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The global protein crisis

An insect breeding unit for poultry farmers. That’s the idea of Amusca’s Walter Jansen. These protein-rich juvenile houseflies are an excellent solution for the global protein crisis and are also, incidentally, excellent waste processors. But how should such an insect farm be designed? After ten years, the quest of Walter ends at Iv-Industrie. “It’s strange that I hadn’t thought of them sooner.”

He just didn’t know what to do anymore. It appeared that after two tests, the design he had devised didn’t work. Zoologist Walter Jansen stood there staring at it. He told a friend from the rowing club that he’s been busy with his larvae farm for ten years. His friend gave him a tip; talk to Iv-Industrie. Maisha Verhoek, Lead Process Engineer at Iv-Industrie, has clear memories of how Walter stood before her with all his drawings. “We critically studied it. In particular, the process-technical design. Were there any sharp edges or rotating components? Are the larvae able to get stuck anywhere? We were dealing with a living and very fragile organism”, explains Maisha. “It’s strange that I hadn’t thought of Iv-Industrie sooner”, says Walter. “They brought all the separate elements of the larvae breeding unit together. They have expertise in cooling, process optimisation, human nutrition, legislation, safety requirements and engineering, which is exactly in-line with our specialist knowledge. Together we searched hard for a solution, and I now know exactly what the problem is.”

The minister tucked into an insect

His idea came up when he saw Minister Gerda Verburg (Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality between 2007 and 2010 in the Cabinet Balkenende IV) tucking into an insect at the annual ‘Binnenhof Barbecue’, says Walter. Walter thought: wait a minute, so it is still possible. Walters company develops cattle feed. He already works with algae, bacteria and fungi. But insects...no, he is not allowed to use them. Since the outbreak of mad cow disease (BSE), it is forbidden to feed animals with animal protein. “Animal feed contained meat and bone meal derived from ground offal from mammals or poultry, and it was believed that this was the main culprit of BSE. At that time, nobody thought about making an exception for insects. Food for fish, dogs and cats can be made from insects.” 

Insects could put a stop to logging

According to the law, it is forbidden to feed processed insects to animals. However, nothing is mentioned about feeding live insects to animals. Walter thought; what if he was to create a larvae farm. Larvae are full of proteins. And farm animals need proteins to grow. That’s why we feed them with high-protein soybean meal. More and more rainforests are being destroyed to make way for soy plantations. Insects could put a stop to all this logging. And with this, insects would not only be the solution to solving the global protein crisis within the agricultural animal world but would also help combat tropical deforestation. 

Housefly or cockroach?

There are six million insect species worldwide. After sifting through a viable selection, two species remained: the housefly and the cockroach, and of the latter, the Red Runner and the hissing cockroach. “Cockroaches are particularly interesting,” says Walter, “because – besides from being a source of protein – they contain much more chitin than the larvae of the housefly. Each time cockroaches shed their shells they release new amounts of chitin. This insect skeleton building material can be used for numerous applications in medicine, water purification, food additives, packaging and the manufacture of new materials. It can even serve as a raw material for bioplastics. But people find cockroaches horrible and dirty. Imagine if they managed to break free and invade a neighbourhood in the close vicinity of such a larvae farm... That would definitely be a risk” 

Musca Domestica

The housefly, the Musca Domestica, was the remaining candidate. Notice the link to the name of Walter’s company. “With an ‘A’ added at the beginning of Musca, because then you will be listed at the beginning of the telephone book. If people still use it, that is”, says Walter laughing. We all know the housefly. In fact, there’s always one zigzagging and buzzing around the home every day. They are everywhere where people are, but we certainly don’t regard them as pets. Houseflies don’t have a high cuddle-factor. They are extremely irritating, a nuisance and they also spread disease and love refuse. But more than anything; they are flying protein bombs. 

Housefly breeding unit

Walter goes forth with the invention of a housefly breeding unit. “Cultivating insects didn’t exist nine years ago. In consultation with animal organisations, I studied the behaviour of the housefly. All aspects of the design are considerate to the rights of the fly.”Walter quickly found investors for his plan: animal feed manufacturer Denkavit and waste processing company Sita. Besides the waste incinerators of AEB Amsterdam, a test breeding unit with housefly larvae will also be set up. Food and biodegradable waste will be dispatched to the breeding unit. The eggs, from which the larvae will emerge later, will be added to this. “The larvae fill their bellies with proteins and other waste goodies and are then put to sleep and dried. From this, protein-rich dog and cat food and fish food can be made.” An added bonus: the larvae convert the organic waste into compost within three to four days instead of two weeks, which would be the normal time it takes for composting to occur. Fly larvae are diligent waste processors. The plan was to cost twenty million euros and after years of preparation was set to falter in 2014. “Investors were put off by strict legislation.” 

