal for Entocycle, the UK’s first insect production facility, which opened its automated pilot facility in London Bridge in March.

“The reason they’re so incredible is that the adult doesn’t have a traditional mouth part and so can’t consume during its life cycle,” explains Whitaker, its CEO and founder. In other words, if the 10 million in the small lab we’re standing in - at various stages of growth - were to escape, “they’re non-disease, non-pest and would do absolutely nothing”.

Carefully cultivated on an insect farm though, they provide an invaluable new protein source, both with which to feed livestock and, eventually, humans, according to Whitaker and his team. “That’s where eventually it will go. But to do all that at scale, and at cost, you need the technology.”

So closely guarded are some of the details of this technology that I’m asked to sign a non-dislosure agreement before I head into the facility. While some of the process is comparable with the non-UK producers from which we currently import, there are two crucial areas of automation the team don’t want shared, but which they say could put the UK at the forefront of scalable, efficient insect farming.

“it’s like making a cake”

In brief, the process involves collecting the eggs laid by adult black soldier flies (each female laying around 1,500 over the course of her lifespan, about six days), which hatch into minuscule wriggling larvae. Of these, 3% will be separated and fed up to adulthood as “grandparent stock” for their eggs to be collected anew. The remaining 97% are sent to the “fattening farm”. They’re meticulously counted by machine, allowing just the right amount to be “pumped out” each time to match the weight and type of food waste they’ll be fed on - trays of rejected supermarket oranges, brewer’s grains and coffee grounds. “Insects are the apex of the recycling world. All we’re trying to do is mimic that.”

This “precision engineering” of the supply chain allows the team to say with clarity the exact timeframe needed to then grow these baby black soldier flies 1,000-fold into the whole dried larvae that’s then pressed and refined into insect protein powder. “Each insect eats a certain amount of food, and they need a certain amount of time to do that, and a certain amount of energy in the food means you need a certain number of insects to do it - it’s like making a cake.”

At capacity, this pilot facility can process 3,000kg of food waste per month. But by 2021, Entocycle plans to build six large-scale commercial farms, three in the UK and three abroad, producing more than 20,000 tonnes of insect protein. The model they’re exploring is one in which Entocycle supplies and transports the baby larvae to hubs elsewhere, close to food waste streams. 

This isn’t novelty, insists Whitaker. Draw a straight line over the past 20 years of prices for soy and fishmeal - the world’s two major sources of animal feed - and “it’s going in one direction”. At the same time, “we have a growing population, and a growing middle class, which means we’ll need to produce 70% more meat and fish. Somebody is going to get squeezed out somewhere, and that’s ignoring the other worrying aspects of the production chain. Today’s protein sources will not meet demand tomorrow.”

It isn’t a dissimilar argument when it comes to human consumption, with today’s protein sources subject to all sorts of fluctuations, Whitaker argues. “African swine flu will affect a third of all Chinese pork production in the next two to three years - that’s about 200 million hogs, the same volume as Europe produces.” Millennials too, increasingly conscious of what they’re eating and where it comes from, will want more localised, sustainable and transparent protein, he adds.

“Five years ago when I said humans will be eating insects people looked at me like I was crazy. Now we can buy crickets in Sainsbury’s, and around 10 protein bars infused with any number of grasshoppers or crickets. It’s coming, and it’s coming quicker than people think.”