EP6: The Buzz about Insects in Pet Food - Part 1

In this Pet Nutrition Show episode, Dr. Anna Sutton and Amanda Falconer dive deep into the world of bugs in pet food - specifically the Black Soldier Fly.

They kick-start a series on how and why insects are being used in pet nutrition, and chat with Martin Pike, the CEO and co-founder Viridian Renewable Technology, an Australian company making protein from insects, and specifically the black solider fly larvae (BSFL). They explore how his team breeds flies for food, the shocking reality of food waste in Australia and the role insects could play in tackling the problem. Plus, they dig into the nutritional perks of serving up BSFL-based grub to our furry friends. Wrapping up, Dr. Anna shares a genius hack for using salmon skins in pet meals.


Here are the headlines and some clips:

  • Martin shares his journey from a degree in pure and financial mathematics to founding a company that produces insect-based ingredients on an industrial scale. They talk about the opportunities and challenges they faced in this unique field.
  • Dr. Anna and Amanda discuss the environmental and sustainability aspects of insect-based pet food. They highlight the significant amount of food waste in Australia, estimated at around 7 million tons per year, and how their company aims to reduce waste by utilising clean pre-consumer food byproducts.
  • Martin explains the three crucial parts of their insect-based pet food production process: receiving and processing the food materials, vertically farming the insects (specifically black soldier fly larvae), and using technology to manufacture high-quality products.
  • They emphasise the importance of nutrition, taste, and texture in creating pet food that is enjoyable and beneficial.
  • They discuss the potential health benefits of incorporating insects into pet food. Martin explains how different feed blends can alter the nutritional output of the insects, ensuring a diverse and balanced diet for pets. Insects are efficient bioconverters and offer a natural way to repurpose underutilised food byproducts.
  • Dr. Anna shares a pet food hack involving salmon skins. She recommends giving cooked or raw salmon skins to dogs or cats as they provide essential omega-3 fatty acids, which promote joint health and act as natural anti-inflammatories

Have a listen to the show, but if you’re more of a reader, here's the transcript:

[00:00:00] ANNA: Welcome to the Pet Nutrition Show. I'm Dr. Anna Sutton.

[00:00:02] AMANDA: And I'm Amanda Falconer each week we're talking nutrition, sustainable pet food and food hacks you can do at home. Today we're kicking off a big series about insects, the role they have in pet food and why, and who's using them for

[00:00:19] MARTIN: what.

[00:00:19] MARTIN: So it's the flies, it's the larvae, it's all, you know, entomology. We thought, so we reached out to entomologists and we said, Hey, we want to breed flies. Can you help us? And the response was, Oh, sorry. You want to kill flies? You want to go? No, no, no. We want to actually grow them. And a lot of people sort of scratching their heads going, Oh, I didn't know about that.

[00:00:40] ANNA: Today is part one of the two part series on an Australian company, Viridian Renewable Technology. And we're going to talk to their CEO, Martin Pike. But before we do this, it's time for Q& A. Pet

[00:00:54] NA: Q& A, where we answer what you're wondering about food, moods [00:01:00] and

[00:01:00] AMANDA: poos. Now, Anna, you've mentioned short and long chain fatty acids a few times.

[00:01:05] AMANDA: So what's the difference between the

[00:01:07] ANNA: two? Yes, Amanda. So short and long chain Fatty acids really differ in their length or the number, if you like, of carbon atoms. I can go on and on and on about this, but in simple terms, short chain fatty acids and long chain fatty acids do different things and we really need both.

[00:01:27] ANNA: So short chain fatty acids typically get made by. Uh, gut bacteria in your gut or your dog's gut, and they go off to help the signalling molecules. Whereas the long chain fatty acids are typically found in meats and the super long chains in fish, and they do different things again from a physiological standpoint.

[00:01:46] AMANDA: Oh, excellent. I thought for a moment you were going to start to talk to me about how many carbon atoms there were. I thought about it. I can do. I'm glad you resisted that impulse. Very good. Our guest is a maths nerd who now [00:02:00] farms insects, Martin Pike. What on earth led you to go from a degree in pure and financial mathematics to founding a company that produces insect based ingredients on an industrial

[00:02:09] MARTIN: scale?

