- Insider got inside the world’s largest larvae harvesting flies as a sustainable source of protein.
- Insect protein is becoming increasingly prevalent in animal feed to replace soybean or fishmeal.
- Protix operates from a high-tech farm in the Netherlands, with plans to expand to 10 new locations.
An insect farm may conjure up images of muddy fields, barns, and boots, not a fully automated high-tech facility in a commercial warehouse in an industrial estate.
Only the name, “Protix”, reveals the nature of this establishment in the town of Bergen op
In the south of Holland, where the insect company has been operating since 2019.
This 15,000 square meter warehouse is the largest black soldier fly farm in the world. The demand for edible insects – and facilities like these – is growing.
Currently, about 80% of Protix’s production is used in pet food, while the rest is used in fish and poultry feed.
This is set to change as fish, poultry and pig farmers are looking for alternative sources of protein to fishmeal and soybeans. The insect protein in poultry and pig feed was approved last year by the European Union, which also gave the green light to domestic crickets, yellow mealworm and migratory locusts for human consumption.
Protix is preparing to announce 10 new locations as it expands into Europe and North America.
Their facilities are the culmination of a decade of extensive research and development and the belief that insect protein can improve the ecological footprint of our food.
This plant has produced 15,000 tons of live larvae annually for the past two years; That’s 10,000 tons of protein per hectare per year. In contrast, soybeans produce only one ton of protein per hectare annually.
This is part nature, and part nurturing. Nature has introduced the Black Soldier Fly, the hero of the bio-transformer. Protix has leveraged the technology to grow it, which it has spent a decade perfecting.
The first thing you notice as you enter – and the only donation that this facility makes is actually a farm – is the smell that comes from the insect feed, which reminded me of the smell of a hamster cage.
The plant is divided into sections that deal with different stages of the process, but its beating heart is the vertical farm.
This is where the caterpillars live, in roughly stacked boxes four meters high and over 16 meters deep in designated stocking units. The temperature is maintained at a moderate 30°C.
There are three storage areas, arranged around a central conveyor system where feeding and harvesting takes place. Technicians control every step of the process through a central console. Everything here is bespoke, from the shape of the box to the proprietary software.
“You can’t buy anything off the shelf,” Case Arts, founder and CEO of Protix, told me as we toured the facility.
The larvae are fed by-products from the food and beverage industry, such as potato waste from the French fries factory or grain waste.
Feed ingredients are delivered daily and stored in silos in the back of the factory. It is then mixed and made into a special puree in giant blenders.
The fry are fed every two days: the stacking hoist pulls entire columns of bins, which are sent around the conveyor system to be filled with feed and then returned to the vertical stowage area.
Larvae are harvested in just six to eight days. One per cent of the larvae is left to transform into adult flies and used for breeding, which is done in a special room, outside the scope of visitors.
For harvest, the boxes are returned to the central transport system and passed into a giant sieve, where the larvae are separated from the remaining feed before being washed.
Then the larvae are sent to be processed in an adjacent room. The main products of Protix are protein meal and oil which must be separated by centrifuge. The protein is then packed into bulk bags and the oil into container tanks.
“It’s like having a seed company, a farmer, a mill, and a packaging company under one roof to produce a protein meal,” said Arts.