The housefly’s love for things like decomposing flesh and blood and its ability to turn this waste into protein is being tapped into to reduce pressure on the overfished seas, feed pigs and chicken – and help save the world.
That you would consider this to be fiction is understandable, for humans generally know flies as enemies which oscillate between filth and human food and spread killer diseases.
But that is because you have not met Jason Drew, or read his book – The story of the fly and how it could save the world.
Drew, born in London, spent two decades as a business leader and entrepreneur only consumed by turning out a profit.
On retirement and relocation to Western Cape, South Africa, however, he changed course and fell in love with the environment and matters of “saving the world” from the dangers posed by human demands.
He remains a businessman but in a different way. Drew says the traditional approach to business that exploits natural resources solely for profit is a danger to the world and that in its place, a new approach that looks to make a profit and guarantee environmental sustainability must be pursued.
And this is where Drew and his colleagues are making use of the housefly to recycle what would otherwise be troublesome waste into feed for fish, pigs and chicken, in – to use his analogy – much the same way used paper is recycled to make new paper.
The book, which Drew co-authored with the science journalist Justine Joseph in 2012, shows how.
Visit to the abattoir
It all started in 2009 in Western Cape when Drew met a slaughterhouse owner who carried him around his premises, allowing him to see the “sea of blood” behind the abattoir with flies buzzing about.
Drew heard from his host that a scientist who was looking to recycle the waste from the abattoir using flies had called on him a week earlier, setting the stage for a meeting between Drew and Dr Elsje Pieterse, head of Animal Nutrition at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Drew would spend a year researching and developing the fly rearing business AgriProtein Technologies, together with his brother David Drew and business partners Roy Rudolphe and Duncan Miller.
The business is built on the housefly’s enormous egg-laying ability – it will lay 750 and 800 eggs in a lifespan of just three weeks. The egg will almost immediately hatch into a larva – or maggot – which grows quickly and reaches pupation, ready to turn into a fly, within 72 hours.
“If the conditions are right,” Drew writes, “it (the maggot) will gain over 400 times its weight in these few days.”
It is the maggot which Drew’s business targets. The flies are enticed to lay their eggs into a shed and the hatched maggots shortly stroll down to devour the decomposing waste and fatten.
A few of the eggs will be put on a separate course to grow into adult flies to keep the cycle going, but the majority of the eggs will stop at the maggot stage.
AgriProtein knows the most conducive atmosphere for maggots – about 37 degrees Celsius – and they feed them on rotting blood, fat, intestinal contents and carcasses.
Drew writes of the maggot shed: “If maggots dream of going to heaven, it probably looks like a restaurant garbage can glistering in the sun, or else the AgriProtein Shed.”
“The fattened-up larvae are then dried and milled into a protein-rich, powdery product – a maggotmeal that’s on par with fish meal and nutritionally better than soya,” writes Drew.
Maggotmeal does not sound great, however, so they call it simply Magmeal. But, Drew warns, “it smells better than it should.”
AgriProtein has a number of plants, the book says, with plant producing 100 tons of wet larvae, or 20 tons of dried-up larvae per day.
Case for Magmeal
Drew writes that Magmeal is attractive to fish, chicken and pigs because it is a “complete protein at a par with fishmeal and better than soya”. “It is, after all, what chickens in the fields and fish in the streams would naturally eat.”
He targets to popularise it as a replacement for fishmeal which is fed to industrially farmed monogastric animals – like pigs, fish and chicken – because relying on fishmeal is unsustainable.
Drew quotes research by the environment protection NGO Green Peace, which estimates that the amount of fuel it takes to catch fish has been increasing as fish stocks in the seas dwindle. “Whereas it took one litre of diesel to catch a kilo of fish in 2006,” the research shows, “it now takes two litres.”
There are scarier figures still. Drew writes that 30 per cent of all the fish caught in the world is fed to pigs, poultry and other fish. And, as if that is not bad enough, one needs 2.3kg of marine-caught fish to produce a kilogramme of farmed fish.
“It is an inherently unsustainable industry. Which is why it has to change,” Drew writes as he builds a compelling case for the “magic character” he presents to the world.
The fly, in addition to protecting the seas and enabling man to farm more animals, also mops up some of the organic waste produced by slaughter houses and therefore reduces waste treatment and disposal costs.
Further tribute to the fly
You will also learn on reading the book that the fly is something much more than the nuisance buzzing around the dinner table or hanging by the ceiling.
The book shows, for example, that that fly that was scotched in your hot cup of tea was probably playing its last card, for a fly will not be able to survive for more than 12 hours without drinking water.
And whenever you attempt to kill the fly in vain, you will remember that the fly can see almost everything around – at almost 360 degrees.
The fly has also influenced man in more ways than you can imagine, from fashion to medicine to making planes and spy drone. At the crime scene, for example, scientists investigating crime will study the ages of fly larvae on the body to tell time of death, for example.
It is, in all, a fascinating book written in a witty, readable style that should enable an avid reader to rummage through the 168 pages in a day.
The book, appropriately, is dedicated to “the trillions of flies that will give up their lives to save our seas and help feed humanity in the 21st Century."
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