Last July, Joneve Murphy left a comfortable post an as in-house farmer at one of Washington, D.C.’s top restaurants to embark on an international tour de farms. While she knows how to grow obscure peppers and microgreens to top elaborate dishes, she had a feeling this wasn’t going to help feed the world, and she was curious about the farming practices that might.
She returned to the states this spring with a taste for bugs—or at least for their farmed potential—and a growing understanding of the best and worst agricultural practices the world over.
During nine months in more than a dozen Asian and European countries, Murphy, 35, stretched her understanding—and ours—of how food is grown, reflecting on her findings via Instagram and a photo-driven blog called “Farmer Seeking Roots.”
Working the fields alongside multi-generational farmers (with some help from Google translate), she learned traditional techniques that could complement modern growing methods. There are, for example, myriad ways to bake a cow-dung cake, used for fuel and fertilizer in India.
She also saw the seedy side of global agriculture in countries where American technologies, such as agro-chemicals, are being exported without the education to use them safely. For that reason, she can’t wait to return.
“Before I left, I was coming at it from a totally different approach than what I walked out with,” she said after returning to the United States this spring. “We’re here worried about GM (genetically modified) food labels. In those countries… they’re total over-spraying and mixing improperly. The farmworkers are way affected.”
Murphy learned plenty at the elbows of seed savers in India, rice harvesters in Bangladesh and rooftop farmers in Singapore, which she’ll use as a consultant on farms. But her experiences with bugs, of the edible variety, best captures the potentials and pitfalls of the many practices she witnessed overseas.
In Northern Laos, for example, small-scale cricket farms are providing a plentiful source of protein that could help locals put a dent in malnutrition —without exposing the population to the potential risk of eating bugs that have been sprayed. In the region outside of Nabong, Murphy worked alongside a nongovernmental organization that was helping Hmong farmers grow the insects, rather than relying on the laborious process of foraging them from the forest.
Hmong children, like those of many developing countries, often experience stunted growth because of a lack of protein in their diets, a void that insects can help fill.
“They should be doing this in every developing nation where they need protein,” Murphy says.
The program in Nabong had just begun when Murphy arrived, and the farmers were harvesting their second crop of crickets. With a few pieces of particle board, empty egg cartons and a screen, all provided by the NGO, the 4-by-8-foot “farms” could produce as much as 15 pounds of crickets each cycle, “a lot more than you would expect,” Murphy says.
The crickets can grow from eggs in just 45 days, faster than many vegetable crops, and they provide more available protein per ounce than beef. With more crickets at their disposal, locals had begun adding them to otherwise nutrient deficient bamboo shoot soups and other meals for a protein boost. (See our video below on the many benefits of bug eating.)
The crickets are cheap, too, if a bit tricky to grow.
When the farmers hear them chirping their mating call, it’s time to harvest the adult crickets and let the next batch of eggs grow in their wake. If the adults stay in the boxes too long, they will eat their own eggs. So will lizards and other critters if they get in.
Though only eight families were involved in the NGO’s pilot project, Murphy says another six had picked up the practice and started farming their own crickets by the time she left.
Insects like crickets and grasshoppers are widely consumed in countries like Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, where locals lack the cultural “ick factor” (see Bug Off: Why Insect Eating is More Gimmick Than Reality) that has made bug-based products more of a fringe product in the U.S.
Wandering through public markets in these countries, Murphy learned that insects, like vegetables, have their seasons. Grasshoppers—Murphy’s new favorite fried snack—hit the markets with the rice harvest, which pushes them out of the fields and makes collection easier. One of the hosts Murphy stayed with in Cambodia broke the news that she had just missed the season for stinkbugs (darn!).
Farming critters like crickets and ants is growing as an alternative to gathering, which makes them not only more available, but likely also safer to consume.
There were concerns among locals in Laos, for example, that insects sold pre-cooked at the markets were harvested with the help of pesticides.
Murphy says she didn’t witness these practices, but saw enough other instances to give her pause about pesticide use in countries where farmers are new to the technologies. In Myanmar, Bangladesh and Vietnam, she saw farmers mixing chemicals from unlabeled bottles and spraying them on their crops while wearing shorts.
In many of these countries, farmers received advice about these chemicals, when to use them and how much, from the people who were selling them, but they often refilled their own unlabeled bottles, and that bothered Murphy. She plans to return overseas later this year to help educate these farmers on best practices, like integrated pest management that considers a chemical’s impact on pollinators and the environment as well as on pests. As a consultant, she plans to offer her services on a sliding scale, “as they can afford it.”
Maybe next time she’ll work up the courage to eat that giant spider she bought from a market in Cambodia. Or, perhaps, a farmed version would be more appetizing.