This feature is a collaboration with Mongabay
In Southeast Asia, insects have long been an integral part of the human food chain as a sustainable and nutritious alternative to traditional meats. So, how are they cultivated—and what is the likelihood that these practices will spread to the West?
Words by Michael Tatarski
Photographs by Rishabh Malik
Additional reporting by Chan Muyhong
A spade strikes the bone-dry Cambodian dirt with a crunch, and the hunt is on. Chem Wai, a lanky, deeply tanned 53-year-old former soldier, has been collecting wild tarantulas and scorpions for most of his life.
Wai knows this scruffy forest, located 20 miles north of Siem Reap and the astonishing ruins of Angkor Wat, like the back of his hand. Armed with his spade and a wood basket, he tracks down these arachnids considered terrifying by many in short sleeves and flip flops.
Once he spots a likely tarantula or scorpion hole, he digs out a scoop of chalky soil. If one is home, he grabs a twig to fish it out, snips its fangs or stinger, and drops it into the basket. The process is over in 30 seconds.
“I’ve been hunting for them since I was young, but only commercially for five or six years,” he says in Khmer. “It’s now my main source of income.”
He supplies tarantulas and scorpions to Bugs Cafe, a restaurant located in Siem Reap, the menu of which focuses on insect-based dishes. (A quick note on terminology: While tarantulas and scorpions are arachnids, not insects, I use the latter term for the sake of continuity.)
People like Wai and eateries like Bugs Cafe, which serves insect skewers, fried spring rolls stuffed with ants, and silkworm and taro croquettes, may seem strange to many Western readers, but they illustrate the importance of finding alternative ways to feed humanity amid climate change and concerns over the environmental and moral impacts of the meat industry.
Insects as Food
By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 10 billion people. According to a landmark 2013 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) titled “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security,” this means that we will need to nearly double food production in the next three decades.
The 200-page report is considered one of the most authoritative texts on the consumption of insects for food, also known as entomophagy.
According to the FAO, insects form part of the traditional diets of at least two billion people, and over 1,900 species have been used for food. The most common among them are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants.
The health and environmental benefits of these creatures are huge. For example, since they are cold-blooded, crickets convert their food into energy far more efficiently than mammals. These insects require 12 times less feed than cattle, and they also produce no methane, a powerful greenhouse gas emitted in great amounts by ruminants like cows. The FAO estimates that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
While nutrient levels vary depending on the species, edible insects are generally high in fat, protein, vitamin, fiber, and mineral content. Mealworms, for example, have a similar unsaturated omega-3 and fatty acid content to fish, and equal protein, vitamin, and mineral counts to both fish and meat.
In communities where insects are traditionally eaten, these benefits have been well-known for generations.
Cambodia’s Insect Economy
As night falls over the rice paddies outside Kampong Thom, about 100 miles southeast of Siem Reap, Chu Sopheak turns on the lights attached to his cricket traps. He has been trapping crickets here for eight years.
“I saw my neighbor put up traps, and then they earned good money, so it encouraged me to do it,” Sopheak says in Khmer above the din of countless insects and toads welcoming the darkness.
The traps are simple: A clear plastic sheet stretches between two upright wood poles, while a long fluorescent light hangs from a cross post. On the ground, water fills a rectangular plastic container. Crickets drawn to the light either slam into the sheet and fall into the water or simply jump into its reflection.
“It’s seasonal, from May to July, and the rest of the time, I’m a motorbike taxi driver,” Sopheak explains. “I have 30 traps, and on a really good night, I collect up to 90 pounds of crickets.”
He traps two types: small, black crickets and large, red ones, the latter of which are less common, but can fetch nearly $4 per pound, good money in a country where the per capita annual income is just under $1,400, according to the World Bank.
Traps owned by other farmers line the embankments surrounding these rice paddies, and it looks as though someone planted dozens of blue lightsabers in the ground. Within 30 minutes, crickets fill each of Sopheak’s traps.
