Khon Kaen, Thailand - Bugs have been on the menu in Thailand for ages but only recently have they migrated from the forests to commercial farms and factories.
“The crickets you see on sale in Thailand are mostly from farms,” said Yupa Hanboonsong, assistant professor in entomology at Khon Kaen University. “We have around 20,000 cricket farmers in the north-east.”
Yupa and fellow entomologist Tasanee Jamjanya began introducing cricket-raising techniques as an alternative source of income and protein for farmers in north-eastern Thailand about 15 years ago. For some, the tiny insects have turned into a substantial source of revenue.
“If we are running at full capacity, we can make a profit of 200,000 baht (6,450 dollars) in one month,” said Pranee Hackl, a cricket entrepreneur in Khon Kaen province's Nonthon district, 330 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.
Pranee, 47, and her Austrian husband, Oswald, 61, qualify as large-scale farmers in Thailand's cricket industry.
Her farm boasts 150 concrete cricket pens, where the insects are hatched, fed and raised for about six weeks until they are big enough to be sold.
The venture has not been without challenges. Like other commercially raised animals, crickets are vulnerable to diseases and weather changes, but unlike chickens and cattle, little is known about crickets.
“There are no real experts on cricket raising,” Pranee said. “This is a new profession, so you have to learn by experimenting.”
Pranee, for instance, went from raising the insects 12 months to six months a year because she found they were too vulnerable to fungi and viruses during Thailand's rainy season.
The market is also unpredictable.
Since she started up seven years ago, the price of crickets has fallen from 180 to 100 baht per kilogram, evidence of growing competition.
Thailand's bug business is relatively well-established with impressive market logistics in place nationwide.
There are three wholesale hubs for insects, including Long Klua in Sa Keow province on the Thai-Cambodian border, Kalasin town in north-east Thailand and Talad Thai in Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok.
Some bugs are now travelling from farms in north-eastern Thailand as far afield as the Middle East.
“We have a customer who is sending insects to Israel to sell to Thais working there,” said Keowjai Danook, 36, an insect wholesaler at Talad Thai.
Most of Thailand's overseas labourers hail from the north-eastern region of Isaan, the country's most impoverished, where insects have always been part of the daily diet.
Isaan natives living in Bangkok comprise the capital's largest market for insects, but they have also become popular snacks at tourist spots, such as Khao Sarn Road, a backpackers hangout.
Crickets are generally sold on carts on Bangkok' streets along with other delicacies such as water bugs and silk larvae. Upcountry, they are sold in stalls along the highway.
The most popular method of preparation is to deep-fry crickets in oil and then sprinkle them with lemongrass slivers and chillies. They are crunchy and taste like fried shrimp.
While demand for edible insects persists in north-eastern and northern Thailand, the growing market in Bangkok has been driven by middle men and steady supplies now that the bugs are coming from farms rather than forests, vendors said.
“You get a good profit on insects,” said Jarunee Rodpai, 59, owner of the Pha Da insect shop at Talad Thai. “We never have problems with supply, and insects are small and inexpensive to keep in a refrigerator.”
New forms of packaging are also emerging.
The Kuntamala Frozen Foods Co two years ago set up a factory to produce frozen meals of bamboo caterpillars, silk worm pupa and crickets in Bangkok, depending on supplies from the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Thailand is not unique in its tradition of entomophagy, but it is a leader in the region in terms of farming insects and processing them, said Yupa, who is helping the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on a project to introduce insect farming to neighbouring Laos.
The UN agency has been promoting insects as an alternative source of food for both people and livestock for the past decade. Experts see their greatest commercial potential in the feed-meal sector.
“The feed sector is the most imminent, particularly for providing protein in fish and chicken rations,” said Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer for the FAO in Rome.
“We raise a huge amount of cattle, chicken, fish, so where are we going to get the protein to feed them?” Vantomme said. “There isn't much forest left to deforest, and there's not much fish left in the ocean, so we need to look at all alternatives, including insects.” - Sapa-dpa