While eating insects isn’t too foreign of a concept in some of our local communities (cue sago worms), they’re more of a delicacy than a norm we’re moving towards for a more sustainable planet.
With the rising demand for food on top of how detrimental livestock farming is for the environment, insect-derived proteins surfaced as a possible solution to kill two birds with one stone.
Edible insect farming is still a relatively new concept, and we decided to interview 3 local insect farming startups on what the industry looks like thus far in Malaysia:
- Kevin Wu, Ento, cricket and Black Soldier Fly (BSF) larvae farming for human consumption
- Sio, Life Origin, BSF larvae farming for animal feed
- Jeff, Worming Up, BSF larvae farming for animal feed
What is insect farming?
Much like livestock, you can breed, raise, feed, slaughter, and sell insects as you would with cows, chickens, pigs, and others.
Farming insects to consume their byproducts is common. For example, we already farm kelulut (stingless) bees for their honey. Usually, insects are reared for honey, silk, resin, etc.
But there isn’t too much farming of edible insects yet going on. In Malaysia, Ento is the only startup so far that’s farming insects specifically for human consumption, whereas most other startups do so for animal feed.
How are insects farmed and harvested?
Different insects require different kinds of farming methods. For Ento, they farm their crickets in egg cartons and in a room.
Jeff and Sio farm their larvae in a controlled environment with cages in greenhouses that have bushes and trees to mimic their natural living environment. The adult flies can then roam freely, more similar to traditional livestock farming than crickets.
“They do not interact with the natural environment though. The adult fly also has a short lifespan and is a non-pest species unlike a housefly,” Jeff emphasised.
The good thing about farming insects in Malaysia is that we have an optimal climate for them. Kevin previously shared with us that our tropical climate eliminates the need to spend loads on heating and humidity, making it cheaper to farm crickets here.
BSF are also commonly found in tropical climates like ours. Hence, these insects don’t interrupt other surrounding ecosystems while they’re farmed because they’re not interacting with outside flora and fauna.
When it gets too cold for crickets, they go into hibernation mode. So Kevin deep freezes them for harvesting, and likens this method to that of one dying in their sleep.
Deep freezing is also how Jeff harvests his larvae. Sio on the other hand uses instant high heat treatment to kill his larvae.
Why aren’t there too many startups farming insects for human consumption?
Let’s be real—most of us think of insects not only as an acquired taste, but an acquired visual as a meal too. Dead or alive, popping an insect into your mouth is not an easy thing to do for those of us who grew up in cushy urban areas.
And even if you grind them up into powder, meat lovers who are sensitive to the textures and distinct flavours of their favourite ribeye, wagyus, and shanks aren’t going to be the most receptive to this more sustainable substitute.
In Malaysia at least, there are more insect farmers for animal feed than human consumption because the demand for this, as you’d expect, is still fairly small.
Sio shared that with so many choices of meats and vegetables in the market, it’s a persisting challenge to convince Malaysians to consume insect protein.
“Setting up a food-grade production for insect protein could be very expensive and certification compliance is a big challenge. With less demand and high investment, that is why most insect farmers are still farming as animal feed and [for] fertiliser usage,” he added.
Farming insects for animal feed also has a lower entry point, Jeff chimed in. Because if one were to farm insects for human consumption or its medicinal value, it would cost more for R&D alongside requiring food grading, which poses a higher entry point.
“To produce insects safe for human consumption, you’d need to really consider food safety control because you can’t feed the insect with food waste and you need to handle non-contaminated food surplus with precaution,” Jeff said.
Which is why both Sio and Jeff are farming the BSF larvae for waste management and animal feed to solve the food and agricultural waste issues.
What kinds of insects can you eat? Most importantly, how do they taste…?
Kevin thinks that crickets have a more approachable taste for human consumption as it has one of the most neutral tasting profiles, making them the most entry-level insect protein for newbies.
It’s mostly nutty and earthy, almost like a cross between roasted shrimp and toasted almonds, he explained. “Crickets taste like what they eat. So if they eat sweeter foods, they’d taste sweeter as well.”
Different types of insects could also taste like soft shell crab, salted bananas, bacon, pistachio, popcorn, mashed potatoes, cinnamon, mushroom, and even chicken. This seems suited for adventurous eaters who are big on texture.
My colleague who’s eaten both crickets and BSF larvae much prefers the latter though, as it has more of a shrimp flavour and has less crunchy parts than a cricket. (Plus, the larvae don’t have obvious faces to stare into as you bring them to your mouth.)
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO), there are over 2,000 species of insects that are safe for human consumption like locusts, mealworm larvae, grasshoppers, scorpions, moths, beetles, termites, etc.
You can consume insects as a whole (legs, wings, everything attached), in grains or paste form (cricket sambal, anyone?), etc. If you want some ideas, Ento has made crickets into meatballs, bread, granola, and more.
Legislation surrounding edible insect farming in Malaysia
“As of now, there are no specific insect regulations in Malaysia. But if we’re doing something for human consumption we’ll just follow the food safety and food standard protocols,” Kevin explained.
What they do at Ento is pretty much the same as what you’d expect from other F&B businesses with their products—have their products tested for their nutrition and safety, and list the nutrition profile on their packaging.
Kevin noted that other countries are starting to establish regulations on insect protein though, and Sio is gung-ho on the idea of having these policies and regulations too. He believes that safety and quality is the key to moving the insect farming industry forward, especially for human consumption.
For now, there’s only legislation surrounding pest control on insects in Malaysia. Legislation aside, edible insect farmers would need to worry about obtaining halal certification, especially if they’re trying to cater to the Muslim market.
To determine whether something is halal also depends on which Islamic school of thought one is following.
“Specifically, crickets and larvae, to my knowledge, are considered halal by the Indonesian Islamic council. While JAKIM hasn’t had an opinion yet about this, I think that so long as a handful of Islamic councils consider this to be halal, it’s safe for human consumption in the Muslim market,” Kevin told Vulcan Post.
The cost of starting an insect farm
There are several factors that insect farmers take into consideration when starting up:
- Whether you’re farming for human consumption or animal feed, or others
- The scale of your operation, and whether it’s manual or mechanical
- Whether you’re using new materials or old/recyclable materials
Jeff shared that the estimated cost would be around RM200 to RM1,000 for a home-based farm and RM5,000 to RM50,000 for a small-scale one.
“Initial capital is not high for insect farming. Anyone who wants to do so should start in small amounts before going for a larger scale. Basic tools and would just cost a few hundreds of Ringgit,” Sio added.
There are also local startups providing agritech for insect farming like Protenga, which makes smart insect farming solutions with technology.
Something that the interviewees agreed on is that there should be more active involvement in growing this industry from the government.
“We’re one of the best places for insect farming thanks to our tropical weather that is optimal for farming insects. It could become a pillar in the agricultural industry one day [with a] high possibility of export to generate income,” Sio believes.
In line with his beliefs, the Malaysian edible insect industry is also forecasted to grow to US$28 million (RM116 million) by 2023, so we may be seeing more edible insect-focused startups crop up in time.
- You can learn more about Ento here, Life Origin here, and Worming Up here.
- You can read about other insect farming-related articles we’ve written here.
Featured Image Credit: Kevin Wu, founder of Ento and Jeff Wee, founder of Worming Up