Aussie startup fights food waste with maggot robots

Maggot robots take on the food waste management challenge

Startup journeys are rarely linear. It often takes many iterations to get something from a mere idea to a market-ready product. And sometimes, a business idea can change entirely during the discovery process. For Olympia Yarger, it led from wanting to launch a sustainable poultry farming business to developing modular maggot robots for food waste management through her Canberra-based startup Goterra

“When I started, I was just looking for a sustainable protein feed for a poultry enterprise. And that’s how I found insects. Initially, I switched my focus to farming those instead of poultry to avoid the trap of doing too many things at once,” says Olympia. “But then I realised that the supply chains around feeding animals (or humans for that matter) are broken in their current state.”

Australia’s agricultural sector depends on carrying heavy road and rail freight over vast distances to feed farm animals. This adds to the sector’s overall environmental footprint and is also a major money drain. Feed makes up 70% of production costs for farmers and the cost of feed is relative to its transportation requirements. And Olympia didn’t want to replicate the model for her insect farming business by carrying food waste across the country to feed insects that would then, in turn, feed other farming animals in the supply chain.

Taking the leap: from insect farming to food waste management robots

“If we had used the same intensive farming model to farm insects as in the intensive farming of any protein, we would have also replicated the same problems. That’s why we switched gears to fix the logistical challenges around feeding protein and combine it with proximity to the waste streams for the insects,” says Olympia. “And once we figured that out, it was like ‘hold on a second: this is a food waste management business, not a protein business’.”

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Planetary health: a new discipline for a better future

Planetary health: better outcomes for people and the environment

I started this blog a couple of years ago because I was feeling overwhelmed about the declining health of the planet. Hardly a day went by without devastating news about large and small environmental catastrophes. 

At the same time, I saw in-action and climate denial in politics and much of mainstream business. I had reached a point when I could not sit back and watch anymore. I needed to do more than avoiding plastic and eating a more climate-conscious diet. And I wanted to understand what ideas and solutions could help us turn things around for the better. 

That’s why I decided to interview people who were making a positive difference in big and small ways. It’s been a huge learning curve so far. I wrapped my head around how waves could be leveraged for energy generation. And I brushed up on my high school knowledge of photosynthesis as a key concept in regenerative farming.

The experience exceeded my expectations. Not just intellectually, but because of the people I had the pleasure to get to know. There were heartfelt and generous conversations about the trials, setbacks, and triumphs of working in this space. It gave me a sense of connection that I had long been missing.

From bushfires and a pandemic to planetary health

Then unprecedented bushfires raged through Australia. The event struck yet another blow to biodiversity and critically endangered species. The fires were still burning when life as we know it came to a standstill due to COVID-19.

It was hard to avoid the doom scrolling. Many articles ascertained that this was only a foretaste of what is still ahead of us: More fires. More floods. More diseases.

If anything, though, the pandemic only reinforced that I wanted to do more. And for that, I felt like I still needed to learn more.

Coincidentally, it was in one of the doom scrolling articles that I first read about the emerging academic field of planetary health. It is a transdisciplinary approach that focuses on the interrelationship between the health of the planet, ecosystems, humans, and other living beings.

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sustainability reading list November 2020

Sustainability reading list: November 2020

My sustainability reading list for November features a mix of older and new content from around the web.

Addressing climate change in a post pandemic world

COVID-19 has forced governments globally into action. The pandemic is maybe the first event since the deregulation of markets in the 1980s when governments had to put policies in place that prioritise human health over economic growth.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that analysts are comparing the pandemic response to climate action (or the lack thereof). McKinsey has put together a useful overview of the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and climate change.

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Australian biodiversity needs more protection after the fires

Protecting Australian biodiversity after the fires

The 2019/2020 bushfires were catastrophic for Australia’s already fragile and under-protected wildlife. Recent reports indicate that more than three billion native animals were killed or harmed by the fires.

Scientists have identified 119 species that require immediate help and the ongoing fallout of the fires is threatening Australian biodiversity. In addition to ongoing recovery efforts, we need better policies, environmental laws, and climate action to ensure the survival of Australia’s unique wildlife.

Counteracting the long-term fallout for survivors

The 2019/2020 fires were worse than usual because of the occurrence of megafires in dense forests. These megafires did not leave as many unburnt areas as is the case with smaller bushfires. This means that those animals that did manage to escape the blaze have lost critical habitat and food sources. While supplementing food and water can provide some relief, re-introducing native plants will be necessary to ensure animals can survive.

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Manifesto for a Moral Revolution - book review

Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: A book for change makers

If the beginning of the 21st century has seemed tumultuous so far, 2020 has shown that things can always get worse. In Australia, the year began with catastrophic bushfires that burned through 18.6 million hectares of land and wiped out over 1.25 billion of native animals.

The fires were still burning when a global pandemic put a complete hold on life. So far, COVID-19 took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and counting. Millions lost their jobs and we’re now — in the best-case scenario —  facing a recession.

While we’re still working to contain the virus and find a vaccine, the violent killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer caused millions of people to take to streets in protest and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The event drew attention to widespread systemic injustice and racism that is by no means limited to the US.

As we try to wrap our heads around event after event, 2020 is looking like a turning point in human history. If it is for better or worse will depend on how we choose to respond.

What is Manifesto for a Moral Revolution?

Among the chaos arrives a handbook for those who are determined to become leaders for positive change. In her Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, Jacqueline Novogratz outlines practices to build a better world.

“I wrote this book because I believe that our fragile, unequal, divided, yet still beautiful, world deserves radical moral rejuvenation. This revolution will ask all of us to shift our way of thinking to connection rather than consumerism, to purpose rather than profits, to sustainability rather than selfishness.”

