Thailand’s Insect Farms Creating a Buzz

By Marwaan Macan Markar 21 September 2013

BAAN NON CHEUK, Thailand — Paddy and pigs had been the stilts on which Mali Nonthing built her life in this village in Khon Kaen, a northeastern province of Thailand. Farming them had provided steady, twin sources of income for decades. Now, only one remains: the verdant, iconic Asian staple crop glistening under the late afternoon sun behind her Thai-style home.

The elevated strip of land where pigs were reared has given way to the new livestock that the 52-year-old is breeding: crickets. Under a sprawling corrugated shed, held up by wooden and cement poles, are 50 pens for two species of the insect being farmed. The cricket pens, knee-high and rectangular, cover an area as large as basketball court. In them, the black and brownish arthropods in the hundreds crawl over layers of cardboard egg cartons.

“The crickets are better than the pigs,” admits Mali of the switch she made from the four-legged livestock two years ago. “We can sell the mature crickets every four weeks, unlike the pigs that we could only sell every five or six months. And even then we were never sure of a profit.”

Similar switches in the livestock trade echo in Maha Sarakham, a province south of Khon Kaen. There, Duangjai Ploykanha sings the praises of crickets over cattle, which the 43-year-old and her husband had reared for years. Under two large sheds where bulls and cows were once tethered are 30 cement pens where the crickets are raised.

“They are easier to take care of and the quality can be controlled,” remarked Duangjai as she made her way between the pens, feeding the insects with chicken feed. “We have money to pay for our daughter’s university education in Bangkok.”

Duangjai’s village, in fact, offers a glimpse of the pace at which the “six-legged livestock,” as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) described them, has chewed its way into an animal economy that was once dominated by pigs and cattle. Over 200 of the 600 families living there now farm crickets. Some of them are full-timers; others part-timers, such as the local government officials, teachers and small shop owners who have cricket pens in their tree-covered yards.

They are among the 20,000 registered cricket farms, containing more than 220,000 rearing pens, in Isaan, as the rural rice bowl of northeast Thailand is also known. That figure, according to the FAO, is a result of a trend that began in the mid-1990s. Its genesis was the introduction of new skills and technology to farm insects on a commercial scale. Till then, the custom had been the local habit of searching for crickets in the trees and shrubs to be savoured as part of the rural dietary mix.

And Isaan’s insect economy does have the wind behind its wings. Annual production of the six-legged livestock has reached over 7,500 tons during the last six years, states the FAO. Annual income from the edible insect trade now touches nearly US$30 million.

While crickets are the most farmed and traded, other insects are lending weight to this alternative livestock sector. They include giant water bugs, grasshoppers, bamboo caterpillars, weaver ants, palm weevil larvae and silkworm pupae. “It is creating a lot of jobs and has become a growing multi-million dollar industry,” says Patrick Durst, regional forestry officer at the FAO and co-author of a recent FAO study, “Six-legged livestock: edible insect farming, collecting and marketing in Thailand.”

The report affirmed that Thailand’s dominance in Southeast Asia is not limited to farming insects. The growing demand in this kingdom also steers a lucrative import market and cross-border trade. Nearly 270 tons of silkworm pupae are imported annually from China and some 800 tons of other edible insects are transported across the border from Cambodia, Burma and Laos, according to the FAO study. “The economic value of imported insects is estimated at around 40 million Thai baht [US$1.24 million] per year.”

Imported grasshoppers from Cambodia are typical of this stock. Bags of them are piled on a low wooden bench at a wholesale agriculture market in Kalasin, a province east of Khon Kaen. Selling them is Kaew Aramsri, who brings her livestock, including the yellowish silkworm pupae and weaver ants, three times a week from the Thai-Cambodian border. They are transported in a truck fitted with cold storage. Her buyers are largely local street-food vendors. The grasshoppers go for 250 baht per kilo.

This food chain has now spread beyond its traditional Isaan settings, contends a Thai academic who has presided over the niche carved by the arthropods. “In the past, the tradition of eating insects occurred mainly in northern and northeastern regions of the country,” says Yupa Hanboonsong, a co-author of the FAO report and specialist in entomology at Khon Kaen University, the largest campus in the region. “Nowadays the practice has increased in popularity and has expanded nationwide.”

A major supermarket chain offers testimony to such eating habits on the shelves of its frozen foods section. In some Bangkok stores, frozen packets of bamboo worms and grasshoppers are sold. Some have pre-cooked meals of bamboo caterpillars ready to be microwaved.