Insects Raised for Food and Feed — Global Scale, Practices, and Policy

Key Findings

  • Cur­rently, 1 trillion to 1.2 trillion in­sects are raised on farms an­nu­ally for food and an­i­mal feed.

  • There are cur­rently be­tween 79 billion and 94 billion in­sects al­ive on farms globally on av­er­age on an av­er­age day.

  • While it is un­clear what welfare re­forms might best im­prove the lives of in­sects on farms, it seems pos­si­ble that stan­dard­ized train­ing on best prac­tices, and po­ten­tially slaugh­ter re­form are promis­ing ways to im­prove in­sect welfare on farms.

  • The coun­tries that farm the most in­sects in the world are Thailand, France, South Africa, China, Canada, and the United States.

  • The in­dus­try is rapidly grow­ing —mil­lions of dol­lars have been in­vested into star­tups that are work­ing to in­dus­tri­al­ize the in­dus­try, es­pe­cially to pro­duce in­sect al­ter­na­tives to an­i­mal feed and fish­meal. This also means that the scale could in­crease by one or more or­ders of mag­ni­tude in the near fu­ture.

  • Note that these es­ti­mates only in­clude in­sects whose bod­ies are eaten in whole or pow­dered form for food and an­i­mal feed. They do not in­clude in­sects farmed for a food product they pro­duce (such as honey bees), nor in­sects who have a food ad­di­tive pro­duced with a minor deriva­tive of their bod­ies (such as cochineals). This re­search also does not cover wild in­sects col­lected for food or an­i­mal feed. Fi­nally, this re­search does not cover an­nelids raised for fish­ing bait, though some of the in­sects sold live de­scribed in this re­port are likely used for fish­ing bait.

Introduction

This re­search cov­ers the scale of in­sect farm­ing globally, in­clud­ing the num­ber of in­sects farmed in differ­ent re­gions, sold live or slaugh­tered, or kil­led dur­ing the pro­duc­tion pro­cess and not oth­er­wise sold. I break down these over­all num­bers into es­ti­mates by re­gion and broad tax­o­nomic group. I in­clude es­ti­mates, by species and re­gion, of the num­ber of days on farms that in­sects ex­pe­rience. I also re­view the reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing in­sect farm­ing, the prac­tices found on in­sect farms, welfare con­cerns we might have for in­sects on farms, and po­ten­tial promis­ing in­ter­ven­tions for in­sect ad­vo­cates.

This re­search speci­fi­cally cov­ers in­sects whose bod­ies are eaten in whole or pow­dered form for food and an­i­mal feed. It does not re­view in­sects farmed for a food product they pro­duce (such as honey bees), nor does it in­clude in­sects who have a food ad­di­tive pro­duced with a minor deriva­tive of their bod­ies (such as cochineals). This re­search also does not cover wild in­sects col­lected for food or an­i­mal feed. Fi­nally, this re­search does not cover an­nelids raised for fish­ing bait, though some of the in­sects sold live de­scribed in this re­port are likely used for fish­ing bait.

This re­search does not touch on in­sect sen­tience or moral sta­tus. Gen­er­ally, I am work­ing un­der the as­sump­tion that all the in­sects men­tioned are sen­tient in a morally rele­vant way, though since this pa­per fo­cuses only on scale, the ques­tion of in­sect sen­tience and its moral rele­vance does not play a fur­ther role out­side mo­ti­vat­ing the re­search. For fur­ther re­search into these ques­tions, see Re­think Pri­ori­ties’ re­search into in­ver­te­brate welfare, and in par­tic­u­lar, the anal­y­sis of fruit flies and ants, since they are in­sects cur­rently im­pacted by farm­ing.

In­sect farm­ing back­ground information

In­sects are cur­rently raised as a food source for three groups of con­sumers — hu­mans, com­pan­ion an­i­mals, and farmed an­i­mals. Although in­sect con­sump­tion is a rel­a­tively novel phe­nomenon in the US and Europe, over two billion peo­ple eat in­sects weekly wor­ld­wide (Van Huis et al. 2013), and in­sect-eat­ing has long been a ma­jor part of hu­man cul­ture. How­ever, the ma­jor­ity of these in­sects are likely col­lected from the wild (see sec­tion “Wild in­sect col­lec­tion”).

In­dus­trial in­sect farm­ing is a rel­a­tively new prac­tice, and so far has largely fo­cused on feed pro­duc­tion. There are some in­dus­trial-scale farms pro­duc­ing in­sects for hu­man con­sump­tion in Asia, es­pe­cially China and Thailand, but in the US, Europe, and Canada, ma­jor com­pa­nies like Protix, Agripro­tein, Beta-Hatch, and Ÿn­sect are turn­ing in­stead to rais­ing in­sects for live­stock and as a re­place­ment for fish­meal. In­deed, Protix and Agripro­tein have already built mas­sive fa­cil­ities for cre­at­ing al­ter­na­tives to the corn, soy, and fish­meal that live­stock and fish are fed globally. If their pro­ject suc­ceeds in pro­duc­ing a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to these prod­ucts, we can ex­pect the deaths caused by an­i­mal agri­cul­ture to mul­ti­ply mas­sively.

In­sect farm­ing industries

In­sects are sold pre-slaugh­tered for hu­man con­sump­tion, and sold both live and slaugh­tered for live­stock and pet food.

Feed for livestock

Although in­sects have been fed live and dead as a sup­ple­ment to live­stock, par­tic­u­larly fish and birds, for decades (Van Huis et al. 2013), there is an emerg­ing in­dus­try work­ing to re­place a sig­nifi­cant amount of chicken feed and fish feed (par­tic­u­larly fish­meal) with in­sect prod­ucts. This trend is driven by the pos­si­bil­ity that farm­ing in­sects to feed live­stock could be cheaper than us­ing soy, corn, or fish­meal. There are also some po­ten­tial benefits to live­stock health and welfare from in­tro­duc­ing in­sects into their diets. And, com­pa­nies have claimed that there may be en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­van­tages to feed­ing live­stock and fish in­sects in­stead of soy, corn, or fish­meal. For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion, see the April 2020 in­ver­te­brate welfare newslet­ter (Rowe 2020). A deeper ex­plo­ra­tion of these ques­tions will be pre­sented in the sec­ond part of this se­ries.

Hu­man food

In­sects raised for hu­man con­sump­tion are gen­er­ally sold ei­ther whole, as a pow­dered ad­di­tive, or in pre­made prod­ucts. Ex­am­ples in­clude whole crick­ets, cricket flour, or a nu­tri­tional bar that in­cor­po­rates cricket flour. Re­lat­edly, a sec­ondary in­dus­try ex­ists of pro­duc­ers of in­sect foods, where the pro­duc­ers pur­chase pow­der from a farmer and pro­duce pack­aged foods. Very few in­sects are sold at restau­rants or oth­er­wise pre­pared for im­me­di­ate eat­ing in the US, Canada, and Europe. There are some le­gal hur­dles to sel­l­ing in­sects at restau­rants, which will be dis­cussed in part 2 of this se­ries.

