Saving the world through craft beer and soldier flies
In the back lots of Thu Duc’s sprawling university campus, one man and his hand-built fly farm is on a mission to save the world’s oceans. It’s a quest that involves the unlikely combination of craft beer, an endangered anteater and an over-sized tropical fly, and Nick Piggott plans to take it all the way. He’s a man out to change the world.
“Basically it’s like this,” he says as we chat at a downtown café with the monsoon crashing down outside the windows. “The oceans are running out of fish at the same time as the world’s middle class population is booming. There’s a serious problem and the world is just waking up to it.”
Nick’s answer to this problem lies with an unlikely suspect—the black soldier fly—a large, wasp-like insect native to Vietnam he has been hatching by the tens of thousands out at the Research Institute for Biotechnology and Environment on the edge of Saigon.
But to understand Nick’s mission, we have to go back before the insect farming and aquatic doom and gloom, all the way, in fact, to Africa.
The story begins with a fishing expedition off the coast of Sierra Leone, where Nick was living with his then girlfriend, who was attached to the British Embassy at the time. Some friends had a boat and got him to go fishing with them. He was hooked. He then started reading up on ideal spots for fishing holidays and all things fishing, and that’s when he came upon the Armageddon that’s unfolding beneath the waves.
“I started reading things like, go fishing now, because in 15 years time there’ll be no fish left. I had no idea it was that bad,” he says. “I knew, for example, that bluefin tuna are becoming really rare because the Japanese are fishing it out of the water, and the same with the Brits and the North Atlantic cod, but what you don’t really read about are the shoals of small fish that nobody really eats but get fished up to be processed and then fed to other animals. They’re catching something like 5 million tons a year of these little fish. They cook them up in these big industrial ovens, squeeze all the moisture and the oil out, and then ship them around the world to be reconstituted into fish food and chicken feed. These little fish, the correct term is “pelagic” fish, they’re very high in protein and used to be cheap, but over the last 10 to 20 years the supply has dropped through the floor, and the cost of it has shot up through the roof. So now people are trying to find other sources of protein. Right now they’re sending boats down to the Antarctic to start fishing out all the krill—that teeny and oh-so-vital bottom part of the food chain. It’s an absolute disaster.”
The race is on. As the world’s middle class population explodes, particularly in regions like Southeast Asia, India and China, the demand for fish, a staple food in this part of the world, is outstripping the rate at which they are able to replenish themselves in the sea. In order to keep up with the demand, fish farms are popping up all over the world to try to plug the gap. As one pundit put it, “If aquaculture didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.”
But therein lies the problem.
“All those fish farmers are fishing the little fish out of the sea,” Nick explains. “They’re raising their fish on other fish. Sometimes at a ratio of more than one to one, which means more fish are going into the fish farm than are coming out of it. It’s insane.”
And this is where Nick’s black soldier flies come into the picture.
Nick’s brainchild is to use protein-rich insect larvae in place of pelagic fish. A simple enough concept, you’d think, but one not without its obstacles. Since the mad cow disease epidemic, food monitoring bodies have set up strict rules as to what may and may not be fed to livestock animals, and this includes fish. Insects, it seems, are yet to make the agenda, still banned by default for the time being.
“There’s a lot of excitement about the project. It has the potential to really blow up, and Vietnam in particular with its marshy Mekong basin is well placed to prosper from it, which is why I’m here and not somewhere else,” says Nick. “But nobody, it seems, wants to move first. The EU is waiting for more research and the Vietnamese government also. But it works. You can trust me on that when I say this stuff works. And it’s going to work miracles.”
The black soldier fly is Nick’s ideal candidate: quick to gestate, easy to raise, abnormally high in protein compared to other insects, and native to the region. “Black soldier flies don’t bite or spread disease and I have it on good authority that they are not a pest, in the technical sense of the term.”
The process is quite simple. Nick breeds the flies in his laboratory and fly farm on campus. Some of the larvae grow into adults and reproduce, while the bulk of them are slaughtered and then reprocessed into high-grade fish feed. Already he has a number of takers in the area, even in this early research phase with the project barely off the ground.
“How exactly do you slaughter fly larvae?” I ask. I’m imagining a kind of scaled-down slaughterhouse for insect vermin with a miniature conveyer belt and clockwork mechanical guillotine.
“You freeze them.”
“And what do you feed them?”
“Believe it or not, beer. Have you heard of the pangolin?”
The pangolin looks something like a two-legged armored personnel vehicle from the future crossed with an echidna. It’s a curious scaly critter with an appetite for ants and holds the title of having the longest tongue in the animal kingdom. It also holds one other title, and a much less celebrated one at that. The pangolin is the world’s most smuggled animal; thank the affluent and under-educated Chinese for grinding exotic animals and animal parts into powders to extend virility. It’s an animal whose plight is dear to the heart of Luis Fernandez, the man behind Tê Tê beer.
