In a shed in Canberra, there are a million maggots working to keep food waste out of landfill, while also helping Aussie farmers weather the effects of climate change.
This is Goterra, a robotic insect farm startup headed up by former sheep farmer and entrepreneur Olympia Yarger.
Founded in 2016, the startup takes food waste and feeds it to a specific breed of maggot, before turning those maggots into protein-rich feed for livestock.
The insect farm itself is run robotically, meaning it can standalone in hard-to-reach places. Eventually, Yarger sees insect farms running in the basements of shopping malls, seamlessly converting food waste into something useful, without damaging the environment.
Yarger started out trying to find a sustainable livestock-feed option, which took her down the path of insect protein, she tells StartupSmart.
But, as she spent longer working with the insects, and as she developed the business model, she realised “this was about how we can manage waste”.
The feed produced became more of a positive secondary outcome.
“Sometimes you start with a really great idea, but the longer you consider and the more you work with it, sometimes that idea matures,” Yarger explains.
“People call that a pivot, but I think it’s more about how you mature your idea.”
Goterra has gone from managing “one bucket of food” from two or three offices, to processing waste from more than 400 homes, the local hospital, businesses and several state and federal government offices.
This amounts to “tonnages of waste per week”, she says, and waste that’s generally considered some of the most challenging to manage.
It’s small amounts of coffee, tea bags and packed-lunch leftovers, Yarger says. In other words, it’s waste there hasn’t previously been a collection service for.
“We have a pipeline of people waiting to join and become part of our service, and because we can take that very low-value stuff and do something with it, it’s been very successful.”
Within the next 12 months, Yarger hopes to start on-site trials.
“It’s now about showing that not only is the act of insects eating food waste an important, cool thing, but also that our decentralised model goes out into the world, does its job and does it meaningfully,” she says.
She also hopes to get the ball rolling in remote and regional communities, “bringing organic waste solutions to clients who haven’t been able to leverage that yet, because of cost”.
“We’re now on a precipice”
According to Yarger, while reducing food waste is an important part of environmental sustainability, Goterra is also designed to help farmers weather the fluctuations in feed availability caused by external factors — including climate change.
On average, in developed nations, livestock feed represents about 70% of production costs for farmers, she says.
“When 70% of your production cost is reliant on a commodity, and that commodity’s price will fluctuate based on market forces — drought, fire, famine, flood, trade relations — then you’re in a really precarious place,” she explains.
“There’s not much you can do to mitigate those things.”
She also says some 90% of soy consumed in Australia — either by humans or as animal feed — is imported. Soy is the base ingredient for livestock feed, and access to it is entirely reliant on market forces in other countries, Yarger says.
“That’s not sustainable long term, particularly not in the current global climate, and certainly not with climate change,” she adds.
“If we’re going through a drought, and the country we import all our soy from has had a flood … we’re now on a precipice we can’t walk back from.”
Already, planting cycles have been affected by changes in weather patterns, and in the past 12 months, Australia’s farmers have been severely affected by both droughts and flooding.
“All of us have noticed that autumn and spring don’t really exist anymore … We’re not getting spring and autumn rains with the same reliability,” Yarger notes.
“We just don’t have that good old almanac of certainty that we used to have around production, and certainly not the production of the industrial ingredients like wheat and corn and soy.”
The ‘yuck’ factor
For most people, using maggots to convert food waste into livestock feed on mass may not be the first solution to spring to mind.
At first, Yarger says she was a “maggot apologist”, feeling that people just didn’t want to hear about an insect-based business.
Now, she’s not apologising for anything.
“I think we’re actually in this really interesting social renaissance where we’re becoming a bit more woke to what needs to be done,” she says.
Accepting weird and wonderful eco-solutions that nobody previously imagined is becoming “almost on vogue”, she says.
“The ‘yuck factor’ doesn’t exist in our interactions — we’ve not experienced it.”
Part of the reason for that is the solution provides a high-tech alternative to composting, which Yarger says is “one-dimensional”.
In this day and age, people want more, she says.
“When we say we’re going to manage the waste in a different way that saves you money, and then our offtake creates an endurable solution to feed security and agricultural health … there’s an answer that fits this new ethos,” she explains.
It fits the eco-friendly demands of many clients, and means “the story they get to tell their own clients is more compelling”.
It’s about creating more connectivity and transparency both within Goterra and for Goterra’s clients, Yarger says.
“So they don’t really care that it’s maggots, they kind of find it endearing.”
Launching any startup, and particularly one in a little-understood space such as eco-friendly insect farming, takes a “certain amount of fortitude that Australians don’t tend to have”, Yarger says.
“Tall poppy syndrome is real, and we spend a lot of time reminding each other that we will never be any good at anything,” she adds.
However, if she has one piece of advice for those planning to give it a go, it’s to ask questions of everyone, all the time.
When she was first considering mass, decentralised insect farms, Yarger quizzed waste distributors and government officials as to whether it would be possible.
“Some of them said ‘no way’, some said ‘yes’,” she says.
But it was the ‘no’s that were more valuable.
“The ‘no’s inform what you need to fix, what you’re getting wrong and even maybe what you’ve got right,” she advises.
Now, even if she receives positive feedback, she asks for the negative.
“That’s what I want to know. Those are usually the markers that what I’m doing is right, or that I’m missing the forest for the trees.”
For example, after a recent positive investor meeting, she explicitly asked for the bad news.
“They had questions they weren’t actually ever going to ask me but gave me the opportunity to answer them,” she says.
“From there came this next-level conversation that we never would have had … We’re at a different level now, from having pushed a little further into an uncomfortable conversation.”
Yarger’s advice is to lean into difficult conversations and “stay uncomfortable”, in an attempt to learn as much as possible.
“And when you feel threatened or pressured, ask more questions.”
While she admits this was draining at first, now she relishes it, “because I don’t digest feedback the way I used to”, she says.
“It takes practice but it’s easier now.”
This article is part of our spotlight on climate change. You can view the full series here.