Maggot-farming is not the most romantic-sounding of avocations. But if you hear Brad Marchant out, you can start to see why he'd give it a go.
His Vancouver-based company, Enterra, all started with a conversation that Mr. Marchant, a veteran of the mining and biotech industries, had with David Suzuki. The environmentalist had been an outspoken critic of fish farms for a number of reasons, one of them being that salmon are carnivorous, and as a result the captive fish were being fed bits of fish caught in the wild – ultimately an unsustainable situation.
The upshot was Enterra, a company that Mr. Suzuki himself invested in. Its mission is to take food waste and use it to feed, breed and grow a special kind of maggot – which are then roasted, ground up, and sold as high-protein oil and powdered meal that can be fed to fish, livestock, and pets.
"We're trying to find sustainable sources of protein as global demand," says Mr. Marchant. "Why are we devoting good food waste to composting and landfills?"
The company acquires a variety of food wastes from stores and food processing companies. The market is such that it pays out for some forms of waste, like fish bits, but actually gets paid a tipping fee to accept spoiled produce. These foods are blended into a grub-friendly mix that's about 85 per cent fruits and vegetables, with the remainder being bread, brewery grains, and a little bit of fish waste.
It's then fed to grubs, who eat and grow for 14 days before being harvested and cooked; 1 per cent are allowed to turn into flies to breed and continue the cycle. Meanwhile, the larvae's excrement is harvested and sold as fertilizer.
Mr. Marchant says that, at the moment, they're converting 36,000 tonnes of waste foods a year into 1,800 tonnes of meal product, 1,000 tonnes of food oil, and 3,000 tonnes of fertilizer, all by way of maggot. (A lot of that incoming tonnage is actually water.)
These aren't just any maggots, either. They are the larvae of the black soldier fly, an insect that's useful for a number of reasons. Its larvae are voracious, gobbling up organics and growing unusually large, making them good for being farmed. They're large for a reason: The flies they turn into don't eat at all – in fact, they don't even have mouth-parts. They simply expend the energy they've saved up in a few weeks of flying, mating and laying eggs. As such, they're not pests to humans.
But harnessing nature is never simple, and perfecting the environmental conditions to get the flies to eat, mate, and reproduce with industrial reliability was a challenge.
"The biggest hurdle was to domesticate the whole food cycle," says Mr. Marchant.
Mr. Marchant says the idea for Enterra was hatched in 2007, but only now is it moving from its pilot plant to full-scale production. Its initial 5,000 square-foot facility is being replaced by a 50,000 foot plant, set to open next year; the company employs 12.
In the end, Mr. Marchant says squeamishness about larvae meal doesn't really come into it. He sees a growing trend towards harvesting protein this way, rather than farming fish or growing soybeans. And besides, larvae are one of mother nature's signature dishes.
"Free-range chickens, it's what they eat," he says. "It's actually the natural meal for them. It's absolutely the right thing to be feeding them."