Palm oil industry labourers. Picture: 123RF/TAN KIAN YONG
Palm oil industry labourers. Picture: 123RF/TAN KIAN YONG

Dubai — A pioneering entrepreneur believes insects can help improve the reputation of the palm oil industry, which has for years been accused of causing widespread deforestation, while slashing commercial farming’s voracious water use.

Patrick Crowley, founder of Chapul, the first insect protein foods company in the US, is proposing a “circular economy” for palm oil farmers so that waste and byproducts are used for farming insects on plantations.

“The problem is the human behaviour of clearing rainforests and peat bogs. It’s not palm. It’s the practice. That’s how I see it,” Crowley told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Palm oil is the world’s most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to soap, but has faced scrutiny in recent years from green groups and consumers, who have blamed its production for forest loss, fires and worker exploitation.

Crowley’s insect plan, already piloted for four years in Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, involves using empty palm fruit bunches that are often burnt or left to rot after being processed.

This waste has little or no market value but is high in fibre, the hydrologist-turned-CEO said on the sidelines of a conference in Dubai on food production in areas with poor soils and water scarcity. 

Natural fungi and bacteria are added to this palm fruit waste to start the fermentation process, increasing its protein content and making it more digestible for insects, he said. Black soldier flies, which are good at converting waste into protein, are given this waste just once before they are then ready to be harvested and fed to farmed fish, probably the world’s fastest growing food-producing sector.

Such insects replace fish meal, which is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, and palm plantations are attractive because they provide “the largest concentration of homogeneous waste” that can be converted into feed with consistent quality, said Crowley.

Scientists say insect waste, known as frass, is also a great natural fertiliser and can go back into plantations to help boost palm yields, Crowley said. “We’re already seeing an increase in productivity and decrease in use of pesticides in our pilot.” 

Crowley was looking at ways to cut agriculture’s water usage — 70% of the world’s freshwater is currently used for farming — when watching a TED talk on insects made him “a reluctant entrepreneur”. He used crowdfunding to set up Chapul — the Aztec word for grasshopper — a year before the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published a report on insects.

The agency highlighted that they emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, require less land and water — and there are more than 1,900 edible insect species.

Crowley said a consortium of partners bought land on Sumatra island to scale up their 0.2ha pilot facility into five farms of 5ha each.

These farms would use a total of 1-million tonnes of waste per year, produce 200,000 tonnes of larvae, and save 20-million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Eduardo Mansur, director of land and water division at the FAO, said it is not only important but necessary to transform the economic systems into circular models. 

“Is it possible to do it at once in all sectors? No, but we have to start where we can and agriculture sector, especially water in agriculture, offers a lot of opportunities” he said. “But we have to do it at a scale that will have positive impact to the planet.” 

Thomson Reuters Foundation