Because fish don’t eat corn!

Because fish don’t eat corn!

EnviroFlight’s creative insect solutions

By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: EnviroFlight founder Glen Courtright has created a sustainable way to make proteins and fats to feed livestock; photo: Bill Franz

Today, there are more than 7.2 billion people on Earth. In the next 30 to 40 years, scientists predict that number will top 9.6 billion. Unless we start working toward more sustainable solutions today, those additional 2.4 billion people will create massive drains on resources such as fuel, food and fibers.

One Yellow Springs engineering firm is answering the call for a solution. EnviroFlight is providing innovative solutions using a most ordinary of raw materials – bugs. EnviroFlight has been harnessing the power of black soldier flies to solve two problems at once: processing excess food waste and creating meal for livestock.

Bug feed?

Glen Courtright, owner of EnviroFlight, was an executive at the large engineering firm SAIC. During the mid-2000s, he was working on an oil and natural gas project in Alaska. There, he began to see firsthand the changes taking place to the climate, as areas that had been previously frozen for years began to melt. He was determined to do something to help.

In 2006, Courtright got the biodiesel itch. Over the next two years, he researched the biodiesel industry exhaustively, trying to tease out a business model that would allow him to make a positive environmental contribution while also running a profitable business. In 2008, he had a site lined up and loans approved to start his own business. Then came the realization without heavy tax credits and tax subsidies, there would be no way to ensure profitability in his venture. To his dismay, at the eleventh hour, he had to pull the plug on his project.

Undeterred, Courtright continued his quest. “I looked at different alternative raw materials to use,” Courtright said. “I looked at algae, I looked at enzymes and both were fraught with technical challenges and problems.” Then inspiration struck. He started looking into bugs as a fuel source: “I had this weird idea insects were 40 percent fat, and I could use insects to use fuel and feed them waste material.” This was promising. However, as he researched further, he realized while bug juice might make a compelling fuel, it might make an even better feed. Courtright realized something: “Wait a second, we can actually create proteins and fats to feed our livestock.” That’s because bugs are also extremely high in protein, the most basic component in animal feed. Rather than extract the oils from the bugs for fuel, Courtright realized a more complete solution would be to extract the oils and the protein for food.

At this point, Courtright began working on several variables. Which bugs to use? How to nourish these bugs? What kind of feed to create?

What kind of bugs?

Courtright examined several types of insects before deciding on the hermetia illucens, more commonly known as black soldier fly. There are several compelling reasons to use these bugs. First is their ubiquity. While these insects originated in the American Southeast, they are now found all over the United States and the world. Courtright noted they appear to have hitched a ride during World War II and are now found in places like China, Australia and Africa. He even found them in Yellow Springs before he started his company. The bugs need to live in temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit to survive. Given their omnipresence and their need for warmer temperatures, the danger of them becoming an invasive species is extremely low.

Secondly, these bugs are non-pathogenic. Unlike the common housefly, which eats and regurgitates, then eats again, black soldier fly adults have no need to feed – they get their fill as larvae.

“Soldier flies, as an adult, all they do is hydrate themselves and their main goal is to reproduce,” Courtright said. Therefore, they aren’t likely to land on Fido’s mess in the backyard and then land on your sandwich, spreading disease.

Third, these bugs love to reproduce. Courtright has developed technology that allows them to do their thing regardless of the outside weather. While he’s fairly tight-lipped about the process, he does let on it includes playing Barry White 24/7 for the bugs. According to Courtright, “some geeky guy in Dayton, Ohio, has figured out how to use ’70s rhythm and blues” to “harness the mystical power of Barry.” There’s just something about this music that puts these bugs in the mood.

Finally, these hungry critters have voracious appetites and will eat more or less whatever you throw at them. The grubs literally grow 5,000 times their original size in the larva stage, devouring whatever is in front of them. The hungry beasts are fairly indiscriminate about their dietary habits and would eat nearly anything, as long as the diet was balanced. And this led to another environmental “Ah ha” moment for Courtright.

What do we feed them?

As Courtright soon discovered, there was a lot of waste generated in producing foods for consumers, and a lot of companies searching for solutions for that waste. Breweries and companies that make ethanol, for instance, have waste in the form of spent grains, while some food factories have particulate matter suspended in process water. Yogurt factories have excess whey to dispose of, while the factories that make chicken nuggets have excess chicken byproducts to dispose of – yes, shockingly, not every part of the chicken goes into those mystery nuggets. While some of these byproducts are eventually rendered and reused, Courtright realized he could offer a more environmentally friendly way to dispose of these materials – feed them to the bugs!

