Most of us associate Belgium with its own very distinctive regional gastronomy - some of the world’s best beer, mussels and hearty stews such as beef carbonnade.

But when Thomas Farrugia visited Antwerp a decade ago, he tried something altogether more exotic: insects from a street stall. It started him on a journey which has turned him into one of Scotland’s most innovative food and drink entrepreneurs.

He is now the CEO of Beta-Bugs, a fast growing company based at the Roslin Innovation Centre near Edinburgh, where Dolly the sheep was famously created. His aim is to help develop insect farming, initially as a source of protein for the animal feed industry, but with other uses in the future.

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“We are a developer and distributor of the black soldier fly”, he explains. “The aim is to market new and improved breeds of these in order to produce proteins that can be used as a sustainable feedstock. There is huge potential there.”

He compares his company’s production and marketing of insect eggs, with research and development is ongoing and commercialisation about to ramp up, with the way chicken production works.

“As this industry matured, there were people who got very good at breeding the best chickens. They eventually formed their own companies and used genetics and selective breeding to make them bigger, better and more productive. That’s why we have big chickens today in the supermarkets and why chicken producers today can do more with less to meet growing demand.

“Insect farming is a really new industry and no-one is yet really doing genetics. A lot of insect protein is needed for use in animal feeds. If you can make those insects grow faster,bigger and more efficiently, you need fewer facilities to produce them.”

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Working in this field is not just profitable but highly impactful, Thomas explains. “For instance, to again take the example of broiler chickens, there are only two main genetics companies. So one business in this area can influence a whole industry for the better and make it much more productive.”

So how are the insects used and why are they more sustainable? “They create an alternative protein that can be fed to fish, pigs and chickens. Some work is also being done on cows. They can also be used in pet food.

“Current animal feed uses ingredients such as fish or vegetable proteins which are largely based on soya - it consumes 90 per cent of the world’s production of this bean. However, insect protein has the advantage that it can be produced regionally.

It doesn’t have to be imported and it can be grown on food waste such as carrot tops, brewers’ grains and potatoes - things that never make it to the consumer. That reduces dependencies on external protein imports.

“At the moment, if we couldn’t bring soya into the country, we would have a big crisis on our hands. Using insect protein also means that countries can start becoming more resilient in the wake of Covid-19, which disrupted supply chains.”

In order to develop its breeds, Beta-Bugs has received funding from the Scottish and UK governments as well as the EU. It is also about to bring the insect eggs it produces to market. The company is also growing its workforce - this has expanded from four to 11 in the last year, and will increase again in future.

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“We will always be an R&D company at heart - that will be in our DNA. But we also need to be commercial. There are big opportunities in this market and I think that the timing is right for us.

“People are really thinking about where we get our food from and how supply chains can be made more sustainable. There are some really good opportunities out there for insect protein to address, with significant interest from agricultural and food companies.

“As a small company, our primary aim for now has to be focus. But as we grow we can look at tailoring the insects a bit more for feeding different kinds of animal. We can also look at their use in human food. And that’s just with the black soldier fly, which is only one species of insect.”

Beta-Bugs does not manufacture the insect protein itself, but rather it produces the eggs. These are then sold by weight to other businesses to hatch and to farm.

“In the past, companies have grown the larvae, turned the majority into protein and then kept some back to turn into flies which then lay more eggs. It goes across the life cycle. But what’s happening now is that there are increasing numbers of producers who  have decided they don't want to grow the flies or make eggs anymore. They just want to buy them in.”

The potential of the market is massive. According to a market report by Barclays, it is set to be worth £8 billion globally by 2030. In Europe alone, the insect protein sector is expected to produce 2.5 million tons a year by 2030.

“A lot of money has gone into building the huge farms that create the protein and the faster those come online, the faster the sector will grow. It also has to be price competitive, which means making it in large volumes.”

Thomas firmly believes that Scotland is an ideal base for his operation. “I honestly think it’s the best place in the UK to do this. As a genetics company, the Easter Bush campus, which hosts the Roslin Institute is an excellent location as it allows us to work with the expert academics at the Roslin.

“We have also been supported by Innovate UK, Scottish Enterprise and the EU. We are funded to the tune of £1.5 million, which has been deployed into our base here in Scotland.

“Scotland is a tremendous environment for innovation and it gets what we do because we’re an agrifood start-up - there’s a strong agrifood presence here. Just look at the successful salmon, poultry and beef companies we already have.”

There’s one more obvious question to ask: as Thomas has tasted insects himself, can he explain what they are like? “They’re slightly nutty - just another ingredient really.”

“I really like what happened in Australia when they were marketing crickets. They described them as sky prawns. That’s clever because prawns are actually very similar, and most of us eat those – it is really down to mindset.”

Find out more at www.betabugs.uk

This article appeared in The Herald COP26 report on the sustainable food sector in Scotland