Global cochineal production: scale, welfare concerns, and potential interventions

This post is part of an on­go­ing pro­ject to re­search var­i­ous in­dus­tries that farm or harm in­ver­te­brates. I’m also post­ing monthly up­dates on rele­vant news and re­search re­lated to in­ver­te­brate welfare to a newslet­ter, which you can sign up for here.

Sum­mary of conclusions

  • Between 22B and 89B adult fe­male cochineals are kil­led per year di­rectly to pro­duce carmine dye, of which be­tween 17B and 71B are wild, and be­tween 4B and 18B are farmed

  • The farm­ing of cochineals di­rectly causes 4.6T to 21T ad­di­tional deaths, pri­mar­ily of male and fe­male cochineal nymphs, and adult male cochineals

  • The deaths of nymphs are pos­si­bly the most painful caused by cochineal production

  • The vast ma­jor­ity of cochineal is pro­duced in Peru, fol­lowed by Mex­ico and the Ca­nary Islands

  • Re­duc­ing cochineal farm­ing, which ac­counts for 15% to 25% of the mar­ket, would sig­nifi­cantly re­duce cochineal suffering

  • Re­duc­ing wild cochineal har­vest­ing is un­likely to have any sig­nifi­cant effect on cochineal suffering

  • Ac­cord­ingly, in­sect ad­vo­cates in­ter­ested in re­duc­ing cochineal suffer­ing ought to fo­cus on elimi­nat­ing cochineal farm­ing speci­fi­cally, and not nec­es­sar­ily all cochineal harvesting


Farmed cochineals

  • Fe­male cochineals in­ten­tion­ally added to cacti to pro­duce dye

Wild cochineals

  • Cochineals that live in­de­pen­dently of farm­ing. Adult fe­males are kil­led to pro­duce dye, but be­cause they are gen­er­ally kil­led at the end of their lives, farm­ing may not sig­nifi­cantly im­pact their population

Har­vested cochineals

  • Adult fe­male cochineals kil­led for dye — pri­mar­ily wild but some farmed.

Harmed non-har­vested cochineals

  • The male and fe­male offspring of farmed cochineals who in the case of fe­males do not sur­vive to adult­hood or are not har­vested. This re­port only ad­dresses in­sects who ex­ist due to the in­dus­try, and not the offspring of wild cochineals har­vested for dye production


Cochineal is the name of both a type of in­sect and an ex­tract pro­duced from that in­sect. The ex­tract pro­duced from the in­sect is used to pro­duce carmine, a deep red dye used pri­mar­ily in food and cos­met­ics. The in­sect that is typ­i­cally used to pro­duce cochineal is Dacty­lopius coc­cus, though a va­ri­ety of other in­sects in the genus Dacty­lopius are used to pro­duce carmine dyes, and they can be difficult to differ­en­ti­ate. Ad­di­tion­ally, there are other types of carmine pro­duced from scale in­sects not in the genus Dacty­lopius, such as ker­mes or Pol­ish cochineals. Th­ese carmine dyes are similar chem­i­cally, de­spite the in­sects be­ing tax­o­nom­i­cally dis­tinct.

Carmine dye is pro­duced from carminic acid, which the fe­male in­sects pro­duce to de­ter preda­tors. Fe­male in­sects are mostly im­mo­bile. Young nymphs move to a spot on a cac­tus typ­i­cally of the Opun­tia genus, and se­crete a waxy white sub­stance over their bod­ies, which pro­tects them from the sun and wa­ter loss. They feed off the cac­tus for the en­tirety of their lives. The fe­male cochineals re­main im­mo­bile for most of their lives, un­less they are dis­turbed. They live to around 70 to 90 days in the wild (Klein 2002).

Cochineals are har­vested, and dried out, and ground up, pro­duc­ing a pow­dered dye, which is dark red. The ex­tracted dye can be used to pro­duce carmine lake or carminic acid, both of which are com­mon food or cos­metic ad­di­tives in red prod­ucts, such as grena­dine or lip­stick. Cochineal prod­ucts are listed as a food or cos­metic in­gre­di­ent as E120, nat­u­ral red 4, carmine, or crim­son lake.

