New Research on Small-Scale Cricket Farming in Laos

Few things perk me up in the morning like receiving an email titled, “New Research on Cricket Farming – Thought You’d Be Interested.” Any contribution to the growing literature on entomophagy is a welcome gift! Last week I received such a message and dove into a great piece called Small-Scale Cricket Farming by Thomas Weigel of Veterinarians Without Borders.

Veterinarians Without Borders (VWB) is an organization with the mission to “work for, and with, communities in need to foster the health of animals, people and the environments that sustain us.” They focus on an ecosystem approach to health – “Ecohealth: one health for everyone, everywhere.”

Thomas Weigel led the research on cricket farming under the VWB for “Improving Livelihoods and Food Security in Laos and Cambodia.”He is Project Manager for VWB’s mini-livestock projects, including cricket production and processing for smallholder farmers and applied research on mini-livestock and community nutrition. Thomas also develops business models and financing mechanisms for VWB’s projects to ensure their long-term sustainability beyond the project duration.

Thus, he played a leading role in the research done on small-scale cricket farming. I’ve included a link to the whole report below, but the summary is as follows:

The cricket farming project aimed to improve the livelihoods and food security of villagers in Ban Hatviangkham through increased income generation and protein intake by supporting 16 villagers to set up and manage small-scale cricket farms at the household level. The income generating activities focuses on engaging women while the food security component of the initiative targeted both women and children. The project supported the provision of co-financing mechanisms as well as micro-credit for initial set up of the cricket farms, training and capacity building on cricket raising, processing, value-chain development and health/nutrition. At the end of the project 15 women were running cricket farms with an average production of about 5- 7kg raw crickets per production cycle per family. One participant temporarily ceased her cricket farming activity due to pregnancy. All 16 participants intended to continue cricket farming in the future. The head of the producer group had already extended her cricket farm and set-up additional cages on her own, while most other participants reported that they would expand, if market access improved. Prior to the project, none of the participants had earned any income from selling insects. However, in comparison to other sources of income, cricket farming had only a minor impact on the total household income. Better access to markets and reduced input costs for feed would increase economic returns significantly. While the generation of income is an important economic aspect, cricket farming can also contribute to saving money, as the farmed crickets can be used as gifts for visiting relatives and friends. In comparison to the situation prior to the project, the diets and food security of nearly all households improved. Out of the total cricket production, the participants consumed between 20 and 40% of their produce. In cooperation with the Food Processing Unit of the Faculty of Agriculture, the participants also developed innovative cricket-based products with market potential (cricket chili paste and cricket chips). An initial product promotion and introduction to the market showed that there is demand for these novel products. In order to integrate these products into the market system, however, challenges remain.

(Download the full report here: http://www.slideshare.net/ThomasWeigel/smallscale-cricket-farming-in-ban-hathviangkham-laos)

I reached out to Thomas Weigel to get the scoop (and a personal take) on the work he has done with food security.

How did you get involved with VWB in the first place?

Thomas: “I came across a job announcement posted by VWB on a popular online job board for development workers, applied for the position and was accepted. I joined VWB in Laos in March 2014 to work on the Global Affairs Canada (formerly Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development)-funded project “Food Security and Livelihoods in Laos and Cambodia (Foodlive Camlao)”.

One of the projects you lead involving food security focuses on mini-livestock, or insects. Can you tell me about the moment you first were introduced to the idea of entomophagy? 

Thomas: “Initially, my main responsibilities under the Foodlive Camlao project included developing sustainable business models for community-based animal health service systems involving livestock farmers, village veterinary workers, and veterinary pharmacists in rural areas. In addition to this, I was offered the opportunity to introduce cricket farming to one of our project villages to complement the project’s other livelihoods activities (poultry, crop and forage farming). I accepted as I found the offer immediately interesting for four reasons: a) it is an innovative approach to improving food/nutrition security and incomes; b) in Laos, very few people are familiar with this activity, c) I had the chance to develop the activity from the ground up; and d) I like to eat insects myself.”

Have you ever tried insects? If so, what’s your favorite insect and/or recipe? 

Thomas: “Approximately 15 years ago, I ate insects for the first time in Thailand. They were offered by street vendors as a snack, and I liked the taste. Since then I have tried many different species, ranging from wasps to beetles, cooked in different ways. My favourite recipe, which is very popular snack in Laos and Thailand, is fried insects with kaffir lime leaves, with a slight preference for crickets.”

Long-term sustainability is essential in the work you do. What about edible insects makes them candidates as sustainable food security solutions? 

