Edible insects a boon to Thailand's farmers

Aug 25, 2014 by Denis D. Gray
In this photo taken Aug. 5, 2014, Boontham Puthachat, 47, stands in his cricket farm at Thanon Nang Klarn village in Nakhon Ratchasima province, northeastern Thailand. Boontham's family is one of 30 in this village raising mounds of the profitable crisp and crunchy critters in their backyards, satisfying a big domestic appetite for edible insects, and a slowly emerging international one in countries where most diners would rather starve than sample fried grasshoppers or omelets studded with red ant eggs. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

Depending solely on the rains to either yield a good rice crop or leave their fields dry and barren, farmers in this village in northeastern Thailand, the country's poorest region, led a precarious and back-breaking existence. Then they discovered bugs.

At Boontham Puthachat's home, six concrete pens seethe with crickets munching on chicken feed, pumpkins and other vegetables—treats to fatten them up before they are harvested and sold to hungry humans increasingly eager for a different type of dining experience.

"We haven't become rich, but now we have enough to better take care of our families," Boontham says proudly. "We are self-sufficient."

Boontham's family is one of 30 in this village raising mounds of the profitable crisp and crunchy critters in their backyards, satisfying a big domestic appetite for edible insects, and a slowly emerging international one in countries where most diners would rather starve than sample fried grasshoppers or omelets studded with red ant eggs.

Replicated across the country, these enterprises have spawned a multimillion-dollar industry with more than 20,000 registered farms, most of them small-scale household operations, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Averaging an annual output of 7,500 tons in recent years, Thailand leads the world in producing insects for the dining table.

While it may still seem exotic, if not outright repulsive, to many in the Western world, the FAO points out that insects have long been an integral part of human diets in nearly 100 countries, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with more than 1,600 species consumed.

In China, the use of insects for food and medicine goes back more than 5,000 years. In recent times, cockroach farming has flourished, with some entrepreneurs getting rich by selling dried cockroaches to companies producing cosmetics and traditional medicines.

Besides generating extra income, insects have proven nutritious and farming them is easy on the environment, according to a 2013 FAO report.

In this photo taken Aug. 5, 2014, Chalong Prajitr, 57, feeds crickets at a farm in Thanon Nang Klarn village in Nakhon Ratchasima province, northeastern Thailand. Chalong's family is one of 30 in this village raising mounds of the profitable crisp and crunchy critters in their backyards, satisfying a big domestic appetite for edible insects, and a slowly emerging international one in countries where most diners would rather starve than sample fried grasshoppers or omelets studded with red ant eggs. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

"Eating a few insects is like taking a multivitamin," says Patrick B. Durst, a senior FAO official who co-authored a study on Thailand's edible insect industry. A 6-ounce serving of crickets, for example, has 60 percent less saturated fat and twice as much vitamin B-12 as the same amount of ground beef. Farmers don't use antibiotics or growth hormones and—unlike crabs and lobsters—edible insects don't feed on dead animals.

Six-legged livestock, as the agency calls them, are also kinder to the environment than their lesser-legged counterparts. It takes 2,900 gallons of water, 25 pounds of feed and extensive acreage to produce one pound of beef and just one gallon of water, two pounds of feed and a small cubicle to produce a pound of crickets.

And when one suppresses any psychological and cultural biases, many insects taste just fine. This reporter found crickets nicely crisp and nutty (a cross between shrimp and almond), and fried bamboo worms not unlike unsalted potato chips. Palm weevils, to some palates, are likened to bacon soup with a chewy, sweet finish, while insect larvae are rich and buttery. "Mushroomy" is another frequently-used description for some species.

In this photo taken Aug. 5, a woman sells fried crickets at a stand at a gas station in Nakhon Ratchasima province, northeastern Thailand. Six-legged livestock, as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calls them, are also easier on the environment than their lesser-legged counterparts. It takes 2,900 gallons of water, 25 pounds of feed and extensive acreage to produce one pound of beef and just one gallon of water, two pounds of feed and a small cubicle to produce a pound of crickets. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

Although a decade ago, insect eating was largely a gimmick - such as a bug embedded in a lollipop - experts say a recent increase in interest in the West is being driven by health and environmental concerns.

Energy bars made from ground-up crickets are now found in some health food stores in the United States, and the first cricket farm is scheduled to open in Youngstown, Pennsylvania, this year. In San Francisco, the Don Bugito Prehispanic Snackeria can whip up a five-course, all-insect dinner including ice cream with mealworms. A bar in Paris serves insect tapas and a London start-up, Eat Ento, features honey caterpillar and vegetable wraps.

In this photo taken Aug. 5, Boontham Puthachat, 47, holds a two-month old cricket he raises at his farm in Thanon Nang Klarn village in Nakhon Ratchasima province, northeastern Thailand. Boontham's family is one of 30 in this village raising mounds of the profitable crisp and crunchy critters in their backyards, satisfying a big domestic appetite for edible insects, and a slowly emerging international one in countries where most diners would rather starve than sample fried grasshoppers or omelets studded with red ant eggs. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

"When I was growing up in the United States, most people would turn up their noses at sushi. Now, it's very chic. People's eating habits do change, so who knows? In 10 to 15 years, eating insects may take off and be regarded as good and cool," says Durst, whose favorites include fried wasp and some crickets with his beer. Creating such a buzz, he says, may involve a celebrity chef putting some palm weevil larvae or giant water bugs on a menu "with someone like Tom Hanks eating them. And then people will say, 'If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.'"

