Eating insects is a hot topic at the moment and various new insect protein-based products are making their way onto the market. From insect burgers to tortilla chips, insect protein (usually produced a powder form) is being hailed as the future of food. It’s more than likely that no matter how you feel about the idea of eating insects, these products will become mainstream in the very near future.
I’m very intrigued by the idea of insect protein and how it could be part of a more sustainable global food system. I tried insects while I was in Mexico, as grasshoppers and other insects are a staple in the Oaxacan diet, and I recently decided to try some insect burgers which I found in my local supermarket. I took a quick poll on my instagram and asked my followers if they would eat insects. The result? The majority said no. Most people cited the reason being that they are vegetarian or vegan and so won’t eat any formerly living thing, or that they can’t get over the idea of eating insects as being somehow weird or disgusting.
I’ve talked before about my approach to food, and why I identify as a climatarian rather than a vegan. While I personally don’t think it would be necessary to incorporate insect protein into my diet, I do think it could play a vital role in the future of our food system and could act as an excellent alternative source of protein to red meat and poultry.
I decided to do some digging and find out more about the ethics of eating insects. For some vegans, they simply draw the line at eating any formerly living thing and that’s fine. For those who perhaps became vegan for environmental reasons, this may be a bit of a grey area. So let’s look at the impact and ethics of producing insect protein.
Many communities around the world have been eating insects for hundreds of years, and it’s very likely we all did during our days as hunter gatherers. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that there are already more than 1,400 species of edible insects currently consumed by people; and other estimates put that number over 2,000. The FAO also states that edible insects contain very high-quality protein, amino acids, vitamins, calcium, zinc, and iron for humans. For example, 100 grams of cricket contains around 121 calories, 12.9 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of fat, and 5.1 grams of carbohydrates.
The main draw of insect farming is without a doubt the fact that it’s a far more sustainable way to produce protein than our current methods and is therefore a viable way to feed our growing population. The rearing of insects requires dramatically less food, land and water than raising cattle. The FAO states that: “crickets are twice as efficient in converting feed to meat as chicken, at least four times more efficient than pigs, and 12 times more efficient than cattle. This is likely because insects are cold-blooded and do not require feed to maintain body temperature.” The following infographic, also based on FAO findings, compares how much water, animal feed and land is required to produce 1kg of beef, pork or insect protein.
Furthermore, insects actually eat food scraps and organic waste, which means the raising of insects would reduce methane emissions from rotting food waste while simultaneously producing high quality protein for human consumption. For example, Bugging Denmark uses leftovers from beer and juice production as insect feed on their farm.
The ethics of eating insects
Let’s move onto the ethics of eating insects. The most obvious question to ask is, do insects feel pain? And if so, is it comparable to how mammals experience pain? Based on my research on this question, it seems there is no definitive answer within the scientific community. However, there is still much we can consider and it’s possible to draw some initial conclusions from the existing research.
It’s important to distinguish between how living things might experience suffering vs nociception: the capacity to respond to potentially damaging stimuli. We know that insects definitely have nociceptors - they avoid injury and negative stimuli such as high temperatures in controlled experiments. But, this does not necessarily equate to experiencing pain. We don’t know for sure if insects experience suffering, as suffering is essentially an emotional response to negative stimuli.
That brings us to the idea of sentience, which would provide the basis for experiencing suffering. A sentient being has the capacity to feel and to undergo subjective, conscious experiences. Here’s where things get tricky. It’s extremely difficult to determine whether another nonhuman species is sentient, and the more that species differs from us, the more difficult it becomes. So in the case of insects, it’s almost impossible. However, scientists do raise a few important arguments in this discussion. Firstly, there is a very big difference between the size of insect and mammalian brains. Here’s an extract from the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition on Edible Insects:
“The brain of the honeybee, which is very large for an insect, possesses less than one million neurons. In comparison, the brains of mice (6.8 million neurons), rhesus monkeys (6.4 billion neurons) and humans (86 billion neurons) are enormous. Some have used this difference to argue that insect brains may not be big enough to support sentience... It may be the case, however, that insect brains do support sentience but that their experiences are less fine-grained, less complex, than those of animals with much bigger brains, like mammals. This idea is supported by the fact that insects have been shown to continue to use their limbs when they are damaged, eat their own innards and feed while being consumed by another insect. If they do feel pain, these considerations suggest that it may somehow ‘feel less painful’ than it does in other animals.”
In another report conducted for the Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences journal, the authors conclude: “the evidence from consideration of the adaptive role of pain, the neural organisation of insects and observations of their behaviour does not appear to support the occurrence in insects of a pain state, such as occurs in humans.”
The other thing which is worth considering is the lifespan of an insect and their tolerance to certain living conditions. For example, a cricket lives for just 90 days, and is generally pretty comfortable living in close confinement with his brothers and sisters. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should raise insects in less than ideal conditions. Much research has been conducted into humane conditions for insects, and these should form the basis of regulation around insect farming.
Finally, when living conditions for insects are sanitary, industrial farming does not pose additional risk of disease beyond what is normally present for the respective species. By mimicking natural conditions, insect species will not require feed additives or medicines. This is unlike what you’ll find in most intensive factory farms, which carry significant risk of contamination and animal stress.
With that in mind, I did a lot of googling to find insect farmers here in Europe, and my goal was to try and find some statements on ethical production or even get a sneak peek into the farms themselves. I have to say, I couldn’t find much at all, which is disappointing. According to Wikipedia, most insect farmers use freezing as their method of killing, which based on my research, seems to be a relatively humane form of anaesthesia. When it comes to ethics and sustainability, transparency is key, so I would encourage insect farmers to provide more information on what they do to ensure insect welfare.
A world with less, rather than no, suffering?
Feeding our growing population is an extremely complex problem. As the climate crisis becomes more severe, we will continue to experience soil degradation and crop failures around the world, putting our fragile food system at risk. While I would argue that a mainly plant based diet is the most sustainable and healthy option for most of us living in the Global North, it’s simply not feasible for people living in other parts of the world. The raising of edible insects is arguably an excellent solution to malnutrition in much of the Global South, especially as land quality decreases and growing plant protein becomes more challenging. Ethics are important, but controlling the environment of insect farms in order to meet humane standards, while still producing enough output, is far easier than trying to do the same with cattle and poultry.
One scientist argues that while we may underestimate the minds of insects, it is highly unlikely that they rival the minds of highly complex animals such as pigs. I have to say that, while I ultimately wish to reduce all animal suffering, I do feel that addressing the often dire conditions currently experienced by cattle and poultry is of much higher importance than addressing the ethics of eating insects.
What do you think? Have you tried insects?