Whisky on the rocks and some bamboo worms, please

In western countries, bar patrons munch on pretzels and peanuts when downing beer. In Thailand, crickets, bamboo worms and other insects serve the same purpose.

“Customers like the flavour and eat them while drinking whisky,” Paisan Buriraksa, who sells 14 varieties of insects at his stall in Bangkok’s Klong Toey market, told IRIN. “Grasshoppers and silk worms are especially popular.”

Although the thought of eating insects might make some people cringe, bugs are a popular delicacy in many countries. Each day, diners in Africa, Asia and the Americas consume up to 1,400 different insect species, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). For example, in some African countries, people eat grasshoppers, termites and caterpillars; the Japanese and Koreans eat grasshoppers and silk-worm pupae and Mexicans favour the giant skipper larvae.

“As people get more knowledgeable about diets and food quality, they are realising the downsides of meat and junk food,” said Patrick Durst, a senior forestry officer with the FAO, which arranged a workshop in Chiang Mai of specialists to discuss how edible insects could contribute to sustainable development.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
On a Bangkok street, a resident samples the fried grasshoppers. Thais relish a variety of insects and eat them like potato chips

High in protein

According to the FAO, some insects, in their dried form, have twice the protein of raw meat and fish, while others, especially at the larval stage, are also rich in fat and contain important vitamins and minerals. But while the experts say it is unlikely insects will play a crucial role in ending world hunger, they see great potential in developing insect farming techniques that can contribute to rural development. The protein-rich bugs, in fact, could eventually be marketed as a healthy alternative to fatty snacks.

Already in northeast Thailand some industrious farmers are rearing insects to make more money. Entomologist Yupa Hanboonsong and her colleagues at Khon Kaen University in Khon Kaen Province have trained more than 1,000 farmers on mass rearing techniques for crickets, ants and bamboo caterpillars.

Farmers who raise crickets full time can take in about 30,000 baht (US$900) per month, while part-time farming can bring in an extra 3,000 to 4,000 baht ($90 to $120 per month) - not insignificant in a region where per capita GDP is about 34,000 baht. Farmers sell the insects to local markets but increasingly they are also grinding up the insects to use as protein in animal feed.

Home economics

“The insects provide extra income for the farmers,” said Yupa. “They have their fields to grow regular crops and can raise the crickets inside their houses.” She added that most insect farming is small-scale, particularly as no export market has yet evolved.

Photo: Yupa Hanboonsong/IRIN
Some 1,400 species of insects are eaten in Africa, Asia and the Americas, but to make them more palatable to western consumers canning and other packaging is used

But some think the business of raising insects has a promising future. Scientists at the FAO conference cited the need to further study the nutritional value of certain insects, as well as their lifecycles, so that more efficient and productive farming techniques can be developed.

In some areas of Thailand, Yupa said, insects are sold as herbal medicine and for their vitamin content. Insects are more populous during the rainy season, so scientists are looking into ways to keep them free of pesticides, boosting their appeal.

Though the insects are commonly fried, Yupa teaches farmers different ways to cook them and even holds an annual insect cooking competition at Khon Kaen University. However, if western consumers are really going to develop a taste for insects, Durst said, the trick may be to make the bugs appear more palatable.

“Most food we eat doesn’t look like its exact form,” says Durst. “We eat steak that doesn’t look anything like a cow. It’s only natural that for widespread acceptance you need to get the food into a form where someone doesn’t have to look the bug in the eye when they eat it.”