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Meet Dr Insect Farmer!
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 10/01/2020

Meet Dr Michael Woods, possibly the most highly qualified insect farmer in the world. For his doctorate in animal sciences, he researched how to best care for and feed insects so that they can be farmed on a commercial scale.

Woods received his doctorate in Animal Sciences on 12 December 2019 at the PhD graduation ceremony of Stellenbosch University's Faculty of AgriSciences. He is the first to obtain a PhD in the mass farming of insects and how to further process them into valuable by-products.

Growing niche market

The global market for turning insects into animal feed is expected to be worth over USD 2 300 million by 2030, and their use in the food and nutrition sector around USD 8000 million.

“It's the fastest growing agricultural industry in the world right now," says Woods, who grew up in Saldanha matriculated at Paarl Boys' High in 2010, and previously graduated with a BSc and an MSc in Animal Sciences at SU.

"We are increasingly realising the value of insects as a food source for farm animals and humans, to control pests and invasive plants, and to help us get rid of waste food and abattoir waste without it having to land on landfills," he says. “To make the most of these services, we need to provide enough insects to the market in a sustainable, consistently and of a consistent quality. That's where large-scale insect farming comes in."

Each part valuable

Woods started researching insect farming during his master's degree studies at SU, after realizing the business potential that this niche market holds.

As part of his MSc degree, he investigated the best possible diets that insect larvae need to provide the best possible end products. His consulting work in this regard has since taken him to 20 countries.

“To raise insects is quite similar to intensive livestock production. Nutrition plays a major role in the success as well as the cost of insect production. Just like chickens and pigs, insects need certain nutrients to thrive, and this you need to provide in their feed," says Woods. “The beauty is that you don't need a lot of space to farm with them on a large scale."

Insects basically consist of fat and protein, and a little bit of chitin. “Each part is valuable, and has a use," Woods adds.

During his doctorate years, Woods among others adapted an existing hydrolysis process using enzymes to at best extract the fat, protein and chitin as separate by-products. The protein can be used in animal feed, or in nutritional supplements for humans. The chitin can among others be processed into biodegradable packaging or filters.

This part of his research was conducted under the guidance of his supervisor, Dr Elsje Pieterse of the SU Department of Animal Sciences, and Dr Neill Goosen of the SU Department of Process Engineering. It has led to the establishment of a company, Susento (which stands for “sustainability through entomology". Woods, Pieterse and Goosen are partners in this venture. Susento is still in its infancy, and is supported by Innovus, the innovation company responsible for the commercialization and protection of ideas arising from Stellenbosch University.

A handful of companies in South Africa are already into insect farming, mainly as livestock feed and for pest control purposes. Woods believes Susento is the first to have a "total value chain" approach, as it will be involved in all aspects of insect farming – right to the stages of supplying by-products. The company will also develop diets for insects that are being mass-bred as part of integrated pest control programs or as animal feed, to supply fibres (for instance silkworms) or as food sources (for instance mopane worms).

Woods is already running an experimental unit delivering up to 30 kilograms of black soldier fly larvae per day at the SU Faculty of AgriSciences' Mariendahl Experimental Farm outside Stellenbosch. Susento is planning a pilot facility producing one tonne of larvae per day at Mariendahl, along with a by-product processing unit. Thereafter, Woods hopes to roll out more sizable units. He is using the larvae of black soldier flies, because the insects are not a pestilence, do not spread disease and are seldom found in homes.

"They are as harmless as earthworms," adds Woods.

He will also farm on a small scale with mealworms and crickets, in part to supply to the pet industry as feed.

World expert

Woods' supervisor, Dr Elsje Pieterse of the SU Department of Animal Sciences, is one of the world's leading experts in insect farming. She grew up on a farm in Namibia and has since her student days over 30 years ago dabbled with the idea of using insects as an alternative, less water-intensive and less water-polluting source of protein in poultry feed.  

Pieterse started researching the topic in earnest in 2007. Since then, 21 SU postgraduate students have already graduated under her guidance. A further nine students are currently researching different aspects related to insect farming.

Woods is the first PhD student to complete his studies under Pieterse's guidance. One of her MSc students, Mari van Aswegen, also graduates in December. She studied how copper flies can harvest iron and protein from abattoir waste and then be turned into chicken feed.

Pieterse says that insect farming is by no means water or fuel intensive.

“You can do largescale insect farming on a very small piece of land. It's possible to produce up to 7500 times more protein on a hectare compared to one hectare of soya. Insect farming is also much less water intensive than soya farming. In fact, when farming with black soldier flies, there is a net gain of water because the water vapour they produce can be harvested by means of condensation."

She says it benefits the environment to use insects to break down fruit pulp and peels that go to waste at food and juice factories, for example. Decomposing food dumped on waste sites releases harmful methane gas. The same does not happen when insects are involved in breaking down and consuming food waste. Food that takes months to decompose in the soil takes insects a matter of days to get rid of.

Insects fed on waste from fish factories take up good omega 3 fatty acids. In turn, insects fed on abattoir waste take up iron. This increases the fatty acid and iron content of the animals that they are fed to.

Pieterse's studies have shown that chickens fed with black soldier fly larvae produce more eggs. These are of a better size and have stronger shells. Meat produced from insect-eating animals also tends to be juicier because they have a better water-binding capacity.

Pieterse believes more research is needed into the antimicrobial peptides that insects produce, as these might be used as an alternative to antibiotics to treat infections. Lauric acid in insects is the same fatty acid found in coconut oil and can strengthen the immune system. Its value to the cosmetics industry is currently being investigated.

Insects as a food source

“Farmers cannot keep up with humanity's growing demand for more protein to eat. We can use insects to fill this gap," Woods reckons.

He knows that many people will frown at the idea of eating insects.

“It is an uncomfortable thought for especially those with a Western mindset. There are however many countries where people have been eating insects for ages. Interestingly, it is predicted that population growth will be highest in countries where people are already eating insects," he notes.

He says food products produced for the Western market, such as an Australian cricket-based energy bar, usually do not consist of whole insects. For such products, insects are processed into protein flour and used as one of many ingredients in meals or snacks.

One of Pieterse's current PhD students, Leah Bessa, is already making dairy-free ice cream from black soldier fly larvae, under the trademark Gourmet Grubb.

Woods says the taste of an insect is determined by what it eats and how it is produced. Protein powder made from black soldier fly larvae, for instance, is dull in colour and taste, which makes it easy to flavour. 

"The informed consumer who knows all these things is likely to get over the squirm factor and focus on the benefits of insect flour and powders," Woods reckons.

He says the amino acid profile of insect protein compares well to the daily needs of animals like pigs and chickens, and even humans. It is easier to digest and is absorbed by the body at a lower metabolic cost than other proteins, especially plant-based ones. Grasshoppers, silkworms and crickets contain five times more antioxidants (which stop the breakdown of cells in the body) than orange juice or olive oil.

Caption for pictures at the top :

Left and middle, Dr Michael Woods with black soldier fly larvae (pictures by Engela Duvenage), and right, an adult black soldier fly (picture by Nina Parry).