I es­ti­mate that be­tween 22B and 89B cochineals are kil­led per year di­rectly to pro­duce dye, of which be­tween 17B and 71B are wild, and be­tween 4B and 18B are farmed (this differ­ence is dis­cussed later). Ad­di­tion­ally, the farm­ing of cochineals di­rectly causes 4.1T to 21T deaths, in­clud­ing of male and fe­male cochineal nymphs, and adult male cochineals. I think it is plau­si­ble that the ma­jor­ity of these deaths would not oc­cur if cochineal farm­ing ceased, and that the ma­jor­ity of the suffer­ing caused by cochineal pro­duc­tion is due to farm­ing.

His­tory of cochineal use

Cochineal has been used as a dye in South Amer­ica for thou­sands of years. Im­ported cochineal be­gan be­ing sold in Europe in around 1540, brought by Spain from South Amer­ica. Cochineal pro­vided Europe with a source for in­ex­pen­sive red dye, which at the time was in high de­mand.

By the 18th cen­tury, the cochineal mar­ket had reg­u­la­tions on im­ports, en­sur­ing pu­rity and qual­ity of pro­duc­tion. Cochineal pro­duc­tion has pri­mar­ily re­mained in South Amer­ica — Peru has long been the world’s largest pro­ducer, con­tin­u­ously pro­duc­ing be­tween 85% and 95% of global cochineal by weight (Green, 1995). The Span­ish brought cochineals to the Ca­nary Is­lands, which are now the sec­ond largest pro­ducer. How­ever, in re­cent decades, Mex­ico has sig­nifi­cantly in­creased cochineal pro­duc­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, an effort has been made to pro­duce cochineal in Ethiopia on nopales cacti. This at­tempt by a Chilean com­pany, Food­safe, to dom­i­nate the cochineal mar­ket in the early 2000s failed, though for a short time thou­sands of tonnes of cochineal were pro­duced. Enough cochineals were har­vested to pro­duce up to 12,000 tonnes of dye, though much of it was never ex­ported. Now, the cacti and in­sects have spread sig­nifi­cantly in the coun­try (Tes­fay 2015).

As many as 3,000 tonnes of cochineal were pro­duced in 1875 (Green 1995). How­ever, af­ter the in­ven­tion of syn­thetic dyes in the 20th cen­tury, pro­duc­tion has dra­mat­i­cally de­clined. By the 1990s, pro­duc­tion was be­low 1000 tonnes. Be­cause cochineal has a rel­a­tively long shelf life, it seems likely that pro­duc­tion varies dra­mat­i­cally from year to year. Now, the mar­ket is much smaller — pos­si­bly be­tween 200 and 700 tonnes pro­duced per year in to­tal.

Cochineal pro­duc­tion figures

My figures and model for es­ti­mat­ing pop­u­la­tion can be found here. Note that there is not par­tic­u­larly good in­for­ma­tion on the scale of cochineal pro­duc­tion, and there is a lot of yearly vari­a­tion in to­tal pro­duc­tion. Cochineal ex­tract has a long shelf life, so over­pro­duc­tion one year might re­duce the amount har­vested in the fol­low­ing year. It is un­clear how this vari­a­tion im­pacts to­tal cochineal farm­ing, and is a pri­mary con­trib­u­tor to un­cer­tainty in the es­ti­mate (r^2 = 0.70). Ad­di­tion­ally, there is some un­cer­tainty due to a lack of in­for­ma­tion on how many cochineals need to be kil­led to pro­duce a unit of carmine, and the ter­minol­ogy in a lot of the pub­lished re­search is vague, un­sourced, or pro­vides ex­tremely large ranges (r^2 = 0.23).

I es­ti­mate that the num­ber of adult fe­male cochineal in­sects kil­led for cochineal dye to be be­tween 22 billion and 89 billion a year. How­ever, the ma­jor­ity of cochineals kil­led di­rectly are not “farmed” — they are har­vested from wild cacti. The num­ber of adult fe­male cochineals added by the in­dus­try is 4 billion to 18 billion.

