Thoughts on the welfare of farmed insects

This post is quite pre­limi­nary and ab­stract. I have not looked deep enough into the rele­vant liter­a­ture on how in­sects are cur­rently farmed to recom­mend con­crete and spe­cific pro­pos­als, only gen­eral con­sid­er­a­tions based on the­ory.

This ar­ti­cle is prin­ci­pally about fac­tory farm­ing in­sects for the pur­pose of eat­ing them. Some of it may also be ap­pli­ca­ble to hu­mans rais­ing in­sects in other con­di­tions, such as for shel­lac, honey, and silk. The idea of farm­ing in­sects for hu­man con­sump­tion has be­come quite a promi­nent dis­cus­sion topic, and many in­sect farm­ing for hu­man con­sump­tion op­er­a­tions have been ap­pear­ing. I think it’s im­por­tant to pre­vent this spread, or at the very least push it in a more pos­i­tive di­rec­tion. I’ve been fo­cus­ing on in­ver­te­brate con­scious­ness and suffer­ing re­search over the last year, so this seemed like a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of my fo­cus.

This post is about how we might be able to im­prove the welfare of farmed in­sects through welfare mea­sures. As with other posts fo­cus­ing on welfare, there is some risk that this post could be seen as sup­port­ing or en­dors­ing the prac­tice of eat­ing in­sects, as long as some minor welfare ad­just­ments are adapted. In fact, I’m scep­ti­cal that even in an ideal in­sect farm­ing op­er­a­tion ad­e­quate welfare mea­sures could be adopted to give the in­sects lives worth liv­ing, and as the fac­tory farm­ing of other an­i­mals has shown us, these op­er­a­tions tend to use far from ideal welfare mea­sures.

Though it is not clear if in­sects are phe­nom­e­nally con­scious (and so if they can suffer), I think that we should take pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures now to avoid moral catas­tro­phe. Ex­pert seem to be di­vided on the ques­tion of in­sect con­scious­ness. Be­cause in­sects are so much smaller than an­i­mals that we cur­rently fac­tory farm, vastly more in­di­vi­d­ual an­i­mals would have to be raised in hor­rible con­di­tions to pro­duce the same amount of meat. This would po­ten­tially raise the ex­pected amount of suffer­ing by many or­ders of mag­ni­tude.[i]

At least in Western coun­tries, eat­ing in­sects is cur­rently seen as dis­gust­ing. I would ex­pect there to be fewer hur­dles as­so­ci­ated with get­ting clean meat adopted by Western con­sumers than in­sect meat. In­sect meat is also at least cur­rently typ­i­cally very ex­pen­sive. This calls into ques­tion what if any benefits any­one is sup­posed to be get­ting from push­ing for the adop­tion of in­sect meat when we have plant-based al­ter­na­tives.[ii]

Some rea­sons why it may be hard to raise farmed in­sects to live good lives

Fac­tory farm­ing prac­tices tend to foster a ‘race to the bot­tom’ en­vi­ron­ment in terms of welfare stan­dards, caus­ing tremen­dous suffer­ing to the an­i­mals in­volved. Modern ad­vo­cates of in­sect farm­ing have al­lowed them­selves to imag­ine ideal­ized farm­ing tech­niques that might be used, rather than the meth­ods that seem most likely. This is hugely prob­le­matic for the po­ten­tial in­sects in­volved. Peo­ple seem to have a much eas­ier time car­ing about the much larger and more charis­matic an­i­mals that we cur­rently fac­tory farm, and yet there still hasn’t been enough pres­sure to re­duce the suffer­ing of fac­tory farmed an­i­mals. We should there­fore ex­pect in­sect farm­ing to be even worse, not bet­ter.

Even if we could give them lives worth liv­ing, there are real ques­tions about if a so­ciety that still ate an­i­mals (such as in­sects) could bring it­self to care about their well-be­ing to the ex­tent that they should. For these rea­sons, the abo­li­tion of an­i­mal farm­ing should be the ul­ti­mate goal, though im­prov­ing welfare mea­sures could be a use­ful prox­i­mate goal.