“I’m a biochemist. I’m not actually a brewmaster,” Luis announces. “But I do love beer.” The name Tê Tê has two meanings. One is a strong feeling, which Luis describes as “pleasant and weird at the same time. Like an orgasm.” The other is the Vietnamese name for the pangolin.
“It was when we were trying to come up with a name for our beer that we discovered the pangolin and its sad story,” Luis explains. “See, the saddest part about the pangolin is that it’s such an obscure animal that no one really knows about it, and so nobody cares. And the people that do know about it believe it has magical properties, and they try to catch it and turn it into a powder that they think can cure cancer and increase virility and whatever else they believe. So the hope is that through this beer and its name we can at least raise some kind of awareness to help this animal.”
Luis and his brother have been brewing their line of pangolin-inspired Belgian wheat beer for about a year now, which is the same amount of time Nick has been raising his flies out in Thu Duc.
“As a scientist, I love the project,” Luis says, speaking of Nick’s work. “It’s all about finding a sustainable way to feed the world’s booming population without stripping the oceans bare. When Nick told me about what he was doing, right away I wanted to be a part of it.”
And that way, strangely enough, was through his beer.
Luis and his cohorts were at the Belgian beer festival brewing out the side of a shipping container in Cargo Bar when Nick stumbled across their enterprise. They got to talking and realized their two projects could benefit one other quite nicely. “Luis came to the lab at the university, which is just around the corner essentially from his brewery, and had a look around with his science brain and realized I could use some help,” Nick says.
As it turns out, Nick’s flies, like many Saigon denizens, have quite the taste for crafted beer. Well, the waste product, in any case. For each new batch of beer Luis brews, he bags up and sends the processing waste of wheat, rye and bran over to Nick at his laboratory to raise his next brood of soldier fly larvae. “I’ve tried a whole slew of waste products for these flies, but nothing gets them going more than what comes out of Luis’s vats. Hot, steamy, fermenting beer hops,” says Nick.
And thus the unlikely partnership was forged.
“Saving the world through craft beer and soldier flies,” Nick quips.
The university offered Nick his own space for the project on their research campus and threw in a couple of eager interns for good measure. I ride out along the highway, following the snaking construction of the Saigon Metro, out to Thu Duc where Nick has his laboratory set up in a grassy back lot behind the research building, to take a look.
I find Nick’s green Bonus parked out front. Insects shrill all around and white butterflies flitter over the long grass. The research building itself is like a half-forgotten Soviet rocket silo in the jungle.
“It is a strange edifice,” Nick agrees. “And perhaps an odd place to start a fly farm. But it’s not without certain benefits… and charms.”
Nick points out the separating machine, which was built by the engineering faculty to his own specifications. “Like I said, having your laboratory based inside a university campus has its advantages.” When the machine was finished, created just the right size to be hitched to the back of a moped, Nick found himself seated backwards on his intern’s Wave carting it wagon-style across campus back to his lab.
Nick introduces me to the interns in question: Thu and Nhon. They take me out back to where Nick has his set up of netted-off breeding pens amongst the elephant grass. He shows me around his jerry-built facility, which is like a series of bird aviaries but for insects. Industrial trays of fermenting beer waste line the floor. Nick runs them through with a rake and the trays suddenly come seething to life in a mass of fly larvae. I’m reminded of the roiling insides of a volcano. The pygmy pigs squeal in excitement from the pen next door.
“I sometimes go over there with a handful of treats,” Nick says. “Like to see?” He drops a handful of writhing maggots into the palm of my hand.
“These have got to be the biggest maggots I’ve ever seen,” I say.
“These ones are only medium size,” Nick says, taking them back and turning them over in his hand. “The adults get to more than half the size of my pinky finger. Then they go into pupa, like a butterfly’s chrysalis. When they come out they’re black soldier flies. But don’t worry, the name is misleading. There’s nothing militant about them. They don’t bite. In fact the adult flies don’t need to eat at all. Nine days to breed then they die. All the nutrients they need are stored in them when they’re larvae. That’s why they’re so protein-rich and make such great feed. Watch this.” Nick goes over to the pigpen, a rustle of excited snorting from within, he drops the handful of larvae into their trough and the pigs go into a frenzy. “They love it. You can imagine what it’s like with the fish.”
The first colony of flies Nick hand-raised himself from larvae caught on campus with use of his ingeniously handmade traps from which he collected his first fly eggs, rather than going through the inconvenience of ordering larvae online.
“One hundred percent locally sourced,” he laughs. “Hand-reared flies. These babies are gonna help save the world.”
It’s an uncertain future into which Nick and his quest is headed, but he has high hopes. “What you see here is only the beginning,” he says. “The next step is to move from laboratory to factory: scale up and expand. And as the volume of larvae grows, the hope is that the production of Saigon’s craft beer brands like Tê Tê grows along with it. We have a lot of hungry little mouths to feed. And those mouths, with some luck, are going to help us to eat our way out of the mess we’re in. The world’s oceans may just depend on it.”
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN