Good Earth

Lack of regulations still bugging the edible insect industry

12:05 SGT October 16, 2017
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The edible insect industry needs clearer regulations as well as other support to get more reach.

Insects as food may still be unappetizing to most people, but the practice of entomophagy, or consumption of insects by humans, has been around for a long time.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), edible insects have been supplementing diets of approximately two billion people and have always been a part of the human diet predominately in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

While entomophagy remains low key, insect-based food products are already available commercially. Insects are now key ingredients in pasta, energy bars, cookies and more. Recently, a new organization was formed to further promote insects as nutritious food sources in South-east Asia.

There is not an insect category in the HS code for international trade, and customs agencies all over the world do not know how to deal with edible insects or what duty is applicable.

The ASEAN Food and Feed Insects Association (AFFIA) has been created to educate people on edible insects used as a form of feed and food while advocating for the edible insect business in general.

Massimo Reverberi, AFFIA’s president, tells Foodbiz Asia that AFFIA is both an association and a non-profit organization. “Farming and processing insects is a business, but it is also a way to save the planet and live healthier,” he explains.

Reverberi points out that there are currently three different sub-markets for edible insects in the region. The first, he notes, is farming and selling insects as fried street food — a tradition in many provinces in Southeast Asia and China.

The second is farming insects as feed for animals. While this practice has also been done for a long time, it is picking up only now, thanks to the sustainability and the convenience of insect protein as a food source, Reverberi says.

“These two ways of using insects are large and consolidated, but not really tracked by governments. Therefore, there are no official statistics,” he adds.

The third is considered a new trend — processing insects into packaged food. Reverberi says this sector is still small, but very promising.

This trend is moving from whole dried packaged insects to food products that are integrating insects as one of the ingredients, usually in powder form. Reverberi cites products from his company Busolutely — Cricket Pasta and ProPro cricket energy bars — as examples of this trend. Nutrition-wise, edible insects provide protein, vitamins, minerals (iron and potassium), fibres and Omega-3.

“There are more than 30 cricket energy bar brands in western countries,” Reverberi says. “In California, USA, Chirps produces snacks with cricket powder. There are cookies and sweets too. I predict that many more products containing insect powders will be released in the next couple months.”

Insects as food may still be unappetizing to most people, but the practice of entomophagy, or consumption of insects by humans, has been around for a long time.

Aside from providing nutrients, raising insects for food is also more environmentally-friendly. FAO reveals benefits such as insects having high feed conversion efficiency because they are cold-blooded — thus feed-tomeat conversion rates for insects as compared to livestock are lower (depending on the class of the animal and the production practices used).

On average, FAO says insects can convert 2kg of feed into 1kg of insect mass, whereas cattle requires 8kg of feed to produce 1kg of body weight gain.

Reverberi says silkworms, for example, are a bypass product of the silk industry and a perfect example of circular economy. “They feed only on mulberry leaves, do not need water, and convert feed into body mass pretty well,” he says. “Crickets need 10 times less feed than cows for the same amount of meat.”

In Asia, insects are often reared with a micro-farming model, Reverberi reveals. “This is where farmers work in their free time, in their backyard and for extra income.”

Despite being on a small scale and traditional, this model is very effective and it is in place in both China for silkworms and Thailand for crickets, he adds. “This is the agricultural ‘side’ of insects. Then, there is the processing side, for example, drying and grinding — a factory business and is relatively new.”

Reverberi says in most of the cases, producers are not large companies, but they promote edible insects as much as they can with their limited resources.

Awareness may be growing, but at the regulatory level there is still a lot to do. “There is not an insect category in the HS (Harmonized System) code for international trade, and customs agencies all over the world do not know how to deal with edible insects or what duty is applicable,” Reverberi declares.

“Food agencies do not always take a position about edible insects — deepening the problem of working in a grey area. Also, food laws sometimes do not list insects as food and this may be an obstacle when you want to make a processed, packaged food to be sold on the shelves of supermarkets.”

He says there is a need for clearer regulations and more support from government agencies. “However, I hope that food distributors, importers and retailers will also understand the benefits — sustainability, nutritional values and good taste of farmed edible insects, and will consider having the products on the shelves as something more than business as usual,” Reverberi explains.

“It is also a matter of social responsibility.”