In Asia, Latin Amer­ica, and Africa, in­sects are already a reg­u­lar part of many peo­ples’ diets (Van Huis et al. 2013). While a mas­sive por­tion of these in­sects are col­lected wild, hun­dreds of billions of them are farmed. There are also many semi-agri­cul­tural prac­tices used to en­courage wild in­sect pop­u­la­tion growth for food pur­poses (Van Huis et al. 2013).

Pet food

Although there is some over­lap be­tween in­sects raised for pet food and in­sects raised for an­i­mal feed, there has long been a mar­ket for live and slaugh­tered in­sects for rep­tile and bird food. Many pet lizards are fed crick­ets, live or dead, and meal­worms, for ex­am­ple, have been fed to back­yard chick­ens as a dietary sup­ple­ment for decades. More re­cently, in­sect farm­ers are pro­duc­ing foods for do­mes­ti­cated dogs and cats, pri­mar­ily as a pow­dered pro­tein ad­di­tive.

The po­ten­tial scale of in­sect farming

How many in­sects could be af­fected in the worst case sce­nar­ios for in­sects? The in­dus­try is cur­rently ex­cited about us­ing in­sect meal as a re­place­ment for fish­meal, which is a product made from ground wild-caught fish that is typ­i­cally fed to fish and other an­i­mals (FAO 2016). A study funded by the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the UN found that 25% to 100% of fish­meal could safely be re­placed by in­sect meal (Makkar et al. 2014).

Global fish­meal pro­duc­tion was 15.8 mil­lion tonnes in 2014 (FAO 2016). As an ex­am­ple, we might rea­son­ably ex­pect in­sect meal to re­place 25% of global pro­duc­tion, or 3.95 mil­lion tonnes. Agripro­tein, one of the world’s largest pro­duc­ers of in­sect meal, pro­duces a fish­meal re­place­ment made from black sol­dier fly lar­vae. A post-slaugh­ter black sol­dier fly larva ground into in­sect meal weighs be­tween 0.05g and 0.1g. This sug­gests that if black sol­dier fly lar­vae re­placed 25% of global fish­meal, it would cause some­where be­tween 40 trillion and 80 trillion deaths. Given that be­tween 500 billion and 1.1 trillion fish are already kil­led for fish­meal (Mood & Brooke 2019), re­plac­ing 25% of the world’s fish­meal with in­sects would cause 39 trillion to 79 trillion ad­di­tional deaths, or 180 to 540 times as many deaths.

As a fur­ther demon­stra­tion of the po­ten­tial scale of in­sect farm­ing, Protix, a ma­jor pro­ducer, es­ti­mates that 30 mil­lion to 50 mil­lion tonnes of feed­stocks could be re­placed by in­sect pro­tein, rep­re­sent­ing hun­dreds of trillions of ad­di­tional in­sect lives and deaths (Protix 2020). Of course, these are the deaths re­quired only to re­place a frac­tion of global fish­meal pro­duc­tion. The FAO study ar­gued that soymeal fed to chick­ens could also be re­placed. And there is the po­ten­tial for an ex­pan­sion of the num­ber of in­sects already kil­led for hu­man food. Across the board, an­i­mal ad­vo­cates ought to be deeply con­cerned about the prospect of in­sects be­ing raised for food.

Wild in­sect collection

This re­port does not eval­u­ate wild in­sect col­lec­tion. It seems that wild in­sects could be the ma­jor­ity of in­sects cur­rently con­sumed, so this omis­sion may be sig­nifi­cant. For ex­am­ple, the FAO re­ports that 2 billion peo­ple reg­u­larly con­sume in­sects globally (Van Huis et al. 2013). Although con­sump­tion of in­sects varies through­out the year and from place to place, a con­ser­va­tive guess might be that the av­er­age in­sect eater eats around 20 in­sects a week. Con­sid­er­ing ex­am­ples given in the FAO re­port, this num­ber seems rea­son­ably low: in Kin­shasa in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo, 300g of mopane cater­pillars (each weigh­ing ap­prox­i­mately 1g) are con­sumed weekly by the av­er­age house­hold (Van Huis et al. 2013).

If 2 billion peo­ple con­sume 20 in­sects a week, then 2.08 trillion in­sects are con­sumed an­nu­ally by hu­mans. Since I es­ti­mated that at most 1.2 trillion in­sects are farmed, these num­bers sug­gest that at least half of all in­sects kil­led for food are col­lected from the wild. Also, note that within the 1.2 trillion es­ti­mate, I found ev­i­dence to sug­gest that be­tween 250 billion and 300 billion deaths oc­cur dur­ing the farm­ing pro­cess, which rep­re­sent in­sect deaths that do not con­tribute to the food sup­ply. So it seems rea­son­able to ex­pect that more than half of in­sects con­sumed might be col­lected from the wild.

Notes on the figures and terms

In­sect outcomes

I list three types of in­sect out­comes in my es­ti­mate — in­sects sold slaugh­tered, in­sects sold live, and other deaths prior to pro­cess­ing. “In­sects sold slaugh­tered” are sold af­ter be­ing kil­led by the farm, “in­sects sold live” are live (usu­ally for pet, live­stock, or fish feed), and “other deaths prior to pro­cess­ing” are deaths that oc­cur on the farm prior to the in­sect grow­ing fully (such as a cricket nymph dy­ing from can­ni­bal­ism).

In­sects sold slaughtered

Th­ese are in­sects kil­led on the farm, and are typ­i­cally dried and sold whole, or sold pow­dered. This is how the ma­jor­ity of farmed in­sects are pro­cessed.

In­sects sold live

In­sects are sold live as pet food (for rep­tiles, birds, and fish) or for live­stock and farmed fish. This in­dus­try is sur­pris­ingly mas­sive — I be­lieve these in­sects for this mar­ket make up the ma­jor­ity of in­sects farmed in the US and Europe. They are im­pres­sively cheap. As of writ­ing, you can pur­chase 1,000 live meal­worms on Ama­zon.com for $17.19 (and free ship­ping).

Other deaths prior to processing

Th­ese figures rep­re­sent in­sects who die prior to be­ing slaugh­tered or sold. In­sect farm­ing of­ten in­volves mass deaths, where a virus or bac­te­ria will wipe out en­tire gen­er­a­tions. Or, in­sects will die from can­ni­bal­ism, star­va­tion, or drown­ing early in life. Un­less they are big enough to har­vest, these in­sects are ei­ther thrown out or fed back to the in­sects on the farm as an ad­di­tional source of chitin. Th­ese deaths will be ex­plored in part 2, as they seem like a ma­jor area of po­ten­tial welfare con­cern on in­sect farms.

In­sect species

I cat­e­go­rized farmed in­sects into 4 species groups, though un­for­tu­nately due to poor qual­ity data, these cat­e­gories are not perfectly con­sis­tent be­tween re­gions.

Crickets

In the US and Europe, figures for crick­ets mostly re­fer to Acheta do­mes­ti­cus, the house cricket or pin­head cricket. In Asia, Latin Amer­ica, and Africa, they also re­fer to some species of grasshop­pers (though not all), such as cha­pulines in Latin Amer­ica. In the US and Europe, grasshop­pers are listed un­der “other.”

