Insect farming: profitable business or unjust?

More than one trillion insects are raised as high-protein, low-carbon animal feed each year, but this practice may have ethical implications.

Insects are remarkable creatures. Moths can see parts of the spectrum of light that are invisible to the human eye, and use these ultraviolet patterns to locate tasty plants. Night-flying insects use the Earth’s magnetic field to orientate themselves and navigate along routes that can be hundreds of miles long. Bees waggle their bodies to tell other members of the hive where to find a stash of nectar.

We share our world with insects (or perhaps we humans live in theirs), but we live in very different sensory worlds. However, as our understanding of insect senses improves, our approach to these creatures is evolving. Insect farming is growing rapidly.

According to Wired, a competition to find ways to produce high-protein, low-carbon animal and human food has led to an estimated 1 to 1.2 trillion insects being farmed annually. In terms of the number of animals involved, this is an unprecedented shift that we have never seen before.

The cultivation of insects also represents a strange shift in our relationship with these creatures. We crush them, spray them with poison, eat them and grind them up to make beautiful colors. But we are also concerned about the drastic decline in the population of wild insects that we rely on for pollinating the food we eat.

With the industrialization of insect farming, insects are being proposed as a solution to the climate crisis caused by human activity. But before we go down this path, we need to ask some fundamental questions about insects. Can they feel and if so, what should we do about it?

Jonathan Birch, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, says, ‘We are at the starting point of a conversation about animal welfare.’ One of the key questions is whether they are sensitive and capable of feeling pain and suffering?

Pigs, chickens and fish are now widely recognized as sentient beings. Birch wrote a report in 2021 that prompted the UK government to recognize octopuses and squids as well as crustaceans, prawns and all vertebrate animals as sentient beings.

Research on the sensitivity of insects is very scattered. There are over one million known species of insects, and only a handful of studies have been done on whether they can feel pain.

It is difficult to address the question of whether another being can feel pain, even when humans are involved. Until the mid-1980s, infants in the United States were typically put under mild sedation or no sedation during surgery because there was a mistaken belief that very young infants could not perceive pain.

In a famous case, a premature infant born in Maryland in 1985 underwent open-heart surgery without any anesthesia. When Jill Lawson, the infant’s mother, asked doctors about this, she was told that premature infants could not feel pain. This was a scientific misconception that was later debunked, in part thanks to the efforts of people like Lawson.

If scientists can be mistaken about pain in humans for so long, what hope is there of discovering it in insects? In the search for answers, there are a few clues that researchers are following.

First, there are pain receptors (neurons that respond to painful stimuli) to consider. Of course, the ability to sense pain via receptor stimulation is not the same as actually feeling pain. When you touch a hot stove, your arm reflexively pulls away before you actually feel pain because pain receptors have sent a nerve impulse that bypasses the brain. But at the very least, the presence of pain receptors suggests that insects have some basic biological features that give them the ability to experience pain.

Lars Chittka, founder of the Centre for Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of the book ‘The Mind of the Bee’, says that almost every time scientists look for the ability to feel pain through pain receptor stimulation in insects, they find it. There is evidence for this ability in cockroaches, flies, bees and butterflies. There is also good evidence that at least some insects can gather sensory information in their brains and their pain receptors are connected to their brains.

In addition, scientists have observed evidence that insects clean their injured points, which is another sign of the ability to perceive pain. Some ants rescue their mates who have lost their legs after attacking termite mounds.

Caring for a wound is considered a sign of feeling pain. For Chittka, the fact that scientists have found several signs of pain perception in some insects is sufficient evidence to argue that these animals can have unpleasant experiences. Chittka puts flies and bees in this category, but it is not clear whether these findings can be generalised to other species.

The most common insects raised are beetles, cockroaches and flies. We know less about their lives than bees or ants, which have been studied well. Even fewer studies have been conducted on the insect larval stage. This adds another problem to existing problems, as cockroach larvae in the dark and black soldier fly larvae are usually killed before reaching maturity. Do insect larvae feel less pain than adults? We really do not know.

