Characters in the movie [Snowpiercer], released in 2013, eat protein blocks. The main ingredient of the protein block is, surprisingly, cockroaches. Just like they ate cockroaches as food in the movie, we will be able to discover some foods made with insects in the near future. Indeed, insects are already appearing in various forms of industry in different aspects of our lives. Also, the South Korea government is speeding up this change by designating Sept. 7 as “Insect day.” The Argus is going to present the insect industry of today, analyze why it is developing, and discuss its limitations.
- Phenomenon: Various dishes using edible insects
The most familiar edible insect to Koreans is the silkworm “beondegi(pupa).” Koreans make pupa soup or stir-fried pupa, and enjoy them as snacks or side dishes for drinks. Hence, we can find tinned pupa in markets quite easily.
Recently, in the Korean edible insect market, there are increasingly more dishes using insect powder that reduce customers’ repulsion compared to dishes using whole insects. Among various edible insects, mealworms are frequently produced and sold as powder in markets. There is cicada larva powder and cricket powder, too. Insect powder use is diverse used in tea bags and even pill.
The ways to make food using insect powder, as opposed to eating the powder directly, have also developed. In the city of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, there is a restaurant that develops and sells “Sundae Gukbap (Korean sausage and rice soup)” using mealworm powder. Also, there is an online market, “Edible Bug,” which sells insect cookie and insect energy bars. Ryu Boa, a leader of the “Edible Bug,” commerce team, said, “We are working to combine edible insects with familiar foods such as cookies and milk tea and to show customers that insects also can be foods. We are using various methods to approach customers in a friendly manner by publishing information about edible insects on blogs or Instagram.”
- Reason: Nutritional value and superior efficiency
The most well-known reason that insects can be food for the future is because of insects’ nutritional value. According to the Rural Development Administration (RDA) National Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ (NAAS) research, the protein in 100 grams of insects is 2.5 times to 3 times higher than that in the same amount of meat. Furthermore, the amount of unsaturated fatty acids in 100 grams of insects is 1.5 times to 4 times higher than that in same amount of meat. The chitin in insect epidermis contains vitamins and minerals such as fiber, calcium and iron.
In the edible insect industry, not only the nutritional aspects of insects, but also the efficiency that farmers who are or will be raising insects as livestock cannot be ignored. Cows, one of the typical livestock, can be used for food after about 30 months, whereas insects can be used for food after three weeks to three months. Insects also show a difference with other livestocks in reproductive rates and growth duration. Cows’ gestation period is 270~290 days and give birth to only one calf at a time, however insects hatch out in one week, become imagoes in 110~145 days, and lay 300~400 eggs at a time.
Moreover, insects have another strong point other than fecundity and efficiency. According to Korea Edible Insect Laboratory(KEIL), to produce 100 grams of meat, cows cost 38 times more land, 23 times more water, and 12 times more fodder than edible crickets. Thus, the cost-effectiveness of the edible insect industry is far better than that of dairy farming. Insects get a lot of attention as a way to reduce the farmers’ burden, because they show efficient differences in terms of growth period and cost compared to conventional livestock such as cattle.
- Limitation: Psychological Distance
Despite the benefits of edible insects and insect market expansion, people still tend to be reluctant to use insect as a food. According to a report written by Jeffrey Lockwood, a University of Wyoming professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities, published on 2012, human beings have learned to be afraid of insects, because insects threatened human beings’ safety in history. In ancient times, human used insects’ sting as weapons, and in the middle ages, insects used to carry infectious diseases such as malaria and the plague. Doctor Lockwood argued that because of this relationship between humans and insects, people have learned to detest and try to avoid insects.
Research conducted by Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI) Agricultural Outlook Center also shows people’s psychic distance of insects. According to the research, 21.8 percent of people said the first impression of insects is “harmful and detestable.” Likewise, psychological repulsion becomes a barrier to the high potential of insects as food.
To overcome this problem, the RDA recently gave edible insects more friendly names. For example they renamed “darkling ground beetle” to “gosoae.” They also try to develop recipes removing the original shape of insects by using insect powders. However, a lot of people still refuse to see or eat edible insects on the idea of eating “insects,” so it is unclear how much their efforts affect the public to change their mind. And this is an obvious weakness of insects in the edible industry.
- Phenomenon: Local festivals using insects
In the county of Muju, North Jeolla Province, Muju Firefly Festival is held for nine days between late August and early September because, lychnuris rufa (late-firefly) usually start to move around actively. The county of Muju not only benefited from the firefly festival itself but also succeeded in building a positive image of the region. In 2017, 250 thousand tourists visited the firefly festival, and the county of Muju got 1.46 billion won (US$ 1.2 million) through selling agricultural products, region specialties, and foods. Furthermore, they earned 270 million won (US$ 220,768) from programs about fireflies and nature. The county of Muju pronounced that they gained about 52 billion won (US$ 42,5 million) by holding the firefly festival in 2014.
In the county of Hampyeong, South Jeolla Province, a butterfly festival is held for 10 days between late April and early May, aimed at holidays in early May. The butterfly festival enhances the county of Hampyeong’s status, and the International Festival and Events Association (IFEA) named the county of Hampyeong as a worldwide festival city on 2012. The county has become one of the most famous festival sites in Korea, and farmers also benefit by producing “Hampyeong butterfly rice.”
The county of Hampyeong gained 955 million won (US$ 780,866) from the festival tickets on 2019, and also got 1 billion won (US$ 817,327) from various shops and booth rentals, including 40 million won (US$ 328,904) through selling agricultural products and region specialties. According to county’s announcement, they brought in about 30 billion won (US$ 24.6 million) by holding the firefly festival in 2015, so they might get similar economic impacts by renting accommodations income and so on in 2019 too.
- Reason: Regional marketing
The county of Muju’s Firefly Festival is a good example of using a regional specialty. People could find fireflies very often in past. However, the number of fireflies decreased because clean areas which are their habitats have been decreasing. Thus, the Korean government designated the county of Muju as a natural monument in 1982 and started to protect fireflies. The county of Muju holds a festival to highlight the clean image of the region, using the characteristic that fireflies are environmental indicators that measure the cleanness of the natural environment. Muju Firefly Festival gives Koreans a positive impression of the natural environment of the county of Muju since there is no other place where they can see so many fireflies. It also lets people know how beautiful the region is and creates added value by branding local agricultural products like “Muju firefly rice.”
The Hampyeong Butterfly Festival also used such regional marketing. The county of Hampyeong experienced a structural change because young people left the city and rural areas aged due to industrialization before the Butterfly Festival. Plus, the competitiveness of Hampyeong farm products was undermined by the opening of agricultural imports. In order to overcome the hopeless situation, the county of Hampyeong planned to hold the Rape Flower Festival since it blooms a lot in the county of Hampyeong However, it failed to gain a competitiveness over the existing Rape Flower Festival areas. Therefore, the county of Hampyeong held a butterfly festival by airlifting in butterflies from other regions. They chose an insect that can emphasize clean environment like the county of Muju’s fireflies and that could provide children some experience and a lesson in a friendly way. Due to the success of the Butterfly Festival, the county of Hampyeong has been making more than 1 billion won (US$ 827,883) each year by launching the “Butterfly Korean Beef” product that utilize the image of butterflies. Butterflies have literally caused a “butterfly effect.”
- Limitation: Lives used only for business
Insect-based local festivals, such as the Hampyeong Butterfly Festival, are some of the successful local festival cases, but the dark side of it is not that beautiful. Unless it is like the Muju Firefly Festival, which is protected by the state as a natural monument, most local insect festivals do not utilize insects living in their own local ecosystem. For example, since there was no butterfly ecosystem in the county of Hampyeong, they chose to purchase butterflies in bulk from other regions for the festival and then hatched them artificially. In response to this, Kim San-ha, secretary-general of the Biodiversity Foundation said, “Late April to early May, when the Hampyeong Butterfly Festival takes place, is too cold a season to release butterflies outside. However, the eggs were artificially hatched to fit the festival period, and those butterflies usually can not live their life out and die early. This is not respecting the nature of the local ecosystem and insects’ nature at all.”
There are also questions about the direction of the insect festival. Using experience for children as a slogan, the festival’s main feature is letting people catch or touch insects. The process of catching and touching insects can cause injuries like a broken or insect's death, which can backfire and can give the impression to children of the acceptability of disregarding life. Kim San-ha, secretary-general of the foundation, said, “If the experience with insects is educational, it should not harm the insect, and it should focus on observing and exploring insects non-intrusively in their natural state. Focusing on catching insects is not education at all. It is like saying it is educational to go to slaughterhouses and butcher cows and pigs. No one wants to go to the slaughterhouse to educate their children. It is the same with insects. Living creatures are being consumed just for people’s entertainment. Is that not disregard for life?”
- Phenomenon: Eco-friendly farming with insects
Insects also play a role in growing eco-friendly crops. The pollen vectors help the flower’s stamen bind on the pistil’s head to bear fruit, and the natural insects prevent harmful insects from rampaging in farmlands.
Honeybees are the most representative pollen vectors, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations says 71 percent of the world’s top 100 crops’ pollination depends on honeybees. Honeybees are used in the pollination of fruit trees such as apples and pears as well as in fruits cultivated in facilities such as strawberries and melons. Bumblebees are the second most frequently seen pollen vectors in South Korea after honeybees. It is easy for bumblebees to pollinate solanaceae crops such as eggplants because they do not have honey for honeybees to pollinate. According to “The current status and forecast of pollen vector for pollen vector technology diffusion,” announced by the RDA in 2017, the usage rate of pollen vectors in South Korea is 25.8 percent.
