By AKEMI KANDA/ Staff Writer
January 21, 2022 at 07:30 JST
Crickets are scurrying over the surface of paper egg cartons in plastic containers set on the shelves of a temperature-controlled greenhouse in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.
For many people, these critters will soon be tasty snacks.
Raising crickets is a relatively new venture for Taiyo Green Energy Co., which generates electricity from solar power and grows vegetables indoors.
Even though insect cultivation fell outside its scope of its normal expertise, the Saitama Prefecture-based company began raising the crickets in 2017 and started shipping them in 2018.
“We are looking to produce a sustainable source of food in Japan,” said Fumihiko Kojin, president of Taiyo Green Energy.
It is one of an increasing number of Japanese businesses getting into edible insect farming, as bugs draw more and more attention as a sustainable food source.
The trend, originally aimed at bringing an “unusual delicacy” to dinner tables, is being buoyed by the lower environmental costs of bug culturing compared to animal husbandry.
According to Ryota Mitsuhashi, a product development official at the Tokyo-based edible bug retailer Takeo, many Japanese companies have recently entered the insect farming business.
“As far as I know, at least 26 corporations, including those scheduled to start culturing from now, are working in the cricket market,” said Mitsuhashi. “In addition, several other firms are engaging in the farming of housefly larvae and silkworms.”
Takeo began selling domestically raised insects in 2019 and bug products from nine farmers are now available at the store. It also started farming migratory locusts on its own in 2019 and started a joint research program with Hirosaki University in 2020.
Larvae of crickets, silkworms and black soldier flies are becoming high-profile food these days. The insects can replace beef, pork and other kinds of meats, which are expected to fall into short supply in the future due to the world’s growing population.
The main advantage of bugs is their smaller impact on the environment. Insects can be cultured efficiently while using much smaller amounts of feed, water and energy than raising animals such as cattle and pigs. On top of that, their protein levels are comparable to animal meat.
Crickets are a major bug species cultivated in Japan. Farmers deliver their products frozen so retailers can boil and dry them to sell them as snacks. Insect producers at times do all the processing on their own, from drying to crushing, so they can use them as raw materials for snacks of their brands.
Takahito Watanabe, an assistant professor of developmental biology at Tokushima University who studies crickets, established his own start-up called Gryllus Inc. in Tokushima Prefecture in 2019.
Gryllus raises crickets bred at its production base in plastic clothing containers. The process takes about a month.
The company has an integrated production system so it can dry and powder them on its own.
In late 2020, Gryllus developed an automated cultivation method that provides food and water, making cultivation less labor intensive. Last summer, it replaced all its feed with wheat bran and other food waste generated within the country.
“Insects are not things to be consumed by only a certain group of people but a new protein source friendlier to the environment,” said Watanabe. “Using domestically produced food that would otherwise be discarded for feed is significant because it will create a new cycle (of reuse).”
SAFETY STANDARDS EYED
But while farming insects is becoming increasingly common, safety and hygiene restrictions have yet to be introduced for the industry.
Currently, it is difficult for officials and experts to get an overall grasp of the emerging businesses, such as under what conditions farmers feed their insects and what kind of food they are given.
A working group from the Council for Public-Private Partnership in Food Technology, created by the farm ministry in 2020, plans to start hashing out regulations for the fledgling industry.
The rules would serve as the guidelines for both the public and private sectors. While the restrictions would not be legally binding, they aim to offer consumers a sense of safety by installing quality-control measures.
“Security will be ensured by culturing insects in proper methods based on scientific evidence,” said Yasuhiro Fujitani, the head of the task force and a senior official at Osaka Prefecture’s Research Institute of Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries. “We will identify possible challenges to forge ahead with consideration.”
The working group is made up of experts who specialize in animal husbandry and farming, as well as officials of corporations involved with the cultivation and sales of insects.
The farm ministry will confirm whether the proposed rules are consistent with laws.
“Countermeasures against infectious diseases, for example, will be necessary for insects, just like precautions taken to prevent livestock from transmitting diseases,” said Yoshiki Matsumoto, an associate professor of zootechnics at Kagawa University, who is a member of the working group.
“Assuring safety for the feed to be provided will also be important. A culture of collecting and eating insects has been well-established in Japan, so experiences in such fields will prove helpful.”
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