Another 60 miles down National Route 6, I meet Teun Saron outside her two-story home on a dirt road in Kampong Cham Province. Half a dozen cats keep a wary eye on us as we talk. She has been working with tarantulas for 30 years, as a hunter when she was a teenager and now as a vendor. According to her, tarantulas do more than just provide vitamins and minerals.
“Tarantulas are known for having medicinal properties,” Saron says in Khmer. “Older family members will make children with respiratory diseases eat tarantulas. It’s believed to cure them.” Wai had relayed similar information, explaining that people suffering from coughs consume tarantulas to alleviate their symptoms.
Saron sells the tarantulas, which she fries and tops with stir-fried garlic, to individual customers (like a woman waiting to bring 20 to her factory coworkers) at a bus stop outside the nearby town of Skuon. Here, other vendors do brisk business selling piles of fried crickets, mealworms, grasshoppers, ants, water bugs, and tarantulas to hungry travelers.
The vast majority of insects used for human entomophagy globally, like those sold in Skuon, are caught in the wild. However, they face threats from overharvesting, pollution, wildfire, and habitat degradation, while climate change, the FAO notes, will impact these species in ways that aren’t yet fully understood.
Research published by Biological Conservation in February found that 40 percent of insect species are already declining in numbers, while the rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of other animal species.
All of the insect collectors I spoke to relayed supply problems. Sopheak, for example, noted that he has caught fewer crickets over the last three years, although he attributed this to the fact that more people are engaging in cricket trapping.
Saron, meanwhile, said the forest where she caught tarantulas in her youth was cleared for the construction of a factory, so now, she sources them from a neighboring province.
But environmental threats aren’t the only issue holding entomophagy back from even broader international acceptance.
Insects have long been considered food in countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but in Europe, the United States, and Canada, they are often considered outright disgusting.
Dr. Aaron Dossey, author of Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients and a vocal proponent of entomophagy, has encountered this problem first-hand in the US. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, why would I eat insects anyway?’ But if you give them a nugget of information on the sustainability, that it’s a new industry, they’re efficient, it’s a potential protein source in the future, then they kind of fill in the blanks,” he says in a Skype call.
“If it’s a conversation it’s better. I’ve been to science fairs, and when people just see a bowl of crickets, they say, ‘Ew.’”
Meanwhile, at Bugs Cafe in Siem Reap, executive chef Seiha Soeun prepared a range of dishes for us to try. Having previously worked as a chef at the upmarket Sofitel Hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, Soeun certainly knows his way around the kitchen.
The meal was beautifully presented. Although I refrained from eating the whole fried scorpion, the ant egg rolls were delicious, as were the off-menu fried cricket and mealworm nuggets. Other than the slightly nutty aftertaste, there was little hint that these items had been cooked with an ingredient other than vertebrate protein.
However, the challenges facing insect populations, combined with the deep-seated disgust many Westerners feel toward insects, may mean that whole, wild-caught bugs aren’t the way forward in the hunt for a global food alternative to mass-market protein sources.
To see a more viable path, I traveled across the border to Vietnam. In Loc Ninh District, a three-hour drive north of rapidly growing Ho Chi Minh City, a company called Cricket One completed one of the world’s largest cricket farms in April.
Nam Dang, the cofounder and operations director, showed me around the 13,000-square-foot facility, which sits on a red dirt road amid cassava tree stands.
From the outside, the farm looks like a typical brick warehouse with a sheet metal roof, but inside are about 1,300 black bins containing the company’s namesake product: crickets.
“We started three years ago, and I’ve worked in agriculture for 10 years,” Nam says. “We looked around and sustainability was the number one criterion. We saw the FAO report and researched the topic. We found companies in the US and Europe that are farming crickets for consumption, but I read that supply can’t meet demand and prices there are very high.”
