Like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, there’s more to the humble mealworm than meets the eye. It doesn’t become a beautiful butterfly, but it may contain part of the solution to one of the world’s biggest challenges: sustainably feeding the growing population.
I contacted insect entrepreneur Virginia Emery last spring after hearing about the mealworms her Seattle startup company, Beta Hatch, is growing as a nutritious chicken feed. My family includes two chickens—they’re pets, not cattle—and I’m interested in businesses catering to urban chicken farmers and other people who want to see local, sustainable food systems thrive.
Beta Hatch will begin selling its handsomely packaged “chicken crack”—freeze-dried mealworms—and fertilizer directly to consumers on Amazon, where many sellers offer a similar product, as soon as Tuesday. But this is not just a pet food company.
The ambition wrapped up in Beta Hatch and modern agtech startups like it is not merely to develop a new product or market, but rather to reinvent an entire industry—one that is as fundamental to civilization as electricity or water. The entrepreneurs diving in argue that the agriculture industry, facing a global population of 10 billion by 2050 and a changing climate, needs the same kind of rapid iteration and experimentation that is the calling card of the tech startup world. And everything better be able to scale.
Hence, bugs—lots of bugs. “Insects are the future of farming,” Emery told a room of cleantech enthusiasts as she laid out a succinct view of the problem at an event this summer. Steve Klein, the CleanTech Alliance board chair emceeing the session, introduced her as “the Elon Musk of protein.”
The world needs to produce 70 percent more food by 2050, Emery explains, but per-capita agricultural land has decreased. We need more human food, and more feed for the animals we eat. Among the costliest inputs to farming are protein-rich feed to grow meat for humans, and fertilizer to grow produce.
The high-protein, high-fat mealworms Beta Hatch is rearing by the hundreds of millions at its 3,500-square-foot proof-of-concept farm in SeaTac, WA, could someday provide a consistent, beneficial, and sustainable source of both, she says.
“With climate change, with speculative gas prices, a lot of these inputs can be very unstable, so this is a huge problem for farmers,” says Emery, founder and CEO. “BetaHatch is helping to tackle this problem.”
Down on the farm
The Beta Hatch farm is not located in some bucolic pasture. It occupies a former office space on the second floor of an ordinary building shared with an auto-body shop, an upholsterer, and a guitar maker. It is just south of the airport and jets roar overhead every few minutes, seconds from landing.
The farm itself is partitioned off by plastic curtains and consists of several long rows of custom-built wooden racks, each holding dozens of plastic trays filled with mealworms at various stages of their life cycle. Fans and humidifiers whir, but other than that it is quiet. The farm is clean and has a mild odor, but nothing offensive—and nothing to indicate that millions of bugs are busily eating, going about their four-month lives.
The adult bugs, known as darkling beetles, lay eggs—a million of them fit in approximately a pint—which hatch into larvae and progress through several stages, or instars. (The name Beta Hatch is inspired by the potential of a hatching egg and Emery’s love of rock climbing, in which “the beta” is the essential knowledge you need to reach the top of a difficult climb.)
The mealworm larvae loll in trays of dry, fine-milled grains and vegetables. They are pseudo-domesticated, Emery says, having evolved to live in stored grains. Beta Hatch is shifting to waste-based feedstocks, such as spent brewery grains and fruit humus. The farm uses no water in raising the mealworms; they get all they need from their food.
The mealworms eat and grow and act as little bioreactors, creating valuable products. Beta Hatch harvests their dry, sand-like manure—called frass—for use as an organic, fossil-fuel-free fertilizer, particularly in agricultural applications where precision is prized, such as greenhouses, Emery says. When they’ve fattened up, most of the mealworms are harvested and freeze-dried. (Some are allowed to pupate and become adult beetles to lay the next batch of eggs.)
Right now, the harvest and processing is done by hand, but Emery is planning a scaled-up operation that would use industrial automation such as conveyors or someday even robotic pickers like in Amazon fulfillment centers.
By late summer, the proof-of-concept farm was already producing about 200 pounds of mealworms and 400 pounds of frass each week. In addition to the direct sales, Beta Hatch aims to have both products available to consumers through garden centers next spring.
There are many more potential products and environmental services to be derived from insects, and the consumer market is just the beginning for Beta Hatch. The value of the honeybee industry, for example, that essential pollinator in precarious decline, is estimated at $170 billion a year, Emery says.
Reminding people that honeybees are beneficial insects helps shift the mindset of thinking about bugs as pests to thinking of them as assets, she says. But there’s work to do on this front. Insurance industry policies treat insects as filth, for example, not inventory.
Emery, who earned a PhD from UC Berkeley in entomology, focused on chemical communications and genetics in ants, is applying for grants to study how frass fertilizer may reduce water pollution caused by runoff of fertilizers made with fossil fuels (it has no nitrates) and test the mealworms’ appetite for Styrofoam. A tank of mealworms at Beta Hatch has been living on bits of polystyrene since February. If that grant comes through, “We’ll be working on trying to create our ‘SaaS’ solution—Styrofoam as a soil,” Emery quips. “Getting something otherwise thought to be not biodegradable into our food systems again is pretty incredible.”
As the mealworm larvae grow, they shed like a snake. Their exoskeletons, called exuvia, are high in a biopolymer called chitin, which can be used in pharmaceutical additives, bioplastics, and food and agriculture. The larvae themselves may also be an attractive supplement for other food producers; Emery aims to serve the growing aquaculture industry, for one. And people do eat mealworms—along with many other insect species all over the world. On a recent visit, a table in the Beta Hatch office held samples of cricket chips and several insect cookbooks.
“We’re just starting to warm up in North America to the idea of insects in our food system in a protein way, not a get-rid-of-them, kill-them kind of way,” Emery says.
But she’s counting her chickens first.
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