Insect Primarily based Meals — Local weather, Entomophagy, and a Ethical Debate (for Some)

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Pasta made from insect protein in the Metro AG supermarket in Düsseldorf, March 02, 2018. (Thilo Schmuelgen / Reuters)

The other day I wrote about meat and its enemies, suggesting that the urge to convince people to eat more insect-based foods in order to save the planet might meet with objection from vegans (and some vegetarians):

To the extent that scientists and food technologists can develop nutritious, inexpensive, and palatable alternative meat based on plants or laboratories, or, with the help of creative chefs, whip up treats from another much discussed option, high protein insect-based, good for them. It only expands consumer choice, for carnivores, flexitarians, vegetarians or vegans. (But it doesn’t matter that not many vegetarians, and theoretically no vegans either, bow to entomophagy.)

It was, let’s face it, not a great imagination to believe that vegans and vegetarians might have ethical concerns about eating our insect friends, but judging by an article, “Don’t Farm Bugs,” written by Jeff Sebo and Jason Schukraft for Aeon, I had underestimated the depth of moral concerns that could be raised (for some) by the prospect of humanity’s greedy eyes for hexapod snacks.

An excerpt:

Interest in insect breeding is booming. Insects have been touted as a sustainable alternative to traditional animal husbandry, with a litany of articles promoting the environmental benefits of insect protein. Socially minded investors have pushed their way into the room, with recent funding rounds totaling more than $ 950 million.

Socially responsible investing is what it is.

Back to Sebo and Schukraft:

Lost in all the hype is an awkward question: Do we want to promote a feeding system that breeds animals by the billions?

In terms of the number of animals killed each year, the most commonly bred insects are crickets, mealworm beetle larvae and black soldier fly larvae. The most common slaughter methods in these establishments are baking, cooking, freezing and chopping. Most jurisdictions do not have animal welfare regulations that govern insect slaughter. Operators are free to kill the insects in the most efficient way possible.

The core of Sebo and Schukraft’s argument is based on sentience, or even the possibility of sentience, a thesis that makes fascinating reading both as an idea and for some of the examples included:

Researchers who treated a group of shaken flies with the human antidepressant lithium chloride found that the treatment can suppress this depression-like condition in flies.

Well, I found that fascinating.

On the other hand:

While insects have many properties that indicate sentience, they have at least some properties that also indicate non-sentience. Mantids, for example, are known to keep mating even after being devoured by their partner. Injured honey bees do not prefer morphine any more than uninjured honey bees. And even beheaded cockroaches are capable of relatively impressive learning performances….

I respect the caution involved in including this “relative”.

If there is a significant probability that insects are sentient, then killing insects is like driving while drunk; against its will it harbors a risk that cannot be neglected for others. Granted, the nature of the risk varies. We are definitely killing individuals who may be sentient rather than possibly individuals who are definitely sentient. But the result is the same in both cases. There is a significant chance that we will kill living things and we have a moral responsibility to consider that possibility when deciding what to do.

This leads to the surprising conclusion that we should accept the moral presumption of harming insects. If an act would kill an insect unnecessarily, then we have moral reasons not to do that because everything else is the same. And if an action were to unnecessarily kill trillions of insects, then we have billions of reasons not to take that action when all else is the same.

Well, that more depends on who decides what is “moral” or not. There is also the little question of hierarchy, a persistent presence in a natural world that is not known for its kindness, “red with teeth and claws” and all that: faced with the choice of saving a billion larvae or a human ( or, by the way, a dog), I suspect most (admittedly human) moral systems would leave the maggots to the Grim Reaper.

But even if we remove the either / or (human or beetle) from the equation, how can one decide whether the death of an insect is “necessary”? Of course, some savages may think that this is not even worth considering.

Entertainingly, given all the proselytizing in an expanding segment of the media, Sebo and Schukraft don’t seem entirely convinced of those who argue that entomophagy will help save the planet:

[I]Insect farming is not the public health or environmental saver it claims to be. The reality is that insect farming and traditional animal husbandry are mutually reinforcing systems. Industry insiders know that selling insects for human consumption on a large scale is not profitable. (It will take a long time to overcome the “him” factor.) So the new insect farms mainly sell their products to large aquaculture operations, where ground insect powder is added to fishmeal. The industry is also working hard to ensure that chicken and pig factory farmers are allowed to use insects as feed. By lowering feed costs, insect breeding could enable factory farming to be expanded.

The environmental benefits of growing insects are therefore misleading. Bred insects do not replace other farm animals; they are fed to them. The emergence of insect breeding is thus reinforcing another supply chain that is already inefficient. Plant-based supply chains – including for plant-based meat – are generally much more sustainable than the animal supply chains that insect farms contribute to. And humans can produce vegetable proteins without creating trillions of potentially sentient beings each year, only to imprison them, kill them, and eat them either directly or probably indirectly through other farm animals.

Problem solved?

Lower Austria.

Unfortunately, plant agriculture also damages insects through the use of agricultural insecticides….

Oh well.

Be sure to read it all and draw your own conclusions. For me it was a fascinating discussion in itself, but also as an example of how far we can argue as a species.

In the meantime, hopefully no larvae will be harmed at my upcoming dinner – a hot dog bought on the street.

Mind you. . .