[00:02:11] MARTIN: Thanks, Amanda. It does sound like a bit of a strange pivot. Pivot maybe, but certainly pivot tables, yes, it all started off with a spreadsheet. So I kid you not, we looked at the opportunity and tried to break it down into numbers and just think, all right, is there a business here? And we put together the roughest assumptions about it, and so many of those have changed over the years, and that model has developed now into something much more real and specific.

[00:02:46] MARTIN: But that's how it all started. It's just Running the numbers going, hold on, there's what is 7 million tons of food that's wasted in Australia and, and how much, you know, protein gets consumed and scratching your head and going, look, even if [00:03:00] the most conservative, you know, numbers that we saw in the very, very early literature were correct.

[00:03:06] MARTIN: It just seemed like there was a huge opportunity to create something really new. The other thing for me was it was a great way to just involve a lot of skills and interests. You know, yes, I got the maths background, but engineering, science, communications, business, everything. And it's really hard unless you start your own business, I guess.

[00:03:28] MARTIN: To, uh, to flex all those muscles at once and boy, they've, they've been flexed and then some. So, yeah, definitely set out to, had no idea just how interesting the journey was going to be when we started. Uh,

[00:03:40] AMANDA: yes. If you've never started a business or run one, it's. Perhaps not quite as glamorous as you think, and certainly does flex a lot of muscles, some that you didn't even know that you had.

[00:03:51] AMANDA: You say that it began with a spreadsheet, but I just want to also know whether there was some, whether you really had an environmental interest as well, or whether it was just [00:04:00] a business opportunity that you

[00:04:01] MARTIN: saw. Yeah, of course. I mean, I grew up in, you know, sort of a group of friends and family and social situation where, Everyone wanted to do positive things for the world.

[00:04:11] MARTIN: Growing up, everyone's a bit idealistic and I realized that if you really wanted to make change in the world, you had to do some work, you know, and so we always really driven from a perspective of, you know, not just making a business, but making a business that did good. That's certainly around the sustainability aspect.

[00:04:31] MARTIN: So I think nowadays, you know, if you're starting a business, if you've got a new idea, even existing businesses like sustainability shouldn't be an option. It's really good to be sort of a, you know, a requirement. And so for us, that was an easy tick, but as well over the journey. You know, we've been able to discover that it's actually has a significant benefit to animals, to, to pets in particular.

[00:04:55] MARTIN: And so for us as animal lovers, you know, we all have pets and grew up with [00:05:00] animals and it was about making products that we really felt comfortable feeding to our animals. And, you know, I don't, I don't like to cast shade on existing industries and we never liked to throw stones at anyone, but certainly.

[00:05:15] MARTIN: On the journey, we discovered, wow, I didn't realize what goes into some pet food products. So for us, it was going, all right, we're only going to produce the best ingredients that we would feed to our own pets and we can feel really comfortable about selling to

[00:05:29] AMANDA: others. And we're going to talk about some of those benefits in just a moment.

[00:05:33] AMANDA: But before we do, you had this vision, you had the spreadsheet, you know, how did you go from that point? To really making this a reality. Did you work with some partners? How

[00:05:43] MARTIN: did it happen? A lot of, well, look, the motto that we like to live by is if you make all the mistakes and you can only do the right thing after that, I think we started posting on university notice boards, trying to attract talent.

[00:05:57] MARTIN: And the really interesting thing was, you know, we're [00:06:00] working with black soldier fly larvae. So it's the flies, it's larvae, it's all entomology. We thought, so we reached out to entomologists and we said to them, Hey, we want to breed flies. Can you help us? And the response was, Oh, sorry. You want to, you want to kill flies?

[00:06:15] MARTIN: You want to go? No, no, no. We want to actually grow them. And a lot of people sort of scratching their heads going. Well, you didn't know about that. So we really had to start from scratch there. And, you know, seven years ago, when we first started doing this, there was maybe one or two companies around the world that claimed that they were doing this.

[00:06:34] MARTIN: So we had an inkling it was possible. And we knew from some literature that, you know, the people had bred the flies. But in terms of specifics of how you actually practically did that, that's what we had to work out first. So literally we had a handful of these black shoulder fly larvae that we bought on eBay or something from someone's backyard compost heap.[00:07:00]

[00:07:00] MARTIN: And of course they all died. And that was that, you know, we tried again and, you know, slowly. Learned the real bare bones basics of how you actually breed them. And that's something that we think that we do really well now and we put a lot of effort into.