Courtright is quick to point out his team doesn’t mess around with manure or other human or animal waste byproducts. “Everything we feed these insects is already pre-approved for human consumption,” he said. “We are not messing around with manure. We have a variety of high-quality feed stuff available to us.”

All of the food his bugs eat is pre-consumer waste and was approved for human consumption. This means he’s able to ensure a clean supply line and, again, not worry about pathogens or other nasties infecting his bugs or his end product. It also limits the ick factor for his employees. Handling bugs is one thing, but handling manure is something he didn’t want to get into.

What kind of feed do we make?

After zeroing in on the type of bugs and how to feed them, Courtright turned to the end market. What type of feed would have the greatest environmental impact? The answer: fish food.

“Aquaculture is the fastest growing agricultural sector in the world.”

– Glen Courtright, owner of EnviroFlight

“Aquaculture is the fastest growing agricultural sector in the world,” Courtright said. “There is more fish being produced in closed systems [fish farms] than being caught in the open oceans.” While farm-raised fish help mitigate the depletion of wild stocks, they also introduce another environmental problem.

Many farm fish, especially carnivorous fish such as trout, yellow perch, bluegill and salmon, are fed a diet of fishmeal. Although the fish themselves are farm-raised, the meal they are fed is often made of fish that were caught in the wild. The more farm-raised fish, the more need for conventional fishing to create the meal. The solution to overfishing was resulting in more overfishing.

Courtright realized insect protein was a viable alternative to fishmeal. After all, fish eat bugs, right? He began processing his insect meal into fish food, offering a more environmentally sustainable alternative for feeding schools of hungry fish. His team offers complete insect meal for carnivorous fish and bug supplements that can be added to feed for omnivorous fish whose meal is generally soy-based. The additional bug meal acts as an attractant and balances out the amino acids omnivorous fish need.

The results have been overwhelming, with EnviroFlight struggling to keep up with demand. In addition, other markets have expressed interest in the company’s bug-based meal. The swine market has started to pull in EnviroFlight. EnviroFlight’s bug proteins offer a supplement to traditional swine meal, replacing the fish ingredients in meal used for sows and starter pigs – those baby pigs that are weaning.

The bug meal will never be a good feed for ruminants such as cattle, but EnviroFlight does provide alternatives for that market as well. Some of the pre-consumer waste is high in fiber but nutrient-low. These materials include items such as spent grains from breweries and distillers. The bugs feed on these grains and leave behind high fiber but lower protein materials that, while not suitable for monogastric animals (those with a single stomach), work well on larger, multi-stomached animals such as cows.

Courtright is a firm believer in complete solutions, so even the waste generated by the larvae is put to use. EnviroFlight is a primary supplier to the Ohio freshwater shrimp industry. In addition, field tests of the bug’s waste as fertilizer for plants such as tomatoes, peppers, marigolds and radishes have been extremely promising.

What’s next?

EnviroFlight is not the only company investigating bugs as a sustainable resource, but it is one of the first to be up and running successfully. As such, they have garnered a lot of interest at home and abroad. Both CNN and NPR have covered EnviroFlight’s story, and Courtright was recently asked to speak at a conference at the University of San Diego on sustainable food production and food waste reduction. EnviroFlight is also teaming with a Danish international development agency to begin work in Kenya. There is also interest in Belize, Figi and possibly Nigeria.

How will EnviroFlight scale? Courtright’s business plan includes multiple revenue streams. The first is the most obvious – selling meal and byproducts such as the fertilizers the bugs produce. The second involves getting paid to take waste material. There is a market for food producers to pay to have someone take their food waste. Having a company like EnviroFlight process their waste allows companies to “green up” their brand. Finally, Courtright has been investing in the sale of the proprietary technology his team uses. He envisions a central Ohio headquarters that produces all the equipment modules needed to replicate his process. “What we’ll do is build modules, and we’re looking at putting these modules into 40-foot shipping containers and then having a central facility in Ohio where we continue the engineering, the research, the training and the remote monitoring,” Courtright said.

He would offer complete and comprehensive training to his customers, capable of being shipped anywhere in the world.

We will need many solutions to fully sustain our bourgeoning population. Those solutions will likely take the form of companies like EnviroFlight, companies that solve multiple environmental problems using readily available but often overlooked raw materials. The market is likely to continue to reward companies that reduce and reuse waste from one sector, while producing fuel and feed for others, all without substantially raising their own carbon footprints.

 

For more information and to track the latest happenings with EnviroFlight, please visit enviroflight.net.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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