There are a cou­ple of fac­tors that make rais­ing in­sects in a hu­mane way difficult. The first is that in­sects usu­ally in­vest very lit­tle in each offspring, which tends to mean that they are prone to early deaths. This may mean that it is hard to raise them with­out fre­quent deaths. One study found that 99% of crick­ets fed on rel­a­tively un­pro­cessed food waste or straw died within three months.[iii] Prob­a­bly to avoid this high mor­tal­ity rate and im­prove growth rates, most in­sect farm­ing op­er­a­tions feed crops to in­sects.

Keep in mind that this re­moves the main ar­gu­ment used for in­sect farm­ing, which is that it could be more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly be­cause they could be fed food scraps that might oth­er­wise go to waste. It also re­moves the ar­gu­ment that rais­ing in­sects for hu­man con­sump­tion could be bet­ter than eat­ing plants be­cause crop cul­ti­va­tion in­volves us­ing in­sec­ti­cides that kill in­sects and so, they ar­gue, more in­sects would be kil­led this way. If crops have to be fed to in­sects for them to grow, this means that at least as many ad­di­tional in­sects will have to be kil­led by in­sec­ti­cides (in ad­di­tion to the suffer­ing of the in­sects be­ing raised for food). The con­ver­sion ra­tio of crop to in­sect meat is much bet­ter than it is for ei­ther types of meat, but still is not as effi­cient hu­mans eat­ing the crops di­rectly.[iv]

It may be that many species of in­sects are just not built to have high sur­vival rates, even if they were raised in good en­vi­ron­ments. Ar­gu­ing that farmed in­sects could have higher welfare than wild in­sects is not suffi­cient to es­tab­lish that in­sect farm­ing is not harm­ful or is benefi­cial to the in­sects in­volved be­cause it is very ques­tion­able whether wild in­sects live lives worth liv­ing.

Another gen­eral prob­lem is that in­sects are very small and nu­mer­ous so any kind of in­di­vi­d­u­al­ized treat­ment for spe­cific in­juries or dis­eases would be pro­hibitively ex­pen­sive. For ex­am­ple, if a farmed cricket caught a dis­ease or was in­jured, no one would help it and it would be left to suffer and po­ten­tially die. The near­est solu­tion that might be adopted for this is an­tibiotics or pain re­liev­ing drugs in the in­sects reg­u­lar feed, but there are likely other prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with these.

We also un­der­stand much less about how in­sects feel pain and what stim­uli cause them the most pain, so it’s hard to be as sure that a method is rel­a­tively hu­mane. Re­lat­edly, in­sects are harder to fully kill or ren­der un­con­scious in a con­clu­sive way. This prob­a­bly makes it more difficult to find a more hu­mane way of kil­ling in­sects. This is be­cause in­sects have a less cen­tral­ized ner­vous sys­tem (think of the fact that cock­roaches may sur­vive for a while with­out their heads). This may mean that iso­lated parts of their ner­vous sys­tem might still con­tinue to func­tion and po­ten­tially reg­ister pain even af­ter mas­sive bod­ily dam­age. This is a very con­cern­ing pos­si­bil­ity, since it would greatly mul­ti­ply the amount of time that in­sects spend suffer­ing from the most painful in­juries.

I’ve heard it ar­gued that in­sects might leave bet­ter lives than other live­stock be­cause they have less need for an en­riched en­vi­ron­ment and it is eas­ier to provide them with an en­vi­ron­ment that they would en­joy. This is some plau­si­bil­ity to it, but I think we don’t know enough about what in­sects find re­ward­ing to prove this. In­sects also have evolu­tion­ary in­cen­tives to en­gage in many differ­ent kinds of be­havi­our. The way that evolu­tion gets hu­mans to en­gage in evolu­tion­ary pro­duc­tive be­havi­our is to make us en­joy those ac­tivi­ties and we have some rea­son to think that it would be the same for other an­i­mals in­clud­ing in­sects.