[00:07:15] AMANDA: It sort of sounds like you and some mates were kind of sitting around working out the technology yourselves, but that's actually far from the case, isn't it?

[00:07:22] AMANDA: Because you're working with. If I recall correctly, a fairly large engineering partner and you also got some pretty big guns involved at a board and advisory level. So can you just sort of talk us through, and I understand that your technology is kind of unique and we want to get to actually how it impacts on products in a sec, but from a journey perspective, how did you make that happen and with whom?

[00:07:43] MARTIN: Okay. So yeah, you're not far off the truth. We literally had. A shipping container in a car park in Cremon when we started and yeah, it was a bunch of guys and we sort of trying to work out what on earth we were doing there and you know, fast forward a [00:08:00] few years, a few mistakes made a few different locations, a few staff turnovers.

[00:08:05] MARTIN: We, I guess I can't remember exactly the sequence. Yeah, we, we, I think we annoyed, I annoyed the owner of an engineering business enough. that he finally gave in and said, all right, we'll, we'll, yeah, we'll help you with this. So they helped us really with the processing of the larvae, turning that into the protein ingredients.

[00:08:24] MARTIN: And, you know, that's something that we've been working on for a good four years now with them. I think that's a very rewarding partnership. So they work with most of the major protein manufacturers, transforming animal protein byproducts. into protein ingredients for pet and livestock feed. Um, and for them, it's a really interesting thing because they're looking at this as another way to recover protein.

[00:08:51] MARTIN: And really that's our business model is, you know, finding these unused clean food byproducts out there, taking them back to our [00:09:00] factory and recovering the protein left in that food so it's not thrown away. So, They helped us out and they've been continued to help us out. And I guess we've either annoyed them enough or impressed them enough that they're now really associated strongly with the business.

[00:09:14] MARTIN: When we did our first really public market capital raise, we were sort of advised to speak to a few different people and. Again, I think it was either out of concern or pity that Paul Wood and Andrew Lawson, our two other directors said, Oh, look, these guys just need a lot of help. But I mean, look, they're both just such supportive mentors and so knowledgeable.

[00:09:39] MARTIN: Paul has an extensive experience in animal health and pharmaceuticals and. working with the dairy board and is just such a great stem mentor as well for us and many other people. He's our chairman and he's just, you know, a fantastic wealth of knowledge and information. Andrew Lawson, our other director actually ran a [00:10:00] business.

[00:10:00] MARTIN: Using algae to treat wastewater. So extracting out these very high value, either cosmeceutical or food additives ingredients from the algae. And so for him, it sort of married that engineering and the sustainability in one new project. And look, they've just been so supportive and help us to get where we are today.

[00:10:21] AMANDA: Excellent. And presumably you, uh, just going back to the spreadsheet, when you were doing this capital raise, you were really trying to outline for people the size of the problem. So could you just explain to us the size of the food waste problem here in Australia?

[00:10:37] MARTIN: Yeah. So Everyone sort of gets this idea of food waste and throwing out food, and we should, you know, try to prevent that.

[00:10:44] MARTIN: And we're all guilty of, you know, not using the loaf of bread before it goes moldy, or the banana is just a bit too brown, or maybe we don't use the stem of the broccoli. But in terms of a numbers perspective, it's almost hard to believe. [00:11:00] The estimated total amount of food that is wasted in Australia is around 7 million tons every year.

[00:11:07] MARTIN: And that's across, you know, farming, commercial, across households as well. And to put that into a sort of visual perspective, that's filling the MCG nine times over. So it's just, it's really just hard to fathom. But in our journey out there in industry, it's definitely believable. So much, unfortunately, is either necessarily or avoidably wasted.

[00:11:36] MARTIN: You know, it's things like, for example, a straight banana or, or a bent carrot not being accepted by the buyers. Or. You know, in some cases, like the partnerships that we have with the baking industry and Baker's Delight in particular have been really supportive and, you know, helped us to collect from more and more of their stores.

[00:11:55] MARTIN: It's unavoidable product wastage that if there's anything with meat and [00:12:00] dairy, you know, it has to be thrown away. It can't be. donated. It can't be given to any other animals to eat. So for us, we can actually prevent that from being wasted at the end of the day. When you look at it from a per person perspective, it's about 300 kilograms of food every year that we're all throwing out.

