COLLEGE STATION, Texas - It may be hard to understand the appeal of plunging your hand into a pile of writhing maggots. But the sensation is uniquely tactile, not at all unpleasant, as thousands of soft, plump grubs, each the size of a grain of rice, wriggle against your skin, tiny mouthparts gently poking your flesh.
For Lauren Taranow and her employees, it's just another day at work.
Taranow is the president of Symton BSF, where the larvae of black soldier flies are harvested and sold as food for exotic pets such as lizards, birds, even hedgehogs. Her "maggot farm," as she styles it, is part of a burgeoning industry, one with the potential to revolutionize the way we feed the world. That's because of the black soldier fly larva's remarkable ability to transform nearly any kind of organic waste -- cafeteria refuse, manure, even toxic algae -- into high-quality protein, all while leaving a smaller carbon footprint than it found.
In one year, a single acre of black soldier fly larvae can produce more protein than 3,000 acres of cattle or 130 acres of soybeans. Such yields, combined with the need to find cheap, reliable protein for a global population projected to jump 30 percent, to 9.8 billion by 2050, present big opportunity for the black soldier fly. The United Nations, which already warns that animal-rich diets cannot stretch that far long term, is encouraging governments and businesses to turn to insects to fulfill the planet's protein needs.
People who've seen what black soldier fly larvae can do often speak of them in evangelical tones. Jeff Tomberlin, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University, said the bug industry could "save lives, stabilize economies, create jobs and protect the environment."
Entomologists have known of the soldier fly's promise for decades. Researchers proposed using them to convert manure into protein as early as the 1970s. But raising them at anything approaching a commercial scale seemed like a dead end: No one knew how to get captive flies to reliably mate and deposit eggs.
That changed in 2002 with the publication of a paper by Tomberlin, his adviser D. Craig Sheppard and others, which described a system for raising the insects in captivity. The key, they found, was finding the precise mixture of temperature, humidity and, especially, lighting to stimulate the flies to breed.
A black soldier fly larva can consume twice its weight in food each day. On its 14-day journey from hatchling to pupa, a single larva will grow nearly an inch long and increase its weight by a factor of 10,000. That's akin to an eight-pound baby swelling to the size of a 40-ton humpback whale. They binge eat to store up nutrients for their two-week life span as adults, when they typically don't eat anything at all.
The larvae at Evo feast on spent grains from a handful of Texas distilleries and breweries, as much as 15 tons of it each month. The flies love it. "They're generalists," Tomberlin said, and eat just about anything. Pig manure? Check. Human waste? Check. Food scraps? Check. The only organic materials they haven't had luck with are bones, hair and pineapple rinds, he said.
Their ability to rapidly devour waste has inspired a number of commercial applications. A pilot program at Louisiana State University deploys a small colony of soldier flies to consume the food its students toss out at one dining hall. The entomologist overseeing the project hopes it will be expanded to eliminate all campus food waste by the end of the year. In China, giant facilities owned by a company called JM Green process at least 50 tons of food waste a day with the help of black soldier flies.
"Black soldier fly larvae can make thousand-folds more protein than terrestrial animals or other plants," said Liz Koutsos, chief executive of Kentucky-based EnviroFlight, which raises soldier fly larvae used in protein meal for commercial fish and poultry operations. The yields are so high because soldier fly colonies can be stacked vertically, five to 10 per floor, in a way that isn't possible with cattle or field crops. The fast-growing larvae also can be harvested dozens of times per year.
EnviroFlight, like Evo, feeds its larvae byproducts of the distilling industry. When the grubs reach full size, they're harvested, dried in industrial ovens and processed into a protein-rich meal and oil. The technology is moving so quickly, however, that regulators are having difficulty keeping up.
Black soldier fly meal only won approval as fish and poultry feed in 2018. Koutsos said EnviroFlight and companies such as Enterra in Canada and Protix in the European Union are working to win regulatory approval for using the meal in food for other animals, including swine and even cats and dogs.
The idea is to take pressure off traditional sources of protein meal, such as fish. About one-quarter of the harvest from marine fisheries is turned into food for farmed animals, including fish, hogs and poultry. More than 90 percent of those fisheries are either fully exploited or overfished, meaning that as the world's population grows, there will be more demand for alternative protein sources.
The economics are promising enough that big agricultural companies are getting into the insect protein market. Cargill, the Minnesota-based agriculture giant, just last month announced a partnership with the French biotech firm InnovaFeed to produce fish feed made from black soldier fly larvae.
"Insect protein feed can be a solution and a renewable source of protein to feed fish and ultimately feed the world," said Maye Walraven, InnovaFeed's head of business development, in a video announcing the partnership.
The U.N. agrees: It forecast in a 2013 report that insect farming would have to play a key role -- both as animal feed and to feed people -- if the world is going to be fed sustainably in coming decades.
This article was written by Christopher Ingraham, a reporter for The Washington Post.