To take the ex­am­ple of crick­ets, it seems to be im­por­tant that crick­ets mate, sleep, eat nu­tri­tious foods, hide, avoid stim­uli as­so­ci­ated with preda­tors, avoid poi­sons, avoid dis­eases, avoid over­crowd­ing, main­tain dom­i­nance, main­tain healthy tem­per­a­ture, en­gage in fly­ing, en­gage in dig­ging, ex­plore their en­vi­ron­ment, main­tain op­ti­mal light ex­po­sure, and make noises to at­tract mates if they are male. Crick­ets are one of the main types of in­sects raised for con­sump­tion. This list may be a lit­tle bit shorter than it would be for larger an­i­mals (for ex­am­ple there is no strong ev­i­dence of play be­havi­our in in­sects), but it is still a con­sid­er­able list of re­quire­ments, and I’m scep­ti­cal that mod­ern in­sect farm­ing op­er­a­tions meet these crite­ria.

In gen­eral there are more ways for the life of an an­i­mal to go wrong then there are the life of that an­i­mal to go right, and this is a big prob­lem when rais­ing these an­i­mals when re­search is lack­ing.[v] It is true that it is some­what im­por­tant for peo­ple who farm in­sects to keep them al­ive and healthy to max­i­mize the amount of good meat that they pro­duce, but this is also true in tra­di­tional fac­tory farm­ing situ­a­tions and it has definitely not en­sured that those an­i­mals live good lives. Fac­tory farm­ing has been the recipe for the perfect mis­ery of those an­i­mals.

Meth­ods of kil­ling in­sects:

One com­mon method of kil­ling in­sects seems to be freez­ing them. As far as I know there is no good ev­i­dence that this should be a less painful way of kil­ling these an­i­mals. There is some ev­i­dence that crayfish may not feel pain in re­sponse to cold tem­per­a­tures, but these are marine or­ganisms and so they are at less risk of tem­per­a­ture ex­tremes than other an­i­mals. Even C el­e­gans, the ne­ma­tode worm with ~300 neu­rons, avoids ex­tremes of heat and cold.

Some have jus­tified this as a way of kil­ling species of in­sect that un­dergo tor­por (a state of re­duced ac­tivity) in re­sponse to cold. The idea is that the cold would put them into a state of un­con­scious tor­por be­fore fi­nally kil­ling them. While it is plau­si­ble that these species might ex­pe­rience less pain from this than other species, I haven’t seen this prop­erly jus­tified as a less painful way of kil­ling these an­i­mals.

Since in­sects in gen­eral are poik­ilo­ther­mic, they can sur­vive at a wider range of body tem­per­a­tures than birds or mam­mals can. Though they op­er­ate less well when cold and so still have an evolu­tion­ary in­cen­tive to avoid cold tem­per­a­tures. One guide to col­lect­ing and kil­ling in­sects to take as spec­i­mens notes that it may take more than a day to kill in­sects by putting them in a freezer. This sounds like a ghastly way to die, as­sum­ing they are con­scious for any sig­nifi­cant por­tion of that pe­riod.

Other sources blend them al­ive into a pow­der if this could be done very quickly and re­li­ably it would have the ad­van­tage of de­ci­sively kil­ling the an­i­mals. This would have my bet as the least painful method of kil­ling of the op­tions con­sid­ered in this ar­ti­cle. Some farms claim that they can kill within one sec­ond. My own in­tu­ition is that even if it was a very painful sec­ond, it would still be much prefer­able to any pro­tracted form of kil­ling. But opinions differ on this point and rele­vant re­search is lack­ing.

