Eating Insects: Rich with protein and controversy?

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The consumption of insects, both as food for humans and industrial feed for animals has recently arisen as a topic of controversy. Insects have smaller body sizes, require less food, and, controversially, may not experience the same kind of suffering that animals with larger body sizes, more developed nervous systems, and higher caloric needs experience. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also claims that, relative to pigs and cattle, insects emit far fewer greenhouse gases and require vastly less water and land. Simultaneously, plant-based diets are growing in popularity on account of increase resource consciousness.

Here’s the big question: does eating insects ethically and sustainably solve any of the issues facing our growing, global population? Or should we be planning to opt for plant-based diets?

Scientists, nutritionists, and animal advocates have contrasting opinions on the the human consumption of insects and whether we should be using insects to feed the animal agriculture industry or not.  In 2014, James McWilliams, a “longtime vegan and vegan advocate,” wrote in the Huffington Post that we should choose to consume insects instead of a plant-based diet, because, he argues, it involves less suffering. McWilliams states that the “agricultural reality that we too often ignore” is that an “untold number of sentient animals” are killed (insects, small mammals, and birds) in the process of growing and harvesting crops, the foundation of a plant-based diet. However, in his assessment, McWilliams may have missed another reality completely.

In the animal agriculture industry, especially in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), a large amount of land, water, and feed must be dedicated to keeping up the space requirements and caloric needs of animals rapidly grown to slaughter for human consumption. Additionally, the CDC reports that CAFOs are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas production and have a significant impact on the water and air quality of surrounding communities. If we are concerned with the suffering of animals, regardless of species, we should acknowledge that CAFOs result in three types of suffering:

1) The suffering that farmed animals experience as they grow and are slaughtered;

2) The suffering that human animals experience in surrounding communities due to air pollution & groundwater runoff; and

3) The suffering that wild animals indirectly experience, i.e. the insects and other animals that are killed or otherwise harmed in the production of feed for farmed animals.

(Not to even mention the humans whose coronary systems suffer due to their lifetime consumption of animal products.)

The question that still arises is whether or not insects even experience suffering at all? Or, if we assume that they do, is it qualitatively the same kind of suffering that larger animals, with potentially more developed nervous systems, experience? Is it therefore as deserving of equal moral consideration as the suffering of other species, like dogs or pigs?

McWilliams argues that the suffering of insects is not likely. He names a number of entomologists that are convinced that insects do not experience suffering. For example, Robert Elwood, professor of the biological sciences at Queens University in Belfast, states that he is “absolutely convinced that animals do not feel pain.” In contrast, Jeffrey Lockwood, an entomologist who has written about the possibility of insect suffering, asks students to anesthetize insects before using them for experiments. Overall, the question of whether insects suffer remains an incomplete area of research and wildly controversial.

(As of February 2019, Wild Animal Initiative is currently conducting research on insect sentience and humane insecticides. Learn more about that project and follow our work here.)

However, the controversy of the issue may be moot. As Simon Knutsson writes in 2016, the high number of individuals required per meal and the varied ways they are killed that “could plausibly cause them much suffering,” such as “boiling, roasting, freeze-drying, or sun-drying,” leads to the likely conclusion that we should choose a plant-based diet over using insects as food and/or feed for animals.

The answer to our question could boil down to this: If we consider that it may be possible that insects experience suffering, even with an extremely low probability, we still ought to place moral value on their suffering. The sheer scale of insects killed, both in the feed production process supplying CAFOs, and in the potential use of them as food for human consumption, means that if they suffer, humans would be collectively responsible for massive, genocidal levels of suffering orders of magnitude beyond what farmed or human animals experience in their lifetimes.

Persis Eskander, former director of Wild-Animal Suffering Research (recently, merged with Utility Farm to become Wild Animal Initiative), discusses the question of scale of insect suffering, comparing the relative abundance, biomass, and number of neurons of wild animals to that of farmed animals. If we include invertebrates in estimates, namely, insects, wild animals have an abundance ten orders of magnitude greater than that of farmed animals. More relevant to the experience of suffering, this same comparison is five orders of magnitude greater in terms of number of neurons that wild animals possess.

Given the potential scale of suffering involved in eating insects, we might ask, why even consider the idea at all? If insects do in fact suffer, we enter into a realm where we would be morally responsible for suffering of a magnitude that is likely incomprehensible relative to what we are familiar with. Returning to McWilliams’s argument, it seems likely that scale outweighs almost any other aspect of considerations relevant to the question of whether we should eat insects. He states, “...even if one believes that insects almost definitely suffer, the nature of insect death would be far less painful than the death experienced by fuzzy mammals ground up by harvesters and gutted by rodenticides.” He goes on to say that the death of a fly is so swift, it could potentially prove inconsequential. We must consider that even if that is the case, the scale in number of these deaths leads us to conclude that we should probably not considering eating insects.

Outside of the issue of insect suffering, are there other factors that would still lead us to consider their use as food and animal feed? McWilliams writes that “Insects are nutrient-dense, low-impact critters that thrive in densely packed conditions, eat agricultural waste, and reproduce exponentially without human intervention.” On the surface, this makes it seem as if the consumption of insects is worth considering. However, as the Thomas Reuters Foundation reports this past January, scientists and other experts are not convinced that all of the problems surrounding the consumptions of insects have been addressed. There are still many outstanding questions about the logistics of insect animal agriculture. Asa Berggren, conservation biologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, has asked, “How do you produce the feed they eat, where do you produce it, what do you use?”

Of course, many non-western cultures have already addressed many of these questions to varying degrees. The UN has stated that over 1,000 species of insects are already eaten by 80% of the world’s nations. In example, many types of insects, including crickets and grasshoppers, are farmed and sold at market on a regular basis. Arkom Wongkalasin is a cricket farmer in Thailand who has a process in place. It involves 45 days of feeding the insects a special vitamin mix and vegetables until they’re ready to be sold at market.

Thailand has also been affected by increasing amounts of dry land that are no longer suitable for other types of farming, possibly due to global warming. People have begun to switch to insect collecting, farming, and selling because it is relatively easy and cheap. While some questions may have been answered by Thai insect farmers and others across the world, many western countries  are definitely not convinced.

The researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences discussed several other questions that other cultures may have not addressed yet. For example with so little known about whether insects can even experience suffering, how can we know how to measure animal welfare outcomes for them? The FAO, along with nutritionists and other scientists, have continued to tout insects as a high-protein, high-fiber solution for feeding our growing population, with over 1,900 species of edible insects available.

Considering all that has been explored here, we must also acknowledge the potential impact of insect suffering, and begin to try to comprehend the scale of insect suffering inherent to CAFOs. It seems likely that regardless of our opinion on the probability of insect suffering, and given our current lack of knowledge surrounding questions on insect welfare and insect feed production, we ought to opt for a plant-based diet instead. Why even be potentially responsible for suffering on such a massive scale, when a more feasible, sustainable, and ethical option exists?

Emilia Cameron