Podcast: Insects and the circular economy

Every week, Harm Edens of BNR radio interviews internal and external experts on why a bank is aiming to build a better world. In this week’s podcast, he speaks to Tarique Arsiwalla, co-founder of insect breeding company Protix.

Listen to the podcast here (25 minutes, in Dutch) or read on for the synopsis in English.

A growing, more affluent society means more demand for animal products like fish and chicken. But these are not sustainable sources of protein because of what they are fed themselves. With that in mind, Tarique Arsiwalla set to work on an alternative – insects – with his company, Protix.

“Enormous amounts of protein are needed to feed chicken and farmed fish,” explains 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.

“Insects are naturally highly efficient at transforming food waste into body mass and some kinds grow very quickly. That combination makes them a very credible protein source for all sorts of animal feed. Providing insect protein locally to feed fish and chicken – that’s the main thing we are working on.

“Insects are highly efficient in re-using food leftovers”

- Tarique Arsiwalla, Protix

“We are now applying our concept to chickens to produce ‘primal eggs’ (OEReieren in Dutch). 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 proteins from insects cultivated locally and fed on food waste.

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. The eggs are now available in the Netherlands at Albert Heijn XL supermarkets.

A more ‘primal’ approach to eggs

Towards sustainable aquaculture

“But that’s just a beginning. I think that there are many more breakthroughs to be made. 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 relates to the amount of fish needed to feed fish. To feed farmed salmon, for example, you need 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, there is also the global problem of antibiotic use in aquaculture. Insect-based feed could help thanks to its antimicrobial properties and fatty acids that help cut down bacteria, reducing the need for antibiotics. In this way, you can bring the balance back into the food system, and that, ultimately, is our mission.

“We believe that we can apply our concept worldwide, because there is food waste everywhere. Protein shortages and the rising cost of natural resources are driving the urgency to become more sustainable. 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

“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. 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.

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

Future vision

“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 10 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.”

Rabobank’s ‘Banking for Food’ podcasts are available via various podcast apps for iPhone and Android, SoundCloud and Stitcher.