Can black soldier flies offset the impacts of food waste and overfishing? This Buffalo startup thinks so.

What you need to know:

  • A Buffalo startup is commercializing a biotechnology that leverages the life cycle of the common black soldier fly to create a protein-rich, sustainable feedstock for fish- and animal-rearing.
  • The New York Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) conducted a scientific analysis of River Road Research’s insect-derived product to determine its greenhouse gas impacts in comparison to conventional aquaculture feedstock.
  • NYSP2I’s analysis found that the black-soldier-fly protein meal could offset an estimated 7 metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per MT produced compared to a common fishmeal variety made of Peruvian anchovies.

The black soldier fly is a common insect that has taken on a leading role in the emerging “bio-economy.” Across the globe, a growing list of innovative technologies featuring the unassuming fly are taking shape to transform different kinds of waste into valuable resources as part of a circular economy.

River Road Research (River Road), a startup based near Buffalo, New York, is commercializing a method for using black soldier flies to convert food waste into a protein-rich ingredient for fish and animal feed. The innovative product is designed to be a sustainable alternative to conventional, wild-caught fishmeal.

"We’re taking food waste, we’re feeding it to black soldier flies, and we are harvesting their larvae as protein source for animal feeds."

“We’re taking food waste, we’re feeding it to black soldier flies, and we are harvesting their larvae as protein source for animal feeds,” Bobbie Thoman has explained, who is the director of sustainability and innovation at NOCO, the Buffalo-based energy provider that launched River Road in 2010.

Fish feed for the circular economy

River Road Research’s proprietary biotechnology advances a circular economy by tackling two major challenges: food waste and the shrinking biodiversity of ocean life.

Uneaten food makes up a waste stream weighing in at 40 million tons each year. Wasted food in a landfill generates methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) that is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Products like River Road’s protein meal offer economically viable routes for recovering the energy and resources that go into food production while avoiding GHG emissions.

Aquaculture has been linked to habitat destruction and species loss across the oceans due to the use of conventional, fish-derived feed. More than a third of all fish caught globally are “forage fish,” with 90 percent ending up as fish meal or oil. Wild-caught forage fish, like the Peruvian anchovy, make up to 50 percent of the food used in most fisheries. An over-reliance on such forage fish—which many larger species eat—threatens overfishing, which could have significant impacts on the vitality of the oceans’ wider food system. River Road’s protein feedstock, because it is derived from insects, can immediately reduce the pressure placed on marine ecosystems by the fish-farming industry.

A lot of Peruvian fish meal’s impact is offset by virtue of the geographic versatility of black-soldier-fly production; Peruvian fish meal is caught and processed in a few places in the world and then shipped to support fish farms across the globe while flies can be grown and harvested almost anywhere. River Road’s alternative protein meal can be produced and used locally within regions where aquaculture is underway.

"The energy and space and water savings are astronomical [...]."

"We can create a much more sustainable and much healthier animal feed than currently on the market," Thoman says. "The energy and space and water savings are astronomical compared to other protein production processes."

Although River Road Research’s own analysis gave them confidence about the sustainability benefits of their product over conventional aquaculture protein feeds, the startup wanted to make sure their assumptions could be scientifically validated. Thoman decided that an objective analysis by a third party would hold greater credibility on the marketplace, and so engaged the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) in late 2021. A team of engineers from NYSP2I worked with Thoman to conduct a scientific analysis of the protein meal’s energy consumption and GHG impacts in comparison to a conventional protein animal feed.

Better for oceans and climate?

Ava Labuzetta, a senior pollution prevention engineer at NYSP2I and the project’s lead, is excited about the potential of innovations like River Road’s for not only diverting uneaten food but also creating jobs and economic growth at the local level.

“Our goal is to help original, much-needed innovations like this one get to market quickly,” Labuzetta said. “By giving companies like River Road the information and analysis they need, we can take big steps towards a clean economy for New York State that really works.”

Labuzetta and her team chose to compare River Road’s product to Peruvian fishmeal, a wild-caught protein feed with a lower GHG footprint than other varieties. It was used to calculate a baseline of energy and GHG impacts that the fly-protein alternative could be compared against.

For the next step, NYSP2I performed a high-level comparison, known as a GHG emissions reduction potential analysis, between River Road’s protein meal and the Peruvian fishmeal. The analysis was calculated based on information and claims that River Road provided to the NYSP2I team. [An emissions potential analysis is useful as a first step for estimating emissions. In many cases, it can set the stage for a more in-depth, peer-reviewed impact study, such as a life cycle assessment (LCA).] NYSP2I’s analysis focused on two phases in the life cycle of the fishmeal and River Road products that are likely to be the most impactful in terms of energy use: raw material extraction (i.e., anchovies versus black soldier fly larvae) and production (i.e., how the fish or larvae are turned into meal).

Ultimately, NYSP2I estimated that River Road’s protein meal—on its own—could offset 6.5 metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per MT produced. Compared to Peruvian fishmeal production, this number rises to 7 MT of CO2e per MT. The sustainability advantage of River Road’s product over the Peruvian, the NYSP2I study found, comes down to the volume of wasted food kept out of landfills. Two other key drivers are the inherent efficiencies of insect-rearing and the low energy draw of the technology used to make the protein meal

Scaling up

"We’ve proven that we can do it," said Jim Newman, NOCO Energy Corp. president. "Now we’re working on how to scale it up."

Over the next few years, River Road aims to divert about 50,000 tons of wasted food into nearly 6,000 tons of fish for humans to eat. The company is working towards generating 80 percent of its overall sales through its aquaculture feedstock, with the remaining profits coming from poultry snacks and gourmet dog treats. A version of River Road’s fly-larvae product for chicken feed is already on the market under the brand name Tend, a subsidiary of NOCO.

By 2030, River Road anticipates operating between three and five facilities throughout North America. The project was supported by NYSP2I’s Technology Commercialization Program, which was created to assist New York State companies in developing and commercializing new technologies for a more sustainable economy.

Update: Since this article was published, River Road Research announced the launch of Stratium, an insect agriculture production company focused on converting food waste into quality proteins for animals feeds. Learn more at

Funding provided by the Environmental Protection Fund as administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Any opinions, findings, and/or interpretations of data contained herein are the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions, interpretations, or policy of Rochester Institute Technology and its New York State Pollution Prevention Institute or the State.


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About the authors

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

The New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) works with government programs and Empire State businesses, communities, and nonprofits to give them the practical resources, tools, and solutions needed to realize the benefits of sustainability for our economy, environment, and our society as a whole. 

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