Ad­di­tional cochineal in­sects are kil­led due to cochineal pro­duc­tion — only the adult fe­males are har­vested for dye, but nymphs and males are also born. My es­ti­mate is that an ad­di­tional 3 trillion to 14 trillion male nymphs and adults, and 1.5 to 7.3 trillion fe­male nymphs who oth­er­wise would not have been born die due to the farm­ing of cochineal. This sug­gests that the to­tal deaths caused by the cochineal in­dus­try per year is likely be­tween 4.6 trillion to 21 trillion. Some mar­ket re­search sug­gests that the cochineal mar­ket is grow­ing steadily, so this num­ber may in­crease in the com­ing years. How­ever, these re­ports don’t differ­en­ti­ate be­tween syn­thetic, nat­u­ral, and in­sect-de­rived carmine, so the ex­act trend is un­clear (Grand View Re­search 2018).

Cochineal pro­duc­tion details

While most cochineals are har­vested from wild colonies on Opun­tia cacti (Em­mett 2002), cochineal are also farmed. There are two pri­mary farm­ing meth­ods, tra­di­tional and con­trol­led. In tra­di­tional farm­ing, cochineal in­fested cac­tus pads are planted, or cochineals are added by hand to wild cacti. In con­trol­led farm­ing, bas­kets called Zapotec nests (figure 2) are added to host cacti. The bas­kets con­tain fe­males, who set­tle on the cacti and re­pro­duce. Typ­i­cal fe­male cochineal lifes­pan is around 70 to 90 days, and they are har­vested close to their nat­u­ral deaths, so that they grow as large as pos­si­ble.

Note that there is a small amount of green­house and plas­tic micro­tun­nel cochineal pro­duc­tion. Most of this pro­duc­tion oc­curs in Mex­ico (Cam­pos & Celina 2003).

Adult fe­male cochineal in­sects are typ­i­cally har­vested by hand. Some are used im­me­di­ately to re­in­fest other cacti, but most are kil­led to pro­duce dye. Four meth­ods are used: im­mer­sion in hot wa­ter, ex­po­sure to sun­light, steam, or dry heat (e.g. an oven). The method of kil­ling af­fects the color of the dye, so is de­ter­mined by de­mand for spe­cific col­ors. In­sects are then dried to around 30% of their body weight. Then, they are ground and the carminic acid is ex­tracted to pro­duce the dye (Ne­jad and Ne­jad 2013). It seems pos­si­ble that the ma­jor­ity are kil­led by im­mer­sion in hot wa­ter (Ken­drick 2012), al­though the ex­act to­tals are un­clear.

While adult fe­males are the only cochineals har­vested for dye, other cochineals die due to cochineal pro­duc­tion. A fe­male in­sect on av­er­age pro­duces 1100 to 1250 suc­cess­ful offspring over the course of her life (Mo­ran and Cabby 1979). The nymphs are referred to as “crawlers” as they are mo­bile, un­like the adult fe­males (who only move un­der duress). The fe­male nymphs crawl to the tops of cacti, and use wind to dis­perse to other lo­cal cacti, trav­el­ing up to sev­eral me­ters. The vast ma­jor­ity do not suc­cess­fully land on a new cac­tus, and are forced to climb up from the ground and try again over and over again. Most fe­male crawlers will die of star­va­tion dur­ing this pe­riod (Mo­ran and Cabby 1979, Klein 2002).

Fe­male crawlers that suc­cess­fully land will find a suit­able spot on the cac­tus, in­sert their mouth­parts, and feed off the cac­tus for the rest of their lives. They go through phys­i­cal changes, moult­ing and grow­ing long waxy fila­ments or re­leas­ing a waxy pow­der, de­pend­ing on the species (figure 3). Their legs be­come im­mo­bile. A fe­male crawler who re­moves its mouth­parts af­ter at­tach­ing will never be able to feed again and will die of star­va­tion. This moult­ing and phys­i­cal change takes around 3 weeks. Then for the re­main­der of their life, usu­ally around 50 days, fe­male cochineals will lay eggs (Klein 2002). Depend­ing on en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, es­pe­cially pop­u­la­tion den­sity, egg mor­tal­ity rates are be­tween 2.7% and 37.4% (Mo­ran and Cabby 1979). Sig­nifi­cantly fewer fe­males die if pop­u­la­tion den­sity is suffi­ciently low on their birth cac­tus, as they can feed off it, and do not have to at­tempt the dan­ger­ous wind dis­per­sal tech­nique (Klein 2002). How­ever, given the ex­tremely large co­hort sizes of cochineals, this is un­likely a suc­cess­ful strat­egy over mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions.