Mealworms

Meal­worms are the lar­vae of a species of dark­ling bee­tle. In Asia, Africa, and Latin Amer­ica this figure likely in­cludes many other bee­tle lar­vae, and pos­si­bly some cater­pillars (lar­vae of moths or but­terflies).

Black sol­dier flies

This cat­e­gory typ­i­cally refers to the lar­vae of black sol­dier flies, which are his­tor­i­cally rel­a­tively un­com­mon as an in­sect food, but have come to promi­nence es­pe­cially as a promis­ing fish­meal or an­i­mal feed al­ter­na­tive.

Other

This refers to all other in­sects and small ter­res­trial in­ver­te­brates that are farmed, from scor­pi­ons (not an in­sect) to cater­pillars to bee­tle lar­vae to ants. Non-in­sect in­ver­te­brates might be in­cluded as the in­dus­try in­cludes farm­ers who breed both in­sects and other in­ver­te­brates, and this is not typ­i­cally differ­en­ti­ated by in­dus­try groups. Many in­sect farms use the word “in­sect” in a col­lo­quial sense refer­ring to a broad range of ter­res­trial in­ver­te­brates.

Aver­age population

The av­er­age pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mate is the av­er­age num­ber of the listed species al­ive on farms at any given time. Th­ese are found by tak­ing the an­nual “days on farm” es­ti­mates from the model and di­vid­ing them by 365. The to­tal days on farm figures re­fer to how many days farmed in­sects live in to­tal on farms. For ex­am­ple, if there are 5 in­sects on a farm for 10 days each, this cor­re­sponds to 50 to­tal days ex­pe­rienced. This ap­pears in the model as “days on farm.” The av­er­age pop­u­la­tion figure is use­ful for di­rect com­par­i­son to similar es­ti­mates that have been made for farmed an­i­mals.

In­sect farm­ing totals

In­sect farm­ing by species

Crickets

Mealworms

Black sol­dier flies

Other insects

Farm­ing prac­tices and conditions

Cricket farm­ing prac­tices and conditions

Crick­ets are tra­di­tion­ally raised in plas­tic bins, with egg car­tons or card­board ma­te­ri­als giv­ing them space to move and lay eggs ver­ti­cally, and with a layer of pot­ting soil or similar sub­strate on the bot­tom. Crick­ets need highly hu­mid en­vi­ron­ments to sur­vive, so damp sponges are of­ten placed in­side these bins to reg­u­late hu­midity (es­pe­cially if the farm is in a dry en­vi­ron­ment). Be­cause crick­ets are prone to drown­ing in pools of wa­ter, their wa­ter source is also of­ten a damp sponge, ac­cord­ing to an in­sect in­dus­try con­sul­tant.

A fe­male Acheta do­mes­ti­cus (com­monly farmed in the US and Canada) cricket can lay around 3,000 eggs over the course of her life (8-10 weeks as an adult) (Clifford 1985), though in­dus­try sources say that typ­i­cally, per cricket, you can ex­pect around 100 eggs (Cricket Care 2020). I sus­pect the differ­ence be­tween these figures is how many eggs typ­i­cally hatch, and the fact that fe­male lay­ers are of­ten slaugh­tered prior to the end of their re­pro­duc­tive life. Ac­cord­ing to the pro­duc­ers I in­ter­viewed in the US and Canada, typ­i­cally around 5,000 crick­ets live on each square foot of farm­ing space , though in­for­ma­tion on an­i­mal num­bers re­ported by sur­vey par­ti­ci­pants was in­ter­nally in­con­sis­tent, so I am un­cer­tain if this figure is ac­cu­rate.

Eggs hatch within two weeks, and nymph crick­ets break out of the eggs. Th­ese nymphs are in­te­grated with a larger colony, though some are re­tained for fur­ther breed­ing in con­tain­ers where con­di­tions are con­ducive to breed­ing (higher heat and hu­midity).

In the US, Canada, and Europe, crick­ets are typ­i­cally fed a com­bi­na­tion of veg­eta­bles and chick starter feed (corn and soy) — some pro­duc­ers even list ex­actly what spe­cific crick­ets were fed in a push for trans­parency (Craft Crick­ets 2020). My un­der­stand­ing is that diets are similar in Thailand and China, the other largest pro­duc­ers of crick­ets in the world, but I have no data on global cricket diets out­side of con­ver­sa­tions with the board of a US in­dus­try ad­vo­cacy group. The Thai Agri­cul­tural Stan­dards for cricket farms don’t list spe­cific re­quire­ments for feed out­side of it be­ing healthy for the crick­ets (Thai Bureau of Agri­cul­tural Com­mod­ity and Food Stan­dards 2017). An un­offi­cial trans­la­tion of the de­tailed rules also pro­vides no guidelines on feed, out­side of it be­ing within its ex­pira­tion date (Bug­solutely 2017).

Sur­vey­ing US and Cana­dian in­sect farms, I asked if there were differ­ences in feed be­tween crick­ets raised for hu­man con­sump­tion and crick­ets raised for an­i­mal con­sump­tion. Most pro­duc­ers said no, though some who raised both said that they used GMO prod­ucts for crick­ets raised for an­i­mals, and non-GMO prod­ucts for crick­ets raised for hu­mans. I sus­pect this makes no differ­ence to the crick­ets. Ad­di­tion­ally, no farms re­ported differ­ences in feed used for crick­ets sold live or slaugh­tered. A 2005 study found that cricket yields would be largest if fed a diet of hu­man re­fuse con­sist­ing of pri­mar­ily fruit and veg­eta­bles, with some grains and meat (Col­lavo et al. 2005).

Crick­ets reach full size within seven to eight weeks, and are typ­i­cally slaugh­tered or sold live im­me­di­ately upon reach­ing that age. Ac­cord­ing to a US in­dus­try con­sul­tant, crick­ets are typ­i­cally slaugh­tered in the US and Europe by freez­ing, though shred­ding and heat­ing are also com­mon. They are of­ten freeze-dried to re­move wa­ter, and some­times freeze-dried live.

Cur­rently, many cricket farm­ers use plas­tic bins and card­board for their farms. Even the largest cricket farm in the world, En­tomo Farms in Canada, ap­pears to use sim­ple card­board tow­ers for farm­ing (En­to­na­tion 2018). How­ever, au­to­mated sys­tems that con­trol hu­midity and tem­per­a­ture have be­come available for farm­ers over the last few years (Rolin 2018).

Meal­worm farm­ing practices

Meal­worms are the lar­vae of meal­worm bee­tles, a species of dark­ling bee­tle. How­ever, many dark­ling and other bee­tle lar­vae are also bred for food — meal­worms may just be the most com­mon.

The first stage of meal­worm farm­ing is breed­ing dark­ling bee­tles. Un­like crick­ets, where the re­pro­duc­tive in­di­vi­d­u­als are also the in­di­vi­d­u­als that are kil­led and eaten, meal­worm farm­ers also need a sep­a­rate re­pro­ducitve colony to con­tinue pro­duc­ing meal­worms.. Th­ese bee­tles are kept in large bins, and max­i­mum yield of eggs is achieved at around 0.84 bee­tles per square cen­time­ter. Fe­male bee­tles lay five to eight eggs a day, and about 300 over the course of a life (An­der­sen et al. 2017).

