Ought to extra folks eat bugs?

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When I was in college, a girl who lived in my dorm was an evangelist on an unlikely cause: the potential of insects as food. She was really very passionate about beetles as an ethical, environmentally friendly source of protein, just as driven students can really be very interested in quixotic causes.

I laughed about it then. These are bed bugs! Nobody will want to eat bugs, will they? The joke hit me: a few years later, she and her business partner went to Shark Tank and received a $ 100,000 investment from Mark Cuban, and now their company, Chirps Chips, sells cricket-based chips around the world.

My classmate was ahead of the curve. As people gradually realize that we need to reduce traditional meat consumption for the good of the planet, eating bugs – mostly crickets and mealworms – has become a vibrant, green alternative.

Some cultures, which include around 2 billion people around the world, are already eating beetles. Mopane worms and shea caterpillars are routinely raised and eaten (the former in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the latter in Burkina Faso and Mali), as is the African edible bush cricket, which is common in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Madagascar. The gathering of wild insects for a living or for sale is common in East Asia and the Pacific, from India to Indonesia to Japan to Australia. In the northwestern Amazon region of South America, between 5 and 7 percent of all protein comes from insects.

But insect farming advocates want to further industrialize the practice in order to raise more insects for feed for livestock as well as for human consumption – especially in Europe and the US, where the practice is less common. In May a European Union body approved the sale of an insect-based food to humans for the first time in the history of the Union. The French company Agronutris had applied for the sale of dried yellow mealworms, a maggot-like organism that “tastes a lot like peanuts” when dried; With the official approval of the EU, the company hopes to be able to sell the mealworm as a meal-like powder.

An employee loads mealworm larvae into a sorting oven at the Ynsect insect farm in Dole, France. Cyril Marcilhacy / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Insect farming may still be a niche industry, but dozens of startups have hit the market in the past few years. (And two French startups received a combined $ 537 million in grants last year alone.) American chefs now value cicadas, trillions of which have appeared on the east coast, as a potential ingredient. Dogs already enjoy the premium of Brood X, the current cicada plant, but there is no health or safety reason why humans couldn’t join in.

This enthusiasm is quite understandable: insects are nutritious and environmentally friendly to produce, which makes them a convincing alternative to traditional meat from factory farming. But people’s tastes aside, I’m still suspicious of the urge to eat bugs, mostly because of one unanswered question: do we really know everything we need to know about insect life – and whether they should be morally considered ? ?

Why insects could be a good alternative to traditional meat …

The reason bugs eat is simple: they are healthy and good for the environment. A study published in May by researchers at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin-Madison sums up both arguments well.

The authors found that if consumers in Africa and Asia added 5 grams of insect food to their daily diet, 67 million people would be less at risk of protein deficiency, with 166 million fewer people being at risk of zinc deficiency and 251 million fewer people at risk would be from vitamin B12 deficiency. The anemia would also decrease significantly.

The study notes that 5 grams is by and large not that much. Cricket protein companies often specify a serving size of 10 to 20 grams of cricket protein powder for use in smoothies or porridge and the like. A 5 gram requirement could be met by one of these meals every two to four days.

Insects could play a useful role, especially in areas of the world where nutrient deficiencies are frequent.

Then there is the environmental side. Factory farming is an environmental disaster. Cattle farming in particular produces a large proportion of the world’s methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than ordinary carbon dioxide, and is fueling deforestation in the Amazon as beef companies seek more open land to graze on. But factory farms of all kinds cause environmental costs, not least due to the runoff of manure, which can poison streams, damage local ecosystems and endanger the health of local residents.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has promoted insect-based foods, in part because cold-blooded insects convert their food into meat more efficiently than other animals. “On average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, while cattle need 8 kg of feed to gain 1 kg of body weight,” states the FAO.

Insects also require less water and land than traditional farm animals and produce 10 to 100 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food than pigs, according to the FAO. Their climate impact looks even better next to cows, which emit more than pigs.

