There is great interest from home and abroad when the doors to the Insect School in America open at the end of June. Initiator Bob Holtermans wants to share knowledge and facilitate practical trials in a market that is as closed as it is promising.
The Netherlands is one of the pioneers in global insect farming. In addition to start-ups and large companies, more and more livestock farmers are starting to produce crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms or black soldier flies (Black Soldier Flies). The insects are suitable for animal feed or human consumption, where they are often first processed into flour or oil.
The European Union sees insect farming as an important link in the continent’s protein transition, and large investors are entering the market. The entrepreneur Bob Holtermans (39) is trying to conquer his place on this playing field. He started the company Insect Engineers in 2019 to facilitate entrepreneurs from A to Z in the cultivation of black soldier flies.
The grower says he has stepped into the gap between education with small testing sites like HAS University of Applied Sciences and big companies like Protix that keep their growing methods secret. “At the Insect School, knowledge sharing is paramount. This is necessary for the market to grow. You need some scale to make tests that are really in line with practice. We want to make insect farming commercially attractive through this route.’
It is wise to start small to get a handle on the cultivation
28 degrees Celsius
Holtermans set up four rooms for insect breeding on a former mushroom farm. There is also a climate unit in three rooms to get the right temperature for the production of the black soldier flies. It is 28 degrees Celsius with a humidity of about 70 percent. Extensive tests are carried out throughout the production process, such as which waste streams are suitable for growing the larvae.
The production process starts with eggs and young larvae, or brood. The larvae are then trimmed and, as a final step, the insects are killed and processed into oil or flour. “On a commercial insect farm, we assume nine production cells or a multiple of these. The production process, which takes nine days, thus provides a constant sale.’
Holtermans is himself the son of a mushroom grower, and insect farming shows strong similarities to mushroom production. Black soldier fly larvae grow on large beds on a substrate in a climate cell.
‘My father started a company to inspect and produce the machines for mushroom cultivation. One of the machines is designed to fill the beds with substrate. You also need them to make insect farming profitable. It is specially manufactured for both mushroom farms and insect farms. You can produce different insects and on different substrates.’
The breeder came into contact with insect breeding by accident. About five years ago, he was contacted by Sanergy in Kenya. This organization provides toilets for residents of the slums in the capital, Nairobi. The human dung streams are then processed by Black Soldier Flies into organic fertilizer. On an annual basis, it concerns the processing of around 73,000 tonnes of human manure flows, and the company from North Limburg supplies the machines, racks and cultivation trays for the production process.
Insects can serve as food for humans as a meat substitute or for pigs and chickens as a substitute for soy. Because consumption is barely established and legislation creates barriers, Holtermans now sees the most opportunities in the treatment of residual flows. ‘And then, of course, the low-quality residual streams that we cannot use as food.’
At the Insect School, experiments were carried out with pig manure and orange peel as a substrate, which proved to be successful. ‘This also creates different revenue models, where you don’t necessarily go for the highest production, but for example convert a cost item like manure into an organic soil conditioner that generates money,’ says the grower.
According to Wageningen University & Research and the United Dutch Insect Breeders, insect breeding will be an indispensable part of circular agriculture by 2030. Insects need little space during production and grow quickly. The proteins and fats from insects are sold all over the world. Holtermans also receives visitors from the Netherlands and abroad during the Insect School’s opening week.
He sees it as an opportunity for farmers and gardeners to switch to insect breeding, but he finds it inappropriate to do it as a small sideline. ‘At the end of the day, you need scale in a market where costs are so dominant. It requires specific knowledge and enough hands for the daily work. It is also wise to start small to get a handle on the cultivation. You can get practical experience at our location.’
One of the hot topics is sales, which are fragmented in this global start-up phase. The entrepreneur believes that the market will explode in about five years, given the large number of interested parties. “What you don’t hear much about is that insect farming’s small ecological footprint can make companies greener. It could, for example, be interesting for oil giants to make their business operations more sustainable through large-scale cultivation.’
The hunger for knowledge about insect breeding
According to the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (Ipiff), there is enormous growth potential for insect farming in Europe. Important prerequisites are that sufficient residual streams become available as a food supply for the insects, and that the proteins also find their way into poultry and pig feed. Knowledge and experience about insect farming is brought together in the EU project Sustainable Insect Chain. An important effort is to reduce the cost price. The project must be the starting point for a further upscaling of the insect sector in Europe. Insect farming is also gaining a foothold in Limburg. Brightland’s Greenport Venlo campus is home to Insect Valley Europe. This initiative revolves around gathering knowledge in insect breeding. It is a meeting place for entrepreneurs who want to focus on cultivation, processing or consumption. Together with the Insect School, knowledge from HAS Hogeschool, Fontys, Wageningen University & Research and Maastricht University can be combined with practical tests. HAS University of Applied Sciences offers the basic course ‘breeding insects: from theory to practice’. In six days, different themes are covered such as yield and costs, diseases and pests and growing conditions. The course is co-designed by New Generation Nutrition. The idea for the Insect School comes from Bob Holtermans. With his company Insect Engineers in America, he develops, builds and supplies machines, climate systems and advice for worldwide insect breeding.