A Box of Mealworms
Future Food

Matthias K. Heschl, August 18 2020
5 min to read

Topic: The Future of Farming


A third of the food produced around the globe ends up as waste. If we are to feed the world more sustainably, we also need new methods and technologies. With the help of mealworms, for example, food waste can easily be transformed into valuable proteins for people and animals as well as fertilizer for plants. In 2015, the Austrian Katharina Unger and her company Livin Farms harnessed this principle in Hong Kong by developing the insect farming kit The Hive. During its first expansion phase, the mealworm farm for the home that was produced in nearby Shenzhen principally targeted the conversion of food waste into high-quality protein. The second generation, the Hive Explorer, is now shifting the focus towards experience and communication. While the company's Hong Kong office continues to concentrate on schools and domestic customers, it has been working in Vienna since 2019 on the large-scale industrial breeding of insects in the urban context. In a smartphone voice message from Hong Kong, the founder of Livin Farms, Katharina Unger, explained to us how this should work. The interview is embellished with a pasta recipe in which the mealworm is naturally not missing from the list of ingredients. Bon appétit!


Five Questions for Katharina Unger,
THE HIVE EXPLORER

Matthias K. Heschl: You've lived in Hong Kong for a long time. To what extent has the spatial situation in the city contributed to the design of The Hive?

Katharina Unger: The extreme urban context of Hong Kong led me to consider how we can sustainably produce large amounts of food in such dense cities. While the first prototypes of The Hive still appeared very futuristic, we ultimately wanted to create something that can be easily integrated into people's everyday lives: a tool that can be placed between kitchen appliances or simply stowed away in a box. So, although round forms are basically advantageous for organic systems such as those of insects because these otherwise tend to accumulate in corners and generate heat, we eventually faced the question of what could be logically produced from an economic perspective. This is another reason why the final version of the kits is based on relatively rectangular and modular multipliable forms and compartments – and these, in turn, can also be compared with the high-rise buildings of Hong Kong.

MKH: How can mealworm farms be integrated into architecture?

KU: I think that insect farming can principally be pursued as a vertical farming strategy. A cow, a pig, a chicken need room to graze and run around; they need room in order to be able to turn and move. Exactly the opposite is true of insects: These even need each other in order to develop their skins; and niches and small spaces in order to grow. And such requirements mean that insect farming can be perfectly integrated into a world with a relentlessly rising population. In addition to this, insects make sense wherever they can reflect cyclical ideas and play a key ecological role between waste material and recycling. Insects eat residues such as old fungi or carcasses and, as a result, become nourishing protein for birds and other animals. And it is precisely this potential that architecture must also exploit: In matters of food it must think in cycles. Insects are currently the missing link here.

MKH: The area required for each kilogramme is ten times higher in conventional cattle breeding than on a mealworm farm. With this in mind, what are the opportunities for the industrial use of insect farming?

KU: Our Vienna facility has just received 2.5 million euros of support from the EU. The next step will be to expand the pilot plant that we developed in 2019 to the extent that it can convert 1,000 tons of dry waste material into protein with the help of insects every year. This should be done using plug-and-play equipment. Hence, the objective is to develop a flexibly applicable technology that can be set up wherever such residues occur. This is not just about producing food for humans but, principally, animal feed.

MKH: The UN recommends the consumption of insects as a means of battling global hunger. Which other Sustainable Development Goals have you considered?

KU: Fish is the basic foodstuff for large swathes of the population in the Global South. However, much of the catch is also used to produce fishmeal, which is then used as feed in fish and chicken breeding. The amino acid, fat and protein profile of insect meal, such as that which we produce in our pilot facility in Vienna, is very similar to this fishmeal. Every ton of fishmeal that can be replaced by insect meal leaves five more tons of fish for human consumption. This lever exemplifies how insect farming can make a major contribution to the meeting of Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger). And we have also made a commitment to meeting Goals 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action) and 15 (Life on Land).

MKH: Vienna, Hong Kong, Shenzhen. What is the situation in these cities (or countries) in terms of the cultural acceptance of insects as a source of nutrition? What activities do you carry out in the area of communication?

KU: That's really had to answer. In our experience, the consumption of insects in Asia is nothing like as common as sometimes portrayed. People in Asia frequently take a lead from the USA or Europa, where a lot of meat is eaten. This is another reason why the culture of eating insects in Hong Kong is much less pronounced today than is often believed. I see Vienna as far more open than Hong Kong to the idea of using insects as a source of protein. In turn, the notion of sustainability may be stronger in Shenzhen than in Hong Kong but it is not as advanced as in Europe. With the help of our Hive Explorer, the curriculum that we have developed and a range of events, we are trying to build awareness in this direction.


Dish of the Day

Symbolic image, © bahadirbermekphoto – stock.adobe.com

ARRABIATIA PASTA WITH MEALWORMS

Salt
1 pound (450 g) pasta
6 tablespoons (90 ml) olive oil (more if you want)
3 clove crushed garlic
2 small chopped onions
2 or 3 (or more if you want) crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tomatos (or 1 canned tomato) crushed
1 cup (about 60 g) finely grated Parmesan cheese
Small handful minced flat-leaf parsley leaves or oregano
10 g mealworm powder (30 g maximum)

1
Bring a medium saucepan full of salted water to a boil. Add the penne pasta and boil for 1 minute less than the directions on the package. Then drain. Toss them with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

2
Meanwhile, in a pan, combine oil, crushed garlic, chopped onions and sliced pepper. Cook about 5 minutes over medium heat until garlic become golden and onion soften.

3
Add tomato paste, tomatoes, mealworm powder and stir to combine. Boil for 2-3 minutes until it brings to a bare simmer. When sauce and pasta are ready, add pasta to sauce.

4
Add about 1/4 cup pasta water to sauce and increase heat to bring pasta and sauce. Toss well to coat. Add more pasta water as necessary to keep sauce loose.

5
Continue cooking pasta until sauce thickens and begins to coat noodles, then remove from heat. Toss with cheese and parsley(or herb you like). Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. You can also decorate pasta with a few dried mealworms. Serve.

About

Livin Farms is a technology company developing equipment to grow alternative proteins. It was incorporated in late 2015 and has offices in Hong Kong and Vienna. Livin Farms is a technology company developing equipment to grow alternative proteins.

livinfarms.com

Photos: © Livin Farms, unless stated otherwise