The insect start-ups of Southeast Asia paving the way to a sustainable diet of the future

·Lifestyle Editor
·6-min read
A picture taken on July 17, 2019 shows a dish of Black Soldier Fly larvae which is an ingredient at Gourmet Grubb, a food stand run by chef Mario Barnard (not visible) specializing in using insects in cuisine, in Cape Town. - Mopane worms are a traditional snack in South Africa, but a Cape Town restaurant is set to crawl into the history books as the first to serve a full menu of bug-infused delicacies. Barnard uses mostly dried, ground up worms or pupae, which he sources from people producing them to feed exotic pets. These dried insects are high in protiens, fats, and a variety of minerals, making them very healthy to eat. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)        (Photo credit should read RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)
Black soldier fly larvae are high in proteins, fats, and a variety of minerals, making them very healthy to eat. (Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images)

Welcome to the Earth Month series, where we highlight environmentally-focused food offerings as well as inspiring stories by people in Southeast Asia, to help you celebrate our planet.

Insects are the food of the future – for humans and for the animals we rear. 

It might sound icky, but insects are being seriously considered as an alternative, sustainable protein source for human societies. More people are eschewing meat and fish consumption as we learn more about the cruelty and unsustainability of industrial livestock farming and marine overfishing, which are also major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 14.5 per cent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock supply chains. Farm animals such as cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep and goats produce large amounts of emissions, especially methane, which is an especially potent greenhouse gas. They amount to 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) per year.

And have you watched Seaspiracy? The Netflix documentary is the latest clarion call to reduce our fish consumption as wanton industrial overfishing depletes marine life in our oceans, threatens the planet's ecosystems and contributes to global warming.

A Thai woman sells fried bugs at a  market in Chiang Mai  province, Thailand, on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. With famine an every present threat in Africa and global warming predicted to reduce agriculture yields in poor countries, one group of scientists are offering up a novel solution to help alleviate world hunger: Eat more bugs. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
A Thai woman selling fried bugs at a market in Chiang Mai province, Thailand. (Photo: AP/Sakchai Lalit)

As the global agriculture and aquaculture industries face unsustainable crop farming and depleting fishmeal stocks in the oceans, they are also seeking new protein sources aside from grain crops and fishmeal to feed their livestock. They are turning increasingly to insects for animal feed.

Eating insects is not exactly new for humans – our species have long subsisted on insects such as crickets and grubs, including many societies within Southeast Asia.

Companies have been conducting research on insect farming and attempted to apply scientific and industrial methods to scale up the production of insect-related products.

Various insects can be consumed by humans, including crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and grubs such as mealworms and silkworms. However, black soldier flies (and their larvae) are currently the main stars of the insect farming industry because they are harmless to humans, are able to consume huge amounts of humans' food waste, occur worldwide and do not disrupt local ecosystems even if farm populations escape into the surrounding environment.

There are hundreds of such start-ups around the world working to integrate insects into our diet for a sustainable future. Here are the companies in Southeast Asia doing just that.

Phua Jun Wei, 31, chief technology officer and co-founder of Insectta, shows Reuters a tube of melanin solution during a laboratory demonstration in Singapore March 3, 2021. Picture taken March 3, 2021. REUTERS/Caroline Chia
Phua Jun Wei, chief technology officer and co-founder of Singapore's Insectta, holding a tube of melanin solution produced by the company's novel method. (Photo: Reuters/Caroline Chia)

Singapore

Singapore, being a regional hub for R&D and business, has attracted many insect start-ups, although some of them operate facilities in neighbouring countries but base the company in Singapore. 

Plento, a joint venture between Singapore's Asia Insect Farm Solutions and Thailand's cricket pasta maker Bugsolutely, is developing snacks that mix plant-based proteins and insect proteins, combining vegetables such as mung bean and chickpea with cricket flour and mealworm flour.

There are a number of black soldier fly farms operating in Singapore, including Insectta, Ento Industries and Insect Feed Technologies

Insectta, the first (and home-grown) black soldier fly farm in Singapore, recently became the first to discover how to extract melanin, a natural pigment and biopolymer used in organic semiconductors and bioelectronics, from black soldier fly larvae. They've also discovered environmentally friendly processes to extract other lucrative substances such as chitosan and probiotics from the larvae.