After eggs hatch, pro­duc­ers fo­cus on grow­ing the lar­vae as quickly as pos­si­ble. Tem­per­a­ture, hu­midity, feed, and stock­ing den­sity all im­pact lar­val growth (An­der­sen et al. 2017). Once lar­vae reach full size (up to 170mg), they are sep­a­rated from frass (in­sect waste) and bed­ding and food resi­dues by us­ing a sift­ing mesh (An­der­sen et al. 2017). They are then slaugh­tered in a va­ri­ety of meth­ods, though in the US and Europe, freez­ing or freeze-dry­ing ap­pear to be the most fre­quent. Ac­cord­ing to sur­veyed meal­worm farm­ers, typ­i­cal post-slaugh­ter weight (af­ter dry­ing) is be­tween 100mg and 110mg. Some lar­vae are al­lowed to de­velop into bee­tles for fur­ther breed­ing.

Meal­worms are fed bran from var­i­ous ce­re­als, veg­eta­bles, and fruit. Chicken feed is of­ten used to feed meal­worms, though it can be ex­pen­sive. Lar­vae have a high feed con­ver­sion ra­tio — 2:1. Adult bee­tles have a lower con­ver­sion ra­tio and thus eat much less food per in­di­vi­d­ual (An­der­sen et al. 2017).

Lar­vae grow best at high tem­per­a­tures, 86°F–90°F, and at 50% to 70% rel­a­tive hu­midity (An­der­sen et al. 2017).

Ac­cord­ing to a US in­dus­try group, meal­worms are typ­i­cally raised in large plas­tic bins that are in­su­lated to keep heat gen­er­ated by meal­worms in­side, in­creas­ing yield.

Black sol­dier fly farm­ing practices

Black sol­dier flies origi­nally came from Latin Amer­ica, but are now es­tab­lished in most of the world, and are com­mon in the US and Europe. Similarly to meal­worms, black sol­dier fly pro­duc­ers must keep a breed­ing colony, as the pri­mary food product pro­duced is made from ground black sol­dier fly lar­vae (some liter­a­ture will re­fer to them as mag­gots, which is a gen­eral term for fly lar­vae, but the in­dus­try seems to pre­fer the term black sol­dier fly lar­vae).

Adult black sol­dier flies are raised in net­ted boxes in rel­a­tively hot and hu­mid con­di­tions (above 73°F and 50% rel­a­tive hu­midity). Water is pro­vided (in shal­low dishes to pre­vent drown­ing), and rot­ting food is also po­si­tioned at the bot­tom of the box. Adult black sol­dier flies do not eat, but will only lay eggs on available food. Typ­i­cally, ce­re­als, fruits, and veg­eta­bles are used. Food is kept moist, and mold is a fre­quent prob­lem that is oc­ca­sion­ally ad­dressed by treat­ing the food with an­tibiotics (Yang 2017). Black sol­dier flies typ­i­cally lay eggs in cracks and crevices, so card­board de­vices that provide ap­pro­pri­ate con­di­tions are pro­vided (Bul­lock et al. 2013).

Eggs are moved from the breed­ing colony to a nursery bin, where they hatch af­ter up to 10 days at a high tem­per­a­ture (up to 86°F, Yang 2017).

The lar­vae can feed on a va­ri­ety of foods, from ce­re­als to fruits and veg­eta­bles to meat to an­i­mal waste (Yang 2017). Be­cause of this, black sol­dier fly lar­vae might be an es­pe­cially cheap in­sect to farm. They can be grown on much of the food waste pro­duced by other hu­man ac­tivity, but typ­i­cally re­quire some an­i­mal pro­tein to thrive.

Lar­vae grow in large colonies, and thrive in very hot en­vi­ron­ments The colony core can reach 90°F–110°F, though lar­vae will stop eat­ing and die at higher tem­per­a­tures (Yang 2017). Be­cause they live buried in sub­strate (soil or mulch typ­i­cally), the main fac­tors lead­ing to early deaths of lar­vae are tem­per­a­tures get­ting higher than these limits, or poor ven­tila­tion of the sub­strate (Yang 2017).

Black sol­dier fly lar­vae “self-har­vest” in the sense that once they are fully grown, they will crawl out of the sub­strate and up the sides of a con­tainer. Pro­duc­ers take ad­van­tage of this by us­ing har­vest­ing com­part­ments that the lar­vae fall into fol­low­ing this climb (Fisher and Ro­mano 2020).

Black sol­dier fly lar­vae are fre­quently shred­ded and freeze-dried to pro­duce a pow­dered product, un­less they are sold as rep­tile food(Erens et al. 2012).

Com­mon causes of pre­pro­cess­ing death on black sol­dier fly farms in­clude par­a­sitic wasps, mites, toxic fungi and mold grow­ing on food, or viruses (Yang 2017).

Other in­sect farm­ing prac­tices and conditions

Dozens of other species of in­sects and ter­res­trial in­ver­te­brates are farmed for food, and prac­tices vary widely from species to species. While I’ve not doc­u­mented all prac­tices here, many of the most com­mon other species farmed, such as grasshop­pers, var­i­ous bee­tle lar­vae, and cater­pillars (lar­val moths and but­terflies) fol­low very similar pro­ce­dures as the in­sects out­lined above.

Much less in­for­ma­tion is available on some of the more un­usual ter­res­trial arthro­pods farmed for food, such as scor­pi­ons.

In­sect farm­ing welfare concerns

In­sect welfare may be hard to de­tect (see be­low: Areas for fur­ther re­search), so the fo­cus of this sec­tion will be on com­mon is­sues that ei­ther cause a pre­ma­ture death on farms and how in­sects are slaugh­tered. Some en­to­mol­o­gists have claimed that cap­tive in­sects are not par­tic­u­larly tol­er­ant of “sub­op­ti­mal con­di­tions,” mean­ing that if they are sur­viv­ing they may be thriv­ing. The ev­i­dence for this claim seems to pri­mar­ily be that in­sects tend to die in cap­tivity en masse when con­di­tions change slightly (Bop­pré & Vane-Wright 2019). If this claim is true, in­sect welfare ad­vo­cates may want to fo­cus on pre­pro­cess­ing causes of death and slaugh­ter meth­ods, which are out­lined be­low.

One of few pieces of re­search ex­plor­ing ques­tions of an­i­mal welfare on in­sect farms, “A bug’s life: large-scale in­sect rear­ing in re­la­tion to an­i­mal welfare,” lists sev­eral ar­eas of po­ten­tial an­i­mal welfare con­cerns that were not shared by farm­ers (Erens et al. 2012). How­ever, the pa­per fre­quently bases its an­i­mal welfare claims in what leads to great­est yields of in­sects, and it is un­clear how this cor­re­lates with an­i­mal welfare. Ad­di­tion­ally, many of their claims are vague, and con­flate welfare with pre­vent­ing death.

