The Volga plain of western Russia is best known as one of the world’s breadbaskets, a major producer of wheat and other grains.
But in a small warehouse unit nestled among endless fields outside the city of Penza, Russian poultry and dairy tycoon Naum Babaev is growing food by other means: insects.
Babaev’s millions of black soldier flies, either buzzing around netted cages or wriggling as larvae through plastic tubs of organic waste, are at the vanguard of Russia’s belated efforts to adopt new agritech methods, and adapt to western countries’ shift towards a more sustainable and low-emission food industry.
His Russian-Israeli Entoprotech venture comes as Moscow seeks to upgrade its vast but inefficient agricultural industry, and President Vladimir Putin looks to lure foreign investors into environmentally friendly business projects.
“It’s all about the circular economy,” said Babaev as he walked through the Penza site, where wriggling larvae feast on mouldy vegetables before being killed and ground up into meal that can be fed to fish and livestock. “You’re basically just taking garbage and making food. It’s circular, it’s green, and it’s far, far better for the planet than alternatives.”
Roughly 10 per cent of the black soldier fly larvae are allowed to hatch into flies, which live for up to 10 days solely on water. Female flies lay hundreds of eggs that begin the cycle again. Supermarkets pay Babaev to take unsold vegetables off their hands, while companies such as Mars supply him with waste products from their factories that the larvae feed on.
Having black soldier flies eat through the organic matter results in 1 per cent of the methane and half the carbon dioxide produced by composting landfill, including the energy required for heating and ventilation, according to a 2019 Swiss academic study. Since it started operations in 2015, the Penza site has processed more than 17,000 tonnes of waste.
Babaev is no eco-warrior. The bulk of his wealth comes from his ownership of Damate, Russia’s biggest turkey producer, and he flies between Moscow and Penza by private jet. The carbon dioxide output of his turkey and dairy businesses dwarfs the savings made by the black soldier flies project. But he believes that if it can be scaled up, Entoprotech will make the food industry more sustainable while also turning a profit.
Babaev’s start-up is one of many developing the flies on an industrial scale. AgriProtein in the UK and Protix, which operates the world’s largest insect factory in the Netherlands, are more than a decade old.
“Now everyone is talking about insects and food but back then it sounded pretty crazy,” said Alexander Babitsky, Entoprotech’s chief executive. “Fifteen thousand years ago in [Penza] they domesticated goats and sheep. All we’re doing is domesticating a fly.”
Speaking at US president Joe Biden’s climate conference last month, Putin said Russia, the world’s fourth-largest CO2 emitter and second-largest oil producer, was taking climate change seriously, and was “willing to present a range of joint projects and consider potential benefits even for foreign companies that would like to invest in clean technologies in our country”.
Entoprotech is set to close an initial $10m funding round this month, tapping mainly investors in Israel, where it has its research and development team. That money is earmarked to treble the size of the Russian operation and build new production sites in Israel and the EU, Babaev said.
Aside from scaling up, Entoprotech’s biggest challenge is set to be government legislation and public acceptance of the product. The US allows black soldier fly larvae to be fed to livestock, while the EU has strict rules both on what the flies can eat and what can eat them. Both Babaev and Babitsky do not expect humans to be eating them directly for some time.
“Of course it’s way sexier to talk about food instead of feed,” said Babitsky. “But that’s not the battle we want to pick. We’re providing the meat industry with sustainable feed and reducing pressure on the planet.”
Entoprotech is also researching the potential use of fats from the larvae in the healthcare and cosmetics industry, and has a joint venture with a Russian skincare company.
“This fly has spent 200m years living in excrement. Over that time it has developed crazy anti-bacterial and antifungal and disease-resistance properties,” said Babitsky. “If we can harness them, then potential for all sorts of products is enormous.”