Malaysia

There are a few black soldier fly farms operating in Malaysia. Nutrition Technologies and Protenga have farms in Johor, while Unique Biotech has a farm in Selangor.

Protenga, whose HQ is based in Singapore although its breeding and farming facility is located in Senai, Johor, plans to expand its Smart Insect Farm model, which transforms agricultural and food waste into valuable products, to waste owners around Asia.

Besides black soldier fly farms, there is also a cricket farm in Kuala Lumpur, operated by Ento (not to be confused with Singapore's Ento Industries.) 

The new Nutrition Technologies insect farm factory in Johor, Malaysia. (Photo: Nutrition Technologies)
The new Nutrition Technologies insect farm factory in Johor, Malaysia. (Photo: Nutrition Technologies)

Thailand

Have you walked the streets of Bangkok and seen all the food stalls selling fried bugs? The Thais have long been enjoying insect chow.

Thailand Unique is an online shop that produces and sells a wide variety of packaged bug snacks for human consumers – their offerings include scorpions, silkworms, grasshoppers, beetles, and various species of crickets. Their edible insects are turned into powders and oils which you can add to any dish you're cooking that you fancy. They even have chocolate-coated insect candy!

Packaged insect and bug products on sale on Thailand Unique's website: black scorpion, june beetles, mole crickets and dung beetles.
Packaged insect and bug products on sale on Thailand Unique's website: black scorpion, june beetles, mole crickets and dung beetles.

Thailand has a niche in cricket farming. The Cricket Lab produces cricket flour (crickets ground into powder form) and fertiliser from insect frass (that's their poop and exoskeletons). Global Bugs produces animal feed from crickets, as well as roasted edible crickets in flavours like BBQ, ginger lime and spicy Thai.

Bugsolutely, based in Bangkok, makes cricket pasta, which comprises 20% cricket flour and 80% wheat flour.

Magalarva's black soldier fly larvae production facility in Indonesia. (Screenshot from Youtube/Opini.id)
Magalarva's black soldier fly larvae production facility in Indonesia. (Screenshot from Youtube/Opini.id)

Indonesia

Indonesia has also made a push into the black soldier fly industry, with Magalarva and Hermetia Bioscience operating black soldier fly farms.

Magalarva hopes to boost the circular economy by feeding its grubs with organic waste products from food and beverage factories, markets, hotels, and plantations. Their products include protein for animal feed and pet food, and organic fertiliser. 

Products of Entobel, a black soldier fly farm company based in Singapore and operating in Vietnam. Products include insect protein, insect oil and fertiliser. (Photo: Entobel)
Products of Entobel, a black soldier fly farm company based in Singapore and operating in Vietnam. Products include insect protein, insect oil and fertiliser. (Photo: Entobel)

Vietnam

Entobel is a Singapore-based biotech company that operates a black soldier fly production and processing facility in southern Vietnam. The company produces animal feed and fertiliser products. It's looking to expand with more sites in the region; each facility will apparently be able to produce 20,000 tonnes of insect protein and 100,000 tonnes of fertiliser per year.

The Cricket Hop Co. is a UK-based company with a farm in southern Vietnam making and selling cricket powder. Founded by two British chefs, the company produces cricket flour which it says contains 70-74% protein, which they encourage you to use in recipes available on their website and in their cookbooks

Cricket baked goods food containing cricket insect powder from Eat Criche, a company based in Cambodia. (Photo: Eat Criche)
Cricket baked goods food containing cricket insect powder from Eat Criche, a company based in Cambodia. (Photo: Eat Criche)

Cambodia 

Bug Bacon, located in Cambodia, makes a bacon-like snack from roasted black soldier fly grubs seasoned with locally sourced, sustainably grown plant ingredients. The company describes Bug Bacon as "fatty and delicious". Bug Bacon obtains their black soldier fly larvae supply from Malaysia's Unique Biotech (see above).

Eat Criche has a farm in Cambodia and produces cricket protein powder, roasted cricket snacks and baked goods containing cricket flour. They are currently experimenting with energy bars and low-cost food supplements and snacks to fight malnutrition in the countryside.

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