While Japanese indoor farming companies use robots to grow lettuce in fully automated greenhouses, a startup in the U.S. hopes to do the same thing for grubs. Grubbly Farms, based in Atlanta, is building an automated system to feed black soldier fly larvae food waste and then use the larvae as animal feed in agriculture.
The founders, two recent college grads, started experimenting with bugs in their apartment after learning that insects could help solve some of farming's sustainability problems. Chickens that eat soy grown on deforested land could eat bugs instead; farmed fish could eat meal made from grubs rather than overfished ocean fish.
"We ordered our first 700 larvae off Amazon," says Grubbly Farms co-founder Patrick Pittaluga. "We hatched the larvae into flies and started breeding flies in our laundry room of our apartment while Sean [his co-founder] was still at Georgia Tech."
With more research, they found that there was a market for their new animal feed and that customers were open to eating chicken raised with grubs—which are, after all, something chickens would naturally eat on a traditional farm.
"We found that not only was it something that people would not mind, but they really liked the idea of a sustainable feed and reclaiming lost nutrients and waste, preventing it from going to landfill, and converting it into a another usable source of protein," he says.
Working with the Georgia Center of Innovation for Energy Technology, an accelerator, the startup connected with a local juice company to use its wasted fruit and vegetable pulp. As the grub farm grows, it plans to also work with a local industrial bakery, which throws out around 20 tons of food waste a week. (For regulatory reasons, all of the food waste they use has to come from industry, not from consumers' plates, where there's a chance of contamination.)
Right now, the initial product, "pet chicken treats," is more expensive than regular chicken feed. But they hope that will change as the company finishes its automated process. Right now, everything is manual. In 20 days, the larvae grow to about 7,000 times their initial body weight; every day, a batch of larvae born on a certain day need to be fed incrementally more food.
"You have literally tons and tons of larvae that has to be fed and has to be fed relatively precise amounts of food waste," says Pittaluga. "If you feed them too much, then the food can start to spoil before you eat it, and if you feed them too little, then you hinder their growth."
In the system they're developing now, machines will weigh the food waste and feed the right amount to the right bugs, living inside containers stacked from floor to ceiling inside a greenhouse. Then the system will spit the bugs out, process them, and deliver bags of insect protein and a fertilizer byproduct.
"When we come out with automation, our costs will plummet, and we'll be cheaper than other feeds on the market," he says.
The biggest market may be the quickly growing fish farming industry, which is starting to pay more for feed as ocean fish become scarcer. Grubbly also wants to make dog food.
"While I do think our pets deserve high-quality food, maybe chicken and fish should be saved for people, and insects—which may not be as appealing to people, but still nutritionally valuable—can go to feed dogs," says Pittaluga.
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