In the natural order of things, insects would be a major part of any chicken’s diet and ‘carbon-neutral’ eggs wouldn’t sound like a far-fetched concept. Instead, the billions of chickens produced for human consumption live primarily off a grain- and soy-rich diet that carries health consequences for the birds and contributes to environmental problems like rampant deforestation.
Insects are one solution to this problem, according to UK-based startup Better Origin. The company says its automated insect ‘mini-farms’ can help reduce the amount of soy needed to feed chickens by converting food waste into nutrient-rich larvae for hens to eat.
Better Origin’s latest venture is a partnership with UK supermarket chain Morrisons that will reduce the amount of soy feed on 10 of the latter’s free-range egg farms. The two companies have worked together for more than a year, according to Better Origin’s co-founder Fotis Fotiadis, and recently wrapped a successful pilot of the egg farm project.
He tells AFN his company’s technology is “a solution that can actually improve welfare, sustainability, and productivity altogether.” The vision, he says, is not to target high-end supermarkets with premium carbon-neutral egg products, but to install its tech at every single Morrisons farm in order to create a mass-market product accessible to all consumers.
Soy v. insect
Soy remains one of the fastest, cheapest ways way to feed chickens destined for human consumption. However, with the vast majority of global soy production happening in South America, the crop is also heavily linked to deforestation in that region. A study published this year by the journal Nature found that the most rapid expansion of soybean production in recent years has occurred in the Brazilian Amazon, where the soybean area “increased more than tenfold.”
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that insects have the potential to replace 25% to 100% of soymeal in chickens’ diets. In a blog post of its own, Better Origin says 1 square meter of insects can produce the same amount of protein per year as 1,500 square meters of soy.
Better Origin uses the black soldier fly for its mini-farms. Fotiadis calls this insect “a prolific converter of nutrient byproduct” and adds it is “very, very efficient at turning waste nutrients into fats and proteins.”
Each week, fruit and vegetable waste from the Morrisons supply chain goes into the mini-farms to feed the larvae. Fotiadis says the black soldier fly can grow to about 5,000 times its initial body mass in roughly 11 to 14 days. AI-powered thermal cameras track the progress and growth of the larvae, which farmers harvest after a couple weeks and use as part of the hens’ feed. A fresh shipment of maggot eggs then goes into the mini-farm to be hatched and then fed by more food waste, keeping the cycle going.
More than 30 tons of fruit and veg waste will go into this system each week, with most of it coming primarily from Morrisons packing houses.
Sophie Throup, head of agriculture at Morrisons, tells AFN that one aspect of the Better Origin solution that stood out for the supermarket chain was that it puts “control in the hands of the farmer to grow their own protein sources […] using tech that’s highly, but remotely, monitored.”
“I also really liked that two of the farmers who supplied us came to me with the idea of working with Better Origin having seen articles and presentations from the Better Origin team; it’s very important that these initiatives work for the farm and not just for an overall ambition,” she says.
Better Origin says the initial 10 deployments of its mini-farms on Morrisons’ egg-producing sites will collectively feed 320,000 hens that lay millions of eggs per year. Reducing soy from these 10 farms’ feed could offset 5,737 tons of carbon dioxide and save the equivalent of 56 hectares of South American land from deforestation every year.
A “high-value additive”
The two companies aren’t producing truly carbon-neutral eggs just yet, though that’s the eventual aim.
Fotiadis says Better Origin and Morrisons are supplementing, rather than outright replacing, soy in the chickens’ diets – with the larvae acting as a “high-value additive” that improves the overall health of the chickens and can ultimately lead to them producing more eggs.
Nor is the goal necessarily for insects to be the only replacement for soy. “The solution we see is a much more sustainable mix of proteins, locally grown, and live insects,” says Fotiadis. To that end, hens on the Morrisons farms will also receive a supplementary diet of UK-sourced beans, peas, and sunflower seeds.
A big reason for this is that insect meat remains expensive. One recent estimate put the price per metric ton of insect protein between $4,250 and $6,066, which is substantially higher than the cost of soy per metric ton.
A farm for every farm
To start, Morrisons and Better Origin will place the latter’s insect facilities on 10 free-range egg farms belonging to Morrisons. Pending the success of their carbon-neutral egg initiative, they will raise that number to 15 in the near future. The plan is to eventually put an insect mini-farm on all 60 of Morrisons’ farms.
Longer term, Morrisons plans to have carbon-neutral options for fruit, vegetables, and meat, and aims to be supplied only by net-zero UK farms by 2030.
“We’ve set an ambition to be net-zero in our UK agriculture supply chain by 2030, and that needs innovation and creative thinking – along with the support and ideas of the farmers we work with,” Throup says. “Part of our approach is also to work through how we can bring customers along with us on the journey, which is where products come into it.”
Morrisons expects to bring its carbon-neutral eggs to market next year.