Durst is cautious about predictions that edible insects will stave off hunger in parts of the world, but believes that as a supplement, it could become an important component of food security. In countries as far apart as Laos and Ghana, projects are underway to combat malnutrition with insect farming. And there is major growth in the breeding of insects for feed at fish and poultry farms and for bio-security through the release of some species to combat pests.

In Thailand, many people—not just the rural poor—simply enjoy eating some of the 200 different species on offer. Large quantities must be imported from Cambodia, China, Laos and Myanmar and domestically often fetch higher prices than chicken, beef or pork.

In this photo taken Aug. 5, 2014, a woman, right, sells fried grasshoppers and other fried insects at a stand at a gas station in Nakhon Ratchasima province, northeastern Thailand. Six-legged livestock, as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calls them, are also easier on the environment than their lesser-legged counterparts. It takes 2,900 gallons of water, 25 pounds of feed and extensive acreage to produce one pound of beef and just one gallon of water, two pounds of feed and a small cubicle to produce a pound of crickets. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

This is all good news for farmers like 47-year-old Boontham, who started his business four years ago with a modest capital investment, relatively low-cost input such as cricket feed and little physical labor. He now reaps an annual profit of about $3,000. A neighbor, Chalong Prajitr, says she was able to send her son to university thanks to the extra annual income of $5,000, a considerable sum in northeast Thailand, where annual per capita income is estimated at about $2,200.

"In the past, people depended on rice farming for their source of income. But we get only one harvest a year, while you can harvest crickets once every two months," says Boontham.

In this photo taken Aug. 5, 2014, Chalong Prajitr, 57, feeds crickets at a farm in Thanon Nang Klarn village in Nakhon Ratchasima province, northeastern Thailand. Chalong's family is one of 30 in this village raising mounds of the profitable crisp and crunchy critters in their backyards, satisfying a big domestic appetite for edible insects, and a slowly emerging international one in countries where most diners would rather starve than sample fried grasshoppers or omelets studded with red ant eggs. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

And without an irrigation system in the area, a year of drought could spell disaster for farmers. "Crickets," he says, "are less risky."

To boost their business, the village cricket farmers have formed a loose cooperative to share information and facilitate marketing. They also receive help from local authorities and Khon Kaen University, a major center for research on edible insects and efforts to export them, developing products like crickets with Mediterranean herbs and bamboo worms flavored with sour cream.

In this photo taken Aug. 5, a woman sells fried insects at a stand decorated with photos of various kinds of fried insects at a gas station in Nakhon Ratchasima province, northeastern Thailand. Six-legged livestock, as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calls them, are also easier on the environment than their lesser-legged counterparts. It takes 2,900 gallons of water, 25 pounds of feed and extensive acreage to produce one pound of beef and just one gallon of water, two pounds of feed and a small cubicle to produce a pound of crickets. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

British businessman Graeme Lee Rose and his Thai wife have seen their own export business to Europe, the U.S. and Australia grow in recent years, especially for powder used in energy bars and biscuits. Still, best sellers for his JR Unique Foods remain novelty items like chocolate-covered scorpions and four-bug kebabs.

"There's been quite a bit of interest and we see a lot of potential but it's not something people are going to be throwing on the barbecue," he says. "It's not going to replace steaks."

Explore further: Insects as the food of the future

More information: Test your bug knowledge with AP's quiz at hosted.ap.org/interactives/2014/bug-quiz/

4 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Insects as the food of the future

Jun 25, 2014

As the human population grows, it is critical that the drain on the planet's resources be lessened by decreasing consumption of animal protein. According to two panel discussions on June 23 and 24 at the 2014 Institute of ...

Bugs are food of the future, UN says

May 13, 2013

Beetles, caterpillars and wasps could supplement the diets of billions of people globally and help feed livestock, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Monday, calling for more investment i ...

Today's insects to be tomorrow's grub - food experts

May 14, 2014

Will locusts feed the world? The voracious flying insect, capable of swarming in millions and stripping fields of crops, has long been associated with hunger. But if a major conference gathering food experts ...

Insect larvae turn pan-ready with home appliance Farm 432

Jul 29, 2013

Scientists concerned about world hunger, dwindling resources and wasteful processes are looking more closely into alternative prospects for protein, and edible insects are of considerable interest. An Austrian ...

Recommended for you

Ninety-eight new beetle species discovered in Indonesia

4 hours ago

Ninety-eight new species of the beetle genus Trigonopterus have been described from Java, Bali and other Indonesian islands. Museum scientists from Germany and their local counterparts used an innovative approa ...

A vegetarian carnivorous plant

Dec 19, 2014

Carnivorous plants catch and digest tiny animals in order and derive benefits for their nutrition. Interestingly the trend towards vegetarianism seems to overcome carnivorous plants as well. The aquatic carnivorous bladderwort, ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

alfie_null
5 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2014
with someone like Tom Hanks eating them. And then people will say, 'If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.'


I'm thankful we have our celebrities to tell us how to think.

On the topic of celebrity chefs: of the interminable variety of cooking challenge TV programs, how about one that features insects. 100% insects, nothing else. Fashioned into some sort of artsy nouveau cuisine dish. Then we viewers get to watch the panel of celebrity judges (whom I think we're all supposed to detest) chow down.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.