Male crawlers typ­i­cally only live for a few days (Klein 2002). They do not dis­perse from their mother im­me­di­ately, and spend the first few days of their lives feed­ing un­der her. They then form a co­coon of waxy fila­ments, and emerge winged. They mate with up to one fe­male prior to starv­ing to death or dy­ing by pre­da­tion — they do not feed as adults. While one au­thor claims that the vast ma­jor­ity of males die of star­va­tion (Mo­ran and Cabby 1979), there isn’t clear data in­form­ing this claim.

Adult fe­male cochineals face a va­ri­ety of threats be­sides star­va­tion. They are es­pe­cially sen­si­tive to sun­light, se­cret­ing waxy coat­ings as a pro­tec­tion method (Mo­ran and Cabby 1979). They also face ex­ten­sive pre­da­tion. In­sects like lady­bugs, moths, lacewings, wasps, and even rep­tiles and birds feed on cochineals (figure 4). How­ever, the vast ma­jor­ity of cochineals seem to die by star­va­tion.

Welfare concerns

In­sect welfare ad­vo­cates should pri­mar­ily be con­cerned about the deaths of cochineal crawlers, and not the deaths of the adult fe­male cochineals used for dye them­selves — not only do crawlers make up the vast ma­jor­ity of im­pacted in­sects, they die painfully (most likely by star­va­tion) and at a young age. The deaths of the fe­males used for dye seem to be quicker than the deaths of the crawlers, which would be less painful, all other things be­ing equal (or equally un­cer­tain).

It seems pos­si­ble that most fe­male crawlers die of star­va­tion, as do most male adults. Typ­i­cally, it takes around 3 to 5 days for death by star­va­tion for both the crawlers and the adults (Klein 2002). All male adults die within a fews days of meta­mor­phos­ing. If they aren’t kil­led, they starve to death. It is un­clear how painful this death is, as they do not have the abil­ity to eat, and pain re­lated to star­va­tion might not be pre­sent. But, given that we’d ex­pect star­va­tion to be painful for crawlers, then it is pos­si­ble this ex­pe­rience holds over into the adult stage.

Re­gard­less, the available in­for­ma­tion, which is ex­tremely limited, sug­gests that the worst lives are had by fe­male crawlers, fol­lowed by male nymphs and adults, fol­lowed by the adult fe­males.

Po­ten­tial interventions

More cer­tain: re­duc­ing the num­ber of farmed cochineal

Depend­ing on the ap­proach, re­duc­ing the num­ber of farmed cochineals might sig­nifi­cantly re­duce the suffer­ing of fe­male nymphs, male nymphs, and adult males who are born to farmed fe­male cochineals. I do not be­lieve that a re­duc­tion in cochineal pro­duc­tion out­side farm­ing (i.e., stop­ping the har­vest­ing of wild cochineal) would sig­nifi­cantly de­crease cochineal suffer­ing, as the fe­males are har­vested to­ward the end of their lives, and it is pos­si­ble that deaths due to pro­duc­tion are less painful than their nat­u­ral deaths.

The pri­mary im­pact on a re­duc­tion in to­tal cochineal farm­ing would be pre­vent­ing trillions of cochineals who likely die painfully shortly af­ter birth from ever ex­ist­ing.