Nam and Bicky Nguyen, his business partner, decided to give the field a try. “These are tropical insects,” he explains. “What if we farmed here and shipped to Europe and the US? We have a huge cost advantage thanks to a suitable climate, low labor costs, and lots of byproducts that we can use to feed the crickets.”
The crickets are hatched in a small, dark room in one corner of the warehouse and are later moved into the ubiquitous black bins. Each batch is tracked by hatch date, and they are fed cassava leaves and branches from outside the warehouse, in addition to specialized feed that Nam developed with an animal nutrition professor.
The scale is immense: Each Jamaican field cricket grown at the farm weighs well under a gram, yet at full capacity, through harvests of nearly 10 million crickets, Cricket One can produce up to eight tons per month.
“When we started, we knew we wanted to do it on an industrial scale because, one day, crickets will become an alternative to traditional meat,” Nam says.
The environmental advantages of cricket farming were immediately apparent. Farming a similar number of cows or pigs would require vast amounts of space, and according to the FAO, 26 percent of the world’s ice-free land is already used for livestock grazing, while 33 percent of croplands are used for feed production.
Crickets also produce minimal waste and no foul odors, even in the millions. Additionally, Nam says they require 8,000 times less water than cattle.
Cricket One’s production model involves nine satellite farms, in addition to the main warehouse. Once the satellite farms are taken into account, nearly 18 million crickets are harvested monthly in this one tiny corner of Vietnam. These smaller farms are family-run and dotted around the surrounding countryside. We visited one owned by Dang Thi Thanh Thao, a public school teacher, and her husband, Nguyen Van Tien.
They maintain around 200 bins in a shed behind their house on a small plot of land, and they produce up to one ton of crickets per month. Nam and his team have been working with Thao and Tien for about a year: The company trained them to raise crickets, while also providing all of the necessary equipment and cricket eggs to get started.
Thao only makes about $250 a month from her salary as a teacher, hardly enough to get by while sending her oldest child to high school. By selling harvested crickets back to Cricket One, the family can make almost $2,000 in a good month.
Once the crickets are harvested, a process that occurs about six weeks after they hatch, they are sent to Cricket One’s nearby factory, where they are turned into powder, creating a far different product than the wild-caught insects in Cambodia.
Visually, cricket powder is more appealing to Western consumers than whole crickets: It looks like brown baking flour and can be used in similar ways. Recently, the Cricket Hop Company, run by two chefs based in Ho Chi Minh City, launched their cricket flour on Amazon in the UK for $10 per 100 gram bag. (They plan to launch in the US next year.) Using cricket powder sourced from Cricket One, their flour contains over 70 percent protein and is gluten- and lactose-free. Their website features a number of recipes involving cricket powder, from smoothies and cookies to Spanish eggs with chorizo and Thai green vegetable curry with glass noodles.
(I used their product, mixed with regular flour, to make fried goat cheese balls, and the result was delicious, with no discernable cricket taste.)
With the right packaging, it’s easy to imagine seeing this product on the shelves of your local Whole Foods or Publix—which bodes well for its future appeal. And since the US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow whole wild-caught insects to be imported for human consumption, this is the most obvious way to enter the American market.
Amid the low hum of millions of crickets chirping, Nam expresses the utmost confidence in the role of crickets in future human diets, and not only because of their low environmental cost.
“They contain a lot of protein and a lot of trace minerals like iron, zinc, and manganese,” he says. “Two billion people in the world lack these minerals. If we can include this in food for pregnant women, we can solve huge problems, and we can make it much more affordable than beef or chicken. I think the future of crickets solving the protein and mineral problem is there, so it’s more about the perception problem right now.”
While the problem of perception for the scorpions hunted by Wai and the tarantulas Saron sells would be difficult to address, government regulations and environmental threats may be the primary factors preventing them from becoming food staples in the West. Nevertheless, the future appears bright for the countless crickets being raised in the tropical heat of southern Vietnam.