Thomas: “First of all, I believe that edible insects are complementary to conventional livestock, not a substitute. However, insects have various advantages over conventional livestock production: a) small-scale insect farming is a pro-poor and inclusive livelihoods activity suitable for the poorest and vulnerable segments of society, including women, elderly people, landless persons – it’s a low-tech, low capital investment option, which requires little time, is easy to learn, and creates cash flow within a very short time; b) insect farming is environmentally sustainable –  compared to most other livestock, insects convert feed more efficiently, emit significantly less GHG and ammonia, and need less water and land; c) many insects have excellent nutrient values and can address protein-energy malnutrition as well as micronutrient deficiencies; and d) due to the favorable nutritional values, the short production cycle, and simple production techniques crickets can also be an effective and cheap means to mitigate nutrition insecurity during times of natural disasters.

In addition to this, edible insects can provide a sustainable and culturally adequate solution to improving food and nutrition security in many countries, as they are already part of traditional diets of an estimated 2 billion people worldwide and with approximately 1,900 species, they can match peoples’ different taste preferences.”

You’ve had international experience ranging from Laos to Thailand, Indonesia, India, Romania, and Germany. Can you speak to the differences in these markets in their ability to adopt insects as a larger part of their diets? When do you think we’ll see crickets in the “meat” section of these grocery stores? 

Thomas: “The greatest difference is probably the acceptance of insects as food. In many countries, insects are already integrated into peoples’ diets and constitute a delicacy or a “food of choice”, and are often traded at high prices. However, there are also differences in the market scale.

In Laos for example, most insects are collected in the wild and are not always available and accessible, while farmed insects are rare. Contrary to this, in Thailand, insect farms are well established, many of them operate on a medium or larger scale, and value chains are well developed. Insects are not only traded at markets throughout the country, but also for export. A variety of insect-based products are available in shops and supermarkets, including chili paste, vacuum-packed seasoned insect snacks, frozen insects, and even micro-wave dishes.

In Europe and North America, the situation is completely different. There has been an emerging movement of promoting edible insects as an alternative to conventional animal-based proteins and as way to revolutionize unsustainable global food systems. Edible insects and various insect-based products are now commercially available, mostly via online shops, but they have also to some extent found their way into supermarkets (e.g. in the Netherlands). However, insects and related products are still far away from becoming a mainstream food – it is probably safe to say that the majority of people would still not want to eat insects in any form. But in the near future, edible insects will have the opportunity to manifest their presence as a niche product, catering to a small, but growing consumer group.”

What was the biggest surprise for you in your small scale cricket farming research project? 

Thomas: “Some people had never eaten farmed crickets before, nor did they have any knowledge on cricket farming techniques. But once cricket farming was introduced, they easily adopted this activity. Crickets became not only a favourite food of adults, but the participants reported that especially their children are very fond of eating crickets.”

What was the biggest challenge? 

Thomas: “The biggest challenge is accessing markets for income generation. Difficulties are related to infrastructure, such as road conditions and transportation, but also distance, and time investment. Moreover, to establish a business some entrepreneurial spirit and own initiative to explore market opportunities is needed, which the participants often lacked. Finally, it is important to understand that cricket farming constitutes only a small fragment of the participants’ diverse livelihoods portfolio.”

In your research, most families consumed about 30% of the crickets raised, and these were mostly consumed as fried crickets. You note that dried crickets are about 56% crude protein and 16% crude fat. Does the health value change drastically if they are fried? 

Thomas: “It was out of the project’s scope to do further nutritional laboratory analyses. But certainly, more in-depth research is need to address nutritional and food safety related aspects.”

Most participants focused and commented on the economic side of the cricket farming. Did any have any feedback on their perceived health/energy statuses from the new source of protein? 

Thomas: “None of the participants explicitly mentioned these aspects. To explore nutrition/health-related impacts, a project needs a different set up – e.g. making use of particular nutrition and health analysis tools. In our 2nd cricket farming project, which takes place in another province, we are currently assessing the impact of cricket farming on household nutrition together with a team of nutritionists.”

An average of 5.3kg/person/cycle were produced. About how many meals would you say this covers? 

Thomas: “This is difficult to answer, as it depends inter alia on the number of people eating, and on how the crickets are prepared. As for the latter, we found that crickets are prepared either fried as a snack, or as a condiment for other dishes, such as chili paste or bamboo soup. A preliminary data analysis of our nutrition research project suggests that a family with about 5 household members could prepare between 10 and 20 servings from this amount.

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It’s people like Thomas Weigel that are paving the way in ensuring a bright future for sustainable community nutrition all over the globe. Cricket farming is an innovative approach of addressing food and nutrition insecurity. It’s a way of sustainable living that we’re only just getting started in scaling.

As the limits of conventional livestock production become more apparent, perhaps projects like these will increase in number. For more information, please visit Veterinarians Without Borders.

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