Phoebe Gardner: Transforming Food Waste Into Protein and Fertilizer with Insects – Ep. 114

Phoebe Gardner: co-founder and CEO of Bardee

Phoebe Gardner is the co-founder and CEO of Bardee, a truly novel solution to climate change.

Well have ya heard of composting? It’s a neat idea to take food waste that would otherwise generate methane gas in landfills and repurpose it for fertilizer. The trouble is, it takes a long time to do it.

Bardee has taken that process one step further.

They use Black Solder Fly larvae to turn food waste into a usable product in just seven days, while actually being carbon positive.
Honestly, it’s a remarkable solution to a huge problem, and her team has raised millions in funding so far.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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Using Flies To Convert Food Waste Into Protein And Fertilizer

*2:12 – “At the moment I’m sitting in our fully operational factory. It operates 24/7 and processes 30 tonnes of food waste or sort of 10–30 tonnes every single day into a feed for insects that they then eat/devour in a week and we turn the insects into a protein, and all the manure they produce while they’re eating into an organic fertilizer for crops. And it took us a relatively short time to get here but a lot of ups and downs along the way. We started in our living room, me and my partner, who’s my co-founder as well now, Alex Arnold, and Alex really brought the concept of how to use insect effectively to process something, or even to work with insects in the first place, because he’s a geneticist and every genetics lab is already working with house flies, Drosophila. So it made it not such a large jump for him to think about using other flies.”

5:40 – “There’s been more statistics available about the impact of food waste, not just that food goes to waste, but how that contributes to climate change when that food waste breaks down into methane gas and contributes roughly 8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. So it’s definitely become more and more front of mind, I think. At Bardee, we still believe the most obvious solution is to reduce food waste in the first place. Like, if we’re making food, let’s find ways not to waste it. But what we have learnt as we have grown is that some food waste is just totally unavoidable.”

7:00 – “We really thought we could meaningfully tackle that section of food waste that’s unavoidable and prevent it turning into greenhouse gas emissions. And to do that we imagined that nature already has solutions for this type of waste, and that’s where this tropical fly comes in. Its original purpose was to clean up the waste that falls on a rainforest floor. So when fruit falls into the ground, how does it actually turn back into nutrients for the forest or into fertilizer for that fruit tree? It happens through this insect, eating it, processing it, leaving manure behind that’s nutrient rich for the plant. And so that was our starting point as a concept to start building mega-processing ability where you get insects and process whole cities’ food waste at once back into usable nutrients for either food production like insect protein for food production, or using that manure as a fertilizer, just like what’s already happening in a rainforest.”

How Not To Compost

*8:14 – (Ross) “I can tell you how it doesn’t happen. I lived in an apartment for most of my life and I finally moved to a house and I finally said, ‘I’m going to start composting,’ because we have these bins. We have three bins: there’s a recycling bin, there’s a yard trimmings bin, and there’s a garbage bin. Just recently where I live, they said, ‘Oh, now you can put food in the compost, you can put compost in that bin and the city will take care of it.’ Great progress. Before any of that. I had a yard for the first time and I said, ‘I’m going to start composting.’ So I got a giant bin, didn’t put any holes in it, put only food scraps in it, sealed this thing up, left it for a couple of months and I opened this thing and it was the most foul smelling, disgusting thing you have ever smelt. It was horrible. I opened it up and it radiated this smell that you could smell from a full city block away. I heard my neighbor watering his plants and he started gagging and he didn’t know what it was. I thought it was kind of hilarious, but it was also really sad. And then I learned from a friend, ‘Oh yeah, you need to drill air holes into there. You also need to add what they call brown matter. You need to add leaves and you need to add other things – cardboard, for example. You can’t just put food scraps in there.’ So I learned all about how to do an effective compost and I have implemented those changes since then and I’m on my way.”

9:49 – “What you’re describing is exactly the poor conditions that happen when you send food waste to landfills. That lack of air is what creates the conditions to produce methane. And we know methane is 65 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. So those holes in your compost bin are really important to getting the right conditions happening to break down food in a way that’s not damaging our environment and actually can be helpful because you can use that compost in your garden. I think where it becomes difficult at a municipal level is sometimes the cost of going through that more complex process at scale. And what we’re able to do with the insects is instead of it taking a month or 40 days to process the food waste, food that arrives at a Bardee facility is out the door as a product seven days later.”

