Bug farming makes both ecological and economical sense
For travelers visiting Thailand, insect vendors on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai make for fantastic photo ops and drunken dares. Long an alternative source of protein in the country’s rural regions, insects have shed some of their stigma as the most repugnant snack among Western consumers.
Indeed, research has shown that caterpillars have more protein than red meats or chicken and they come with much less saturated fat. They are also packed with vitamins and minerals. “Eating a few insects is like taking a multivitamin,” Patrick B. Durst, a senior FAO official who co-authored a study on Thailand’s edible insect industry, told the New York Daily News in 2014.
Insect farms are easy on the environment too. The water and food used to nurture them is but a drop in the bucket when compared to cattle farms, which are one of the biggest causes of deforestation. To produce a pound of beef takes 25 pounds of feed, 2,900 gallons of water and plenty of room for bovines to roam. To produce a pound of crickets, conversely, takes a mere two pounds of feed, one gallon of water and a cubicle. None of the most contentious supplements like growth hormones or antibiotics are needed. Nor do insects produce bursts of methane gases from either end like cows do.
For farmers in Thailand’s northeast, who are used to reaping only one rice harvest per year, crickets can be harvested every two months. They are also more resistant to periods of drought (a common occurrence in the northeast) and with around 200 different species for sale in Thailand, offer plenty of diversity.
Now that “food security” has become a buzzword with the most ominous overtones, insects are winging their way into the diets of many health buffs and the higher realms of environmentally correct foodstuffs.
With some 20,000 small-scale farms operating in Thailand, according to the FAO, the kingdom produces around 7,500 tons of edible insects per year, making it the world leader. In 2013 the UN agency released a book called Six-legged Livestock: Edible Insect Farming, Collecting and Marketing in Thailand that chronicles the kingdom’s success story in opening a new chapter in health food, as what was once unpalatable to Western palates has turned into something of a delicacy, with energy bars that consist of ground-up crickets turning up on the shelves of health stores in the US and the first American cricket farm opening in 2014.
Meanwhile, in Bangkok, there’s even a fine dining restaurant—appropriately named Insects in the Backyard—dedicated to using bugs as an integral part of their gourmet fare. Opened in mid-2017, as part of the popular ChangChui Art Night Market, it’s been getting a lot of attention from ecology experts and fervent foodies alike. Talk about your “gourmet grub”.