Jacqueline Novogratz

The Founder and CEO of Acumen, a non-profit global venture capital fund addressing global poverty through entrepreneurship, describes the qualities and character traits we need to develop to drive change in even the most adverse conditions. And yet, her stories hold a more universal truth.

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Sustainability reading and watching in June

Sustainability read and watch list: June 2020

I read and watch quite a lot of sustainability related content. There’s an incredible amount of information out there once you start looking. But I figured there’s not much point keeping all this to myself. That’s why I have decided to occasionally share some of the articles, videos and podcasts I have found the most interesting, insightful or entertaining.

How language shapes our approach to farming

I recently stumbled across American indigenous regenerative farmer, Chris Newman, on Medium. I love his direct writing style and realism about regenerative farming.

The idea of running a small sustainable farm can seem quaint and romantic, but tough if you have to make a living from it. Let alone feeding large populations. His writing is thought provoking, especially when it comes to matters of stewardship of the land and scale.

One of his articles from earlier this year goes into the relationship of language and how it shapes our worldviews and sense of place.

People ask with the best of intentions for book recommendations on indigenous agriculture, failing to realize that the nucleus of our sustainability ethic is in how we look at the world, not in specific planting or husbandry techniques A person can take indigenous methods and with the wrong worldview, destroy the whole world.

Chris Newman, Indigenous Agriculture: It’s Not the How, It’s the Why

So, instead of giving recommendations about indigenous agriculture, he recommends books that challenge our world view and language.

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Voting with our wallets is only part of the solution

Voting with our wallets: why the approach has limits

Switch to solar energy. Refuse products packaged with excessive plastic packaging. Buy from companies that produce ethically and sustainably.

As consumers we’re constantly told to vote with our wallets to stir our planet toward a more sustainable future.

There’s no denying that how and what we buy can have a big impact. And we’re starting to see some changes in the marketplace. Big brands such as Adidas have introduced product lines made from ocean plastics. Fast food chains are offering meat-free burger alternatives on their menus (even though clumsily).

What’s more, there are the countless small business owners and regenerative farmers who are doing things differently. They are working hard to provide consumers with sustainable alternatives to the standard wares on supermarket shelves and retail racks.

And in principal, I agree that we should make purchases that are aligned with our values. But I also believe that the concept of voting with our wallets has some big limitations. We can’t rely on market mechanisms alone to fix the climate crisis.

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Thoughts on food and sustainability

Food and sustainability – a few thoughts

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about food and sustainability. And I have talked to many amazing people who are making a difference in this space. Some are adopting regenerative farming practices. Others are developing plant-based meat alternatives or are connecting communities to fight food waste.

But the more I learn, the more complicated it all seems. Here are a couple of problems I have been mulling over.

1. Lack of connection with the origin of our food

In the little bubble that I inhabit, it seems like we’re making incredible progress in terms of people making more informed choices about the provenance of their food.

Many people I know are very aware of the issues surrounding food and sustainability. They aim to buy produce that has been grown responsibly. Many are eating less meat, but of much higher quality. And some have given it up altogether.

But I am under no illusion that I am mostly surrounded by people who are very similar to me.

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From drab to fab: this marketplace shows that ethical and sustainable fashion can be fun

Making ethical and sustainable fashion choices can be a minefield. 

There is the issue of the fabrics themselves. Which chemicals are used to process and dye them? Will the material they are made from flush microplastics into our oceans whenever we wash them? What happens to the garment at the end of its life? 

And then there are the conditions under which the clothes are sewn. Is the factory providing a safe working environment? Are the employees being paid a living wage? 

The team behind ethical and sustainable fashion marketplace, Thread Harvest.
The Thread Harvest team celebrating their Good Design Award.

The good news is that awareness around many of these issues in the fast fashion industry is growing. And there are many new labels popping up online who vouch for more sustainable and ethical practices. But that doesn’t necessarily make things easier for consumers.

Many of these brands are selling online only. These small independent designers often have limited market reach, meaning they can be harder to find. But even if fashion labels claim to be eco-friendly and treat their workers fairly, it can often still take a fair amount of research from the buyer to ensure that these claims are in fact true and not just an effort to make a quick buck from a growing trend. 

Enter Thread Harvest. The Australian Certified B Corporation is an online marketplace for ethical and sustainable fashion. I recently had the chance to catch up with its Managing Director, Davyn de Bruyn, to chat about the company’s approach and the challenges of bootstrapping a business while juggling a full-time job and family life at the same time.

A curated hub for sustainable fashion

“We’re on mission to make it a lot easier for people to buy ethical and sustainable fashion,” says Davyn. “And we want to break with some of the most common and persistent stereotypes in this category.”

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sustainable beef farming in Tasmania

Could sustainable beef farming help solve the climate crisis?

In our current debate on the impact of our eating habits on the planet, beef is getting a pretty bad rap. 

Raising livestock requires a lot of water. Overgrazing and deforestation cause land degradation and biodiversity loss. And then there are the direct emissions from the sector and chemical pollution from fertilisers. The list of environmental impacts of the beef and livestock industry is long. 

But to Tasmanian sustainable beef farmers Sam and Steph Trethewey the cows are not really the issue. To them, and a growing number of regenerative agriculturalists, the problems we associate with meat consumption are the result of industrial agricultural practices, not the meat and dairy producing animals themselves. 

Or as Steph puts it: “It’s not about the cow, but the how.”

Sustainable beef farming entrepreneurs Sam and Steph Trethewey
Regenerative farmers Sam and Steph Trethewey.

In 2019, Sam and Steph gave up their corporate careers in Melbourne and bought some land near Deloraine in Central North Tasmania to found the Tasmanian Agricultural Company (Tas Ag Co). The pair is now on a mission to prove that sustainable beef farming is possible and that it can be part of the solution to fight the climate crisis.

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