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Kiss of death in the cactus garden January 4th, 2015 by

It may be a slight turn off to learn that the sexy red color in lipstick comes from squished bugs, called cochineal. But wait, it gets worse.

Cochineal live on the prickly pear which is native to the Americas. Cochineal was grown in ancient times in Mexico and Peru, but much less so in Bolivia.

The soft-bodied cochineal or scale insects are so full of crimson juice that the insects look like berries, covered with a delicate white dust. The female cochineal barely moves during its lifetime, clinging like a tick to the leaves of the prickly pear. The needles of the cactus no doubt offer some protection from birds and other insectivores.

The colonial Mexicans dried the cochineal (like raisins) and exported them to Europe, to dye the red coats of the British army, among other gear. Synthetic dyes invented in the 19th century ended the cochineal trade in Mexico, but it lingered in Peru. Then in the late 20th century natural dyes became fashionable, and were now favored for food, cosmetics, and fabrics. Peruvian cochineal was back in business.

In South America, people love the prickly pear fruit, carefully peeled that is. The thick skin is full of nearly invisible hair-like thorns, called qhepu, in the native Quechua language, which are a pain to get out of your poor fingertips if you harvest the fruit badly.

One of my elderly relatives remembers a man he used to know, who would vanish when the prickly pear fruit came into season, living in the cactus groves and eating nothing but their fruit for weeks.

Then the party ended. From about 1987, when dried cochineal was selling for over $100 a kilo, NGOs encouraged farmers in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to raise the insect on local prickly pear stands, to harvest the cochineal and sell them for a profit. The prickly pear was native to Bolivia, but the cochineal was uncommon.

But by the 1990s the price of cochineal soon tumbled to as low as $17. The bugs were not worth the trouble to harvest, which was a pity, because by then they were everywhere. People had taken the cochineal to new areas that had been free of it. The cochineal then escaped from the cactus gardens where they were seeded, and became a pest of prickly pear in the valleys of Bolivia. Prickly pear cactus loses much of its fruit when bugs sip away its sap. We still eat some of the delicious fruit in Bolivia, but not as much as before.

Smallholder farmers tried getting rid of the cochineal with insecticide, but the cactus leaves are covered with a thick layer of wax, and the insecticide slips right off.

The cochineal market is a roller coaster. Only a few hundred tons of the dried bugs are sold worldwide. A bumper crop in Peru can swamp the market. If manufacturers shy away from chemicals, the demand for natural colors can soar. Or prices can fall when industry returns to synthetic dyes. Bolivian cochineal was rarely exported at all, apparently never able to compete with the established producers in Peru, which exports its entire production.

Development is full of stories of magic species that were going to solve all the poor’s problems: bamboo, gliricidia, and tilapia, among a few. Developers also hold onto some magic ideas that just won’t go away. One cherished myth is that smallholder poverty can be solved by exporting a commodity which they have never even grown before. The moral of the story is: start small; grow something you can eat and sell on the local market, before you try to export it. It would have been better to encourage families to grow the cactus for its fruit, which is good to eat and good to sell. After all, you can’t have your cochineal and eat your cactus fruit too.

Scientific names:

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)

Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.)


The NGOs that introduced cochineal to Cochabamba included Fepade (Fundación para el Desarrollo) and Tukuypaj (“for everyone”) and the Bolivian Export Foundation, with funding from the World Bank and the Dutch Government.

Six-legged livestock April 12th, 2014 by

When arriving on Mr Sawart Jaimetta’s farm in northeast Thailand, the first thing I notice are the many tools and parts of equipment that lay around the yard. Mr Sawart likes to fix most things himself and does not like to throw away things; one never knows when something will come in handy.

Various one-meter high speakers stand next to his house and Mr Sawart is busy unloading sound equipment from his pick-up truck. The night before he had played DJ at a local party. Close to the speakers, my eyes fall on some unfamiliar looking, plywood boxes that are neatly closed with blue mosquito screen. We soon learn that Mr Sawart and his sister are rearing crickets to sell as food at the market. They have 12 boxes in three different places around the farm house. Space is a commodity many farmers manage well.

Cricket farming in Thailand started in 1998 (Hanboonsong et al, 2013). The technology was developed by entomologists at Khon Kaen University and then disseminated to farmers across the northeast. Currently about 20,000 farmers produce 7,500 tonnes of crickets per year, meaning each farmer rears on average 375 kilograms of crickets per year or about one kilogram per day. Mr Sawart sells his crickets at 120 Baht (2.70 Euro) per kilogram. From egg to adult takes about 40 days, so rearing crickets gives him a quick turn over.

Many farmers in Thailand initially reared local field crickets, but then shifted to the domestic cricket Acheta domesticus imported from Europe and the USA. The knowledge farmers had gained on rearing local crickets could be applied to the new species. As in selecting crop varieties, a main reason for farmers to shift to another variety is taste. In this case, Thai consumers preferred the delightfully crunchy domestic cricket more than the local species.

Not even insects are safe from pests. The 1.2 x 2.4 x 0.6 meter plywood boxes are raised from the floor by four short wooden legs. Mr Sawart protects the wooden legs from rotting by putting them in plastic bottles cut in half. By placing the legs in small basins of water, ants are no longer able to crawl up the wooden legs and eat the crickets. Creative solutions for day to day problems.

As the crickets like to live in hollow, dark spaces, cardboard egg trays are placed one next to the other on the bottom of the cricket rearing boxes. Different colourful, plastic trays are placed on them. The ones filled with coconut fibre are used for egg-laying. Other trays contain concentrate feed for the early stages. Drinking trays have pebbles, so the insect will not drown in them. Mr Sawart gives banana stems to the adults.

Like many innovative farmers, Mr Sawart is eager to learn about new technologies and has found a way to fit it in with his other farming enterprises. While he earns his living mainly from cassava and rice, he likes rearing crickets, because it requires little labour and gives quick cash.

Reference cited

Hanboonsong, Y., Jamjanya, T. & Durst, P.B. 2013. Six-legged livestock: edible insect farming, collection and marketing in Thailand. FAO, Rome, 57 pp. Download manual.

For more news and information on edible insects, visit the FAO website Insects for Food and Feed.

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