KUNYANG - Li Jinsui is an ambitious man. He invested 250,000 euros of his own money in this insect factory, sitting amidst the hills of Kunyang, on the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan. With seven patents, production officially kicked off in 2009.
Since then, no visitor comes by without being offered a plate of bamboo worms, one of the dishes in his catalogue. Yunnan Insect Biotechnologies also offers dried larvae, protein powder from insect exoskeletons and actual insects for human and animal consumption.
Li could be a pioneer. Experts from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are increasingly looking to entomophagy as a substitute for meat and fish but also as a cheaper alternative to animal feed, especially in fish farms.
The nutritional qualities of insects (protein, minerals…) are quite high. They also have a much better yield than cattle and need much less water. Currently, 70% of farmland around the world and 9% of freshwater are used for animal farming, which emits 18% of greenhouse gases.
After 12 years of preparation, Li finally got the green light from local authorities to start his factory. He is at the forefront of an industry that is in its infant stage in China. “The market is ready,” says the 45-year-old. “We have a protein shortage in this country. We have to import fish from Chile or Peru. As humans, we don’t have enough information yet on the potential of insects as a source of nutrition.”
After some research, he focused on one species: the housefly. Flies are everywhere; they don’t harm the environment, are edible and can even be used in the pharmaceutical industry. Chitin, the main component of the exoskeletons of arthropods such as crustaceans and insects, can help build up the immune system.
Though Li is a pioneer, he already has rivals. But he says they wouldn’t be able to step up their production if a mass market emerged. “Technologically speaking, they are stuck in the 1970s; they only produce 50 to 100kg a day. They won’t be able to take it to the next level.”
Li says he can deliver about 150kg of maggots a day, but he says “step three” of the development of his factory will bring that figure to 10 tons a day by 2015.
As he walks into a room filled with two million flies, he admits his research isn’t finished yet. He would like to be able to feed flies with rice. Right now, they feed on animal feces, which makes them unfit for human consumption.
Another challenge awaits Li: convincing consumers to eat food that still causes more disgust than envy. Though the Chinese have warmed up to bamboo worms, maggots are another story. “Seeing them on your plate triggers a psychological reluctance that is hard to overcome,” he says. To get past that, Li believes that it is necessary to invest in education and convince people of the nutritional value of insects.
Insects have always been part of the culinary tradition of this province and its many minorities. In Mangshi, a small town near the border with Myanmar, you can buy a wasp nest for 20 euros a pound. You then have to pull the live larvae out of the nest one by one to fry them in a wok.
“Times are tough for people in this region, they can’t all afford to buy beef. Pigs need to be fed for two years and that, for them, is a long time and it’s expensive,” says Guo Yunjiao, a biology professor at the insect research department of the local university. He teaches residents of nearby villages how to develop sustainable insect farms. Instead of just burning the wasp nest and killing the queen in the process, Guo teaches villagers the technique of smoking them out.
With the price of wasp larvae on the rise, in the past five or six years, many villagers from the plains have turned to insect farming. Guo says he received thousands of letters and emails after a report on his technique aired on national TV.
Li is happy to see villagers from remote regions keeping traditions alive. But he says it’s about time China turned to a large-scale industrial production of insects. There are more than 200 edible species but only a handful can be farmed on a small scale and catching them in their natural habitat requires a big workforce.
Li has decided to open more factories and develop new techniques on the 27 hectares of land he bought. If one day, eating insects becomes mainstream, Li believes he could become the industry’s world leader and ensure a 60% return on investment.