Sustainable agriculture requires new infrastructure. Insect infrastructure.

Agricultural infrastructure needs improvement as much as any other key sector for infrastructure. Advancing ag infrastructure creates jobs, improves quality of life and makes our economy more secure. Most important, however, advancing ag infrastructure protects our children and generations to come by increasing efficiency and decreasing negative environmental impacts. Insects are one of the few markets with the potential to re-shape agricultural infrastructure while adding hundreds of billions of dollars in economic gains to producers, industries and economies, over time.

To discuss insects as infrastructure, we have to have a model for describing agricultural infrastructure. For a clear approach, we’ll consider several factors identified by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA).* NASDA’s summary introduction of Agricultural Infrastructure starts:

Farmers and ranchers depend on reliable infrastructure to deliver their products and expand their operations. Out-of-date, underfunded transportation systems and a lack of available labor hinder agriculture production, while advancing technology encourages growth. [1]

Transportation and labor problems hinder growth; 
technology encourages growth.

NASDA could not be more clear (or more accurate, in my opinion) about what impacts growth. We need to reform transportation and labor in agriculture and develop new technologies that amplify productivity. Infrastructure-scale production of insects, because of their biological efficiencies and high value, will solve for these fundamental problems.

Here’s the thing to know about insect infrastructure: the emerging insect industry is only possible because of the fast-paced transformation taking place in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).**

The Major Segments of Ag Infrastructure — and How Insect Infrastructure Will Transform Performance

Agriculture Transportation

Agriculture relies heavily on a consistent and dependable transportation system including rivers, rail, and roadways. Farmers and ranchers need the ability to move products and equipment to sustain their normal farm and ranch enterprises. The U.S. transportation system as a whole needs drastic upgrades to allow for efficient movement of goods.

Insects can be produced on-site or nearby any source of large-scale industrial waste. This can include breweries and spent brewers grain (SBG), juice processors and their pomace waste or myriad types of commercial food operations whose waste and compost streams are viable insect feed.

According to a 2009 whitepaper published by UC Davis:

Including agricultural production, farm inputs and processed food products, the food sector uses almost one-third of U.S. freight transport. [2]

Insect infrastructure enables the reduction in burden on the transportation arm of ag infrastructure in three ways:

  1. Eliminating costly long-distance transport of commodity feedstocks, in particular soy and fishmeal. In many cases, fishmeal travels literally halfway around the world to get to a chicken farm. It’s conceivable that 5,000–10,000 miles of transit of feedstock in any given operation can be eliminated by replacing fishmeal with insects produced on-site or nearby.
  2. Condensing valuable components to dehydrated forms and eliminating water weight prior to any shipping. Insect meal can be processed for food and feed in a colocated facility with the production site. In the case that the feedstocks need to be shipped for other processing or used some distance away, through dehydration and isolation, components can be reduced to low or no water being shipped. It’s conceivable that fuel usage in shipping insect based feedstocks could be reduced by half or more by eliminating water. Take for example spent brewers grain which is ~80% water weight when shipped for cattle feed supplements and can be condensed to 10% water weight and 60% protein when processed by crickets and dehydrated into a flour or meal.
  3. “Circular” production systems can dramatically reduce the externally-sourced inputs required for fish and livestock production. It is, at least in theory, possible to build an integrated farming operation that uses animal waste to grow plants that feed insects that feed the animals. We helped our friend Doug Milar at TomKat Ranch do one such experiment (read his blog posts here) where he had an aquaponic fish setup with the waste water feeding spirulina that was fed to the crickets, which were, in turn, fed back to the next generation of fish. This model dramatically reduced the requirement for new feedstock ingredients an fits within a model many people refer to as “nutrient recycling.” The reduction in transportation burden (and negative effects on the environment from carbon emissions) is commensurate to the reduction of shipped goods.

It’s worth noting that feedstock volatility can be directly correlated, in many cases, to energy cost volatility. Reducing transportation burden thereby reduces feedstock volatility, another infrastructure-scale improvement.

While much work needs to be done to improve traditional transportation infrastructure for agriculture, reframing transportation improvements to reduce the burden of feedstock transportation on the grid will have just as much — if not more — impact.

Agricultural Workforce

American agriculture faces a critical shortage of labor that harms annual harvests, animal agriculture production and processing facilities. This damages American competitiveness and overall food security.

Competitiveness and food security will define the next generation of American agriculture, and insect infrastructure will increase both. Labor shortages are unlikely to be solved by new policies or by a groundswell of new farm laborers from within existing working populations. Enhancing worker efficiency and output per worker (and worker job satisfaction) through technological innovation is the best hope for improving competitiveness and food security.

The emergence of large scale robotics systems at manageable price points for adoption by the insect rearing industry will usher in a wave of largely-automated insect production facilities where workers produce tens (someday thousands) of pounds per worker per harvest cycle. The workers’ jobs will be more focused on facilitating the non-stop work of the robots than on processing insects for feed and feed themselves.

Insects have unique features suited to indoor, automated agriculture. They grow in habitats that comply with zone-based manufacturing systems and they do not require sun, grazing space or large acreage. They can grow in habitats up to 15' or 20' tall and grow dozens of lifecycles per calendar year.

AI and AI-based software features will also improve efficiency in uncountable ways. For one example, check out the voice-controlled cricket habitat prototype we built. Now the guys working production at our Farm Lab in Western North Carolina can interact with controlled environmental devices like heaters, humidifiers and misters through voice commands.

In terms of food security, without increasing by an order of magnitude the productivity in tons per worker, every major agricultural production region in the world is at risk of failure to thrive.

Insect biology allows the development of insect infrastructure that multiplies the pounds produced per worker thanks to automation.

Emerging Technology

Science-based, pragmatic approaches to innovation are essential to maintaining the U.S.’s status as the safest and most reliable food supplier in the world. Innovation results in new and better crop and livestock genetics, more efficient and effective cultivation methods and equipment, faster and clearer communication and wider and more profitable commerce.

Insect infrastructure would not be possible without the development of new technologies, namely robotics and AI. There are many areas that need more R&D in insect production systems, in fields like biology, genetics, quality assurance, habitat design, feedstock blending and better sensor tech. This R&D will create jobs, enhance competitiveness and increase reliability of individual operations and our ag infrastructure worldwide.

Insect infrastructure is not a threat to today’s leading ag producers — it is a value add. To feed growing global populations and solve for high quality food in the hands of 100% of humanity, we need more soy, corn and even fishmeal. It is a win-win-win for today’s leading companies, startups like Bitwater and for people the world round.

Overall, the food sector uses more infrastructure per dollar of domestic consumption than other industries in the United States [2].

Do you believe in the value of insect infrastructure? Skeptic? Continue the conversation on Twitter at @bitwaterfarms #insectinfrastructure

This post was written by Sean McDonald, CEO of Bitwater.

*This post is in no way an endorsement of NASDA’s policies. We are using their definition of agricultural infrastructure as a conceptual framework. Bitwater Farms Inc. has no association with NASDA financially or otherwise.

**For this discussion, “AI” will be used to represent a wide field of machine learning, statistical analysis, regression analysis, anomaly and pattern detection, predictive analytics and neural networks as well as AI yet-to-come.