In­dus­try doc­u­ments on an­i­mal welfare are few and far be­tween. The most rele­vant is the Euro­pean in­dus­try lobby, In­ter­na­tional Plat­form of In­sects for Food and Feed re­port on in­sect farm­ing welfare. This doc­u­ment vaguely points to the five free­doms model of an­i­mal welfare, vaguely at­tempts to claim that in­sects might not feel pain, calls for more re­search to be con­ducted, and urges farm­ers to keep in­sects in high welfare con­di­tions (IPIFF An­i­mal Welfare).

There are likely other fac­tors im­pact­ing in­sect welfare, such as dis­eases that in­jure but do not kill in­sects. When I spoke to farm­ers or in­dus­try ex­perts about in­sect welfare, they con­sis­tently dis­cussed early causes of death, and did not con­sider sub-lethal drivers of poor welfare. How­ever, the one con­sis­tent non-death caus­ing area of con­cern for farm­ers were pests that lived on or around crick­ets — es­pe­cially fruit flies and mites. It is un­clear what the im­pact of these pests is on crick­ets or farm­ing.

Few in­sect farms men­tion an­i­mal welfare. Six Legs Farms in the UK promi­nently claims their crick­ets are high welfare, but did not re­spond to an email re­quest for more in­for­ma­tion on this claim. Farms such as Ÿn­sect and En­tomo Farms also have brief men­tions of in­sect wellbe­ing. How­ever, there are some in­sights from Erens et al. 2012 into con­di­tions on farms that might im­pact an­i­mal welfare:

Light conditions

In cer­tain light­ing con­di­tions, some in­sects will en­ter a di­a­pause, or a dor­mant state that can de­lay de­vel­op­ment. Ad­di­tion­ally, in­sects ex­pe­rience cir­ca­dian rhythm cy­cles, and light­ing can af­fect how they en­ter and exit these cy­cles, which plau­si­bly im­pacts welfare. Some pro­duc­ers raise black sol­dier flies in to­tal dark­ness to re­duce en­ergy costs and max­i­mize yield (Erens et al. 2012).

Temperature

In­sects are ex­tremely sen­si­tive to tem­per­a­ture, and tem­per­a­ture can im­pact cir­ca­dian rhythm cy­cles, in­sect breed­ing be­hav­ior, and in­sect metabolic rate and de­vel­op­ment. Again, it is un­clear how these vari­a­tions based on tem­per­a­ture im­pact welfare (Erens et al. 2012).

Humidity

Hu­midity vari­a­tions can be fatal for in­sects. In­cor­rect hu­midi­ties can also im­pact will­ing­ness to breed, and high hu­midity en­vi­ron­ments can lead to greater in­stances of fun­gal in­fec­tions and other dis­ease prob­lems (Erens et al. 2012).

Rear­ing Density

In­sects raised at higher den­si­ties tend to be more sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease and for some species, more likely to can­ni­bal­ize each other (Erens et al. 2012).

Cleanliness

In­sects raised in un­clean con­di­tions, where proper san­i­ta­tion mea­sures are not taken, or in places where out­side pathogens are brought in by HVAC sys­tems or em­ploy­ees, are more likely to suffer from dis­eases (Erens et al. 2012).

Feed

Im­proper nu­tri­tion or con­tam­i­nants in food can nega­tively im­pact in­sect de­vel­op­ment (Erens et al. 2012).

Causes of death prior to processing

From cor­re­spon­dence with and sur­veys of in­sect farm­ers in the US, Canada, and Europe, I be­lieve that the most com­mon causes of death prior to pro­cess­ing (live sale or slaugh­ter) fall into five broad cat­e­gories:

Water-re­lated deaths

In­sects are fre­quently reared in high hu­midity en­vi­ron­ments. Ac­cord­ing to a US in­sect in­dus­try con­sul­tant, deaths fre­quently oc­cur on farms due to is­sues re­lated to wa­ter, such as in­sects drown­ing in pools of wa­ter, in­sects con­sum­ing non-puri­fied or treated wa­ter that has dis­solved or­ganic chem­i­cals, in­sects con­sum­ing wa­ter that has been con­tam­i­nated by frass or food, and a lack of wa­ter lead­ing to de­hy­dra­tion.

Cannibalism

In­sects fre­quently seek out chitin or ex­oskele­ton. While a cricket, for ex­am­ple, might molt as many as eight times through­out its life, pro­vid­ing a source of chitin for it­self, typ­i­cally farms need to provide some sup­ple­men­ta­tion, or in­sects will be­gin eat­ing each other (Simp­son et al. 2006). Farm­ers re­ported that in­sects, es­pe­cially crick­ets, will eat other in­sects if not pro­vided an out­side source of chitin. Ad­di­tion­ally, for crick­ets, an in­dus­try con­sul­tant re­ported that crick­ets will of­ten eat each other when kept in dense pop­u­la­tions, mean­ing that har­vest­ing timing is of­ten planned to take place be­fore a mass die-off is caused by mu­tual can­ni­bal­ism.

Food con­tam­i­na­tion
Since in­sects are fre­quently fed waste veg­eta­bles, or fed chicken feed kept in a high hu­midity en­vi­ron­ment, food fre­quently be­comes moldy or soggy. In my in­ter­views, re­spon­dents re­ported that such con­tam­i­na­tion can also be caused by in­fre­quent chang­ing of food, and fre­quently leads to death.

Com­po­si­tion of diet

Most in­sects eat a diet of chicken feed mixed with veg­eta­bles. If this mix doesn’t meet nu­tri­tional re­quire­ments, they will of­ten die. Ad­di­tion­ally, one in­dus­try con­sul­tant men­tioned that food from some sources can in­tro­duce dis­eases or viruses into pop­u­la­tions.

Disease

In­sects fre­quently die from viral in­fec­tions, or par­a­sites such as mites. Often, en­tire gen­er­a­tions of in­sects will die at once, and in­dus­try ex­perts say that stop­ping the spread of dis­eases within farms is difficult .

Slaugh­ter methods

There is very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion on the prevalence of slaugh­ter meth­ods used for in­sects. The method of slaugh­ter is to some ex­tent shaped by the product be­ing pro­duced. For ex­am­ple, shred­ding is not ap­pro­pri­ate for in­sects sold whole, since their bod­ies need to be in­tact. Pro­duc­ers that I in­ter­viewed re­ported freez­ing and shred­ding as the two most fre­quent meth­ods of slaugh­ter. Com­pa­nies have also re­ported us­ing freeze-dry­ing, heat­ing (via ovens or steam­ing), boiling, or as­phyx­i­a­tion (Erens et al. 2012).

