Flybox are tackling the growing demand for protein through a novel decentralised approach to insect farming. Undaunted reporter, Franca Davenport, takes a closer look at this fascinating technology and speaks to Founder Andrea Jagodic. Part of Undaunted’s Climate Innovations Up-Close blog series.
In coming years we will be facing a global shortage of protein and to meet this need, the use of edible insects for animal feed is projected to grow annually by 39 per cent across the world.
In response to this projection there has been a proliferation of insect farming technologies. Most are fully automated, making them smart but not always affordable, and many don’t optimise the value of by-products such as insect manure.
Flybox has created a system of mobile insect farms that maintain elements of automation but can be installed at the point of need in shipping containers, adapting to local conditions and using local labour and food waste.
Striking the balance of affordable automation
Compared to the traditional farming of most animals, the domestication of insects has happened at speed. The industrialised West has been home to the majority of new technologies in this area, producing very advanced but costly facilities.
However, the greatest growth in protein demand comes from the production of animal feed in the global South. This is proving difficult to satisfy and current sources such as fishmeal and soy are causing overfishing and deforestation. As a result there has been a surge in insect farms in Africa and Asia but, more often than not, without the expensive cutting-edge technologies developed in the West. This means fluctuation in production levels and less sustainable farming.
To enable effective insect farming in the developing world Flybox has created a hybrid approach, working with elements of the high-end technology such as automated climate control and development times, whilst making it affordable. “We need solutions that work today,” says Founder and CEO, Andrea Jagodic “So we can prevent the depletion of our natural resources before it’s too late. Our approach reduces the price points so we can bring insect protein to market in commercially viable quantities.”
What does an insect farm look like?
Flybox uses black soldier flies, feeding the larvae on local food waste which addresses another global problem – the wastage of one third of the food we produce. Black soldier flies are the most efficient insect for converting organic waste to protein. The larvae are hatched and reared in a centralised plant using automated technology and then transported to the farms where they convert the organic waste into protein.
The insect farms are encapsulated within shipping containers so they can be transported and assembled near to the sources of food waste. This decentralisation is unique to the market and each container can process about 12-18 tonnes of food waste per month. The use of containers also allows farming to be modular so it can be easily scaled-up depending on requirements.
The container output is collected on rotation and then processed in the central facility. The farms also collect insect manure or ‘frass’, which is a fast and natural fertiliser that can be applied directly to crops. The protein component in pelletised animal feed is sold on and the insect manure can be used directly on site as many partners are crop farmers. In the future there may also be potential to harvest chitin and antimicrobial peptides from the insect skeletons and stomachs for medical applications.
“This is complex biotechnology. We’re working with creatures that haven’t been domesticated before and trying to address biology questions that no-one has answered.”Andrea Jagodic, Founder and CEO, Flybox
Continuing innovation and the “360° Farm”
Founder and CEO Jagodic devised the concept for Flybox based on her experience working in several UK start-ups in the insect farming sector. From her background in charitable work in East Africa, she could see the need for a new approach to protein production from insects.
She worked up her idea and applied to The Greenhouse to take it to the next stage. “Alongside the crucial funding the Greenhouse also gave us milestones, structure and support,” she says. “I’ve worked in start-ups all my life but it’s still so difficult to take an idea to reality. The Greenhouse provided the targets, connections, and support that we needed so we could take the time and space to really invest in R&D, track the data, evaluate the process and figure it out.”
The company has developed their system through intense R&D, learning how different types of food waste influence protein production and also how it is affected by local environmental and climatic conditions. Overarching all this optimisation, the insects must also be farmed humanely.
In December 2022 Flybox was awarded £1 million of funding from Innovate UK to create the first ever end-to-end modular insect farming system in the UK. The farm is in Buckinghamshire, and the larvae it produces are fed to hens on site, adding an extra layer of flexibility and further reducing costs for farmers.
Whilst the original decentralised model relies on a central breeding facility that serves multiple containers, the 360° farm includes breeding and nursery containers, omitting the need for a central breeding hub. Flybox is working in partnership with Harper Adams University, who will be carrying out UK waste mapping and life cycle assessment as well as designing feed systems as part of the project.
Conserving natural resources
As a circular protein production model, Flybox upcycles nutrients from food waste, whilst lowering the carbon footprint of animal feed and bringing high quality, affordable protein to the developing world. It is also creating high value jobs across these countries.
Perhaps the most significant impact of Flybox’s innovation is the preservation of natural resources which are being depleted by the current global demand for protein. “We know our technology reduces greenhouse gases, provides access to food, and gives agrarian economies the innovation and tools to sustainably develop their farming,” says Jagodic. “But what is more important – and also more difficult to measure – is how our farms help to conserve the natural resources that are dwindling due to our current appetite for protein. Time is not on our side but our technology has the potential to address this otherwise irreversible problem now and at scale.”
Climate Solutions Up-Close
Take a deeper-dive into innovative climate technology by exploring other posts in Undaunted’s Climate Solutions Up-Close blog series.
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