The global demand for protein has only been increasing over the years – not just for human consumption but also for livestock, poultry and fish feed, pet food, cosmetic ingredients and more.
The flip side of this has been the extreme exploitation of the marine ecosystem for fish and other marine organisms that are rich protein sources.
But what if the demand for protein-rich ingredients could be met by something else more sustainably?
Insects, icky as they may sound to a few, are rich sources of protein and abundantly available.
Loopworm, an agri-biotechnology start-up based out of Bengaluru, uses these qualities of insects to make sustainable alternative ingredients for animal feed.
Abhi Gawri and Ankit Alok Bagaria, both graduates of IIT-Roorkee, met in 2017. A conversation about the potential of making value-added products out of organic rejects and a UN report that stated insects as the future of food and feed sowed in them the idea of Loopworm.
“Insects are nature’s scavengers. They eat crop biomass and organic waste. It helps nature. And ultimately, they are a treasure trove of nutrition. They are like nature’s bioreactor and concentrator. And they convert waste into valuable products,” points out Bagaria, cofounder at Loopworm.
“What we are trying to do is the conversion of organic rejects industries with the help of insects and converting those insects into sustainable feed ingredients for animals,” he says.
“We started in a small flat in Delhi,” recollects Mr. Bagaria.
“We purposely rented a flat on the fourth floor where the building didn’t have any elevator so that the owner would never come. In one of the rooms, we were staying; In the other room were the insects. And the kitchen was the food waste management unit,” he laughs.
They got a few eggs of black soldier flies, one of the fastest converters of food waste. Realising that climate conditions play a major role in rearing insects, they moved to Bengaluru and rented out an 800 sqft facility on the outskirts of the city where they first reared insects and then bred them.
After a brief pause imposed by COVID-19, the team became functional again in September 2020 and moved to a bigger 2000 sqft facility which used to be a buffalo farm before it.
In 2022, the founders were on their way to Mysuru from Bengaluru for a meeting. Midway near Ramanagara, a strong stench, similar to that of a dead animal, caught their attention.
“As we are curious about anything that’s organic waste we took a detour. We came across silk reeling factories where heaps and heaps of silkworm pupae were getting wasted,” recollects Mr. Bagaria. The cocoon of the silkworm is used to make silk, and the pupae are usually discarded.
A reject in the silk industry, the humble pupae, seemed a treasure to the eyes of the Loopworm team. They decided to rear both Black soldier fly and silkworm larvae and set up a bigger factory with a capacity to produce 500 tonnes of insect protein concentrate a month.
Helping the ocean
“One of the things that we are replacing with our insect protein is fish meal,” says Mr. Bagaria.
Fish meal is a protein concentrate that is derived from wild marine pelagic fish and is a widely used ingredient in fish feed, poultry feed and pet food.
“In India it is extracted from Indian oil sardines and mackerels. Trawlers sent out into the Arabian sea catches loads of fish, often to a point where the fish stock is not regenerating naturally. Seas across the world are overfished because of the demand for fish meal and fish oil, for animal and human nutrition respectively,” Mr. Bagaria explains, adding that Loopworm is trying to partially replace fish meal.
“’Partially’ because we are still not at those volumes. Animal agriculture requires a huge volume of ingredients. We are still small for the industry, but it’s a booming industry,” he says.
According to Mr. Bagaria, one tonne of insect protein can save five tonnes of wild marine fish.
Loopworm’s factory runs currently at 20% capacity and produces 120 tonnes of protein concentrate a month. The majority of the products go to aquaculture and poultry feed manufacturers. The company is also doing trials with shelter homes for dogs and cats.
“We are trying to create a sustainable circular food system with this process that would help to drive food security and avert greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr. Bagaria adds.
Insects being the natural food of fish and birds, the fish, poultry and livestock feed market was a low-hanging fruit for the Loopworm products. However, the team believes the potential of insect concentrate is much more.
“Sustainable alternative ingredients could be used for animal feed, plants, cosmetics, neutraceuticals, food, medicine, and a lot of things. We want to navigate this journey step by step where we go from markets like animal feed and plant nutrition to the more regulated ones such as topical applications, food and medicine eventually. We want to harness the fullest potential of insects and convert them into products where we can positively impact animal health, plant nutrition, and human health and well-being,” says Mr. Bagaria.
The company, which has been initially operating with angel money and government grants, later raised funds from private investors such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with Tata Trust – both operated through Social Alpha. In September 2022, they secured an investment of ₹25.8 Crores from investors including Omnivore, Waterbridge, Titan Capital, Climate9ers, and angels such as Nadir Godrej, Sanjiv Rangrass, and founders of Zetwerk.
Abhilash Sethi, investment director at Omnivore, notes that for the increasing protein demand, aquaculture is the most sustainable solution due to its low feed conversion ratio; however, to feed the fish in those aquaculture ponds it’s important to have an efficient and sustainable supply chain, which is where Loopworm comes in.
According to him, insect farming and processing is an upcoming industry in Europe currently, but Indian startups like Loopworm may have a huge advantage in terms of cost.
“These insects are typically tropical and in Europe they use climate-controlled setups to grow them which makes the whole process very expensive. They have to compete with the wild catch suppliers to supply to the feed manufacturers, and cannot raise the price point. For this reason, most of the European companies have shifted from the shrimp or fish industry to the pet food industry.”
With the advantage of having a tropical climate, he notes, Indian companies like Loopworm can produce the products at a fraction of the cost at which their European counterparts are producing, and compete with global players eventually.