Some meth­ods that have been touted as more hu­mane, such as freez­ing, seem un­clear. The Bri­tish and Ir­ish As­so­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­iums has re­leased guidelines on in­ver­te­brate eu­thana­sia, and sug­gest that freez­ing is one of the least eth­i­cal op­tions (Pel­lett et al. 2013). This is be­cause freez­ing may not provide mus­cle re­lax­ation or an anal­gesic effect for in­sects. One recom­mended method for cricket and grasshop­per slaugh­ter is ren­der­ing the in­sects un­con­scious with car­bon diox­ide, fol­lowed by KCL in­jec­tions (Pel­let et al. 2013, Ben­nie et al. 2012). It’s worth not­ing that this is not likely to be prac­ti­cal at a com­mer­cial scale. Un­for­tu­nately, most of the stud­ies on hu­mane in­ver­te­brate eu­thana­sia look at species not closely re­lated to in­sects farmed for food, such as spi­ders or lob­sters. The BIAZA re­port also notes that de­tect­ing death in in­sects is some­what difficult (Pel­let et al. 2013). Re­cent liter­a­ture re­views sug­gest that we don’t have suffi­cient ev­i­dence to make claims about the rel­a­tive hu­mane­ness of slaugh­ter meth­ods (Cooper 2011). The Amer­i­can Ve­teri­nary Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion guidelines for in­ver­te­brate eu­thana­sia recom­mend against phys­i­cal meth­ods such as freez­ing or boiling, and also point to chem­i­cal in­jec­tions as the most hu­mane op­tion for eu­th­a­niz­ing in­ver­te­brates (AVMA 2020). How­ever, freez­ing does ap­pear to se­date shrimp (though not larger crus­taceans), so it’s pos­si­ble these guidelines are not ac­cu­rate (Wei­neck et al. 2018).

How­ever, pro­duc­ers do provide an­other an­gle on slaugh­ter not men­tioned in the eu­thana­sia liter­a­ture. Protix, a ma­jor black sol­dier fly lar­vae pro­ducer, kills in­sects us­ing shred­ding, which they claim takes a “split sec­ond” (Erens et al. 2012). If it is the case that shred­ding is in­cred­ibly quick, then it seems pos­si­ble that this is prefer­able to “slower” meth­ods like freez­ing or heat­ing for over­all welfare, and the du­ra­tion of painful ex­pe­rience might be re­duced. The 2013 FAO re­port on in­sect con­sump­tion also sug­gests shred­ding or freez­ing as the most hu­mane method for kil­ling (Van Huis et al. 2013). Given the un­cer­tainty around the hu­mane­ness of freez­ing, the limited ev­i­dence sug­gests that rapid shred­ding might be the least painful method for in­sect slaugh­ter that is prac­ti­cal, as it seems un­likely that farms would adopt ex­pen­sive chem­i­cal treat­ments.

Trans­port methods

For in­sects sold live (pri­mar­ily for rep­tile and poul­try food), trans­porta­tion is an area of po­ten­tial welfare con­cern. I did not col­lect data on trans­porta­tion, so the con­clu­sions pre­sented in this sec­tion are more spec­u­la­tive. Josh’s Frogs pro­vides a live ar­rival guaran­tee on 3 day ship­ping, whereby the com­pany pro­vides a re­fund if the tem­per­a­ture stays within a spe­cific range but the in­sects don’t ar­rive live. As­sum­ing that these ranges are a good proxy for tem­per­a­tures that will kill in­sects dur­ing ship­ping, most in­sects seem to die at above 85°F, and be­low 0°F, though for some species com­monly farmed, such as gi­ant meal­worms and su­per­worms, the lower bound was more re­stric­tive (up to 40°F) (Josh’s Frogs).

Another piece of ev­i­dence that tem­per­a­ture is the main con­sid­er­a­tion in the sur­vival of in­sects dur­ing ship­ping is this dis­cus­sion thread on Re­searchGate, where re­searchers sug­gest us­ing var­i­ous in­su­lated con­tain­ers and heat­ing de­vices for ship­ping live in­sects dur­ing win­ter. In­sects also may be crushed by boxes, stuck in pack­ing tape, or in the case of crick­ets, can­ni­bal­ized if de­liv­ery is de­layed. Based on Ama­zon.com and other sites, re­views sug­gest that not only do many in­sects reg­u­larly die dur­ing trans­porta­tion, but that the com­mon prac­tice ship­ping method is to put in­sects into a con­tainer and send them through the mail. Com­pa­nies might in­clude in­struc­tions for keep­ing in­sects al­ive upon ar­rival.

Life af­ter the farm

A fi­nal area of welfare con­cern not cov­ered in the es­ti­mates I’ve pro­vided, or cov­ered in the re­search, is the life of in­sects sold live af­ter be­ing raised and trans­ported. Since most of these in­sects are raised for fish, live­stock, or pet food, they will die dur­ing trans­porta­tion, die dur­ing stor­age af­ter trans­porta­tion, be kil­led by the pur­chaser, or be eaten al­ive. I found no pub­lished in­for­ma­tion as­sess­ing the rel­a­tive harms of these differ­ent ways of dy­ing.

Policy and reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing in­sect farm­ing and consumption

This is a brief out­line of the le­gal­ity of farm­ing in­sects for hu­man and an­i­mal con­sump­tion in var­i­ous re­gions, and the cur­rent leg­is­la­tive and policy efforts that in­dus­try groups are un­der­tak­ing.

There are limited re­sources available on the le­gal­ity of in­sects as food and feed in many re­gions, and given the global prevalence of en­to­mophagy, in­sects are likely per­mit­ted for hu­man and an­i­mal con­sump­tion in many parts of the world. The most com­pre­hen­sive re­view to date of laws gov­ern­ing in­sect feed are Sog­ari et al. 2019, “The po­ten­tial role of in­sects as feed: a multi-per­spec­tive re­view,” and the slightly out­dated Läh­teen­mäki-Uutela et al. 2017, “In­sects as food and deed: laws of the Euro­pean Union, United States, Canada, Aus­tralia, and China”.

United States and Canada

In the US, black sol­dier fly lar­vae has been ap­proved by the Food and Drug Ad­minis­tra­tion (FDA) as feed for salmonid fish, poul­try, and pigs (Kelly 2020, Sog­ari et al. 2019). How­ever, the FDA has not re­viewed other in­sect prod­ucts (Kelly 2020).

The FDA and an in­dus­try stan­dard set­ter, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Feed Con­trol Offi­cials, are wait­ing on pro­po­nents of in­sect-based pet food to provide suffi­cient in­for­ma­tion to trig­ger an offi­cial “in­gre­di­ent defi­ni­tion pro­cess” prior to in­sects be­ing ap­proved as an in­gre­di­ent for pet food. Pet food man­u­fac­tur­ers also may be re­quired to con­duct safety stud­ies prior to ap­proval (Kelly 2020).

In­sects raised for hu­man con­sump­tion are ap­proved in the US pro­vided that the pro­ducer met stan­dards set by the FDA, such as bac­te­ri­olog­i­cal tests and meet­ing la­bel­ing re­quire­ments. Im­port­ing in­sects for hu­man con­sump­tion is also le­gal (Bug­solutely 2018).

In Canada, black sol­dier fly lar­vae are au­tho­rized for poul­try feed and aqua­cul­ture, but other in­sects are not cur­rently ap­proved as an­i­mal feed (Sog­ari et al. 2019).

Pet foods con­tain­ing in­sects do not need to be ap­proved by a reg­u­la­tory body in Canada, though they must not con­tain in­gre­di­ents that are speci­fi­cally con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous (PFAC In­dus­try Reg­u­la­tions 2015).

