SERI KEMBANGAN, Jan 25 – At Startup Weekend Food KL, which ran from November 29 to December 1, 2019, one of the surprising highlights were the burgers.
Not just any burgers, but chicken and portobello mushroom burgers by myBurgerLab with a twist: these were layered copiously with black soldier fly larvae (or BSFL).
These unusual toppings are courtesy of Life Origin, a local company that farms and processes BSFL as a source of sustainable protein for aquaculture, animals, pets and human consumption.
The startup also markets the larvae as snacks under the Hermy brand as the scientific name for the black soldier fly is Hermetia illucens.
(These dried Hermy larvae snacks are what were used for the burger toppings, not "live" larvae, though that might be an entirely different sort of treat...)
Founder Sio Chun Jia, who spent 10 years with a digital security startup, had returned from a stint with a bank in Cambodia to launch Life Origin in July 2018. Joined by co-founder Zoey Chan, a Penang-born F&B entrepreneur, he began researching BSFL as a commercially viable protein source two years ago.
Sio says, “I found that this interesting insect didn’t just create a positive impact by turning organic waste into protein and organic fertiliser, but that it also possesses huge market opportunity in the food and feed industry.”
Observing that the world population is rapidly growing, Sio realised that within the next 20 to 30 years, the planet’s demand for protein and food will become unsustainable.
He says, “Life Origin was started with an aim to produce sustainable protein to feed the world by solving a big issue we are facing, i.e. waste.”
The way Life Origin tackles the waste problem is by breeding larvae, specifically the BSFL. Sio explains, “We have our breeding system done indoors in a controlled environment. We are developing a standard operating procedure on processes including waste handling management, feeding and harvesting production processes.”
Speed is a factor here. An adult female can lay between 200-600 eggs at any given time. When the larvae emerge from the eggs, they stay in this larval age for about 22 days.
The Life Origin team separates the six-day-old larvae into different containers and feed them with ready formulated mixed waste. These larvae will then grow up to 200 times their body mass within 10 to 15 days!
Larvae that have been harvested will go through high temperature sterilisation and, depending on the final product, further processing for dehydration and storage.
Accounting for varying demands of the market, the BSFL will then be sold in different forms such as powdered, dried or even as "live" larvae.
From a waste management angle, Life Origin plans to differentiate its production process by only using traceable food industrial waste as input ingredients for the larvae in the future, unlike other BSFL farmers.
This is crucial as, according to Sio, more than 3,000 tons of food waste is created every day in Malaysia. Less than five per cent of this waste is recycled; most ends up in landfills.
Sio adds, “BSFL is more effective compared to other species such as crickets in terms of growth and breaking down organic waste. When comparing to vegan protein, BSFL farming uses far less land and water compared to crops plantation.”
Two key Life Origin products are Dr Larva Wholesome Feed and Life Soil Organic Fertiliser.
The former is basically "live" BSFL, which makes for an excellent animal nutrition feed. Available in 40 gram packs, with 300–400 "live" worms per pack, these can be fed to chickens, commercial and tropical ornamental fish, songbirds and even pet reptiles.
The Life Soil Organic Fertiliser is made from organic BSFL residue. Life Origin claims that this is balanced in its carbon nitrogen ratio, consequently enriching the soil condition and allowing farmers a better yield and sustainable planting without damaging the land.
Sio says, “We will be increasing our production and implementing automation and IoT (Internet-of-Things) smart farming systems this year to better prepare us for producing quality larvae. Other than that we will be focusing on process refinement where it will be further strengthening our basics before we grow in larger scale and quantity.”
Life Origin has recently introduced their original and salted egg flavoured Hermy larvae snacks for retail online.
They are also in the midst of developing new products; these will be targeted at the pet feed market as well as for human consumption, such as a Hermy burger patty partly made from BSFL.
Sio admits further research and development (R&D) will be required. He says, “More trials and R&D efforts have to be done, such as the process to incorporate BSFL into burger patties to reduce the usage of beef while retaining the taste and texture of it.”
Judging by the number of visitors at the Startup Weekend Food KL event biting into larvae-topped burgers, it’s clear the future of protein consumption is more interesting than simply the real meat vs. Impossible Meat debate raging last year.
One thing for sure, consumers will have more choices... and perhaps the appetite to make them too.