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A maggot farm that upcycles food waste is coming to California

The proposed Jurupa Valley farm would use billions of flies and their larvae to turn trash into feed for livestock and fish farms.
By Jack Katzanek | The Mercury News |

 

THE MERCURY NEWS -- In a nondescript industrial complex in western Riverside County, a British company is planning to put billions of black flies and maggots to work on a unique task: upcycling food waste.

AgriProtein is building a plant in Jurupa Valley that will collect throw-away food typically sent to landfills. The waste becomes a feast for egg-laying flies and their larvae, or maggots, are converted into a food source for fish, fowl and other livestock.

The “MagMeal” concept may curl your toes, but it solves two environmental problems under one roof. It decreases the flow of waste to greenhouse-gas emitting landfills and uses 21st-century technology to make a new food source.

“This is just part of a natural process that’s been around for millions of years,” said Jason Drew, the CEO and co-founder of AgriProtein. “We have simply industrialized that process and taken it indoors.”

An estimated 6 million tons of food is discarded annually across California, according to CalRecycle. And as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
 

A changing food cycle

For years, food for poultry and farm-raised fish has come from fishmeal. But climate change has destabilized the wild-caught fish supply, forcing farmers to rethink their feed sources.

Drew and his brother David started dabbling with insect technology a decade ago on their family farm in South Africa. Drew described the basics of AgriProtein’s concept with a simple parable: An apple falls from a tree and decomposes on the ground. Flies find it and lay eggs on the apple, which turn into larvae. That rotten apple, maggots included, is still adequate food for a passing bird.

AgriProtein, founded in 2008 and now based in London, has a long-term renewable lease for a building at the Serrano Business Park, a newly built industrial development near the intersection of San Servaine Way and Bain Street.

The 179,000-square-foot manufacturing facility will have large, self-contained cages, or what Drew described as bio-secure rooms, in a factory that keeps greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere.

In other words, it won’t stink.

“Odors are not something that we generate because we have state-of-the-art air-scrubbing systems,” Drew said. “We pride ourselves in fitting in with the communities we operate in.”

The company has a maggot farm in Cape Town that takes in some 250 metric tons of food waste every day, according to Bloomberg. From that, some 8.4 billion black soldier flies lay an estimated 340 million eggs daily.

The proposed Jurupa Valley plant will be modeled after the South African facility, though it will be slightly larger, Drew said. While he declined to provide investment figures, the trade website Food Business Africa reported the plant will cost about $42 million to build.

AgriProtein, for now, can’t predict how much waste it will process in Jurupa Valley. Drew said the amount depends on how the company can market itself and how much material it can attract, a process they undertake at every expansion site.

“I guess the bottom line is that all responsible retailers (and their customers) want to ensure the waste they generate is responsibly and sustainably dealt with,” he wrote via email.

In addition to making basic protein, the process also will render a mixture of maggots and green-waste compost into an oil that’s also used in animal feed and fertilizer.
 

Building the company

AgriProtein’s concept got a boost from $11 million in early funding, including two grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Research and development took almost eight years, with the company opening its Cape Town plant in 2016.

According to a statement released in June 2018, the company raised an additional $105 million in funding, allowing it to partially finance factories on four continents. Bloomberg News reported AgriProtein plans to follow its Jurupa Valley project with operations in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Drew did not specify how much would be invested in the Jurupa Valley plant but said global expansion is an expensive mission. “Profitability at a group level is only anticipated at a later stage,” he wrote.

There are a handful of other companies operating similar business models. The lone American firm is Kentucky-based EnviroFlight LLC, a joint venture formed as a partnership by two publicly traded companies.

Drew said Southern California was targeted for its first American plant because of the huge amount of food waste and the region’s extensive freeway system. “We need to be between where the waste is generated and where the landfills would be,” he said.

Ideally, food-based companies and their contracted trash haulers will deliver waste to Jurupa Valley and pay AgriProtein to take it, he said.
 

What the future holds

While the concept is relatively new in modern manufacturing, it has growth potential.

An October report from Reports and Data, a market research and consulting firm, said companies using insect technology to create protein could see 38% compounded annual growth over the next seven years.

As AgriProtein’s permitting process moves forward, officials at the Riverside County Department of Waste Services will be watching with interest, said Corinne Awad, the agency’s government affairs officer.

“I think we would definitely be open to working with them if they had a permitted facility that would help divert organic waste,” Awad said.

Riverside County’s businesses produced about 203 million tons of food and other organic waste in 2014, according to the most recent county data provided to the state. About a quarter of that came from restaurants.

Awad said creating a new option for organic waste could help cities, counties and businesses comply with a law then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2016 establishing targets to reduce greenhouse gas production. The targets of Senate Bill 1383 are reducing the amount of food sent to landfills by 50% in 2020 and by 75% in 2025.

Permitting for the factory is still in its early stages and will take as long as 18 months before it is ready for production, said Tim Jonasson, Jurupa Valley’s senior manager of the economic development department.

Jonasson said the preliminary plans are under review, and he expects them to be presented to the city’s planning commission in January or February.

A small model version of the facility is under development at a research lab in Ontario. Jonasson, who has visited the lab, said there are no flies buzzing around and no bad odors.

“It really feels like a high-tech place,” Jonasson said. “You feel more like you’re in an Intel chip manufacturing laboratory more than you’re in a place that recycles food.”

Drew said the company still working on completing the Ontario lab, and he expects it will be up and running early next year.
 

This concept has legs

The concept of using flies to break down food and reuse it as feed has been around for almost 30 years, said Alec Gerry, a professor of entomology at UC Riverside. Using it to make money, however, is somewhat new.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation got involved, spurring commercial interest, Gerry said. Creating the maggots in a well-contained area is a key aspect for communities, and he added that black soldier flies do not carry disease and are not considered nuisances like house flies.

But he added that cities should be diligent about those key questions when a company seeks approval to locate there.

“(AgriProtein) will certainly have to demonstrate it has some sort of satisfactory process of delivery of waste and containment so it doesn’t attract any nuisance factors,” Gerry said.

 

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