What is the best way to raise and cook crickets, mealworms, palm weevils and weaver ants? A research and demonstration site in Laos aims to find out, as part of a push to provide food security in the country.
Laotian farmers will be taught how to rear and process the insects, in the hope of turning a food source that is largely foraged into one that is farmed instead.
Food insecurity is widespread in Laos, and sustainable insect farming will provide income for farmers as well as food, according to the site's sponsor, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Insects are just as nutritious as cattle and poultry, according to FAO, and farming them could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, say researchers at Waegineng University in Netherlands.
The demonstration site, to be launched this month (28–30 March) at the National University of Laos in Vientiane, will research the best ways of raising and cooking crickets, mealworms, palm weevils and weaver ants.
Approximately 95 per cent of Laotians already eat insects, according to the FAO, and the practice is culturally acceptable.
"Many people in developing countries already eat insects, but they usually collect them from the wild," said Yupa Hanboonsong, the FAO's chief technical officer for the edible-insect project and entomology professor at Khon Kaen University in Thailand.
"It would be better if they grew insects in their gardens."
But there are many gaps in agricultural knowledge of how best to farm them that the research will attempt to address.
Research will focus on reducing production costs, assessing nutritional content and developing food-safety standards, Hanboonsong told SciDev.Net, noting that researchers will strike a balance between cooking insects and preserving taste.
The researchers will also explore ways of grinding insects into baking powder, she said, because some consumers "don't like to see the legs" of the insects they eat.
Establishing food safety guidelines would help Laotians sell their insects both domestically and abroad, Hanboonsong said, adding that insects are already sold commercially in Thailand.
Growing insects on 20 square metres of land could net a Laotian farmer US$100 per month, said Krilert Tawekul, professor of sustainable agriculture and food security at Khon Kaen University. And insects require much less start-up investment than chickens or cows, he added.
Tawekul said that rearing insects is a "simple technology" that should be promoted in other developing countries. Khon Kaen University will host 20 African agricultural experts for a five-week study tour of Thai insect farms this spring.