This is a complex issue related to the sensitive question of insects and thousands of smaller unknowns. Wherever we look, there is another question. That’s why research on pain perception usually focuses on animals that are closer to humans in the evolutionary tree.

Christine Andrews, a philosophy professor at York University in Toronto, says that non-mammalian and non-fish marine creatures have also been overlooked. The same is true of nematode worms (microscopic parasites that are among the most abundant creatures on Earth).

While scientists are discussing the sensitivity of insects, the insect farming industry is growing rapidly. For centuries, humans have eaten insects, but these insects were usually caught from the wild or raised in relatively small farms. Now, startups are building large factories that can hold tens of millions of insects in one place.

The French startup Ynsect is building a factory in Amiens that can produce 200,000 tons of insect products annually, mainly for animal and human food. Other large facilities are operational or under construction in the Netherlands, the United States, and Denmark.

Berch says, ‘If we intend to raise animals that may be sensitive, there must be welfare standards.’

Currently, there are no official welfare guidelines for farmed insects and only a few laws exist that mandate insect farmers to comply with specific welfare standards. The European Union agency that represents insect farmers has established five guidelines adopted from the welfare laws of vertebrates, but companies usually decide for themselves what constitutes high welfare. Bob Fischer, a Texas A&M University professor who works on insect welfare, says “If there are welfare concerns, you need to intervene during the design and construction of these facilities.”

Farm designers must take factors such as temperature, humidity, light, insect crowding, and their food into account. For insect farmers, these are engineering issues. They want to make sure that as many insects as possible survive and that running the farms is cost-effective. But all of this is related to animal welfare.

There is also some good news in this area. Fotis Fotiadis, founder of the insect-farming startup Better Origin based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says it seems that the larvae of some insects like living in crowded conditions. He rents special vessels to farmers that can hold up to 10,000 black soldier fly larvae on a tray, raised in a dark and humid environment. Fotiadis says “What we think of as high welfare for other animals may not be high welfare for insects. We need to develop a new understanding of what insects want.”

The problem is that we have a very limited understanding of what insects like and do. Black soldier fly larvae may like crowded conditions, but what about adult insects? Chitika remembers visiting a center where adult black soldier flies were kept without food and in crowded conditions. She says, ‘It was strange to me.’

Some insect farming operations, such as Better Origin, don’t feed the adult black soldier flies used to produce larvae, but recent research shows that when adult insects are fed, they live longer and lay more eggs. Fotiadis says, ‘Allowing adult insects to lay eggs and then die is something this industry is doing in line with other animal industries and this situation can only change when there is an opportunity in the market for insects raised in higher welfare conditions.’

The bigger problem is how to slaughter insects. In the European Union, most animals must be stunned before slaughter, but there are no such regulations for insects. Insects can be killed using heat, steam, boiling, freezing, or crushing. Better Origin startup larvae are fed alive to farmed birds.

Other than the idea that quick death is better than gradual death, we have no idea which slaughter method is least painful for insects. Fisher says, ‘Given the uncertainty, one of the most important things we can do is strive to ensure that they’re killed as quickly as possible.’

Insects as Food

For Fischer, the issue at hand is not whether we should cultivate insects or not, rather taking insect welfare seriously and ensuring that the industry also considers this issue. He says, ‘The use of insects as human food and animal feed is happening. This industry is growing and is not expected to collapse within the next decade.’ The numbers we are talking about are so significant that even a slight improvement in welfare standards can have an impact on the lives of trillions of creatures who may be sensitive.

Fischer hopes that active researchers in the sensitive animal and insect farming industry will work together rather than disagree on what insect farming welfare can be. This means two things. Firstly, more work needs to be done in studying the sensitivity of these animals, especially those that are more commonly farmed. Chitika says, ‘At least for these species, we want to be confident in acceptable slaughter methods and breeding conditions. We need these studies now.’

The other point is the expansion of our understanding of which animals deserve our affection. We can easily look into the eyes of dogs or chimpanzees and understand what feelings these creatures have. But looking at a tray of insect larvae and encountering the same issue is much more difficult. However, if we are to start extensive farming of these animals, the most compassionate thing to do is to proceed with caution.

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