Depend­ing on how such a re­duc­tion was ap­proached, it might not ac­tu­ally de­crease to­tal cochineal pro­duc­tion. For ex­am­ple, wild cochineals are abun­dant in Ethiopia, but the coun­try does not pro­duce sig­nifi­cant amounts of cochineal. If farm­ing was banned in coun­tries like Peru and Mex­ico, it is pos­si­ble that pro­duc­tion would just shift to wild caught cochineals in Ethiopia. Note that this would likely still lead to an over­all re­duc­tion in cochineal suffer­ing, as sig­nifi­cantly fewer cochineals would die. The Ethiopian cochineals are already dy­ing in the wild.

Be­sides out­right bans, and de­pend­ing on the eco­nomics of pro­duc­tion (on which there is al­most no pub­li­cly available in­for­ma­tion), pro­mot­ing syn­thetic or non-in­sect nat­u­ral dyes might be an al­ter­nate way to de­crease cochineal pro­duc­tion, and as a re­sult, de­crease cochineal farm­ing.

Syn­thetic dyes are already cheaper than in­sect cochineal ex­tract. This is likely the cause of cochineal pro­duc­tion de­creas­ing by thou­sands of tonnes over the last 150 years. How­ever, sig­nifi­cant pro­duc­tion of cochineal still oc­curs, and the “nat­u­ral­ness” of cochineal de­rived dyes makes them pop­u­lar for high-end con­sumer goods, such as fancy grena­dine. The failure of syn­thetic dyes to com­pletely re­place in­sect cochineal may be at­tributable to aes­thetic prefer­ences by con­sumers of high-end brands. Or, it may be at­tributable to lack of in­for­ma­tion. While in­sect-de­rived cochineal must be la­beled as such in some coun­tries, con­sumers are still not widely aware of the source of these red dyes. In 2012, af­ter it was pub­li­cly re­ported that they used in­sect-de­rived dyes in drinks, Star­bucks bowed to con­sumer pres­sure and switched to tomato-de­rived dyes.

How­ever, there are po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tives to cochineal that might serve a similar pur­pose while seem­ing just as nat­u­ral — fer­mented cochineal is a new kind of carmine dye made en­tirely from plants. It seems pos­si­ble that cam­paign­ing to re­place in­sect cochineal with fer­mented cochineal would be suc­cess­ful, as it is a nat­u­rally pro­duced al­ter­na­tive. Un­for­tu­nately, fer­mented cochineal may not be on the mar­ket for sev­eral years (Scott-Thomas 2015). Other nat­u­ral al­ter­na­tives to carmine, such as dyes made from sweet pota­toes, are already on the mar­ket. They are not chem­i­cally iden­ti­cal to in­sect-cochineal, but are similar in color.

Less cer­tain: ad­vo­cat­ing for spe­cific dyes

End­ing the use of wild cochineals to pro­duce dye would likely have neg­ligible im­pacts on to­tal welfare. The cochineals who are kil­led are already to­ward the end of the nat­u­ral lifes­pans, and many of the meth­ods of kil­ling cochineals might take sig­nifi­cantly less time than the way they’d die oth­er­wise. While du­ra­tion of painful ex­pe­rience is not the same as to­tal pain of death, it seems like a use­ful proxy, and the rel­a­tively quick death of be­ing crushed or boiled seems pos­si­bly less painful than mul­ti­ple days of star­va­tion.

This sug­gests that one way to re­duce cochineal suffer­ing dur­ing pro­duc­tion might be ad­vo­cat­ing for greater use of spe­cific dyes. It seems that vari­a­tions in dye color are brought about by the type of death. Ad­vo­cat­ing for the dyes pro­duced us­ing the least painful meth­ods would im­pact both farmed and wild cochineals. Note though, that vastly more suffer­ing might be pre­vented by sim­ply re­duc­ing or end­ing cochineal farm­ing.

I note that this in­ter­ven­tion is less cer­tain be­cause there is ba­si­cally no re­search I can find on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween du­ra­tion of death and method of kil­ling, and the in­ter­ven­tion as a whole is rather spec­u­la­tive. Ad­di­tion­ally, this in­ter­ven­tion would only im­pact the har­vested cochineals them­selves, which make up a small minor­ity of to­tal cochineals who die due to farm­ing and pro­duc­tion.

