We interviewed Prof. Gianluca Tettamanti, associate Professor in the department of Biotechnology and Life Sciences at the University of Insubria, and project manager InBioProFeed for bioconversion of vegetable waste by insects.
Can you explain what’s the project InBioProFeed exactly?
The project examines the feasibility of raising the black soldier fly (Hermetia Illucens) on vegetable waste substrates that are provided by wholesale fruit and vegetable markets, such as the Mercati Generali in Milan.
The project covers all the steps for creating a new production based on this bug: the collection of vegetable waste, its transformation into a substrate for breading the larvae, the treatment of insect for the production of trout feed, and finally the verification of its nutritional performances in an aquaculture facility.
How did the idea to start this trial arise? Was there an incentive on the part of any company, association or institution?
The idea was spontaneous.
We had interest in this application of insects and we started to think concretely about it after contacting SOGEMI (who also runs the Fruit and Vegetable Markets in Milan).
Then we decided to bring our idea to the competition announcement of Fondazione Cariplo, and fortunately it went well. The funding for the project is € 300,000 €.
What are the main difficulties to overcome?
The difficulties are considerable.
First of all, I would mention the absolute lack of literature concerning the substrates on which to grow the larvae and on the possible consequences that any modification in this regard could have on the growth of insects and then on the results of the entire operation.
Secondly the search for markers, which is one of the main project goals since even on this issue there’s a lack of literature and detailed analyses.
We will surely face many other difficulties; as a matter of fact the project, which consists of five phases and will last three years, was launched just in March 2015.
Did you encounter particular problems in managing a massive insects breeding?
Insects are very sensitive to any change concerning diet, habitat and its conditions.
Indeed there are many parameters and equally numerous variables to be monitored.
The main ones are temperature, the type of soil and moisture. Even the lighting is obviously a key factor, especially in allowing insects to complete their life cycle and thus making autonomous the breeding facility.
Then there are the potential microbiological risks related to insects in general, and especially to insects bred intensively, on which there is an absolute shortage of precedents and references; even EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has recently expressed its opinion in this regard. This is also one of the topics that will be analyzed during the project InBioProFeed.
I would also like to add that the transferring of processes from an experimental small scale to an industrial large scale will definitely involve further issues that will need to be resolved in order to have an efficient and profitable breeding, which won’t be crush after facing the first post experimental phase hurdles.
Even the trials with insect flour be used in fish production will start thereafter.
Yes, after having fulfilled the research on insect breeding phases and on markers.
Experimentation on rainbow trout will start in about a year and a half, and will be done by feeding trouts with feeds containing different percentages of flour derived from insects.
We will carefully evaluate several parameters, including the growth factor and possible metabolic problems.
What are the advantages connected to fruit and vegetable waste treatment through the mediation of insects?
Certainly a reduction in the amount of waste to be disposed of (the Fruit and Vegetables Markets in Milan produce approximately 1300 tons of waste per year) and their transformation into proteins then intended for the production of animal feed.
Should insect bioconversion be done in specific plants or could it somehow fit o those who already treat organic waste?
We are proceeding towards the second option, also for a cost effectiveness issue of the bioconversion process. It is in fact more convenient – even under a logistics point of view – to manage insect bioconversion alongside an already existing plant authorized to process that kind of waste, rather than giving it as a substrate to an industrial insects breeding.
It might happen that breeders and plant managers cooperate synergically, thus enabling that a part of the life cycle of insects takes place entirely at the waste treatment plant.
Is bioconversion also applicable to the wet fraction of household waste, or could preselection will be needed? The waste that comes out of the Fruit and Vegetables Markets is indeed very homogeneous.
This is not an easy-to-solve problem.
The classic small bag of domestic organic waste is not as homogeneous, since people are used to throw everything in it, drugs or other substances that are potentially harmful to humans included.
A colleague has recently carried out a study on the composition of the organic waste of domestic origin in big cities and the results confirmed this kind of risk.
The insects would not have problems to decompose even that kind of inhomogeneous waste; the point is that the potential harmful pollutants would then become a part of the flours that are given to the animals we eat.
It is a risk factor that is not currently possible to manage, and therefore the substrates must be absolutely secure in this regard.
Even if this is not your field, in your opinion is there a commercial future beyond the experimental phase that can actually start a business?
Something is already ongoing and there are various fields of application.
Now, given the recent vote of the European Parliament on ‘ Novel foods ‘ regulation, we hope that funds for research on these and all the other topics related to insects, edible and non-edible will be allocated. This is crucial, because research always brings resources in terms of technologies and know-how that are valuable for the economic sector and for entrepreneurs, who thanks to collaborations with universities, can give life to an industry capable of creating wealth, innovation and job places.