In­sects are broadly ap­proved for hu­man con­sump­tion in Canada, though many have not been re­viewed by the Bureau of Micro­bial Hazards, which could cause some in­sect foods to be banned in the fu­ture (Bug­solutely 2018).

Europe

In the Euro­pean Union, af­ter the Bov­ine Spongiform En­cephalopa­thy (mad cow dis­ease) out­break in the early 2000s, an­i­mal-de­rived pro­teins were banned as an­i­mal feed. Cur­rently, these laws pre­vent in­sects from be­ing raised as poul­try, pig, or cow feed. How­ever whole in­sects are the ex­cep­tion to this ban. How­ever, in July 2017, pro­teins de­rived from seven species of in­sects, in­clud­ing the ma­jor groups in­cluded in this re­port (black sol­dier flies, com­mon house flies, yel­low meal­worms, lesser meal­worms, house crick­ets, banded crick­ets, and field crick­ets were ap­proved for aqua­cul­ture (Euro­pean Union 2017).

This rul­ing has paved the way for the con­sid­er­a­tion of an ex­emp­tion of the ban on an­i­mal-de­rived feeds for poul­try. Cur­rently the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing a re­vi­sion to feed ban rules to al­low pork and in­sects to be fed to poul­try (IPIFF EU Leg­is­la­tion).

In­sects raised for hu­man con­sump­tion are cur­rently (2020) ap­proved in the UK, the Nether­lands, Belgium, Den­mark and Fin­land. And, as of April 2020, the EU will likely soon ap­prove some in­sect species as safe for hu­man con­sump­tion, which will sig­nifi­cantly in­crease the Euro­pean mar­ket for in­sects (Boffey 2020). The EU also ap­pears to be draft­ing hy­giene reg­u­la­tions for in­sects raised for hu­man con­sump­tion (Euro­pean Union 2019).

In­sects have been ap­proved for pet food in the EU, and dog food made from in­sects is available from com­pa­nies like Yora (Kelly 2020).

Asia and Oceania

In China and South Korea, in­sects do not need au­tho­riza­tion prior to be­ing used for an­i­mal feed or hu­man food, though there may be re­stric­tions on their use as an­i­mal feed in North Korea (Sog­ari et al. 2019).

Thailand, the world’s largest pro­ducer of crick­ets and grasshop­pers, has re­leased guidelines on farm­ing prac­tices for crick­ets (Thai Bureau of Agri­cul­tural Com­mod­ity and Food Stan­dards 2017), but oth­er­wise does not have reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing en­to­mophagy or rais­ing in­sects as an­i­mal feed (Bug­solutely 2018). Else­where in South­east Asia, there gen­er­ally do not seem to be laws pre­vent­ing the con­sump­tion of in­sects by hu­mans (Bug­solutely 2018).

In Aus­tralia and New Zealand, which share a food safety agency (called Food Stan­dards Aus­tralia New Zealand or FSANZ), have re­viewed some in­sect foods, such as crick­ets, su­per­worms, and meal­worms, and broadly have not put limits on the con­sump­tions of these in­sects. Live in­sect im­ports for an­i­mal feed are not per­mit­ted (In­sect Protein As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia 2020).

Mid­dle East, Africa, and Latin America

There has been less English lan­guage re­view of laws el­se­where in the world, but broadly, in many coun­tries where in­sects have been con­sumed tra­di­tion­ally, such as Mex­ico, in­sects are per­mit­ted as food for both an­i­mals and hu­mans (Läh­teen­mäki-Uutela et al. 2017).

Areas for fur­ther research

What kind of ex­pe­riences are most harm­ful for in­sects?

Ex­tremely lit­tle is known about in­sect sen­tience and in­sect welfare. Since re­spon­sive­ness to a cer­tain stim­uli might vary widely from species to species, it seems un­clear that sin­gle in­ter­ven­tions to im­prove in­sect welfare will work on mul­ti­ple taxa. One area for fur­ther re­search is iden­ti­fy­ing what kinds of stim­uli com­mon on in­sect farms are most painful for the species that are farmed, in or­der to pri­ori­tize in­ter­ven­tions. Also, since many species of bee­tle worm, fly lar­vae, and other ju­ve­nile in­sects are farmed for food, fur­ther re­search is needed into how in­sect sen­tience varies through­out the life­cy­cle of in­sects.

Is in­sect welfare ob­vi­ous?

A com­mon view among in­sect farm­ers when dis­cussing welfare is that it is ob­vi­ous to them when in­sect welfare is high on their farms. Ba­si­cally, there is a some­what wide­spread be­lief that if in­sects are do­ing well, they sur­vive, and if they are do­ing poorly, they die. This view is shared to some ex­tent by the en­to­mol­ogy com­mu­nity, where in­sects are de­scribed as be­ing “far less tol­er­ant of sub­op­ti­mal con­di­tions,” than many ver­te­brates (Bop­pré & Vane-Wright 2019). One rea­son for this is that be­sides oc­ca­sional drown­ings, etc., in­sects will some­times die en masse, sug­gest­ing that when con­di­tions de­vi­ate from nor­mal (when there are few deaths), there are sud­denly many deaths.

It’s un­clear the ex­tent to which this view is an ac­cu­rate de­pic­tion of in­sect welfare on farms. It could be that within the con­fines of in­sect farms, the harms to in­sects tend to kill them. For ter­res­trial ver­te­brates, it seems like many an­i­mals that are farmed plau­si­bly have low welfare, and yet the an­i­mals do not suffer high mor­tal­ity rates — it is un­clear if we ought to ex­pect the same to be true of in­sects. It also seems pos­si­ble that hu­mans are just bad at ca­su­ally as­sess­ing in­sect welfare, so farm­ers are miss­ing im­por­tant as­pects of in­sect wellbe­ing.

How­ever, if this claim is true, it might be good news for in­sect welfare ad­vo­cates — ad­dress­ing early mor­tal­ity might take care of many welfare con­cerns on farms.

To as­sess this, one area for fur­ther re­search is de­ter­min­ing whether or not the ex­pe­riences that tend to be most harm­ful to in­sects will also gen­er­ally lead quickly to their deaths.

How likely is it that hu­mans will start con­sum­ing in­sects more widely?

After con­duct­ing this re­view, it seems likely that this most con­cern­ing trend in the in­sect farm­ing space is the pro­duc­tion of in­sects for an­i­mal feed. How­ever, there is some pos­si­bil­ity that the five billion hu­mans who don’t reg­u­larly eat in­sects might start. Un­der­stand­ing whether or not this is likely could shape the pri­ori­ties of in­sect ad­vo­cates. If it is un­likely, then fo­cus­ing on re­duc­ing cur­rent farm­ing or pre­vent­ing reg­u­la­tory ap­proval of in­sects raised for feed might be a more ur­gent in­ter­ven­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, hu­man con­sump­tion of in­sects likely trades off against con­sump­tion of an­i­mal prod­ucts to some ex­tent, while among in­sects raised for an­i­mal feed, only those re­plac­ing fish­meal trade off against the con­sump­tion of an­i­mal prod­ucts. This sug­gests that the cost-effec­tive­ness of re­duc­ing in­sects raised for hu­man con­sump­tion could be lower than re­duc­ing similar num­bers of in­sects raised for feed.

