Inside the edible insect farming industry in Malaysia for alternative protein

While insect consumption is not too foreign to a concept in some of our local communities (sago cue worms), they are more of a delicacy than a standard we are moving towards for a more sustainable planet.

With the growing demand for food in addition to how harsh farming is for the environment, protein derived from insects has emerged as a possible solution to kill two birds with one stone.

Raising edible insects is still a relatively new concept, and we decided to interview 3 local insect breeding startups about what the industry looks like so far in Malaysia:

  • Kevin Wu, Ento, breeding cricket larvae and black soldier fly (BSF) for human consumption
  • Sio, Life Origin, BSF larvae breeding for animal feed
  • Jeff, Worming Up, BSF larvae rearing for animal feed

What is insect breeding?

Just like cattle, you can breed, breed, feed, slaughter, and sell insects just like you would with cows, chickens, pigs, and the like.

Raising insects to consume their by-products is common. For example, we already operate Kelulut (without sting) bees for their honey. Usually, insects are bred for honey, silk, resin, etc.

But there is not yet too much breeding of edible insects. In Malaysia, Ento is the only startup to date that cultivates insects specifically for human consumption, while most other startups do so for animal feed.

How are insects raised and harvested?

Different insects require different types of breeding methods. For Ento, they raise their crickets in egg cartons and in a room.

Jeff and Sio raise their larvae in a controlled environment with cages in greenhouses that have bushes and trees to mimic their natural living environment. Adult flies can then roam freely, closer to traditional breeding than crickets.

Raising the larvae in a greenhouse / Image credit: Worming Up

“However, they do not interact with the natural environment. The adult fly also has a short lifespan and is a non-pest species unlike a house fly, ”said Jeff.

The advantage of breeding 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 cricket farming here cheaper.

BSFs are also commonly found in tropical climates like ours. Therefore, these insects do not interrupt other surrounding ecosystems during their breeding because they do not interact with the flora and fauna outside.

When it is too cold for the crickets, they go into hibernation mode. So Kevin freezes them for harvest and compares this method to that of a person dying in his sleep.

Freezing is also how Jeff harvests his larvae. Sio, meanwhile, uses instant heat treatment to kill its larvae.

How crickets are raised / Image credit: Ento

Why aren’t there too many startups breeding insects for human consumption?

Let’s face it – most of us don’t think of insects just as an acquired taste, but also an acquired visual like a meal. Dead or alive, putting an insect in your mouth is not an easy thing to do for those of us who grew up in cushy urban areas.

And even if you powder them, meat lovers sensitive to the distinct textures and flavors of their favorite rib eye, wagyus, and shanks won’t be the most receptive to this more durable substitute.

In Malaysia at least, there are more insect breeders for animal feed than for human consumption, as the demand for them, as you would expect, is still quite low.

Sio shared that with so many choices of meats and vegetables on the market, convincing Malaysians to consume insect protein is an enduring challenge.

“Setting up food grade production for insect protein could be very costly and certification compliance is a big challenge. With less demand and high investment, this is why most insect breeders continue to cultivate for animal feed and [for] the use of fertilizers, ”he added.

Raising insects for animal feed also has a lower entry point, Jeff said. Because if we raised insects for human consumption or for their medicinal value, it would cost more in R&D in addition to requiring food classification, which is a higher entry point.

“To produce insects safe for human consumption, you really have to take into account food safety control because you cannot feed the insect with food waste and you have to handle uncontaminated food surpluses with care”, Jeff said.

This is why Sio and Jeff are raising BSF larvae for waste management and animal feed to solve food and agricultural waste problems.

Dried larvae (left) and insect compost / Image credit: Worming Up

What Kinds of Insects Can You Eat? More importantly, how do they taste…?

Kevin believes crickets taste more accessible for human consumption because they have one of the more neutral tasting profiles, making them the most entry-level insect protein for beginners.

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 will also taste sweeter.

Different types of insects can also taste like soft-shell crab, salted bananas, bacon, pistachio, popcorn, mashed potatoes, cinnamon, mushrooms, and even chicken. It seems to suit adventurous eaters who are big on texture.

My colleague who has eaten both crickets and BSF larvae much prefer the latter, as it has more of a shrimp flavor and has fewer crunchy parts than a cricket. (Plus, the larvae don’t have obvious faces to look at when you bring them to your mouth.)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO), there are over 2,000 species of insects safe for human consumption such as locusts, mealworm larvae, grasshoppers, grasshoppers, scorpions, moths, beetles, termites, etc.

You can eat insects as a whole (legs, wings, whatever attached to them), as a grain or paste (cricket sambal, anyone?), Etc. If you want ideas, Ento has turned crickets into meatballs, bread, granola, etc. .

Some Ento products / Image credit: Ento

Legislation surrounding the breeding of edible insects in Malaysia

“Currently there are no specific insect regulations in Malaysia. But if we’re doing something for human consumption, we’ll just follow food safety and food standard protocols, ”explained Kevin.

What they do at Ento is pretty much the same as what you would expect from other F&B companies with their products – have their products tested for nutrition and safety, and list the nutrient profile on their packaging.

Kevin noted that other countries are starting to establish insect protein regulations, and Sio is excited to have these policies and regulations as well. He believes that safety and quality are the keys to moving the insect breeding industry forward, especially for human consumption.

At the moment, there is only legislation regarding pest control on insects in Malaysia. Legislation aside, edible insect breeders should be concerned about getting halal certification, especially if they are trying to cater to the Muslim market.

Determining if something is halal also depends on the school of Islamic thought one follows.

“Specifically, crickets and larvae, to my knowledge, are considered halal by the Indonesian Islamic council. Although JAKIM has not yet had an opinion on it, I believe that as long as a handful of Islamic councils consider it to be halal, it is safe for human consumption in the Muslim market, ”said Kevin at Vulcan Post.

The cost of starting an insect farm

Insect breeders take several factors into account when starting out:

  • Whether you grow for human consumption or for animal feed, or others
  • The scale of your operation, whether manual or mechanical
  • Whether you are using new materials or old / recyclable materials

Jeff said the estimated cost would be around RM200-1,000 for a home farm and RM 5,000-50,000 for a small-scale farm.

Would you associate your meals differently with these? / Image credit: Ento

“The initial capital is not high for insect breeding. Anyone who wants to do this should start with small amounts before moving on to a larger scale. Basic tools and would only cost a few hundred Ringgit, ”Sio added.

There are also local startups providing agricultural technology for insect breeding like Protenga, which offers smart insect breeding solutions through technology.

Respondents agreed on one thing the government should be more actively involved in in the growth of this industry.

“We are one of the best places for insect breeding thanks to our optimal tropical climate for insect breeding. It could one day become a mainstay of the agricultural industry [with a] strong export potential to generate income, ”says Sio.

In line with its beliefs, the Malaysian edible insect industry is also expected to reach US $ 28 million (RM 116 million) by 2023, so we may see more edible insect-focused startups popping up in time. .

  • You can read more about Ento here, Life Origin here, and Worming Up here.
  • You can read other articles on insect breeding that we have written here..

Featured Image Credit: Kevin Wu, founder of Ento and Jeff Wee, founder of Worming Up

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