“Insects are nature’s most powerful upcyclers and are the missing link in our food system. They can help create a circular food system and enable us to move from a resource depleting linear system of production.”
Founder and CEO
Interview by: Cemalettin Kanaş
The protein deficit in the food system and the projections that this problem may become more acute reflect the general opinion of industry stakeholders and experts. The harm caused by current food production to nature is known to all parties, including consumers. States, international organizations, and, of course, companies of all scales are looking for solutions to the accumulating problems in terms of both the future of our planet and economic interests. The use of insects in animal feed, which is seen as an alternative protein source in this regard, stands out as a relatively new but promising phenomenon.
We had the opportunity to interview Kees Aarts, CEO of Protix, which managed to bring the usage of insect feed to the agenda of the EU and is one of the founders of the International Platform for Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF). As an editor who has published various articles and interviews on insect feed, I think this outstanding interview is quite important. Mr. Kees Aarts not only defines the insect bait issue as an economical alternative with a low carbon footprint but also presents it as a recipe for attaining a 'circular' system by removing the world from a resource-depleting 'linear' production system. We had a talk with Aarts about the present and future of the insect feed industry and more.
The questions we asked and the answers we got from Mr. Aarts, CEO and founder of Protix, which is considered one of the leading companies in insect feed, are as follows:
Can you introduce yourself and Protix for our readers? What do you do for the feed industry? What should we understand from the “insect as feed” concept?
Kees Aarts is the founder and CEO of Protix, the leading developer of insect-based proteins and ingredients and smart insect-based technologies that convert organic byproducts into valuable nutrients for animals and humans.
The need for a sustainable food chain is one of our most pressing as we progress into the 21st century. Protix produces products that address a number of links in this chain; food waste is fed to the larvae of the black soldier fly (BSF) in a process that produces protein, lipids and compost in a natural, hygienic and safe way. The ingredients produced by Protix are produced without any chemicals, hormones or additives.
Protix breeds larvae from the Black Soldier Fly. Organic waste from the food industry serves as feed for the insects. In turn, the insects are processed into sustainable ingredients like proteins and lipids. These nutrients are used by Protix's customers as nutritious ingredients in various animal feed applications. Insect ingredients are more sustainable ingredients than soy or fishmeal and help prevent overfishing and deforestation for soy cultivation.
Insects are a natural food source for fish, chickens, pigs and other animals. We reintroduce this natural ingredient in the agri-food sector. Protix contributes to a food system that is in balance with nature.
COVID-19 seems to have ruined all these “zero hunger” targets of the UN for 2030. However, I think the international organization will modify and renew its target on this issue aftermath of the pandemic. What role do you think the use of the insect as feed can play in this immense and benevolent target?
Insects are nature’s most powerful upcyclers and are the missing link in our food system. They can help create a circular food system and enable us to move from a resource depleting linear system of production. Insects have the amazing ability to turn low-grade food waste into valuable high-end proteins and fats. Circular, soy-free and locally produced and sold: insects have a low ecological footprint and are the perfect sustainable alternative to regular protein sources.
Proteins are essential parts of every diet and are consumed by both humans and animals. As the world population grows, prosperity increases and consumption patterns change, the demand for protein increases significantly. It is estimated the demand will grow by 50% by 2050. The current AgroFood industry is struggling to meet this ever-growing demand and the production results in various negative effects, like deforestation, overfishing, an increased ecological footprint, and food waste. New and innovative alternatives are highly necessary to bridge this protein gap and deal with global problems including food waste. Insect proteins can play a crucial role in dealing with these issues.
AUTHORIZATION OF INSECT MEAL IN POULTRY AND PIG FEED IS GREAT NEWS
Within the EU framework, insects were already allowed to be used in pet food and aquaculture feed. And recently, Europe approved the authorization of insect meal in poultry and pig feed. How do you think this new development will affect the industry? Should we expect further authorizations in the future?
The EU approval of the authorization of insect meal in poultry and pig feed is great news and an important step for circular agriculture.
Insects in the diet of poultry and pigs brings nutritional, health, welfare, and sustainability benefits. Insects are a natural and sustainable food for poultry and pigs. Reintroducing insects in pig and poultry feed improves the resilience of agri-food supply, in line with the EU Farm to Fork strategy.
In nature all animals eat insects, they are a valuable source of highly digestible proteins. The approval of using insect meal for poultry and pig feed helps reduce the EU’s dependency on protein sources that are connected to deforestation and over fishing. Insects were the missing link in our broken food system.
This approval generates momentum for the insect industry to grow.
As far as I know, your company is supported by the EU. Could you elaborate the nature of this support? What do your products provide the society so that they are supported by the EU?
Protix’ smart technologies efficiently convert end-of-life organic waste into valuable nutrients such as proteins for animals and humans. We are the first company that has succeeded in producing high-quality insect products thanks to innovative technologies. For some projects Protix is supported by European funds with the aim of increasing the competitiveness of European agriculture and forestry, improving environmental management and improving social and economic living conditions in rural areas.
