Making Food From Flies (It's Not That Icky)

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In the quirky little college town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, home to many unconventional ideas over the years, there's now a small insect factory.

It's an unassuming operation, a generic boxy building in a small industrial park. It took me a while even to find a sign with the company's name: EnviroFlight. But its goal is grand: The people at EnviroFlight are hoping that their insects will help our planet grow more food while conserving land and water.

They don't expect you to eat insects. (Sure, Asians and Africans do it, but Americans are finicky.) The idea is, farmed insects will become food for fish or pigs.

It all starts in a small greenhouse. "This is where we propagate our species," says Glen Courtright, EnviroFlight's founder. "Sometimes we call this the Love Shack."

I see rows of tall, cylinder-shaped cages. Flying around inside them, or sitting on the mesh walls, are some black insects that look a little like wasps.

Actually, they're flies: black soldier flies.

These flies live all over the American South, but they rarely bother people, and they don't spread disease. The adults are shy creatures. They can't bite. They can't eat (they live off the stored energy that they built up as larvae). All they really do is mate and lay eggs. That's what they're doing in these cages.

The eggs turn into hatchlings that are so tiny they look like dust. But in EnviroFlight's nursery, they grow a mass of wriggling larvae. Kimberly Wildman keeps them in stacks of plastic trays or buckets.

"If I were to feed them, it would feel like the bucket was practically melting," she says. "They give off that much heat."

The larvae are insatiable eaters. They can consume twice their weight each day, turning it into protein and fat.

They'll eat almost anything, which is the key to Courtright's business plan. These larvae are some of the world's great waste recyclers. "We make stuff go away!" he says.

Right now, most of the larvae here are feeding on waste from an ethanol plant. They're also happy to eat brewer's grain, which is left over from the beer-making process.

Scraps from a chicken nugget plant work even better, Courtright says. Such factories put out millions of pounds of chicken bits, breadcrumbs and oily sludge every year.

But it's possible to look at these larvae and dream even bigger. Think of slaughterhouses, for instance. Americans only eat 50 percent of a cow or a hog. The rest of the animal goes to industrial rendering plants, which turn that waste into a variety of products, including "processed animal protein" that's fed, in turn, to animals.

But black soldier fly larvae could consume that waste, too, without using nearly as much energy as rendering plants, Courtright says. He shows me a new experiment: He's turning the larvae loose on some leftover bits of chicken. "The bugs consume this material. Probably 90 percent of the material is consumed, and all that's left is a little bit of bone and sinew and fur."

No matter what they eat, the insect larvae in this building grow fat — and then they go into a commercial oven.

Courtright opens the door of the oven and pulls out a tray. "So what we have here is cooked, dehydrated, insect larvae," he says. "It kind of tastes like a savory cracker without salt. You want to taste them?"

I pass. Courtright pops a handful into his mouth. "Not bad!" he says with a grin.

Honestly, though, Courtright has no ambitions to sell snack food. He wants to turn cooked larvae into animal feed. The protein is just what young pigs need. Ground-up larvae also could replace some of the fish meal that's currently used to feed farmed salmon or trout. Right now, that meal is manufactured from sardines, anchovies and menhaden that are scooped from the ocean in massive quantities. But that source of fish meal is limited.

The way Courtright sees it, black soldier fly larvae could solve two enormous global problems at once: the waste problem and the food supply problem.

Actually, he's not the first to think of this. Craig Sheppard, an insect specialist at the University of Georgia, now retired, has been doing experiments with black soldier flies for a couple of decades now.

He's turned the little larvae loose on animal manure — they clean it up quite nicely. And over the years, he and his colleagues have talked to some companies about how to turn this into a profitable business.

There were times, he says, when the idea seemed ready to take off. "The guys [from potential investors] would come down here and get real excited. They'd look at our production, and we'd say how we could ramp it up, and they would be walking away just grinning and high-fiving, like 'We gotta do this!' " And then they'd go home and talk to the higher-ups. And I could just imagine the conversation: 'Maggots? Really?' And they'd back off!"

Sheppard suspects that the idea seemed just a little too weird. You could be laughed at for trying it.

But there now are quite a few projects around the world that have picked up on this idea. People are trying it in South Africa, Canada and Indonesia.

What's changed is the demand for animal feed. Fish meal prices have gone through the roof. Feed for pigs is more expensive, too. Across the world, there's competition for land, crops and food.

Courtright expects that competition to grow. "We have a protein deficit. We have 7 billion people on the planet, heading for 9. We don't know how we'll feed them," he says.

So maybe, someday, black soldier fly factories will dot the landscape.

Courtright is talking to some big companies, working on deals to build the very first one. Maybe this time, the higher-ups won't say: "Maggots? Really?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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