… And why we should still be careful

The case of anti-entomophagy is more subtle but still (I think) compelling. We have to ask ourselves what are bred insects used for – and more importantly, what does insect farming mean for the insects themselves.

Take cricket farms as an example. On a cricket farm, the animals are typically laid out in plastic containers with cardboard walls on which they can climb and lay eggs, according to a report by the Rethink Priorities research group. Since crickets require moist temperatures and can easily drown in a pool of water, moist sponges are often placed in the containers to both regulate the humidity and provide a source of drinking. This video tour of a cricket farm in Finland gives a good impression of the situation, as does this photo of a Canadian farm:

Crickets cover cardboard grids and feed trays in the final grow room at Entomo Farms in Norwood, Ontario. Entomo is North America’s largest farmer of insects for human consumption. James MacDonald / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lewis Bollard, who leads the farm animal welfare program at Open Philanthropy – the effective, altruistically inspired support group funded by billionaires Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz – recently published an excellent review of the dangers of insect meat, especially when it comes to insect industrialization goes meat production.

Primarily for animal welfare advocates, the market for human-edible insects is completely overshadowed by the market for insects as feed for farm animals. Most insects are bred to feed (or grind into pet food) to farmed fish and chickens. “Insect breeding is not an alternative to factory farming – it is a supplier,” writes Bollard.

This use further supports the ecological rationale behind insect breeding, he argues: “Feeding corn to insects and then feeding them to chickens is inherently less efficient than just feeding the corn to chickens.” (To be fair, this is more of an argument against the current insect farming industry, as opposed to what some proponents want it to be: a system to feed people more efficiently.)

Then there are the insects themselves. As Bollard notes, we really have no idea whether insects are as “sensitive” as, say, a pig or a cow (or whether they are sentient at all). Pigs are really smart; they can play video games. Flies, on the other hand, won’t beat you up in Skyrim. Some clever people try to think through what we know about insect sentience, but we still don’t know much.

Rethink Priorities has tried to pool our knowledge of insect welfare on farms, but it’s not much either. Insect farms mostly freeze and / or chop up their animals, but we don’t know much about whether these methods cause significant pain to the insects.

If you’ve read this far and are not a vegan, vegetarian, or don’t think much about animal welfare, it may all seem absurd. Insects are not creatures whose welfare we are used to, an indifference that invades even our vernacular. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly” doesn’t mean “she’s not a sociopath” the same way “she wouldn’t kick a dog” – it means “she wouldn’t do mean things that are so trivial, nobody should care.”

But people are constantly expanding our range of moral concern. And while most people do not yet need to fully expand their moral circle to include farm animals, attitudes towards animal welfare have certainly evolved. The number of pets in the United States has more than doubled since the 1970s, while the number of pets euthanized each year has fallen dramatically from 20 million to 3 million. Killing animals just because it’s a nuisance is no longer so comfortable for humans: half a century ago it wasn’t uncommon for dog owners to euthanize their pet because it was cheaper to put them in a kennel while on vacation stuck. That is unimaginable today.

It is not far from “cats and dogs deserve to be treated well” to “pigs and cows deserve to be treated well”. And while “caterpillars and crickets” are one step further, it is hardly unthinkable. They are animals too. Bees understand the number zero, a concept that human children often cannot understand. Fruit flies sometimes behave in ways that suggest they are having some form of chronic pain. Is it so inconceivable that the insect world deserves humane treatment?

To me, the most sobering finding from Rethink Priorities research is that about 1 trillion insects are already being raised and killed on farms every year – an astonishing number as we still are at the beginning of the insect food boom. Since insects have a very short life, this annual total spans many generations; only between 79 billion and 94 billion bred insects are alive at any given time.

I’m not sure if these insects feel pain – but if there is even a slim chance the amount of suffering that would be associated with it is enormous. I’m not categorically against insect farming, but I hope we can learn more about insect life before we start growing them on an even larger scale.