How can we use organic material recycling, such as vegetable peelings, to improve a city's food autonomy, in this case Brussels? ValueBugs answered this question in 2017: they breed black soldier fly maggots using household food waste and use these maggots to feed chickens and other animals. Etienne Toffin is a researcher at the Faculty of Sciences of ULB and talks about it passionately.


We're all researchers when it comes down to social innovation

“This project is primarily about social innovation”, explains Etienne. “ValueBugs is a participative citizen research project where everyone is a co-researcher. People and organisations with different expertise and profiles work on this together: maggot farmers and chicken farmers, associations such as WORMS that know all about composting, the Royal Belgian Society for the Protection of Birds, the Maximilian Park farm, researchers from ULB, Sciensano, facilitators, etc. In this way, we incorporate the practical experience and challenges of the city into our research. Each participant has his/her own concerns and experiences which are enormously valuable.”


Food autonomy in the cities

Let's go back to the title of this article and talk about the food autonomy of the city of Brussels. If you count all the food stocks in shops, we barely have enough for 7 days. “We live to the rhythm of the just-in-time logic. There is a constant supply of products and if that supply were to suddenly stop, stores shelves will be empty within a week. This makes it easier to understand how important food autonomy is for a city," Etienne explains. Many people already grow their own fruit and vegetables - in collective vegetable gardens, for example. But for protein-rich food, which is crucial, there are far fewer initiatives. Because if you want to breed laying hens in the city, you're dependent on external producers to feed your animals.".”


Protein-rich black soldier fly

ValueBugs responds to this last bottleneck. Etienne: “We replace food supplied from outside Brussels with our own and locally bred maggots. These maggots are fed by household and garden waste. And this closes the chain. In the animal kingdom, insects are bioconversion champions. They extract protein from fruit and vegetable peelings and thus reduce the waste mountain and become food for other animals themselves. For this project, we chose the maggot of the black soldier fly because it is very voracious and an omnivore, producing high-quality proteins and lipids."


How exactly does it work?

Very simple: “with a small and a larger bucket placed inside each other. Every person in Brussels can try it at home. The maggots and the fruit and vegetable peelings are in the smallest bucket. Once the maggots are fat enough, they crawl to the bigger bucket which makes it easy to collect them. The project participants tested and fine-tuned the method. Most maggot farmers use them as food for their own chickens. If you don't have animals you can give them to owners of chickens, dogs or cats, because they can eat the maggots too," Etienne adds. “This also creates social bonds and could create a barter system in Brussels: maggots in exchange for fresh eggs, for example.”


Key elements in the project

ValueBugs succeeded in experimenting with the local and non-industrialised breeding of insects. The participatory research means the population was involved in developing, testing and improving the system and maggot breeding. The research also made the participants regard insects in a completely different way. A network of Brussels-based maggot farmers and users emerged. In addition, a regulatory framework grew out of the project. “The research was also important from a political point of view because we incorporated the results into the city's plan on resources and waste. Hopefully we will also see it in Good Food 2.0, the follow-up strategy for a sustainable food system in the Brussels Capital Region. This allows us to address the problem of urban protein production.”


Innoviris, motor of co-creation

ValueBugs, which has received financial support from Innoviris since 2018, proves how important the population's contribution is to research. “Innoviris' call for research, in cocreation with various partners, is particularly innovative and ambitious," says Etienne enthusiastically. “I seized the opportunity with both hands. Because this is exactly how I like to do research: with a large and concrete added value for society and Brussels. This helps me to build a cleaner, more sustainable and more connected city."

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