The Science of Sustainability

Let Them Eat Flies

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Yellow Springs, Ohio, has been known for its counter-culture vibe since the 1960s, but the day the bug farm arrived its eccentricity rating went up a notch.

Consisting of a few tidy buildings, EnviroFlight sits across from a hip brewpub in an unassuming industrial park. It houses millions of bugs, but you wouldn’t know it from the outside — or from the inside for that matter. The “production room” is so bright and clean it could be an industrial bakery. But look closely inside one of the dozens of stainless steel vats and you’ll see writhing insect larvae, happily munching on cookie and cracker crumbs.

The larvae are those of the black soldier fly, a native, nonpathogenic insect. The larva’s size increases by 5,000 times in the span of just a few weeks. Their fast growth is key to the operation, but so is their food: mostly pre-consumer waste, aka the scraps from big food manufacturing facilities. Chicken-nugget breading is often on the menu, but sometimes it’s broken cookies or spent grains from the adjacent brewpub — whatever is cheap and available. “They’ll eat anything,” said Glen Courtright, the man at the helm of the operation.

EnviroFlight founder Glen Courtright

EnviroFlight founder Glen Courtright shows off one of his millions black soldier flies.  He believes these insects are the key to sustainable animal feed.  Photo by Anne Glausser.

For a bug farmer in a hippy town, Glen Courtright isn’t what you’d expect. An ex-Naval Intelligence Officer and engineer, he’s now an entrepreneur on the ground floor of what he believes is the next big thing in agriculture. He’s spent years tinkering with the most efficient way to grow his bugs. “The goal here is to grow bugs in a safe and responsible manner to get a safe product into our food chain,” said Courtright.

Mating Soldier Flies

Black soldier flies mate in the part of the facility that Glen refers to as "The Love Shack" — a structure specifically designed to get the insects to mate.  Photo by Anne Glausser

But where on the food chain will Courtright’s bugs reside? Although his “bug protein” can certainly be used as an alternative protein source for humans, Courtright is very clear that he doesn’t think bugs will be crawling onto our plates anytime soon. Instead, he sees his bugs, among other things, as a feed augmentation for farmed fish. The appeal to fish is simple. “Fish normally eat bugs in the wild,” said Courtright, referring to the fact that aquatic bugs make up a significant portion of most wild fish diets.

Drying Larva

Courtright removes a sample batch of dried larva from his test oven.  From here, the larva is ground up and added in place of fishmeal. Photo by Anne Glausser.

Farmed fish generally eat a combination of corn and soy fillers paired with fish meal, made of ground up small fish like anchovies and sardines. Corn and soy are cheap and plentiful sources of protein and fat, but the most popular farmed fish (salmon, trout, perch, tilapia) are carnivorous and not inclined to eat food that doesn’t contain fish meal. According to Dr. Tony Forshey, chief of animal health for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, it’s a matter of taste. “Fish meal tastes good for the fish,” he said, “so in order to get them to eat it, they have to like it and they have to like the taste of it.”

The problem is that the small fish that are used to make fish meal are wild caught, and with a growing population of seafood lovers across the world, the threat of overfishing these forage fish is very real. According to Wooster-based fish farmer Tom Machamer, the threat extends to people’s pocketbooks. “We’re harvesting more from the ocean,” he said, “so the cost of fish meal has increased drastically in the last three or four years.”

Fish Farmer Tom Machamer

Fish farmer Tom Machamer gathers up some bass at his farm in Wooster, OH.  He currently uses traditional fish meal-based feed, but is interested in the prospect of a more affordable and sustainable feed.  Photo by Hannah Weinberger.

This is where EnviroFlight comes in. According to Courtright’s tests, larger carnivorous fish crave his “insect meal” the same way they do fish meal. And because Courtright is able to grow an abundant, steady supply of insect meal, he thinks he has created a more affordable and sustainable way to feed farmed fish.

Noting the growing human population, the overfished oceans, and widespread wasteful food practices, Courtright says his bug engineering could help on many fronts. “We have the technology that can solve two problems,” he noted. “We can solve a food problem, and we can solve a waste problem.”

All with the help of some very hungry flies.

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Category: Biology, Engineering, Food, Sustainable Food, Television, Video

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Mary Fecteau

About the Author ()

Mary Fecteau is an Educational Multimedia Producer at WVIZ/PBS ideastream. A native of Rhode Island, she began her career in 2007 at ThinkTV in Dayton, Ohio. Traveling the state for the magazine program Our Ohio, she’s covered everything from chili in Cincinnati, to coral farms in Columbus, to the infamous Cuyahoga River in Cleveland – and was awarded an Ohio Valley Regional Emmy for her work in 2010. She’s currently concentrating on web-based science and educational media, having completed several STEM-focused videos for ideastream. Mary holds a BA in Film from California State University, Long Beach and an MA in Public Media from Ohio University.
  • Mac

    Great piece! Thank you! I hope Stanford University folks will watch this as they try to figure out what to do with their harmful and unneeded Searsville Dam (which similarly blocks threatened steelhead trout). Keep up the great work!

  • Johan Lastich

    This is great idea and video production too!

    • Mary Fecteau

      Thanks!

  • bewastewise

    Good idea! What all types of food waste do these guys eat?

    • Mary Fecteau

      The beauty of soldier flies is that they’re not picky eaters. According to Glen, they’ll eat almost anything. He feeds them a lot of pre-consumer waste – broken cookies and crackers, unused chicken nugget breading, etc. In the past, he’s also taken spent grains from the brewpub across the street. Generally, whatever is cheap and available.

      • bewastewise

        Very interesting! Sounds like a potential solution to global food waste. If protein is the goal, this might be more sustainable than feeding cattle with food waste. Welcome to another solution.

        • Mary Fecteau

          Yes! Although they've mostly been testing insect meal for aquaculture, it is certainly a potential protein source for other livestock.

  • Lindsey Hoshaw

    What a fantastic video! So much information packed into seven minutes. I can't believe the female flies can lay 500-900 eggs each! And the larva reach full size in less than two weeks. Also, great job mentioning that humans could be eating the bugs directly. It's a valid point though one we often don't like to think about. Having eaten meal worms, I have to say they taste like toasted rice cereal.