Thailand's silk industry has successfully developed a new eco-friendly material called Eri silk from cassava-fed silkworms.
Unlike traditional Thai silk derived from silkworms that eat mulberry leaves, Eri silkworms feed on cassava and castor leaves.
"Eri silk is produced by wild silkworms that originated in northeastern India. They were first brought to Thailand about 40 years ago," said Prof Tipvadee Attathom.
They normally feed on castor leaves, but Thai cassava farmers later fed them cassava leaves, which are abundant in many parts of the country.
Normally, cassava root is used to process animal feed as well as in the ethanol industry, but the leaves are discarded because they worthless.
But Prof Tipvadee saw that the leaves could be used to cultivate silkworms.
This realisation led to a research project by Kasetsart University's entomology department at the Kamphaeng Saen campus in Nakhon Pathom province.
"My inspiration to do this research came about because I needed to help both cassava farmers gain more income and time with their family and make the best use of the cassava plant, which is a major crop in Thailand," said Prof Tipvadee.
She said the humid atmosphere of the North and the northern Central Plains, especially Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Uthai Thani and Nakhon Sawan provinces, are better suited to raising Eri silkworms than are other regions.
The Eri silk project has created new knowledge about integrating the supply chain - from raising the Eri silkworms to spinning and weaving to the finished products.
There are now 35 Eri silk farm groups participating in the project as well as several textile firms.
"We've joined hands with Spun Silk World Co to develop Eri silk yarn to meet eco-product standards such as the Peace Silk trademark," said Prof Tipvadee.
She said the cocoon collection process allows silkworms to leave their cocoons harmlessly.
Eri yarn has a special non-glossy texture, is lightweight and does not wrinkle easily so dry-cleaning is not a must - qualities that have made the new fabric popular worldwide, especially in Europe and Japan.
"Besides creating a new product for the Thai textile industry, we need to introduce it to the market, as it will not only benefit the agricultural sector but also boost the fashion and textile industries in the long term," said Prof Tipvadee.
The Eri silk project is among 16 that received a 2012 award from the Thailand Research Fund (TRF).
TRF director Sawasd Tantaratana said the awards are aimed at encouraging more research to develop the country by encouraging not only researchers but also villagers and communities to come up with innovative projects.
"Thailand lags in technology development as well as in innovation, and this prevents it from competing with other countries that have lower labour costs," he said.
"So it's essential to accelerate research and development activities while at the same time strengthening communities."
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Writer: Yotsawadee Jarungjirakiat