Many farmed in­sects are also raised for live con­sump­tion which means they will not be kil­led at all hu­manely. Also, we are un­likely to en­force any welfare stan­dards on back­yard in­sect farm­ing op­er­a­tions for per­sonal con­sump­tion. De­spite this, sources such as the FAO still recom­mend pro­mot­ing back­yard in­sect farm­ing op­er­a­tions.[vi]

Con­clu­sion:

My gen­eral po­si­tion is that I ex­pect in­sect farm­ing to be even worse eth­i­cally than the fac­tory farm­ing of larger an­i­mals. It is good that ad­vo­cates of in­sect farm­ing for hu­man con­sump­tion feel the need to ad­dress the topic of welfare, but I find their ar­gu­ments on the sub­ject weak and wish­ful. This ar­ti­cle is an at­tempt to bal­ance out that dis­cus­sion. This is a sub­ject that we need to be es­pe­cially rigourous about.

Ac­knowl­edge­ments:

Many thanks to an anony­mous donor for sug­gest­ing the sub­ject and fund­ing me to write the post. This post is quite heav­ily based on the work of Brian To­masik.

[i] Even if you think that in­sects might suffer less than larger an­i­mals, I don’t think it’s likely that they suffer vastly less to make up for the many ad­di­tional in­sects that would have to be raised. I think there are a lot more rea­sons to think that in­sects are con­scious that you might naïvely ex­pect given their size, and their brains are larger and more effi­cient than you might ex­pect. There are also some rea­sons to think that in­sects have faster sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience clock speed, which is a fac­tor sug­gest­ing they have greater ca­pac­ity for suffer­ing and hap­piness than larger an­i­mals.

[ii] See Ni­cole Rawl­ing’s pre­sen­ta­tion in this video or the tran­script to see these ar­gu­ments in more depth. h’s ttps://​www.youtube.com/​watch?v=QHERJ1cr17I

https://​​fo­rum.effec­tivealtru­ism.org/​​posts/​​HPQJu5C5o583rMZ78/​​what-role-might-in­sects-play-as-part-of-the-fu­ture-of-food

[iii] See also “In­sects in­tended for hu­man con­sump­tion need to be fed feed grade or even food grade food if the in­sects are not to be degut­ted.” Van Huis, A., Van It­ter­beeck, J., Klun­der, H., Mertens, E., Hal­lo­ran, A., Muir, G., & Van­tomme, P. (2013). Edible in­sects: fu­ture prospects for food and feed se­cu­rity (No. 171). Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions. http://​​www.fao.org/​​3/​​i3253e/​​i3253e.pdf

[iv] ” Typ­i­cally, 1 kg of live an­i­mal weight in a typ­i­cal United States pro­duc­tion sys­tem re­quires the fol­low­ing amount of feed: 2.5 kg for chicken, 5 kg for pork and 10 kg for beef (Smil, 2002). In­sects re­quire far less feed. For ex­am­ple, the pro­duc­tion of 1 kg of live an­i­mal weight of crick­ets re­quires as lit­tle as 1.7 kg of feed (Col­lavo et al., 2005). When these figures are ad­justed for ed­ible weight (usu­ally the en­tire an­i­mal can­not be eaten), the ad­van­tage of eat­ing in­sects be­comes even greater (van Huis, 2013). Nak­a­gaki and DeFo­liart (1991) es­ti­mated that up to 80 per­cent of a cricket is ed­ible and di­gestible com­pared with 55 per­cent for chicken and pigs and 40 per­cent for cat­tle.” Ibid.

[v] This is an ex­ten­sion of the Anna Karen­ina prin­ci­ple that Mag­nus Vind­ing men­tioned in con­ver­sa­tion. https://​​en.wikipe­dia.org/​​wiki/​​Anna_Karen­ina_principle

[vi] “Pro­ce­dures for small-scale farm­ing should be de­vel­oped – such as kits for home-use – so that peo­ple can eas­ily start small-scale rear­ing fa­cil­ities” Van Huis, A., Van It­ter­beeck, J., Klun­der, H., Mertens, E., Hal­lo­ran, A., Muir, G., & Van­tomme, P. (2013). Edible in­sects: fu­ture prospects for food and feed se­cu­rity (No. 171). Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions. The http://​​www.fao.org/​​3/​​i3253e/​​i3253e.pdf