Insect farmer Kees Aarts says he has proven operational capabilities, but overall he sees the food system as “broken”.
The founder of the Dutch insect ingredient maker Protix, an aerospace engineer by trade, is part of the generation of entrepreneurs that sees the company’s mission as of paramount importance as its bottom line.
Founder Kees Aarts, a member of the World Economic Forum Global Council on Food Security and Agriculture, unveiled its insect production facility in Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands, last year. He counts feed giants Skretting and Nutreco as major clients in salmon.
Black soldier fly larvae
The site uses black soldier fly larvae as an alternative feed, chosen because the species is well suited for growth on large scale.
Protix has raised millions from Rabobank Group, AquaSpark, Dutch government-backed Brabant Development Agency as well as from private investors. The hope is, in scale, to unlock a new protein source into the aquaculture feed industry, which to help bridge the future protein gap.
“We are taking in 200 tonnes of waste per day at the facility, and producing out 15 tonnes of ingredients (output high-quality protein and lipids) per day,” said Aarts.
“We are preparing the expansion of our production in the Netherlands and beyond. Current dialogues with suppliers and investment partners are underway,” he added.
“Scale and cost”
Kees said the company stands out in two major ways which are “scale and cost”. “We aim to further and implement the market with the quality we have. We have a few exciting future contracts,” he said.
Though passionate about his green credentials, Kees acknowledged that it also has to be a realistic product. “We’ve been shouted at before by stakeholders that the insect industry shouldn’t claim too much,” said Aarts.
But Aarts said he believes that, in its current form, the “food system is broken”. This is because it extracts, therefore, it’s “depleted”.
“We either have a future or we have a failure. Sustainability is our means to distinguish or choose,” said Aarts. “So restoring forests, circular future for all, not polluting not destroying, let’s create something that is regenerative”.
“Now in salmon is a great product, you can grow it in an environment where it does not take that much energy. Should you make sure that the feed is as sustainable as possible, sure can insects do it, yes, so there is a big solution? Yes,” added Aarts.
Innovation is costly
On the pickup, Aarts acknowledged price was an issue for some.
“If I offer today a lower footprint that doesn’t pollute, I feel bad that adoption is slow, simply because of the price,” he said.
“Is it hard to redistribute margins over the chain, of course. If I would be in a position in a chain where I could reap the benefits of a profit and something else could help me drive down the footprint in return for higher costs, that is a difficult decision,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to work together to say innovation is costly. I understand it’s not an easy task,” Aarts added.
Like most, Protix took a hit from Covid. “We had ten trucks that couldn’t deliver to the UK, for us, that’s huge. That’s hundreds of thousands of EUR lost,” he said.
But looking ahead, he was confident about the rollout.
“We have now fully built a large production facility, 100 per-cent capacity. We can now supply thousands of tonnes of proteins to the industry. I would love the majority to go into the salmon business. We would love to engage in a more active conversation there and say “how can we help you this year, and of course, this year is not an easy year”. But I am going to produce for the next 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, the factory is built. It’s at scale,” said Aarts.
He said that the company has already delivered “thousands of tonnes of protein”. “There is a limited amount of capacity at a given point it is contracted. This year we could say maybe you can take a bigger hit on the price but next year we do it differently. A little bit of dynamic pricing on finishing the transition, incorporating the ingredients, would be fantastic,” he said.
“We’ve proven our operation capabilities, that is a major milestone,” said Aarts.
“The salmon is a big opportunity as it is a high-quality fish, there’s a lot of R and D and innovation. That’s a strong basis, companies are already knowledgeable about research that helps if you come up with new ingredients,” he concluded.