Larvae for chickens

Stop? Of course not! With his adapted concept, Walter finds a new investor. “I have adapted the larvae breeding unit to be smaller and fully automatic. This way, every poultry farmer can install it with limited investment. A PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) computer program controls everything remotely. Each breeding unit is connected to all other units, whether located in Barneveld or Bogota. The PLC learns and adapts in real-time.”Yes, this type of breeding unit is especially for poultry farmers. “Chickens are insectivores by nature”, he says. “We’ve never had the chance to feed them with the food they are accustomed to. I also have a chicken at home. It’s always on the hunt for insects, all day long. That’s why they potter around, that’s what they are looking for. Buy fish larvae from a fish shop, chickens love them. They will also immediately stop with pecking at other chickens. Which is something they do out of boredom. If you feed them protein-rich larvae, they will begin to behave much more naturally. The chitin contained in the larvae also possesses bactericidal properties. The chicken be will healthier and you can use the chicken manure as a basis to breed new flies.”

Three sea containers

The fully automatic Amusca Insect Breeding Unit consists of three seventeen-metre sea containers. The unit is essentially a play and sleeping area for the houseflies. From there, the eggs are transferred to the breeding module. “The larvae crawl out of these eggs and are fed with residual products from the beer and sugar industries. And really, those larvae grow like crazy. Altogether, they weigh roughly the same as a cat. After four days, they are as heavy as four cows. After three days we turn them out - before they start to fly - and we feed them to chickens.” With such a ‘larvae factory’, a chicken farmer can feed 70,000 to 100,000 chickens a year. For this, approximately six million flies (half males and half females) are required. Each female fly lays an average of thirty eggs every day. Work it out, it’s around ninety million eggs every day. 

Simple (dis)assembly

After all this, it goes wrong after two tests. Iv-Industrie then checks all the possible components of the design drawings. Functionality, manufacturability and maintenance. Can the design really deliver what it was made for? Have the correct materials been chosen? Can the components handle the assumed load and are they easy to (dis)assemble? “Components that need to be cleaned regularly or on which wear parts are to be attached, must be easily accessible and easy to (dis)assemble”, says Maisha. “Various components that share similarities can often be adjusted in such a way that only one variant is needed and is applied in multiple places. This makes production cheaper and assembly easier.”

The humidity of the breeding module

Walter posed questions, particularly about the cooling of the larvae breeding module. A double-walled tank; with water flowing between the double walls. But are these enough litres of water to prevent the temperature in the tank from exceeding 37 degrees? Larvae are proteins that should not be too warm. Walter: “The humidity of the breeding module where the houseflies lay their eggs is also very important. There are several damp cloths hanging in the module to maintain an optimum humidity of 70%. If the humidity level rises, mould will begin to grow on the larvae.” 

Faith

Walter was given clear advice: make sure you have good composition and workshop drawings with which you can manufacture a prototype. “You can easily resolve any teething problems, after which you can create a revision drawing”, says Maisha. If you have this, you can manufacture, assemble and commission the installation anywhere in the world. This will deliver savings on the stocking and transportation of components. Walter agrees: “You have to leave the design of such an insect breeding unit to experts. Once again, we’re reminded that we’re biologists, not engineers.” Of course, he knew of the name Iv-Industrie but assumed their work was purely to do with building oil and gas platforms. And of chemicals, pharmaceuticals and food? Maisha: “A process is a process. Whether it concerns oil, milk or larvae. However, an important difference here is that larvae are alive and require a different approach than with a liquid or solid. This is what made it an interesting challenge for us.”

Walter is hoping that the party that built the larvae breeding unit will take Iv-Industrie’s recommendations on board so that in ten years’ time, the first ‘larvae factory’ can finally be installed. Walter: “If I had known in advance that it would take so long, I probably wouldn’t have started it. But that’s also the key to making great steps: you have to keep going and you have to believe in it. And I never lost faith in this!” 

Would you like to know more about the possibilities for your project? Ruud will be pleased to share ideas about your engineering issues. Contact him by email or call 088 943 3700.
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