14:02 – “At this point we’re genuinely able to accept everything that’s food. And I could give you a whole list of other things we’ve received, like radios and jeans and bricks and star pickets and things that insects don’t eat. But mostly what our goal is to make sure food waste doesn’t go to landfill. And so our facility is in between the city center and all the landfills. And that means that we’re just accepting every truck that goes past that’s filled with food waste. And by being able to accept things like meat and deal with a little bit of packaging contamination, we can make a much bigger dent in stopping food waste going to landfill because we don’t have to be so picky.”

A Really Special Fly

*15:29 – “It’s a really special fly, and it’s actually already in Australia and in many, many countries. So during the 1940s and 1950s, when there was a lot of global shipping, this fly ended up in a lot of different places. And that’s okay because it’s a non pest, non-invasive species. So you won’t find this type of fly bothering you when you’re on a picnic. It also doesn’t eat crops and it also doesn’t bother animals like other livestock. It’s, as I said before, it’s a fly that is terrible at flying. They can barely fly as adults, but they’re just voracious eaters at the larval stage when they’re larvae. And so we actually worked with a whole group of compost-obsessed people in different parts of Australia to get them to look in their own compost bins. And we gave them the tools to be able to classify different types of insects, including this black soldier fly and then send them to us in the post via the National Post Service in envelopes. So there was actually this period of months where Alex and I were running around to different post offices, receiving different insects from all over the country, including different islands and other places, so that we could find the best genetic material for converting food waste biologically into an insect protein or a biomass that’s suitable for food production.”

29:08 – “One ton of food waste produces about 375 kilos of fertilizer and 250 kilos of insect biomass. And that gap in between there is actually largely caused by water evaporation. So we’re actually evaporating a lot of that water through the heat of the insect growing and things like that. So it means we don’t have to add water, which is great. It’s pretty much purely food waste as an input.”

29:43 – (Ross) “That is the interesting thing about these cyclical nature-based solutions that I find so interesting because I’ve had many chats with many very fascinating people, and places like California where I live, we export so much water via the produce that we export, things that nobody thinks about. So much of the water that we need, and we’re in a megadrought who knows what’s going to happen, goes to things like livestock feed. And it’s been widely acknowledged that if we just, for example, if everybody stopped eating meat and all of the water that went to the crops that feed the animals was saved, then we wouldn’t have a drought anymore. That’s how much water is used for the corn. There’s millions and millions – that’s just the feed for livestock. So the idea of changing these inputs to change that whole relationship is particularly interesting.”

30:33 – (Ross) “As somebody who has been vegan in the past and who eats a lot of vegetarian, mostly vegetarian, I don’t eat meat, not wholly vegan anymore, but I have two cats and I had these two cats since before I made the decision to become vegan over ten years ago. And what I noticed is when you make the ethical change yourself, you realize, I can’t starve this cat. I can’t make a cat a vegan. That’s cruel and it’ll die. They are carnivores, they need to eat meat and a lot of pet owners might feel this. So what are you giving your cat? If you’re giving them cat food, then who knows where that came from? It’s awful…who knows what kind of rendering plant that stuff is coming from. So that puts a whole negative spin on the idea of pet ownership at all. And you think, ‘Oh, maybe we just shouldn’t own pets,’ which is possibly true. But if you change the type of feed and where that feed comes from, you’re also kind of changing the ethical dynamic there a little bit. And if you say this feed for this livestock or for these pets is now sourced in a way that’s not deforesting or doing any of these harmful things, suddenly that makes the other thing more attractive in my book. And that’s also maybe an unintended side effect or an intended side effect of what you’re up to.”

