food technology

Better Origin: a high tech approach to insect farming

Three summers ago I did a project on edible insects, sourcing and trying as many insect based foods as I could get hold of in Britain. While plenty of them lived up the the ‘edible’ description, most didn’t go any further than that. Among my conclusions were that 1) insect based foods were more promising than convincing people to eat insects themselves. And 2) it would make more sense to grow insects for animal food.

With that in mind, I was pleased to come across Better Origin, an start-up company that creates small insect farms.

Their core product is the Better Origin X1, a fully automated insect farm inside a shipping container. It can be delivered to a farm, craned into position and it’s ready to go. Post-harvest or food waste goes in, and is consumed by larvae. Fattened grubs come out, ready to be fed to chickens or other animals. The whole process is handled by artificial intelligence, which monitors larvae health and controls feeding so that farmers don’t need any training or previous experience with insects.

As the grandson of a poultry farmer, I can imagine what my Grandpa would have thought of an AI insect farm, but there’s another aspect to it that he would no doubt have understood immediately. Insects eat waste, and chickens eat insects. This modular ‘protein conversion unit’ is a clever piece of technology, but it’s a natural solution at the same time. Better Origin describes their role as restoring a “missing link in the food chain”. Insects are certainly a more obvious protein source than fishmeal, which currently feeds many chickens (have you ever seen a chicken at sea?)

Farming as currently practiced in the global North is unsustainable, with huge amounts of waste, and vast areas of land dedicated to producing feed for animals rather than people. Insects can shorten the supply lines – waste is dealt with on site, and animal feed is produced. This dramatically reduces the carbon emissions involved, and it saves money too – Better Origin claim their product has a 130% return on investment.

If we’re talking about meat production, we should remember that chickens are the most exploited animal in the world. The problems with industrial chicken farming are far bigger than the protein source fed to them, and this only addresses one aspect. Nevertheless, Better Origin are onto something here. They’re the first to use AI, but they’re one of a number of new ‘entomics’ initiatives looking at insect farming, and we may be hearing more about it in future.

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