In terms of in­ter­est, Van Huis 2020 notes that aca­demic in­ter­est in ed­ible in­sects has grown sig­nifi­cantly over the last sev­eral years. In par­tic­u­lar, in­ter­est is grow­ing in black sol­dier flies, which are es­pe­cially preva­lent on farms rais­ing in­sects for an­i­mal feed. Taken with the grow­ing in­ter­est in plant-based foods, which are an­other meat al­ter­na­tive per­ceived as more sus­tain­able than ter­res­trial ver­te­brate meat, these sug­gest the risk of greater hu­man con­sump­tion of in­sects to be rel­a­tively low.

Appendix

Models

Fish­meal re­place­ment model

Global es­ti­mate totals

US and Canada in­sect farm­ing model

Europe in­sect farm­ing model

Asia in­sect farm­ing model

Mid­dle East and Africa in­sect farm­ing model

Latin Amer­ica in­sect farm­ing model

Methods

To de­velop these es­ti­mates, I started with cur­rent pro­duc­tion ton­nage es­ti­mates that have been com­pleted by Bar­clays, the In­ter­na­tional Plat­form for In­sects as Food and Feed (IPIFF), and other re­searchers (Mor­ri­son & Pa­tel 2019, IPIFF 2019, Behre et al. 2018, Con­nolly 2019, Dossey et al. 2016). I broke these figures into es­ti­mates for pro­duc­tion by re­gion and in­sect species us­ing in­for­ma­tion from re­searchers and com­mu­ni­ca­tions with an in­sect in­dus­try group (Shock­ley & Dossey 2014; Erens et al. 2012; Mor­ri­son & Pa­tel 2019; Feng et al. 2017; Han­boon­song 2018; Kip­koech et al. 2017; Melzer-Ven­turi 2015; Miech 2018; Van Huis 2003; Koele­man 2016; Sog­ari et al. 2019; Weigel 2016). While there are high qual­ity data on species pro­duced in Europe, the US, and Canada, the data available on pro­duc­tion in Asia are slightly less good (there are pre­cise figures for China and Thailand, but not other re­gions), and worse still for the Mid­dle East, Africa, and Latin Amer­ica. Most of the un­cer­tainty in the model lies in how re­gional pro­duc­tion is split be­tween differ­ent species of in­sects. How­ever, due to the rel­a­tively low vari­a­tion in in­sect weight, this ends up not caus­ing a high amount of vari­a­tion in the fi­nal figures pro­duced by my model.

From ton­nage es­ti­mates by re­gion and species, I took typ­i­cal farmed in­sect weights to pro­duce es­ti­mates of to­tal in­di­vi­d­u­als farmed (Heck­mann et al. 2018; An­der­sen et al. 2017; Mo­rales-Ramos et al. 2020; Von Hack­e­witz 2018; WAES 1994). Then, Us­ing in­for­ma­tion from in­ter­views and con­ver­sa­tions with farm­ers and an in­dus­try con­sul­tant, I es­ti­mated the av­er­age pre­pro­cess­ing death rate on farms and the ra­tio of in­sects sold al­ive and dead by species group in each re­gion.

I com­bined these figures to pro­duce over­all es­ti­mates of slaugh­ter num­bers, live sale num­bers, pre­pro­cess­ing death num­bers, days-on-farm, and av­er­age pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates. Note that the model ex­tremes might all add up to a lower or higher value than the to­tals. This is be­cause the model rep­re­sents a 90% sub­jec­tive con­fi­dence in­ter­val, and cer­tain sce­nar­ios fall out­side of this. For ex­am­ple, it is much more likely that Latin Amer­ica pro­duces the max­i­mum es­ti­mate for black sol­dier flies slaugh­tered AND Europe pro­duces the me­dian es­ti­mate than it is that both re­gions pro­duce the max­i­mum es­ti­mate. So, some val­ues might fall out­side the range pre­dicted by the model.

Areas of un­cer­tainty in mod­el­ing in­sect farming

While these figures rep­re­sent best guesses, the data for Africa and Latin Amer­ica are ex­tremely poor in both qual­ity and quan­tity, and the data for Asia are some­what similarly limited. There­fore the un­cer­tainty in my es­ti­mates for these re­gions for some types of in­sects tend to be larger.

I also was sur­prised that the re­sult of this ap­proach to mod­el­ing pro­duced a rel­a­tively small range of po­ten­tial out­comes in terms of num­bers of in­sects farmed. This is only one method for es­ti­mat­ing the global to­tal of in­sects farmed for food, and is po­ten­tially a flawed one, but ul­ti­mately, given that there are rel­a­tively ac­cu­rate data about to­tal pro­duc­tion, the fi­nal figures were pri­mar­ily sen­si­tive to that nar­row pro­duc­tion range, and thus pro­duced a nar­row es­ti­mate.

Ad­di­tion­ally, I am un­cer­tain about the ac­cu­racy of my es­ti­mated ra­tios be­tween in­sects sold live and slaugh­tered in Africa, Asia, and Latin Amer­ica. In­for­ma­tion on these rates is very limited, and these figures rep­re­sent my best guess.

Fi­nally, I think it is pos­si­ble but un­likely that some of the in­sects that are counted here as pre­pro­cessed deaths end up sold. For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, in­clud­ing that most deaths seem to oc­cur ei­ther to large groups of in­sects at once due to virus or dis­ease, leav­ing them un­sellable, or when the in­sects are very young, I think these are likely ac­cu­rate, but a con­ser­va­tive ap­proach might be to re­move them from the es­ti­mate, leav­ing a fi­nal figure of 850 billion to 900 billion in­sects kil­led by farm­ing an­nu­ally.

Notes on sources

A lot of this re­search is based on con­ver­sa­tions and sur­veys I con­ducted within the in­sect farm­ing space over the last year. I’ve spo­ken or col­lected data from the own­ers or em­ploy­ees of 30% of farms in the US, and 10% in Europe. I’ve also based this work on con­ver­sa­tions with in­dus­try groups and con­sul­tants.

Gen­er­ally, the in­sect farm­ing space is cur­rently ex­tremely trans­par­ent. At al­most no point in this pro­cess, from reach­ing out to farm­ers to ask­ing for spe­cific data on prac­tices, was in­for­ma­tion with­held (ex­cept sales figures). Oc­ca­sion­ally, farm­ers were not in­ter­ested in shar­ing spe­cific prac­tices or pro­duc­tion figures, but gen­er­ally the in­dus­try groups and peo­ple I spoke to were very helpful and in­ter­ested in the work.

Acknowledgements

This es­say is a pro­ject of Re­think Pri­ori­ties. It was writ­ten by Abra­ham Rowe. Thanks to Daniela Walhorn, Saulius Sim­cikas, David Moss, Ja­son Schukraft, Peter Hur­ford, Mar­cus Davis, and Michelle Gra­ham for re­view­ing drafts of this this re­search and pro­vid­ing feed­back. If you like our work, please con­sider sub­scribing to our newslet­ter. You can see all our work to date here.

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