Jia Quan is not even slightly squeamish. I was worried it would be rude to ask this young Singaporean man to raise his hands near his face so I could photograph him holding a container of wriggling maggots. These black soldier fly larvae look disgusting and smell putrid so I wouldn’t have blamed Mr Quan had he bluntly refused. But he spends his days surrounded by insects so he happily posed for the photo while telling me: “I actually don’t mind their smell”.
It probably helps that these maggots turn trash into treasure, quite literally. Mr Quan works at Insectta, Singapore’s first insect farm and an offbeat tourist attraction that offers regular farm tours and workshops. Here, in the eastern suburbs of Singapore, armies of maggots eat the city’s food waste and then poo out bio-materials worth more than $100,000 a kilo.
That is the value of Melanin, which costs more per gram than gold due to its rare ability to conduct electricity. Insectta’s hundreds of millions of maggots also produce highly-valuable ingredients used to make cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Yet, Mr Quan said, it started out primarily as an eco-friendly venture. The aim was to tackle Singapore’s growing food waste problem. This is what he explained to me as we entered a shed covered with clear plastic. It was, to me at least, a nightmarish place. All around us were shelves stacked with boxes which contained decomposing food. Gorging on this food were fly larvae, which were digesting this waste.
Then we passed into another tent where million of flies were laying eggs. The temperature was 33C and, as ever in Singapore, the humidity was brutal. The plastic over these sheds amplified not just the heat and the humidity, but also the pungent odour produced by the ungodly amount of maggots.
I was fascinated by the theory of this science but revolted by its practicalities. Most Aussies tourists head to Singapore to gorge on its incredible food, splurge in its shopping malls, sift through its markets, or explore one of its many unique and modern tourist attractions, like Gardens by the Bay. Right then, as I held my breath, I wondered if I’d made the right choice.
“None of the tourists who come here like the smell,” Mr Quan told me with a laugh. “They really like to hear what we’re doing with the larvae and how we’re helping with the environment but they do feel strange from looking at and smelling the larvae”.
Less than 20 per cent of Singapore’s food waste is recycled, Mr Quan said, and Insectta hopes to help dramatically increase that rate. Fortunately, its maggots are ravenous. Every day, they consume four times their body weight in waste.
The larvae turn this waste into manure, which is a very effective organic fertiliser. Mr Quan said this product was suitable for growing basil, mint, chilli, blue pea, ginger, moringa, banana, spinach, and other herbs, fruits and vegetables.
More recently, however, Insectta has been using their larvae to produce far more valuable commodities. Together with Singaporean Government agencies, Insectta developed technology that extracts melanin, probiotics and chitosan from the maggots.
This is virgin territory, not just for Insectta, but for the global melanin industry. Never before has this substance — which is used in batteries and semiconductors — been produced from larvae. Chitosan is also in great demand due to its role in creating cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.
Yet Insectta doesn’t seem like somewhere fortunes are being made. With its laidback staff and relatively basic infrastructure, it just feels like a farm where young scientists are doing their bit to help the environment. Tourists interested in seeing these experts and their maggots in action can join one of Insectta’s regular on-site workshops. These range from one-hour tours of Insectta to three-hour sessions that include a detailed class on insect farming. Just remember to prepare for the stench.