The Future (of food) is Now

College students spend their spring break learning about--and growing their own--sustainable food

Undergraduate students spend their spring break learning about–and growing their own–sustainable food

What if we could produce most of the food we eat right in our backyards, without using any chemicals or soil, and without producing any waste to go to the landfill? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Sounds like some idealistic Ecotopia scenario, but guess what? It is 100% possible!

That’s the groundbreaking fact I learned this week after attending a five-day program on Catalina Island focused on the Future of Food. Topics ranged from food waste and biological farming to backyard aquaponics and sustainable fisheries. One of the very first ideas presented by guest speakers was so jaw-droppingly revolutionary that it has the potential to change our entire food AND energy systems!

Send in the Flies

This innovative idea that is about to blow your mind is the brainchild of two established biology professors: Ken Nielson (of USC) and Radu Popa. These inspiring individuals may have invented a way to solve two of society’s biggest problems: eliminating large-scale food waste and providing abundant renewable energy to the masses. It sounds unbelievable, but their system is beautiful in its (relative) simplicity—and it all relies on insects. Black soldier flies, to be exact.

The black soldier fly life cycle may hold the key to eliminating nearly 100% of our food waste as well as providing fertilizer, livestock feed, and contributing to renewable energy storage!

The black soldier fly life cycle may hold the key to eliminating nearly 100% of our food waste as well as providing fertilizer, livestock feed, and contributing to renewable energy storage!

Ken calls his project the Black Soldier Fly alternative, or BSFA for short. He and Radu have developed a process in which they can convert nearly all food waste (whether from your home kitchen or an industrial food producer) to a rich insect feed for the black soldier fly larva. The feed is created using Bokashi fermentation, where a combination of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria break down the waste and release valuable nutrients in the process—not so unlike the methods used to produce fermented vegetables and drinks, like that fancy Kombucha you picked up from Whole Foods. As a result, valuable nutrients from the waste like calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus are made available for re-use.

Nearly half of all food produced is thrown out without being eaten. Composting can help eliminate some of this waste, but fermenting it into black soldier fly feed can eliminate nearly 100% of this waste.

Nearly half of all food produced is thrown out without being eaten. Composting can help eliminate a fraction of this waste, but fermenting it into black soldier fly feed can eliminate nearly 100% of it.

Just think about that for a second. Eliminating all food waste. Currently, Americans throw away about 40% of the food we buy each year, most of which ends up in local landfills, rotting and releasing greenhouse gases like methane. It costs the city of Los Angeles alone $64 million dollars a year in tipping fees to dump the 1.3 million tons of food waste Angelenos produce. Of course, reducing how much we throw out in the first place would be the best approach, but changing individual and industrial behavior will not happen overnight, so in the meantime we need to find better ways to eliminate this waste. Composting helps, but can only accommodate about 10-15% of total food waste, meaning the rest still gets thrown out. All of that food waste could instead be converted to insect feed and actually result in a net financial gain. Here’s how:

The nutrient-rich liquid that results from fermentation is fed to the fast growing soldier fly larvae. A portion of these larvae will be harvested as animal feed for chickens and other livestock, reducing the need to rely on fishmeal, soybean oil, and other unsustainable feed sources. The larvae waste (i.e. poop) can also be used as a rich fertilizer for plants and crops (or aquaponics systems, which I’ll discuss in my next post). But the truly miraculous aspect of this endeavor comes from something else the larvae produce: melanin.

Black soldier fly larvae are rich in melanin--the substance that determines our skin and hair color--which also happens to be a powerful electrical conductor.

Black soldier fly larvae are rich in melanin–the substance that determines our skin and hair color–which also happens to be a powerful electrical conductor.

That’s right, melanin—the stuff that regulates our skin and hair color, as well as the coloration of animals, such as the spots on a squid. It turns out that melanin is a powerful electricity conductor, making it a perfect substance to use in rechargeable batteries. Yet you’ve probably never seen a melanin battery in your local store. Why? Normally, melanin is very expensive to produce, much too costly to support a lucrative battery industry. That is, it was too expensive. Ken and Radu have discovered that black solider fly larvae produce relatively large quantities of melanin in their bodies, which can be extracted for human use, including for batteries. Melanin batteries would be completely organic, non-toxic, and biodegradable. No more reliance on precious metals and harmful battery acids.

When Ken first described this to his audience in the lecture hall on Catalina, the concept didn’t seem to sink in. So he repeated his conclusion: Through the BSFA process, we can eliminate food waste, produce rich animal feed and fertilizer, and most importantly, create a renewable source of melanin to produce completely biodegradable batteries. An entirely closed-loop system! Melanin batteries could be used effectively to store energy produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar—energy sources that are difficult to store with current battery technology.

Chickens love eating black fly larvae, which serve as a more sustainable food source than fishmeal (made from wild caught fish), soybean oil, and corn (from genetically modified crops grown in destructive monocultures).

Chickens love eating black fly larvae, which are a more sustainable food source than fish meal (made from dwindling stocks of wild caught fish), soybean oil, and corn (from genetically modified crops grown in destructive monocultures).

Even the adult black soldier flies provide financial value to the system. Once they reproduce and lay eggs, they die. Their exoskeletons are high in chitin, a polymer with numerous commercial uses including wastewater treatment, bandages, a binder for dyes, fabrics, and adhesives, and more.

Ken and Radu have established a private venture, partnered with a company called River Road Research, to continue to tweak and expand this system—which Ken wryly describes as the first example of insect domestication—and are hoping to soon trial it on a massive scale by working with food producers and cities in the near future. Their hope is to turn food waste into a lucrative commodity that ultimately benefits cities, agricultural production, livestock production, and the renewable energy sector.

'Domesticating' black soldier flies in cages involves separating each part of the life cycle, from egg, to larva, to adult phase, and growing them in specific light and temperature conditions.

‘Domesticating’ black soldier flies in cages involves separating each part of the life cycle, from egg, to larva, to adult phase, and growing them in specific light and temperature conditions.

In my next post I’ll discuss the concept of aquaponics, another sustainable approach to food production and waste elimination that is set to change the way we think about food. We humans may have a fighting chance thanks to some brave and cunning individuals!

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Posted on March 22, 2014, in Food news, Food politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Enviro-Mental and commented:

    Innovative ways to grow food sustainably, reduce food waste, and store renewable energy! Check out this blog post and the others on Doctor Vegan about sustainable food production.

  1. Pingback: Fish are Friends | doctor vegan

  2. Pingback: Reaping the Tasty Benefits of Organic Gardening | doctor vegan

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