The company "Livin Farms" in Vienna is developing systems for the commercial breeding of protein-rich flour worms. This is an innovative and sustainable project.
The Livin Farms company in Vienna aims to use mealworms to develop an additional protein source for Europe.
In other cultures, insects are a staple food. In Europe they are mainly used in animal feed. Supported by the FFG (Research Promotion Agency), Livin Farms is developing facilities in Vienna for the commercial breeding of protein-rich mealworms. Livin Farms is now one of two Austrian companies supported by the European Innovation Council under the European Green Deal.
The founder, Katharina Unger, explained in a TEDx lecture she gave in 2015 how she found out about mealworms: She was working as a product designer in Hong Kong and wondering how to help mega-cities become self-sufficient in food. Ungers identified the solution in insects as protein sources, more specifically mealworms, which can feed on food waste and be ‘harvested’ and used as food and feed before developing into beetles. Katharina Unger founded Livin Farms in Shenzhen together with designer Julia Kaisinger. The two developed a space-saving mealworm breeding station for domestic use, which they call ‘the Hive’ (as in ‘beehive’). Through a Kickstarter campaign, the product was sold in almost 40 countries. While Livin Farms in Hong Kong continues to sell mini-mealworm farms for schools, Unger set off for pastures new in 2019: back to Austria, where insects have now been authorised as a feedingstuff for fish since 2017 and the processing of insects into food has also had a legal basis since 2018.
Pilot factory in Vienna
In the 23rd municipal district of Vienna, Livin Farms has set up a pilot factory. On a 200 m² site, industrial-scale mealworm breeding is being tested. A considerably larger production site is soon to be acquired. The larvae are fed with bread and baking waste from a large food chain. Nevertheless, the mealworm is a very sustainable animal compared to, for example, cattle: Where cattle breeding requires almost 68 kg of CO2 equivalents to produce 1 kg of proteins, the corresponding figure in mealworm breeding is just 2.2 kg of CO2 equivalents. The insects need much less space, less feed and much less water. And when compared to vegetable proteins, insects as waste processors also offer clear advantages in terms of water and land use.
‘In the ongoing R&D project, we are looking at how we can organize insect breeding efficiently on a large scale’, says Katharina Unger. ‘Livin Farms’ goal is to become a technology provider for insect farming. We want to build the installations as a plug & play turnkey system, but only operate part of them, the breeding of the animals, ourselves.’
Sushi, lobster & potatoes
Currently, insects are used as an alternative to fishmeal in the feed industry and in pet food. From several tonnes per month, one can be a player in the European pet food sector. While the market for insects as a human food is a niche that is constantly growing, the largest and most promising market so far is the fish feed industry. The replacement of fishmeal by insects is a major step towards sustainability in fish production. This may well increase because, as Katharina Unger mentions in her TEDx lecture, potatoes, sushi and lobster were also for a long time considered as foods or dishes to be avoided.
Supported by the European Innovation Council
From the point of view of location policy, one question is particularly interesting: Why go back to Austria if you already have an established head office in Hong Kong? Unger cites several reasons for this: On the one hand, rents in Hong Kong are unaffordable if larger areas are needed, and the bureaucratic hurdles to setting up a pilot factory in neighbouring mainland China are very high. Furthermore: While international venture capital investors in Asia are very reluctant to engage in sustainable, socially relevant projects, the funding landscape for these is particularly interesting in Austria and Europe, says Unger.
In July 2020, it was announced that Livin Farms was to be supported by the European Innovation Council under the European Green Deal. The EU is investing a total of EUR 307 million in 64 innovation projects that meet the sustainability criteria. Two of them come from Austria: Livin Farms’ mealworm factory and a test system for batteries in e-vehicles developed by Aviloo. Both companies, Livin Farms and Aviloo, have also been supported by FFG national programmes.
Positive experience with the FFG
Katharina Unger also considered the experience with funding management through the FFG to be ‘very positive’. It may well be, therefore, that the mealworm starts its triumphal march as a protein supplier for Europe from Vienna.