A rising chorus of chirping crickets greeted Aunt Jai as she lifted the blue mosquito netting off the concrete pens outside her house. Bubbling away with enthusiasm, she quickly pointed out every little detail of her modest cricket farm.
"Those are the breeders… These are the young house crickets… There you can see some of their eggs, if you lift that cassava leaf…" For a 62-year-old, she is shockingly nimble, bouncing around between each of her 15 concrete pens, proudly showcasing the insects that have brought her so much success.
She laughed and made a sweeping gesture to the tens of thousands of crickets around her. "I used to be just a normal farmer!"
Thailand, like many countries, has a long history of eating insects, or what is called "entomophagy." But while many of these countries have seen a decline in insect-eaters—due in no small part to insect-eating's negative portrayal by the West—Thailand's insect-eating community has actually grown and diversified beyond historical levels, thanks to a changing perception of insects as food.
Today, Thailand is praised by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as "one of the few countries to have developed a viable and thriving insect farming sector" with "more than 20,000 insect farming enterprises … registered in the country." The sector now constitutes a multi-million-dollar frontier of farming; it is growing so quickly that it continues to outpace academic research and government oversight.
With only two years' experience, Aunt Jai is among the new wave of Thais entering the insect-farming industry. Yet, unlike some other farmers, she was not aware of its potential, instead setting out with the simple goal of sating her daughter's cravings.
"[My daughter] absolutely loves to eat crickets, so I thought I would buy some cricket eggs and try and rear some for her," she recalled with an incredulous giggle. "I didn't know what would come next."
After receiving a small batch of various cricket eggs in the mail, Aunt Jai placed them in a small blue box and, having never been taught how to rear crickets, struggled to raise them through three months of trial and error. Eventually, she made her breakthrough and started rearing several cycles of crickets. Two months later, word of her crickets was spreading in her rural village near Don Chedi, just 80 kilometers northwest of Bangkok.
"People were coming to my farm and asking to buy some of my crickets," she told me. Aunt Jai immediately realised the potential of her side project. "It cost me 3,000 THB ($91) to start, and after five months I had managed to make back my money, plus an extra 20,000 THB ($610)!"
She quickly invested another 100,000 THB for the 15 large concrete blocks that make up her farm today. "Today I'm making over 20,000 THB selling around 200 kilos of crickets per month. Next year, I want to double the size of my farm and begin selling to wholesalers in Talad Thai."
Talad Thai, on the outskirts of Bangkok, is the country's largest wholesale and retail market, located on nearly 200 acres of land. Walking amongst the hundreds of various wholesalers is a dizzying, glorious exposure to the sheer variety and quantity of foodstuffs available in Thailand.
Mountains of pumpkins shade their wholesalers from the sun, while gourds, lemons, potatoes, and tomatoes line walkways. Onions, forests of green herbs, and bundles of garlic hang off tables. Omnipresent in the humid air is that subtle sting of dried chillies in water and vinegar.
Talad Thai, and markets like it, are a common step in the supply chain of medium- to large-scale insect-farming enterprises. With this one-stop solution, farmers suddenly find it possible to sell in bulk to a wider consumer base. Talad Thai alone generates an average monthly income of over 300,000 THB ($9,150) per month through insects.
Tucked away in one area of the vegetables section is one of the market's four insect wholesalers. Somnuek, a 54-year-old wholesaler of insects for nearly seven years, has little time to rest as he and his family work hard to serve their stream of customers.
"After awareness campaigns from doctors and the UN, I've definitely seen the number of consumers go up, which has in turn meant there are more farms to meet the growing demand," he explained before quickly reaching over to a mound of slightly damp, cold silkworm pupae and calling an older passerby. "Eat this! It's good for your joints, especially your knees."
Gesturing to the glistening bowls of defrosting insects, Somnuek estimated that when he started his monthly profits were in the thousands. Now he always tops 100,000 THB ($3,050) per month.
"I import from Cambodia and China and export to different Thai communities all around the world," he told me. "I have even sold 100 kilos of silkworm pupae to some Thai people in the USA."
Thailand's northeast Isan region, and to a lesser extent the more southern regions, have historically made up the bulk of the insect-eaters in Thailand. And while they may still constitute a majority of the consumer market, that base is quickly diversifying and expanding as attitudes change.
Dr. Yupa Hanboonsong, an associate professor of entomology at Khon Kaen University and a co-author of a 2013 FAO report on insect farming in Thailand, puts this change down to a recent effort in increasing the younger generations' level of comfort with eating insects.
"We have been throwing food fairs, introducing new recipes, serving them in school lunches, putting the food in nicer packaging, exposing [children] to insects in a more positive way," explained Hanboonsong. "Through this, we change opinions."
"Fifteen years ago, this was only seen as something the Isan, the poor, and the old would eat," said Hanboonsong. "Now, recently I saw a child who was 5 to 6 years old eating insects. I went up to her and asked, 'Why are you eating insects?' And she looked at me like it was such a weird question to ask! You know it's normal to her—she's just eating it like she would a piece of candy."
Harn, an 18-year-old from Isan who set up his insect stall in downtown Bangkok, is able to make 20,000 THB per month with a 50 percent profit margin. "I knew I could set up anywhere and be OK," said Harn, who gets his insects from the nearby Khlong Toei market. "Everyone buys here—all sorts of Thais, Chinese, Western tourists. I used to buy and cook them for myself, but I saw that it was becoming more popular, so I decided to sell them."
Back in Talad Thai, Somnuek had also noticed the sudden diversity in consumers. "You get all sorts of people buying here now," he said. "I even had a pretty famous local actress buy from me."
The unnamed "pretty famous local actress" apparently bought a few kilos of one of the most prized insects —the bamboo caterpillar. In a nearby stall, these caterpillars were selling for 400 THB per kilo—four times the price of the house cricket. Only available seasonally through harvesting in the wild, the bamboo caterpillar is considered one of the more elegant insects to be seen eating, particularly in North Thailand.
Although the FAO estimates that Thailand has some 200 edible species of insect, fewer than a dozen are regularly eaten. Hanboonsong explains that these insects can be subdivided into two groups: farmed insects (such as crickets and palm weevils) and wild-harvested (such as bamboo caterpillars, weaver ants and giant water bugs).
For the most part, the wild-harvested insects are only available in certain regions, or during specific times of the year, and are difficult to intensively farm. As such, their scarcity drives their prices up to even beyond that of chicken, pork, or beef. With refrigeration usage on the rise, however, more of these insects are available year-round. (Frozen insects are still fine after one to two years.)
While this is positive for the consumers in the short term, it also means that some farmers have an incentive to harvest at unsustainable levels when they are available. Even at the current rate of wild harvesting, populations of both the popular giant water bug and weaver ant eggs are declining.
"We need to have the farmers join into a big group, so that we can ensure they are taught GAPs (Good Agricultural Practice)," explained Hanboonsong. "As well as changing perceptions on eating insects, we have to ensure good practice with wild harvesting and farming."
After her months of trial and error, Aunt Jai is more than aware of the risks that come with poor farming practice. "I now ensure it's not too crowded so as to give them space to breathe and to jump. If it's too crowded, there is more chance that they will eat one another."
Yet, even with all the caveats that inevitably follow a sprawling sector that bypasses government oversight and outpaces academic research, Thailand has shown that a successful trade in insects is possible, and the rewards are very real for poor, rural farmers like Aunt Jai. "Crickets paid for this farm. Crickets bought my car," she said, pointing at a relatively new Toyota. "Cricket farming can pull you out of poverty."