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Amid the satellites, virtual reality headsets, 3D printers and other hi-tech products on show at Skolkovo’s recent Startup Bazaar, the stand housing a cage of buzzing flies and jar of writhing maggots stood out. Also on the table were jars of dried and crushed maggots – and this, according to Novye Biotekhnologii, the company behind the stall, is the future of our food.
Alexei Istomin showing off his company's working materials at the Skolkovo Startup Village earlier this month. Photo: Sk.ru.
For several years now, scientists have been warning that the planet will soon be struggling to feed itself, and that we may have to swap meat for insects – a valuable source of protein. The Lipetsk-based Novye Biotekhnologii, a family business that is in the process of becoming a Skolkovo resident, makes a high-protein food supplement out of dried and crushed greenbottle larvae. The supplement, which is 50-70 percent protein, 20-30 percent fat, and 5-7 percent fibre, is sold under the brand name Zooprotein for use in animal food, but its makers predict that it won’t be too long before it starts being used in human food.
In agriculture, insect protein supplements have multiple beneficial effects on animals’ health, says Alexei Istomin, who founded Novye Biotekhnologii together with his father. Two more brothers work as the startup’s head technologist and production manager, respectively.
“In pig farming, its use in the form of tiny doses of protein and lipid concentrate added to the pigs’ food helps them to digest the food and boosts their natural resistance to viruses and other illnesses,” he said. “It also makes them more active, helps them to put on weight and increases their fertility.”
When broiler chickens, turkeys, ducks and other poultry are fed the supplement, it helps them to gain weight and reduces the nutritive ratio, Istomin added, and can also boost the frequency of a hen’s egg-laying, increase their resistance to disease, and lower the mortality rate.
In mink, Arctic foxes and red foxes, the quality of the fur – for which such animals are farmed – is improved, while domestic animals become more active and toned and are less prone to illnesses, he said.
From left to right: the finished product, dried larvae, live maggots. Photo: Sk.ru
The idea of quaffing creepy-crawlies is not a new one: scientists at centres including Novosibirsk State Agriculture Institute were studying the miraculous properties of food supplements made from fly larvae decades ago, and the U.S. professor Gene DeFoliart devoted decades to researching the subject of entomophagy – insects as food – until his death in 2013.
Health benefits are not the only argument in favour of eating insects. Three years ago, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation published research that concluded that mankind eating more insects could combat famine and environmental pollution.
“Insects as food and feed emerge as an especially relevant issue in the 21st century due to the rising cost of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes,” the report’s authors wrote in their summary. “Thus, alternative solutions to conventional livestock and feed sources urgently need to be found. The consumption of insects, or entomophagy, therefore contributes positively to the environment and to health and livelihood.”
Istomin echoes many of these arguments in explaining the advantage of larvae-based protein over today’s main sources of animal protein: fishmeal and meat-and-bone scraps.
“The best quality fishmeal is made in Morocco, Mauritania and Chile, and its price increases proportionally with the cost of transporting it. The price of fishmeal has risen eight-fold in the last 15 years,” said Istomin.
“Many manufacturers of agricultural produce are stopping using quality imported fishmeal and are turning to cheaper and poorer quality substitutes, as well as switching to meat-and-bone scraps or plant protein, in particular soya. Using plant proteins doesn’t achieve the same results, and that kind of protein needs a lot of land to produce it, and cannot fully replace animal protein in content,” he added.
Istomin is equally adamant on the ecological arguments in favour of insect protein. One ton of fishmeal requires five tons of commercial fish, and the demand for animal protein has pushed fishing to a level where the ecosystem does not have enough time to replenish its own stocks, he says. Producing one ton of fishmeal releases almost 11 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – five times more than when producing a ton of pulverised larvae.
Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, left, examining the company's unusual stall at the Startup Village. Photo: Sk.ru
Meat for flies, flies for people
Flies lay their eggs in dead flesh and other waste, and once the eggs turn into larvae, they produce enzymes that speed up the process of decomposition. Novye Biotekhnologii uses meat in the breeding of its flies, as larvae bred in poultry meat contain more nutrients than those cultivated on manure, for example. A lot of meat is needed for this process: to make one kilo of Zooprotein, 3.5 kilograms of live larvae are needed, which requires 10 kilograms of meat waste. To minimize the environmental impact of its technology, the company breeds its flies on meat from a poultry factory located near to the company’s labs.
