New fellowship promotes food waste reuse in agriculture

A new research project aims to reduce food waste while decreasing the economic and environmental cost of lamb and sheep meat production.

Animal scientist Kristy DiGiacomo been awarded a 2017 veski sustainable agriculture fellowship to explore an innovative research project which could help to divert millions of tonnes of food waste away from landfills while reducing costs for farmers and agribusinesses.

Kristy DiGiacomo with Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, Parliamentary Secretary Frank McGuire and Chair Professor of Electrical Power Systems Pierluigi Mancarella, from the University's Melbourne School of Engineering. Image: veski.

Dr DiGiacomo will work with Hatch Biosystems (formerly Hermetia Biosystems) to explore the use of pre-consumer food waste in the production of black soldier fly larvae which could be used to feed livestock and reduce the cost of animal feed.

"Lamb is the third-biggest agricultural production industry in Victoria, and the cost of feed equates to around 70 per cent of farmers’ costs," she says.

"So if we can provide a novel feed source that can reduce some of those costs but also can help to eliminate food waste, we’ll bring benefits to both the industry and the sustainability of Australian agriculture."

The fellowship was presented by Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business and Innovation Frank McGuire on Monday 11 December 2017.

Australia produces around four million tonnes of pre-consumer food waste per year, Dr DiGiacomo says – fruits and vegetables that do not make their way into homes or restaurants because they are rejected for sale.

Reusing that waste could reduce the carbon cost of both the waste itself, and the growth of protein-rich animal feeds like canola or soybeans. These crops are also resource-intensive, requiring water, fertiliser and land. They also contribute to the final environmental cost of meat production.

In the project, researchers would initially examine how insect-derived protein performs in lab conditions. Black soldier fly larvae would then be fed with food waste, humanely euthanised, dried and added to sheep feed. The overall amount of protein in the animals’ diets would remain the same, and Dr DiGiacomo and her colleagues would monitor their growth efficiency and meat quality.

Finally, the researchers would combine lab and field results to assess the economic potential of using insect-derived protein sources on Victorian farms.

Dr DiGiacomo says the project could allow producers to incorporate the sustainable protein produced by soldier flies into the human food chain, without adding the flies themselves to human diets.

"Insect protein is natural, low cost, and high quality and sustainable, with one hectare of land producing approximately 300 times the volume of insect protein meal compared to traditional soybean or canola crops," she said.

"The likelihood of humans adopting insects into their normal diet is fairly low in western societies, so it’s more logical to focus on feeding insect protein to ruminants like sheep, as well as pigs and poultry, to deliver that benefit in a food westerners are more likely to eat.”

This would also mean crops that are currently grown as protein for animals would become available for humans. Improving the efficiency of agricultural production systems will become increasingly important as the human population continues to grow, while the availability of arable land is limited by climate change.

"By 2050, it is projected that there will be a deficit of protein available for human consumption worldwide," Dr DiGiacomo says.

"So if we can open different streams of where protein can be directed out of animal production and into the human food chain, it will also be beneficial to our future food security."

Story by Stuart Winthrope. Banner image: Daphane Ng.