The natural enemy of insects acts as a substitute for pesticides in eco-friendly agriculture, removing pests under the food chain of nature. A farm located in the county of Chilgok, North Gyeongsang Province, uses the natural enemies of mites, phytoseiulus persimilis and aphid bees, the natural enemies of aphids, to prevent mites and aphids from degrading their strawberry quality. The North Gyeongsang Province Agricultural Research & Extension Services is carrying out a pilot project for the natural enemy insects with the county of Gunwi, North Gyeongsang Province, and Palm 119, a company of natural enemy insects in 2019. As such, efforts by the government and farmers to produce eco-friendly crops using natural enemy insects continue.
- Reason: Method for both environment and quality
The fertilization rate can be improved in crops, the manpower can be reduced, and the quality of crops can be improved by utilizing pollen vectors. According to the “Effect of Bumblebees in Economic Crops” published by the RDA in 2011, 51.8 percent of apples are produced when farmers pollinate apple trees through the Meo-li-bbul-ga-wi-beols (osmia cornifrons), which is twice as high at 27 percent when compared to a person artificially moving pollen and pollinating them. Yoon Hyung-joo, an insect industry researcher at the RDA, said, “Although it depends on the crop, using pollen vectors generally saves 70 to 90 percent of the labor force compared to artificial pollination. Due to price problems in artificial pollination, Chinese pollen is used a lot, but bees have a greater price stability than the price stability of pollen. Therefore, using pollen vectors rather than artificial pollination is a more stable and affordable way to pollinate with a lower budget.” She also said, “Furthermore, there is a difference in quality. Using pollen vector fertilization, the chances of bearing high commodity value crops increase. For strawberries, 99.9 percent of them are fertilized by bees because that results in fewer deformed fruits in their shapes and colors.”
The Korean government’s strict regulation of eco-friendly farm products and the strengthened detection of pesticides has also affected eco-friendly farming using insects. Since 2010, green certification of new low-pesticides agricultural products has been suspended. And low-pesticides agricultural products, which were previously recognized as eco-friendly before 2016, are no longer eco-friendly. In addition, the Pesticide Permissible Substance List Management System (PLS) was expanded to all agricultural products in 2019 and began to impose strict restrictions on the pesticides used in farm products and the pesticides remaining in crops. “Using natural enemy insects, we can reduce the use of pesticides to protect the environment and ecosystem. Moreover we can easily eliminate harmful insects that are resistant to pesticides,” said Lee Woo-kyung, an action officer at the Agricultural Technology Institute in North Gyeongsang Province, explaining the reason for the pilot project.
- Limitation: Effective but one-off farming
Even though there are studies showing that using pollen vectors and natural enemy insects are great for eco-friendly farming, some farmers still have difficulties using them. According to a survey on the usage of pollen vectors conducted by the RDA in 2016, the use rate of 11 vegetable crops was 59.4 percent, while the usage rate of 15 fruit trees was 9.0 percent. Researcher Yoon Hyung-joo said, “Vegetable crops are usually grown in vinyl greenhouses, and the fertilization period is long, from three to four months, making it easier to use pollen vectors. On the other hand, with fruit trees, the fertilization period is usually 10 to 14 days, so it is difficult to use pollen vectors because the fertilization period is short.” With natural enemy insects, it is the same, the natural enemies of aphids─ladybugs and aphidoletes─are insects with wings. They are temporarily useful when they are used on farmlands as they eat aphids, but they are difficult to retrieve after they have eaten all the aphids, so they can be used only once.
Also, many farms are suffering from the lack of a smooth supply of breeding and from insufficient knowledge on how to use natural insects. Yoon said, “It is very important to use right insects for the right crop when using pollen vectors. Also, you should be familiar with how many insects to use for a given area. If you don’t know these two things well, it’s hard to be efficient.” According to the KREI Department of Agricultural Outlook Center’s fruit sample farm households survey, one-quarter of the farms using natural enemy insects said they did not know which insects were suitable for insect pests, and they lacked information on how to use and manage them. Reflecting this limitation, the area using natural enemy insects for natural crops decreased to 425 hectares in 2017, one-sixth the size from 2010, and the market size also decreased from 20 billion won (US$ 16.6 million) to 5 billion won (US$ 4.1 million). In order to actively utilize natural enemy insects, it is vital to develop and standardize the technology for breeding and preserving natural insects and to supply the technology for dealing with and producing natural insects.
The insect industry has risen as a hot topic, drawing the attention of the government, farmers and the public, Also, it is an industry that is expected to have positive effects in diverse ways. There are still difficulties with commercializing insects, having proper insect festivals that respect life and changing the negative views of insects by the public. But, the insect industry is expected to have a positive impact on our society if we overcome the limitations by improving awareness and systems. Who knows? Maybe our descendants’ best friends will be insects, not dogs.
By Jung Min-yeong and Yoo Chan-heum
Staff Reporters of Global & National Section