Business innovation, cleantech & insects:
The Bottom Line.
In this Asia-Pacific Business Insight, we explore how business innovation, clean technologies (cleantechs) and insects can lead to a more sustainable food chain with Mathieu Vassal, cleantech entrepreneur and CEO of Waseco (Waste Eco Solution) – an innovative and region-based company which produces larvae as an alternative to fish mill.
As one of the few experts in this emerging industry, Mathieu Vassal has a unique perspective on what the current model does wrong and on what opportunities that creates from a regional and global business development perspective. Mathieu talks about the topic with passion and his argument is very straightforward: insects are the missing link for a sustainable food chain.
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Mathieu Vassal – Business Innovation: insects + Cleantech = sustainable food chain
Matthieu, you are one of the food chain experts in the region. What can you tell us about food chain sustainability these days?
Mathieu Vassal: Food chain sustainability is becoming a major concern, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. We usually see Asia as a sea-rich part of the world where fish is available in abundance. But considering the way the fisheries industry exploits the resource, chances are that the local populations which often depend on fish stocks to survive will be the first to be harmed.
Let me illustrate what I am saying with some numbers. There should be between nine and eleven billion people on the planet by 2050, but chances are that the food resource will not increase proportionally. I am being sarcastic here, but nowadays around thirty-five percent of the fish we take from the oceans is used to feed animals, particularly for the aquaculture industry.
What do you mean by that?
MV: Simple maths, really. For every kilo of fish produced by with aquaculture, we need to take about three kilos of small fish from the ocean. These are then turned into a protein-rich fish mill because the process brings more consistency and profitability, but the result is that we catch fish to feed fish, not humans. On top of that, between sixty and seventy percent of the plants we grow also feed animals. So where does that lead us?
Now, let me throw in another number. Considering the population growth expectations mentioned earlier, it is expected that the need for proteins will double by 2050. As economic development progresses and poverty diminishes, people tend to eat more meat. And more meat means more animal food will be necessary. Except there is no way we can produce all the protein necessary if things keep moving as they do. This food situation is a predictable catastrophe. It is a reinforced concrete wall and we are heading towards it at full speed.
Is there a way to measure this?
MV: Measuring food chain sustainability is difficult, but a variety of indicators is available. In particular, you could estimate how much land and water is needed to produce X amount of animal food and then compare it with the amount human food that could be used with the same resource.
For instance, imagine that one square meter of land is necessary to raise livestock. Say, one kilo of beef meat per year. If the same land produced ten kilos of rice, which one would be more efficient? This is what we call the Food Conversion Ratio, and it is very useful to assess how productive we really are.
So, food insecurity risks then.
MV: Food insecurity is only the tip of the iceberg in reality.
Let me take the example of Laos where Waseco operates from. Over here, people feed mainly from fish, then on chicken and pork meat. The stock is fed mainly from fish meat – which once again does not feed the people – and from vegetal food, often in the form of soy by-products. The problem is, soy does not only feed animals, it also leads to deforestation and monopolizes arable land which, again, does not help to feed humans.
On top of that, we tend to consider that between forty and fifty percent of the actual food production goes to waste because it is considered improper (in terms of beauty contest), or because it does not match the standards. And I am not even mentioning the lack of recycling for our clothes, which also originate from natural fibers and have a negative impact on the water resource. Would you say this qualifies as a sustainable food chain? I wouldn’t.
How would Asia be affected in the long-run?
MV: Difficult to say because Asia and the west do not have the same approach to food. In the west, we tend to eat a lot of meat whereas food habits in the region differ significantly. People here eat more fish, and in some countries eating beef simply isn’t thinkable. Yet, when the fish resource disappears the region will be impacted directly.
Is there a solution out of this food chain unsustainability trend?
Mathieu Vassal: Yes, we need another model based on clean technology (Cleantech), which is a great opportunity in terms of business innovation. We are completely responsible for this situation and we can do something about it.
Let’s be honest, we are usually very happy to get food on demand. Meat, beautifully calibrated vegetables… And then we throw things away.
If we looked back, however, we could learn a good but brutal lesson. Before the consumption model we currently live in, the society was working differently. Food was not coming from plastic boxes and supermarkets, they were grown on site, by the people who needed them. Those people also had hens and eggs, and a pig, and a cow. And these animals would be fed either from the fields or from the waste.
In other words, waste was a reality but it was transformed into food. Or, said differently again, animal feeding did not depend on growing dedicated cultures or catching the fish resource. People would hunt and plant for their own consumption, and the waste would be recycled. That made sense at the time, and we could totally turn this idea into a very modern business innovation mindset.
So, a new model based on sound waste management?
MV: I think so. At least this is the model we develop at Waseco, which actually stands for Waste Eco Solution.
What exactly do you propose?
MV: Well, first of all, we don’t just propose, we do. We have developed a business model and ecosystem based on two key elements. One is waste recycling. The other is black soldier fly larvae.
To put things simply, we reuse waste produced on a daily basis by local breweries, and we turn it into calories for fly larvae. The larvae consume the wet waste and recycle it much more efficiently than we would through an industrial process. After several days the waste is gone and the larvae can be collected, dried, and turned into protein powder which is then used as an animal protein food.
In short, instead of taking fish from the ocean to feed fish, we turn waste into larvae food and then larvae into protein powder to feed the fish. Waste is not waste. Waste is valorized as a resource and it becomes the basis of the ecosystem we invest in.
So insects can be used as part of the food chain.