[00:12:21] MARTIN: So it's a lot.

[00:12:23] AMANDA: So individual versus industrial, how much of the nine MCGs are caused by the kind of bits of waste that households contribute and how much of it is from these industrial or unused food byproducts that never even leave the farm? Yeah,

[00:12:37] MARTIN: I mean, if you look at the commercial and farm gate uh, figures that's just under half of that.

[00:12:45] MARTIN: So it's about 3 million tons a year. And so that's yeah, everything that's on farm, that's from warehousing distribution, cold chain from food manufacturers. It's everything. It's basically what we [00:13:00] describe as clean pre consumer food by products. And that's a distinction that we like to make is we don't actually collect any Food waste.

[00:13:11] MARTIN: Look, it's an understandable word, but sometimes we feel it has connotations. You know, we only collect that, the sort of very specific, but still huge in volume, um, material that just hasn't even, you know, been sold to anyone yet. So it's perfectly clean, edible food. So,

[00:13:28] AMANDA: I mean, the food availability aspect of waste is pretty clear, but what's the environmental downside of Those nine cgs worth of food waste or, or food byproduct, let's just say.

[00:13:41] MARTIN: Yeah. So if you look at it when food goes to landfill, so if it's not used in, in another process, obviously it decomposes. I mean, we've all left our garbage bin in the kitchen. In there for a bit too long. And that pongy odor is the decomposition. Now that releases greenhouse [00:14:00] gases and every ton of food waste will create an estimated two tons of greenhouse gases.

[00:14:07] MARTIN: And then very roughly, but again, that sort of nice visualization is it's like an additional 7 million domestic cars on the road per annum, just idling, doing nothing in terms of, you know, actual emissions.

[00:14:22] AMANDA: Wow. That's a lot. You talked before about how you sat around initially and you were like, Oh, how do we, you know, kind of grow flies?

[00:14:31] AMANDA: And there were obviously some technology innovations to come up with. Can you just explain to us a little bit more about those challenges and what you developed to produce the products you do on an industrial scale? For

[00:14:45] MARTIN: us, there's really three parts of it, and there's the way we receive and process the food materials, the way that we vertically farm in our factories the insects, the larvae, and the flies, and then [00:15:00] there's the technology that we use to process them into the finished products.

[00:15:05] MARTIN: The input is really critical. You know, as I said, we only use these very clean, specific, pre consumer products. But, it's how you actually blend them together to make a, literally a, you know, a feed blend for the larvae. We, we blend the feed to make sure it fits these nutritional requirements for the larvae.

[00:15:25] MARTIN: Then the husbandry technology that we have, it's about growing them in a very careful and ethical way, but also a very efficient way to minimize the use of land resources and any sort of greenhouse emissions. Then, that third part, the product manufacturing, and that's where our engineering partners have really played a key role there, is how do we maximise the nutrition and sensory, so taste, smell, even texture, maximise those characteristics of the larvae to really maximise pet benefits.

[00:15:59] MARTIN: Enjoyment. [00:16:00] And the analogy that I like to give to people to explain is you could have the best Wagyu steak or the best, you know, piece of broccoli, depending on your, your eating choices. But if you just cram that in the toaster, it's not going to taste very good. You know, it's how you actually cook and prepare.

[00:16:18] MARTIN: Something really does affect not only the taste, the flavor, the texture, but also the nutrition as well. If you overcook something, it's sort of easy in a sense, but you're risking, you know, really damaging the quality of that protein. So for us, we've developed technology that really gently. Processes our larvae into the finished quality products to make sure that flavor, the really unique, it's again, irresistible flavor for pets.

[00:16:46] MARTIN: It's sort of nutty mushroomy. That flavor comes through as strongly as possible, but also make sure that the protein is very easily digestible and of a very high quality. So we've [00:17:00] had the good fortune to be involved in studies conducted by CSIRO. Thank you. And they've looked at, you know, various insect protein sources and ours scored really well.

[00:17:09] MARTIN: And, you know, we put that down to those three parts. It's the feed, we feed them. It's the farming technology that we use. And then that product manufacturing to create these really high quality products. So Martin, you mentioned

[00:17:22] ANNA: there, the food that you give your insects and you talked about blending together different by products or clean streams to create, if you like, the perfect diet for insects.