Less cer­tain: ad­vo­cat­ing for green­house production

In Mex­ico, some pro­duc­ers use green­houses or plas­tic micro­tun­nels to cover the cacti dur­ing pro­duc­tion of cochineal. Us­ing green­houses sig­nifi­cantly in­creases the pro­duc­tivity per cacti. It also re­duces pre­da­tion sig­nifi­cantly (Cam­pos & Celina 2003), though not en­tirely (Cris­to­bal & Celina 2005). This in­creased pro­duc­tivity may be due to de­creased fe­male ju­ve­nile mor­tal­ity. If fe­male ju­ve­nile mor­tal­ity is de­creased, and more of those fe­males are later har­vested to pro­duce dye, the over­all num­ber of deaths caused by cochineal pro­duc­tion would in turn be re­duced by about the same de­gree.

Cochineal ad­vo­cates might work to es­tab­lish the use of green­houses in cochineal farm­ing, re­duc­ing the deaths of nymphs by pro­tect­ing them from pre­da­tion and the el­e­ments.

I am less con­fi­dent in this in­ter­ven­tion as there is min­i­mal re­search on the ac­tual effec­tive­ness of us­ing green­houses on the sur­vival rates and fe­cun­dity of cochineals.

Areas for fur­ther research

Bet­ter scale estimates

The in­for­ma­tion on cochineal pro­duc­tion is all dated and in­con­sis­tent. There seem to be few pub­lic es­ti­mates of to­tal pro­duc­tion made since the 1990s, and in­for­ma­tion on how many cochineals are kil­led to pro­duce the dye is also ex­tremely sparse or un­clear. Re­search into both the scale of pro­duc­tion and the num­ber of an­i­mals im­pacted by pro­duc­tion would help clar­ify the scale of cochineal suffer­ing.

Sen­tience research

This ar­ti­cle as­sumed cochineals are sen­tient. There is very lit­tle ev­i­dence sup­port­ing this as­sump­tion. The Re­think Pri­ori­ties sur­vey of in­sect sen­tience re­search did not eval­u­ate any in­sects in the same tax­o­nomic or­der as cochineals, Hemiptera. Fur­ther re­search or liter­a­ture re­views on cochineal be­hav­ior and anatomy might help clar­ify this un­cer­tainty.

Re­search on ker­mes and Pol­ish cochineals

Cochineals are not the only scale in­sects (Su­per­fam­ily Coc­coidea) used to pro­duce dye. Ker­mes and Pol­ish (or Ar­me­nian) cochineals are other in­sects within Coc­coidea that are similarly used to pro­duce carminic acid as a dye. The scale of con­tem­po­rary pro­duc­tion of these species ap­pears to be ex­tremely small, but fur­ther re­search might clar­ify if there are ad­di­tional con­cerns.

Re­search into scale in­sects used for biolog­i­cal con­trol and shel­lac production

Tan­gen­tially, scale in­sects re­lated to cochineals are also used as a biolog­i­cal con­trol agent for Opun­tia cacti, and to pro­duce shel­lac (cochineals and lac bugs (Ker­ria lacca) are tax­o­nomic cous­ins). I plan on re­search­ing and pub­lish­ing re­views of both these in­dus­tries (and other biolog­i­cal con­trol in­sects) in the near fu­ture.

Re­search into la­bel­ing and al­ter­na­tive dyes

Fi­nally, I spent very lit­tle time eval­u­at­ing why cheaper syn­thetic and nat­u­ral al­ter­na­tives to in­sect carmine have failed to com­pletely elimi­nate cochineal har­vest­ing. More time could be spent study­ing these in­dus­tries, and eval­u­at­ing their po­ten­tial for re­duc­ing cochineal pro­duc­tion in the near fu­ture.

Ad­di­tion­ally, some coun­tries have poli­cies re­quiring the la­bel­ing of cochineal as be­ing in­sect-de­rived. One area of un­cer­tainty is how these la­bel­ing laws im­pacted sales. Re­search into the im­pact of la­bel­ing could help in­form fu­ture in­ter­ven­tions.


Thanks to Ja­son Schukraft and Michelle Gra­ham for pro­vid­ing feed­back and com­ments on this re­search.


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