Insects and the circular economy

Protix is rethinking the protein supply

A growing, more affluent society means greater demand for meat, fish and dairy products. But animal products require a large amount of protein to grow. With that in mind, Tarique Arsiwalla set to work on an alternative source of protein: insects.

A version of this article was previously posted on on May 8, 2018.

Listen to this story as a podcast (in Dutch), or read on for the English interview.

“Enormous amounts of protein are needed to feed fish and chicken,” explains Protix co-founder, Tarique Arsiwalla. “Producing that feed requires too many resources: it’s simply not sustainable. Forests are being cut down on the other side of the world to produce soy, which is then transported to the Netherlands to feed to our chickens. And countries like Chile catch large numbers of wild fish to produce fishmeal, which is shipped to Norway as feed for salmon farms.”

He continues: “Insects are naturally highly efficient in transforming food waste into body mass.” That combination makes them a viable protein source for all sorts of animal feed. Providing insect protein locally to feed fish and chicken is the main goal of Protix.

Feeding insects with food waste

“Where there are people, there is food waste – a lot of it,” says Arsiwalla. Waste is created during harvesting and food processing as well as in the home. And, according to Arsiwalla, it’s is not being optimally utilized. “So far, the best use is the production of biogas, to generate energy. But then, all of the valuable proteins, fats and other nutrients that have taken so much effort to produce all just end up as heat. Ideally, you want to use those valuable components before they are reduced to a low-grade material.”

“We are now applying our concept to chickens to produce ‘primal eggs’ (OEReieren in Dutch),” says Arsiwalla. The chickens receive a combination of living insects and dry feed that is completely soy-free, thus eradicating the need to import soy. Instead, the chickens get their protein from locally cultivated insects.

“We are very proud of the primal egg concept because it achieves two things at once: we greatly improve the environmental footprint and increase animal welfare. The chickens can engage in their natural feeding behavior, having to forage for their food.”

Towards sustainable aquaculture

Arsiwalla sees room for further breakthroughs. “You could apply the same concept to all sorts of poultry and other animals. We are also active in aquaculture. We want to improve the so-called ‘fish-in-fish-out ratio.’” This ratio refers to the amount of fish you need to put in to feed fish. Farmed salmon, for example, requires two kilos of fish for every kilo of salmon produced. “If you can reduce that to one kilo or even zero, it would make a huge difference.”

In addition to the protein shortage, Protix is also thinking about antibiotic use in aquaculture. Arsiwalla: “Insect-based feed could help due to its antimicrobial properties and fatty acids that help cut down bacteria, so fewer antibiotics would be needed. In this way, you can bring the balance back into the food system, and that, ultimately, is our mission.”

Less meat is more

“We believe that we can apply our concept worldwide, because there is food waste everywhere. Protein shortages and rising costs of natural resources are driving the urgency to become more sustainable,” Arsiwalla explains. “We get enquiries from all over the world to buy our products or to ask us to build production facilities in their region. That’s why we recently started a joint venture with Bühler, a Swiss tech company. Together, we aim to make it possible to build such facilities for third parties.”

“Being sustainable isn’t easy, but you have to do something”

- Tarique Arsiwalla, Protix

Committed investors

Protix has big goals for the future: “There is a lot of potential, but being sustainable isn’t always easy. Still, you have to do something and make an impact. We have invested a lot in the past few years and have found investors who believe in what we are trying to do, including Rabobank.”

“There is enough food waste to use as insect feed for the foreseeable future,” Arsiwalla says. “There are companies that collect organic waste, but in Europe there are legal restrictions to guarantee food safety. We need to make sure that what we feed our insects is safe and that it’s traceable.”

Arsiwalla is often in Brussels and in 2018 he met with the EU Commissioner, who confirmed that the insect sector is something they are keen to see grow. “It’s not just about reducing waste, but also about being independent of non-European resources.”

Future vision

Arsiwalla: “I think that sustainability has become more important in the past three to four years: it’s something consumers are willing to pay for. On top of that, perhaps the best way to speed up change in the food system is to change our eating habits. And introduce facilities to change waste into something valuable. I think that ten years is a realistic timeframe in which we could be active worldwide. There is so much traction right now, the real challenge will be to see how quickly we can grow.”

Update: On June 11, 2019, Protix opened a large new production facility for insect protein in Bergen op Zoom, in the Netherlands. The first of its size, this new plant marks a big step forward in the company’s goal to meet rising demand for animal protein in a sustainable way.

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