Mathieu Vassal: Definitely! In fact, I always say that the insect is the missing link for a sustainable food chain. And that creates tremendous cleantech and business innovation possibilities.
The great news is, this new model has the potential to impact both Asia and the West! We always see Asian populations eating fried insects (you should try, by the way) and we have the greatest difficulties imagining that we could do the same. But if insects were used as a waste-recycling source of protein for our own food, we would solve a global and twofold problem: waste management and food chain unsustainability.
What is the Food Conversion Ratio then?
MV: Glad to see that you are following me.
In about thirteen days, our larvae grow by approximately five thousand percent. With less than a square meter, we can produce thirty thousand of them. And they will consume about ten kilos of wet waste which normally would simply go to the bin. When the process is over, we obtain about two kilos of dried reusable matter and around the same weight of larvae, which can then be dried with solar energy to minimize the impact.
In addition, the opportunity makes a lot of sense because beyond being easy to produce, insects are extremely protein efficient considering the space and water they require. Between a model in which land and water are wasted and a model in which waste recycling helps saving land and water, what makes more sense?
Could this create a new society model?
MV: Of course. Some environmentally-aware people already use dry toilets out of personal beliefs, so why couldn’t we design buildings and industries so that the waste is collected and reused in various ways?
Take the example of Waseco. The brewery process produces twenty percent of waste, that is twenty tons of unwanted materials for a hundred tons of beer. Yet, these twenty tons are completely valorisable and we recycle around a hundred tons of them per day. Said differently, we are creating a cleantech industry out of the unwanted waste of another industry, and we make both industries sustainable by the same token. The only way to describe this is to say it is a win-win if you ask me.
And the impact on the oceans then?
MV: Difficult to assess but giving you an idea of the potential is easy. Let’s imagine that seven billion people produce a hundred grams of waste every day, that makes about seven hundred million tons of waste. If ten percent of that was turned into larvae food, we could produce over 700k tons of animal food, without having to fish it from the oceans. This is huge!
Indeed… Now, what is the economic opportunity around this? Especially in the region.
Mathieu Vassal: As I said before, the insect is the missing link for a sustainable food chain, so the business opportunity is more than significant and Asia is already running for it. Particularly the Chinese.
There is the beginning of a competition, actually. In Europe companies such as Bueller or Yinsect are lobbying to reunite the actors and make the legislation move, so now dried insects can legally be fed to fish. This is a big progress because that creates a market, and more opportunities will appear when similar legislation appears in relation to pork and chickens. Important investments are also being made in South Africa where AgriProtein has raised $105 million this year. Similar efforts also emerge in Canada, Switzerland and in some States in the U.S.
In Asia, the efforts are less visible because insects already make part of the food chain so the need for regulatory frameworks is maybe more limited and the wow factor is not as impressive. As far as the Chinese are concerned, important investments are on the way. Especially around Hong Kong and Canton. The Chinese are very good at spotting business opportunities, so they know the value of insects in the first place and they are well aware of the value of waste as well. They already make medications out of cockroaches so why not expending the model?
What is the big challenge for you then?
MV: The big challenge is to create a demand for our cleantech products and to secure sourcing. Business innovation is great, but it needs to be backed up by a supply chain. We need important volumes of waste to produce the larvae, and we need to build demand so that a supply chain can emerge. We also need to create standards, if only because we want to make sure that the larvae aren’t fed with toxic materials.
And from the financial side of things?
MV: Finances are an essential aspect of business innovation, that’s a no-brainer. You need a concept proof first, and that requires demand. But at the same time you need cash to invest before you can supply, so the need for convinced and committed investors is very important.
The limit we face is probably that the ecosystem for business innovation in general and cleantech, in particular, is not very developed in Asia. Bankers want to know what assets you have before they invest in you, but flies don’t really count as assets. I’ve tried to answer the assets questions saying “I have flies!”, but for some reason, they didn’t seem convinced…
There is some cash available from international organizations such as the World Bank, but our industry is definitely too small to attract this type of funding at this stage.
So, although we are very innovative our supply chain depends on investors convinced of the scale-up opportunities. Those who believe in the idea of feeding billions will probably win the lucky draw.
What is the value of your solution from a basic financial perspective?
MV: Well, in 2000 fish mill was worth $400 per ton. Today the same fish mill is worth about $1700 per ton. The increase is significant, but what really matters is that the industry is looking for alternatives to the usual supply chain so the financial potential is obvious, beyond sustainable food chain theories. Especially if you consider that they won’t have a choice for very long.
What is the one thing you want people to remember from this discussion?
Mathieu Vassal: My message is very simple, we don’t really have a choice. The food supply chain as we use it is not sustainable if we want to survive we will need to invest in alternatives. The alternative is already there and the insect is clearly the missing link to make the food chain sustainable. The product works, the production method is sustainable. We need to move on.
Mathieu Vassal | Cleantech & Food Chain Sustainability expert
Mathieu Vassal is a cleantech entrepreneur with a deep expertise and valuable network in the field of supply chain sustainability – mainly in Asia. Mathieu Vassal strongly believes that a change in economic models is needed, and he invests with passion and pragmatism towards making tomorrow a better world.
Since 2015, he develops the activity of WASECO (Waste Eco Solution), a waste-to-resource business which turns unwanted organic materials – considered as waste or low-value by-products- into a source of highly-needed protein for the animal feed industry.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of their author(s) only and do not reflect those of The Asia-Pacific Circle or of its editors unless otherwise stated.
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