Net Positive, Not Just Net Neutral

*31:55 – “I’ve been through like really similar personal dilemmas; we’ve got a dog and our dog is not on a vegetarian diet, but our dog now does eat insects. And there’s a story that we haven’t quite worked out how to tell, but this insect protein that we’re producing, it’s not just carbon neutral. So it’s not just stopping things like soy production, deforestation, overfishing, or the creation of other like increased requirements for meat that are causing greenhouse gas emissions. Because if we didn’t exist and we weren’t producing this protein, that food waste would create methane. It actually carries a positive carbon neutral status. So it’s actually net positive, not just net neutral. And so I can almost barely wrap my head around the concept that it’s like, wow, so feeding your dog could actually be better than not having a dog because you’re stopping the food waste going to landfill in the first place, which creates these negative outcomes for everyone.”

33:51 – “I wonder what it will mean when we’re actually producing this insect protein for human food as well. I mean, ultimately, that’s the most sustainable thing that could possibly happen, that we could actually totally prevent that wastage from the human production side of food production at all. So all of the food waste gets re-processed into nutrients that humans eat again, and that the process to do that isn’t particularly taxing in terms of its use of inputs. So that’s something that’s really interesting for me in at least in Australia and New Zealand, we’re going through the food authorities to step through those regulatory hurdles to allow humans to eat the insects that we work with. But it’s a really interesting process, and I don’t know if the markets are ready for it here already. Like, are we ready for an insect burger? I’m not sure, but I definitely hope there’s a future where that’s part of our normal diet.”

35:00 – “I think that there’s a lot of black and white thinking about these kinds of things when in reality it’s a spectrum. It’s not black and white. And I’ve said this before on the show, but the hard part is when you have very hardcore people who say, as a matter of principle, I don’t eat any animal derived food, be that, for example, honey or insect larva, because there’s no fundamental difference between that and eating a cow or a chicken. Well, for whatever reason, and I can’t really defend this with logic or reasoning, but for me, I have no problem eating an insect, but I have big problems eating a cow or a pig or a chicken. Now, if you asked me to define what is that exact line between something that I have a problem eating and something that seems fine, I couldn’t tell you. There’s no scientific backing I could do. But for me, the idea of eating insects somehow seems fundamentally different from the idea of eating a pig or a cow.”

46:39 – “We’ve just had quite an exciting government change over here that we’re waiting with our breath held to see if it increases the work towards mitigating climate change. But I also think for Australians, we know that we’ve got this thinner ozone layer over the top of our country. We know we’re going to be the canary in the coal mine for the impacts of climate change. So there’s a real sense, I think, that we need to be part of coming up with those solutions. And I mean, this isn’t everyone, but it’s definitely more mainstream than it is not mainstream.”

47:25 – “We started to build this team, now we’re just a bit over 30 people. We were 4 people in January last year, 14 in January this year, just a bit over 30 today. And we have just some of the most amazing people joining us who are genuinely giving something up in order to join this company. So when a scientist joins Bardee, we’re not making publications anymore. They might have published in a journal as prestigious as something like Nature as a first author, and when they join us, they know that they’ll not continue on that path. That opportunity doesn’t exist. But what does exist is an opportunity to be part of something that makes some of that research real and delivers a positive outcome, for not just us, but hopefully more broadly for at least our local food system. And then obviously, the goal is then once we win here to take it to every city in Australia and then to more cities overseas. But more and more people, I think, want to have a more direct relationship with being part of that positive shift for the future. And we’re seeing that in the level of talent that we’re able to bring to this team.”

50:50 – (Ross) “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. Because I realized before I started doing this podcast that I spent too much of my time talking and complaining about the people that I hate, of which there are so many, so many ignorant folks in this world, and it’s easy to complain about them nonstop. I said, ‘I have to seek out the people who are doing good things, people whom I respect, and I have to encourage them.’ So that’s my role is just to be that one other of the thousand people on the sidelines to say, ‘Yeah, you can do it! Woo! Keep going!’ Just a random dude in the United States is saying ‘good job!’ and you know because I also recognize that when people do take a leap – and I’ve talked to people at various stages of their journey at this point, many different people, some just starting out, some well on the other side of hundreds of millions of dollars – and sometimes that encouragement might be a drop in a bucket, but sometimes it can be a very pivotal thing. And I know for myself, having even one person say good job when you’re having a moment of doubt is a very powerful thing.”

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