With the support of the OPZuid and POP3 funding schemes Protix has developed specialized hardware and software with which Protix can grow insects more sustainably, smarter and more efficiently. Solutions developed with this support have increased the reliability, flexibility and efficiency of Protix operations and reduced capital costs. Simultaneously, there has been a specific focus is on development of an integrated software approach to feed and resource use to increase sustainability of the insect products.
European and also national support helps the development of new products and new applications in the insect sector. The generated knowledge is shared with the insect world via scientific publications that helps the whole insect industry to move forward.
CONVENTIONAL PROTEIN SOURCES USE UP LARGE AMOUNTS OF LAND AND WATER
What will the “insects as feed” concept bring to the world once becoming widespread? What are your sustainable development goals?
Insect protein is the answer to many of the problems we face today. Conventional protein sources like soy and meat use up large amounts of land and water, and often have a severe impact on ecosystems. Insects are nature’s greatest upcyclers. They can turn fruit- and vegetable-waste into valuable body mass very fast and with a low impact on resources: one ton of insect can be grown in fourteen days using a land area of only 20 square meters.
At Protix, we actively support the SDGs, we put them into practice on a daily basis. We have identified our own set of goals linking to the framework;
• Less fishing for feed
• Less land for food
• Zero impact pets
WE COLLABORATE WITH UNIVERSITIES
When having a look at your website, I saw that you are working with various partners. Could you introduce your partnerships in a nutshell? Why are they important to you?
In research & development, we collaborate closely with universities all over the world.
In Belgium, we collaborate closely with the University of Liege, in particular we have a long-term partnership with The Centre of Oxygen, Research and Development. We also collaborate with the University of Gembloux with topics related to food technology. HAS university (University in NL) is our close partner for plant related research. For chitin related research, we work with a university in Germany, Fraunhofer-Institut für Grenzflächen- und Bioverfahrenstechnik IGB. To evaluate the effect of our product in animals consuming insects, we work closely with Pontus Research (UK) and University of Turin (Italy) for aquaculture related research and Schothorst Feed Research (The Netherlands) related to poultry research. In addition, we also work closely with laboratory facilities such as Nutrilab and Eurofins. Our partnerships are long-term and our partners completement us with their multiple expertise and we all go the extra mile when working together. Without our partners we would not be where we are now in term of knowledge and expertise.
WE ARE NO LONGER A START-UP
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the perspective on food and feed safety? What do you think will be the temporary and permanent repercussions of this shock on insect feed in the future?
Basically, since the pandemic arrived in Europe, Protix’s production activities have remained unchanged. All the necessary measures at the plant were implemented, with non-operational staff able to work from home. Like other sectors, we have been challenged by the fact that by-products from primary industries are going in different directions (i.e. Protix’s black soldier fly larvae are fed selected organic by-products from local distilleries, food producers and vegetable collectors in the Netherlands). And the challenges are multi-layered, with issues sometimes at regional or local level. However, agriculture and food have been less impacted than other industries. Everyone’s growth objectives will naturally take a temporary hit or be slightly delayed.
As a business, Protix has proved it is resilient. We are no longer a start-up or a prototype, but we are in the third phase of our evolution, now producing at a commercially viable and industrial scale. What’s important is to have a clear view and remain ahead of the curve with your previsions.”
Given the COVID-19 context insect production actually meets national and regional strategies of boosting the development of locally produced proteins –of particular relevance in the context of the EU’s deficiency in high protein products. And the logic being that with a secure local food supply, there will be more room for self-sufficiency, and by-products availability and biological capabilities will go up.
Low carbon footprint ingredients like insect feed will become more strategic. And due to the interrupted supply chains we saw during this crisis, we’ll see companies building more stocks and more local sourcing. All that benefits the insect feed business.
PROTIX IS INITIATOR AND FOUNDER OF IPIFF
Is there anything you want to add?
Industrial production at scale has only existed for couple of years, it is still young industry. Protix has the most productive vertical farm in the world. Last year, we achieved the landmark moment where the world's first large-scale industrial facility is operationally proven and reached full-scale operations, going beyond target capacity. This is the biggest and most important milestone, for any industry.
As the initiator and the founder of IPIFF, the EU non-profit organization which represents the interests of the insect production sector (www.ipiff.org), Protix has had an active role in the establishment and maturation of the insect industry. The coming years will be crucial and exciting for this industry as insects will start taking its rightful place in the food system and we will see an explosion of applications and formulations of insect-based nutrition for all applicants in our food system.
We are only scratching the surface, but now we’ve proven and de-risked the technology and the operational platform one could only guess how much more will emerge from this. We can really offer a lot of opportunities by providing this new category of nutritional ingredients. I see insect feed becoming its own standalone category; our portfolio can range wide and deep, it offers such diversity in applications. At Protix, we will continue to explore new opportunities.