After a hard day’s work, Bounpheng Wattana and his friends like nothing better with a cold beer than a mouthful of creepy-crawlies. In his opinion, insects are the ultimate organic food.
“These are local and natural foods from our country, so Lao people like this kind of food because there are no chemicals. They are natural foods,” said Bounpheng.
While tasty critters may be a popular city snack, investing in sustainable insect farming and promoting the benefits of bug-gobbling could form part of the answer to alleviating chronic malnutrition in Laos, said Vonglokham Phouvanh from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“Insects can provide a good source of protein, fats, carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins and other minerals – this is an essential part of human nutrition,” he said.
A 2007 World Food Programme (WFP) report estimated that about 40 percent of children were malnourished or stunted, one of the worst rates in Southeast Asia, while the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report 2009 indicates that 40 percent of Lao children under five are underweight.
More than 95 percent of Lao people snack on insects, often prepared with herbs and spices Promoting insects could help alleviate the problem, and the potential is there – a recent FAO survey found that more than 95 percent Laotians snack on critters. There are about 1,700 edible insect species worldwide but their nutritional benefits are a relatively recent discovery.
To capitalize on this and ensure sustainability, FAO has a programme focused on the whole chain – from bug breeding to commercialization and consumption.
Vankham Duangbutby started breeding crickets from her home in the suburbs of Vientiane five years ago and soon realized how profitable it could be.
“At first I did a little farming, just tried with two cylinders of crickets. After we found it worked we continued to farm until we had 56 cylinders. When we sell, on average, we can earn one million kip [US$115] a month,” Vankham said.
She now receives advice and equipment from FAO to help with her cricket farming.
One of the attractions of insect farming is its simplicity, Bounthavy Sisouphanthong, vice-minister of planning and investment said.
“You don’t need to have lots of land, you don’t need lots of equipment and you don’t need that much knowledge, and then you can make a business,” he said.
Insect farming can be a lucrative venture. Neighbouring Thailand cannot satisfy its growing demand for insects and already imports from countries including Cambodia and Myanmar, FAO said.
Serge Verniau, FAO’s representative in Laos, thinks insects could play a part in tackling world poverty.
“The vision of FAO is not just to reduce chronic malnutrition in Laos, which is of course the core objective, but also to feed the grand metropolises in the future, from Calcutta to Shanghai and even New York to Rome. This great food source is also environmentally friendly to produce and needs much less energy and space than conventional meats,” Verniau said.