“On average, 5 percent of the livestock at a poultry factory will die [before they can be slaughtered],” said Istomin. “That creates a lot of hassle for the plant, both ecologically (they have to dispose of the waste) and financially (they have to pay to dispose of it), as well as having to organize its collection, storage, delivery and so on. So our method is most effective if applied directly at the plant itself, as that makes poultry production waste-free,” he said.
Selecting the flies’ diet is just the tip of the iceberg of the company’s research. Of the more than 90,000 types of fly in the world, Novye Biotekhnologii have chosen to focus on the common greenbottle, which they affectionately call Lucy, from the fly’s Latin name, Lucilia Caesar. At the company’s premises in Lipetsk, where tens of millions of flies live in insectariums, the scientists have been selectively breeding the most prolific ones for the last two years. If in nature, one fly would lay about 60 eggs, the Lipetsk flies are now laying on average three times as many, resulting in three times as many larvae and ultimately, three times as much protein.
The company has selected the most prolific flies for its work. Photo: Novy Biotekhnologii.
Pointing to the mesh-covered cage filled with buzzing flies at the Startup Village, Istomin said: “If yesterday, there were just six flies in here, in 24 hours their number has grown to several hundred. This is possible due to correctly selecting the pupae’s development cycle. We predicted the cycle in such a way that today, there are many more of them. Tomorrow there’ll be even more,” he said.
The ideal temperature for the pupae to turn into larva is 30 degrees – somewhat warmer than the average temperature in Moscow in June. The flies were taken indoors overnight between the two days of the Startup Village, which took place on June 2-3 at the Skolkovo Innovation Centre.
In Lipetsk, the flies are kept in containers kept at optimum heat and humidity levels. Access by humans to the insectariums is limited, not only because the flies are susceptible to various illnesses, but because the arrival of a human causes them major stress, which has a negative effect on their egg production, Istomin explained.
The insectariums contain water, sugar and dried milk, along with minced meat in which the flies lay their eggs. The eggs are removed on a daily basis, and the fly population and its genetic traits are monitored by the company’s chief technician. For this purpose, after the larvae turn into pupae, they are kept refrigerated until they are needed, at which point they are put into the insectarium, where they turn into flies.
As soon as the eggs turn into larvae, they are put in a separate facility. They grow fast – up to 350-fold in the course of 24 hours – over the course of three or four days. Once they are fully grown, they are dried and put into storage.
Turning insects into a feast does not always involve such care and attention to detail. In many countries including in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas, beetles, ants, grasshoppers and cockroaches and other insects are a regular part of people’s diet and have been for centuries, eaten fried, roasted or raw. The UN report estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people around the planet.
The larvae can grow up to 350-fold in just 24 hours. Photo: Novy Biotekhnologii.
“Insects are commonly consumed as a food source in many regions of the world,” the report said. “In most Western countries, however, people view entomophagy with disgust and associate eating insects with primitive behaviour. This attitude has resulted in the neglect of insects in agricultural research.”
It has also resulted in a lack of regulation in many countries on the production of insect-based food. One of the areas in which Novy Biotekhnologii hopes the Skolkovo Foundation will be able to help it is in certifying its product. There are currently no laws in Russia regulating the processing of fly larvae products, so, as Istomin says, “we have to try extra hard.”
In the meantime, joining those 2 billion insect-eaters now is Istomin himself, who has not only put his money where his mouth is, but vice versa. For several months now, he told Sk.ru, he has been adding a tablespoon of insect protein to a morning milkshake containing banana and other more traditional ingredients.
“The taste is unusual, not like anything else. But it boosts your immune system and encourages the growth of muscle,” he says.
Visitors to the Startup Village were generally less daring. Only a handful of visitors to the stall were willing to sample the crushed insects – for now.
A version of this article first appeared in Russian here.