Earlier this month, the humanitarian organisation Veterinarians Without Borders, in collaboration with the Canada-based NGO HealthBridge, the Guelph University in Canada and the National University of Laos, launched an initiative that will provide at least 20 households from two rural villages with the tools and training to farm crickets mainly for personal consumption.
A number of countries around the world routinely include certain insects in their diets. Nutritional value of insects varies greatly depending on the variety of species and the diet, habits and stage of growth of the insect.
In general, bugs are high in vitamins, proteins and minerals, such as calcium, zinc and iron. When it comes to crickets, every 100 grams of fresh, adult supply yield 8 to 25 grams of protein, according to a 2013 report of the UN FAO. 
Crickets can be prepared in a variety of ways, including frying or as an additive to traditional foods such as bamboo soup (gaeng normai). Farming the insect can go a long way in helping Laos, which has the highest severe malnutrition levels in South-East Asia, according to a FAO assessment.
“Every second child under five years old in the rural areas is chronically malnourished, affecting not only their physical development, but also their cognitive capacity,” the FAO states, identifying the most common type of malnourishment as protein and/or energy malnutrition. 
But insect farming is not intended to replace conventional livestock. “This is a complement to livestock,” Thomas Weigel, the project manager, tells SciDev.Net. “It adds on or supplements this.”
The project, which is funded mainly by the International Development Research Centre in Canada, will run until July 2016. It targets poor households and women who have in the past been the most inclined to collect edible insects in the wild along with their children, says Weigel.
“It’s an innovative approach in Laos because farming itself is not common in the country,” he adds. “A vast majority of edible insects are collected in the wild.”
Culture of insect eating
Entomophagy, the art and culture of eating insects, is a tradition that goes back at least 4,000 years. Today, people in about 115 nations from six continents (excluding Antarctica) eat bugs, according to Yupa Hanboonsong, an associate professor in entomology at Khon Kaen University in Thailand. 
Almost 1,700 edible insect species have been recorded with 500 varieties in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the 2013 FAO report. But over time, many edible insect populations have declined due to several anthropogenic factors, including overharvesting, pollution and wildfires. Moreover, “climate change will likely affect the distribution and availability of edible insects in ways that are still relatively unknown.” 
Limited supply, combined with seasonal availability, has resulted in increased time required to harvest edible insects in the wild. This puts a lot of strain on people who collect them, particularly on women who are preoccupied with other tasks, including running the household and other livelihood activities, says Weigel.
Such challenges have contributed to the growth of insect farming, which in South-East Asia started around 15 years ago, Hanboonsong tells SciDev.Net. Today, Thailand leads the world in the practice and is one of the few countries where the consumption of insects is increasing rapidly. From Thailand, insect farming has spread to neighbouring countries, including Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Aside from the nutritional benefits, insect farming also puts less stress on the environment. While livestock rearing accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (more than what the transport sector contributes), insects that can be consumed, such as crickets, locusts and mealworm larvae, emit less greenhouse gases than pigs and beef cattle by a factor of about 100, according to small-scale experiments included in the 2013 FAO report. And farmers do not use antibiotics or growth hormones when farming insects.
Feeds pushing prices up
In Laos, however, cricket farming can be costly and could dampen interest once financial support from NGOs dries up. This is because most of the farmers import chicken feed from Thailand, the biggest cost in cricket farming.
Still, the practice shows signs of sustained growth. After the FAO wrapped up a four-year edible insect project earlier this year, researchers kept tabs on the farmers they helped train around Vientiane.
Patrick Durst, a senior FAO official who worked on the project, tells SciDev.Net that while many have since stopped insect farming, “there are quite a lot of farmers who have transferred their knowledge over and taught others how to do insect farming.”
“For me, this is very encouraging,” he adds.
Durst sees the future of edible insects in the private sector who will either buy products from existing farmers in South-East Asia or who will create their own production and farming facilities in the region and abroad. He already receives inquiries several times a week from parties interested in exporting insect-based flour to Europe, particularly the Netherlands where demand for insects is quickly growing.
A few weeks ago, the Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo announced that it will start carrying edible insect products while Bitty Foods, a US-based start-up, already produces baked goods using flour made from ground-up crickets. 
Despite the growing interest, it remains to be seen whether insect farming will grow beyond novelty and into global commercial scale. A lot will depend whether people will accept them as viable food alternative.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.
References Food and Agriculture Organization Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security (FAO Forestry Paper 171, 2013)
 Food and Agriculture Organization Stories from the field: Fighting malnutrition in Lao PDR (FAO, accessed 19 November 2014)
 Yupa Hanboonsong Farming insects for food in Thailand (Entomology Division Faculty of Agriculture, Khon Kaen University, accessed 19 November 2014)
 Public Radio International A Dutch supermarket is bring edible insects into the mainstream (PRI, 3 November 2014)