The technical project started with a challenge to create a startup business that would improve the world, said Sean McDonald, co-founder and CEO. To have influence on that level meant working with energy, food or education, which led to a look at a United Nations report looking at the use of insects in feed and food, he said.
“Insects as a niche market is interesting, but as a commodity it is a global force,” he told FeedNavigator. But regulatory concerns have to be addressed.
Bitwater Farms said crickets are 60% or more protein by weight, high in omega fatty acids, iron, zinc and other micro-nutrients, with an amino acid profile comparable to soy.
It said they need little water to grow and less feed per pound than any other animal protein, and can thrive on as little as 1 gallon of water per pound of protein grown.
Several types of insects have been reviewed for production, including black soldier flies and mealworms, said McDonald.
The benefits and challenges with each type were considered, he said. “Crickets have methionine and iron, but there are high calcium bugs and [ones] with certain kinds of lipids," added McDonald.
Bitwater Farms is focusing on cricket farming on the basis, he said, that it is a thousand-year-old practice. “We saw it as low risk.”
“Black solider flies have a compelling lipid content, but you can’t find 300,000 people who have done it,” he said.
However, in the future there might be a role for multiple types of insects in feed or agriculture depending on the micro-nutrients they offer.
The Californian company is currently in its second year of designing reproducible, modular insect growing units that would allow more producers to grow crickets for use, said McDonald.
The hardware products are being designed as a series that would allow for production at different levels depending on interest, he said. “Right now the module 1 [M1] is a modular system that we’ve made open source.”
The units are also fairly automated, with software controlling some inputs like misters, humidifiers and temperature, said McDonald. “It’s much easier than try to buy all the parts and put them on timers [and] it’s a lot cheaper,” he added.
“The intelligent part of the unit is software based,” he said. “We’ve had scenarios when a unit is overheating, so I can be 500 miles away and push new code to it – it allows us to use digital management tools.”
Bitwater Farms already has M1 units in different states across the country, he said. “With any of them, we can pull up a dashboard and see the different environmental factors – the best response for any feature we put in is to have it send a text message if something goes wrong,” he added.
The second system, M2, has been designed for commercial growers using a single controlled environment like a warehouse, said McDonald. “M3 is really on more of an industrial scale – it’s about the size of a school bus,” he added.
Regulatory approvals and looking forward
The company does produce crickets in its growing systems now, said McDonald but the long-term focus in on the growing platforms.
“We don’t disclose our numbers, but for breeding rates and nutritional content, we believe that our systems compare well to anything on the market today – and can be higher in density per cubic foot,” he said. “I believe that our team, in the next year, will be producing the highest yielding technology platform.”
The farm is planning to offer additional support for those using the open source model moving forward, he said. It also is working through the steps to be able to offer more information on the M2 and M3 models.
It also has work to on the regulatory side regarding the use of crickets, said McDonald.
“There’s plenty of work to do on the regulatory components in the US and the EU – that requires many things like research, feed trials [and] multiple exposures tested with different states and different universities,” he said. “My hope is that it happens fairly quickly.”
The Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) has published a definition regarding the use of dried black soldier fly larvae grown on feed–grade materials in feed for salmonids, it reported. However, that approval does not apply to use in feed for other animals in production.
At this point, the group has not had a discussion regarding a definition for the use of crickets in animal feed, it said.