Chua Kai-Ning, a Singaporean farmer, spends a lot of time every day taking care of her “children”, helping them to eat quickly and grow up fast.
But there’s a problem. Chua is no ordinary farmer, while her “children” are not the usual animals of a typical farmer.
Chua and his partner Phua Jun Wei are the two founders of Insectta since 2017, a startup with the aim of fighting Singapore’s food waste crisis. And to do that, they use a rather creepy “ally”: maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly.
“The idea of Insectta is not to waste anything,” – Chua said. “Food waste can become a new source if we change our thinking about production methods, and how to deal with leftovers.”
In 2020 alone, Singapore generated 665 thousand tons of wasted food, and only 19% of this was reused.
So what did Insectta do? The company feeds leftover food to the maggots of the black soldier fly, which can consume up to eight tons per month, says Chua. Not only food, the maggots also consume by-products from soybean factories and distillation of yeast.
These maggots, after a period of fattening, will be dried to make food for animals. Their waste is used as agricultural fertilizer.
In fact, there are quite a few technologies that use insects to treat waste. But Insectta does much more with the black soldier fly. Not only as a by-product for agriculture, Chua’s company also creates high-value biological materials from these larvae.
“During our research, we realized that there is a lot of valuable material obtained from maggots.”
Sustainable source of materials
When maggots grow, they will cocoons and become adults after about 10-14 days. But it is the cocoon they leave behind that will become the biological material that Insectta has studied and obtained.
One of them is chitosan – a form of antibacterial agent with antioxidant properties, which can be used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. 500kg of chitosan per day is the number that Insectta is producing, after cooperating with a famous Singapore cosmetic corporation. In addition, a company that makes facial masks is also hoping to use chitosan from flies to create an antibacterial layer for their products.
According to Thomas Hahn, an expert from the Fraunhofer Institute (Germany), crab shells are currently the main source of chitosan in the world. However, compared with chitosan from flies, the price of crab shells will be higher and less environmentally friendly. Because chitosan extracted from shellfish requires a lot of chemical action and a lot of water, while the Insectta technology used on flies requires much less. Thus, the industry of biomaterials from insects will be a sustainable industry with little impact on the environment.
Maggots “overcome prejudice”
According to Chua, to expand the market for fly-based biomaterials, they will need to confront stereotypes related to insects.
“When it comes to maggots, everyone thinks they’re terrifying and harmful to humans. But by putting the interests first, we can change this opinion.”
Despite the controversy regarding the perception of insects, Phua believes that “breeding” flies is more humane and sustainable than normal animals. Basically, insects need less water, energy and space.
Currently, instead of opening its own fly farm, Insectta is planning to sell fly eggs to small breeding facilities and then collect the finished products.
“We want insects to energize the world.”