[00:17:33] ANNA: So does that mean that. By changing those parameters, you can change the nutritional output of the insects. So I, for example, might make my insect higher in one thing or lower than another or in another. Is that what you're meaning?

[00:17:48] MARTIN: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think anecdotally within the industry. Uh, oh yeah, and even experiments that we've done in the past.

[00:17:54] MARTIN: I remember one time we were doing a trial diet looking at incorporating materials from [00:18:00] one source of feed and there was a lot of sweet potato and all the larvae had this orange tint. to them. Um, there's practical purposes as well. You can feed them fish leftovers and they will actually in their fat, the insect oil, they will then contain omega three essential fatty acids.

[00:18:21] MARTIN: So you're definitely right. You know, you can actually adjust that nutritional profile. I mean, it's, if we eat a diet of McDonald's ourselves versus a diet of, you know, wholesome grains and meats and greens, you know, Generally has a pretty strong effect on our health and well being as well. It's exactly the same for the larvae.

[00:18:38] MARTIN: Fabulous little bioconverters. They are. I mean, we look at the role of insects in nature and because they're so small, we often just sort of forget about it. But there's, you know, statistics to suggest that 80 percent of the world's life is is actually insects. People think that there could [00:19:00] be over 5 million insect species out there and we have no idea, even a half of them, what they do.

[00:19:07] MARTIN: Besides obviously bees, you know, which are just absolutely critical for every sort of food production, you know, what insects are there for, their sort of divine purpose, I guess you could say, is to break down materials. They're just in the background, breaking things down, converting those nutrients into something more useful.

[00:19:28] MARTIN: And so we're just harnessing this really natural process, for lack of a better word, doing what nature intended to do. Gosh, that's

[00:19:37] ANNA: super exciting. I bet different insects can do things differently and more efficiently than

[00:19:41] MARTIN: some others. We did actually look at when we were first starting, you know, mealworms and house flies and uh, I don't think we, we, we looked at cockroaches, but maybe crickets as well.

[00:19:53] MARTIN: And you're absolutely right. They all have their sort of pros and cons. And there are some insects that will eat polystyrene or [00:20:00] plastics or things like that. And you know, we, often you're not defined by what you choose. It's by what you say no to. So we had to go, all right, guys, we're going to focus on this.

[00:20:11] MARTIN: Let's not get distracted by all these other great ideas. Let's. Choose one thing that we thought had a lot more potential. And that was the black soldier fly larvae.

[00:20:21] AMANDA: Well, that was super interesting listening to Martin. We won't do too much of a summary because we're actually picking up on the second half of that interview with him next week. Now though, it's time for Dr. Anna's food hack. It's

[00:20:35] NA: time for home food hacks with Dr. Anna.

[00:20:38] ANNA: Well, today's food hack is salmon skins.

[00:20:40] ANNA: I love salmon and we try and have it once a week. Now, if you are like us, don't chuck out your salmon skins, give them to your dogs or cats for that matter. Salmon skins are super rich in the omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which are fantastic for your dogs and cats. They're [00:21:00] natural anti inflammatories and no expensive conversion needed either.

[00:21:04] ANNA: So go ahead. Pass them on to your dogs and cats. One skin's fine per dog, though no need to go overboard. Cooked or raw skin? Actually, Amanda, you can do either. Raw is probably a little bit better because you're not destroying the fats with, uh, heat treatment. So if you can do it raw, that's great. I find the skins come off easier after you've cooked them, mind.

[00:21:24] ANNA: And they do smell pretty good when you've cooked them.

[00:21:26] AMANDA: Yes, and our dogs did used to love those crunchy skins when we used to eat fish. Well, thank you very much for that and it's been a great episode this week. We hope you liked it and we'd love to hear your review. You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and you can ask us questions there too and we will either throw them to Anna or find an expert to answer them.

[00:21:51] AMANDA: Until next week, see you then on the Pet Nutrition Show.

[00:21:56] NA: The Pet Nutrition Show is proudly presented by Planet Aid Pet Food, [00:22:00] bringing dogs a flexitarian diet that's good for them and the planet.

Join us in future episodes of the Pet Nutrition Show as we dig deeper into topics like the ideal protein content for pets, the importance of gut health, and the role of pet food in waste management. Let's create a sustainable and healthy future for our pets and the environment.

Follow us on Facebook or Instagram to get updates or ask questions we can cover in future episodes.

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