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The biggest problem with eating insects isn’t the “ew” factor

Can insects become a big part of humanity’s diet? Should they?

A diner eats a scorpion at a market in Mexico City.
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

When I was in college, a girl who lived in my dorm was an evangelist for an unlikely cause: the potential of insects as food. She was really, really passionate about bugs as an ethical, environmentally friendly source of protein, in the way that driven undergrads can be really, really passionate about quixotic causes.

At the time I laughed it off. They’re bugs! No one will want to eat bugs, right? The joke was on me: A few years later, she and her business partner went on Shark Tank and received a $100,000 investment from Mark Cuban, and now her company, Chirps Chips, sells cricket-based chips around the world.

My classmate was ahead of the curve. As humans gradually realize we need to cut back on traditional meat consumption for the sake of the planet, eating bugs — primarily crickets and mealworms — has become a buzzy, green alternative.

Some cultures, encompassing some 2 billion people around the world, already eat bugs. Mopane worms and shea caterpillars are routinely farmed and eaten (the former in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the latter in Burkina Faso and Mali), as is the African edible bush-cricket, which is commonly consumed in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Madagascar. Wild insect gathering for food for either subsistence or sale is common throughout East Asia and the Pacific, from India to Indonesia to Japan to Australia. In the northwest Amazon region of South America, somewhere between 5 and 7 percent of total protein comes from insects.

But proponents of insect farming are looking to further industrialize the practice to raise more insects as feed for farmed animals as well as for human consumption — mostly in Europe and the US, where the practice is less common. In May, a European Union panel voted to approve the sale of an insect-based food for humans for the first time in the union’s history. The French company Agronutris had put in the application to sell dried yellow mealworm, a maggot-like organism “said to taste a lot like peanuts” when dried; with EU regulatory approval, the company hopes to sell the mealworm as a flour-like powder.

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

Insect farming may still be a niche industry, but dozens of startups have come on the scene over the last few years. (And two French startups received a combined $537 million in funding in just the last year.) Meanwhile, chefs in the US are embracing cicadas, trillions of which have emerged on the East Coast, as a potential ingredient. Dogs are already enjoying the bounty of Brood X, the current crop of cicadas, but there’s no health or safety reason for why humans couldn’t join in.

This excitement is eminently understandable: Insects are nutritious and environmentally sound to produce, which makes them a compelling alternative to traditional factory-farmed meats. But setting aside people’s personal tastes, I’m still wary of the push to eat bugs, largely because of one unanswered question: Do we really know all we need to know about the lives of insects — and whether they’re worthy of moral consideration?

Why insects could be a good alternative to traditional meat …

The case for eating bugs is straightforward: They’re healthy, and doing so is good for the environment. A study published in May from researchers at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin-Madison summarizes both arguments well.

The authors found that if consumers in Africa and Asia added 5 grams of insect food to their daily diets, 67 million fewer people would be at risk of protein deficiency, with 166 million fewer people at risk of zinc deficiency and 251 million fewer people at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Anemia would also fall considerably.

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

Particularly in areas of the world where nutritional shortfalls are common, insects could fill a useful role.

Then there’s the environmental side. Factory farms are an environmental disaster. Beef farming specifically produces a huge share of the world’s methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than ordinary carbon dioxide, and drives deforestation in the Amazon as beef companies seek more open land for grazing. But factory farms of all kinds have environmental costs, not least from manure runoff that can poison streams, hurt local ecosystems, and endanger the health of local residents.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has promoted insect-based food in part because insects, which are cold-blooded, are more efficient than other animals at converting their food into meat. “On average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of body weight gain,” the FAO has noted.

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

… And why we should be wary about it anyway

The anti-entomophagy case is subtler but (I think) still compelling. We have to ask what farmed insects will be used for — and more importantly, what farming insects means for the insects themselves.

Let’s take cricket farms as an example. At a cricket farm, the animals are typically laid out in plastic bins with cardboard walls they can climb and lay eggs on, according to a report from the research group Rethink Priorities. Because crickets need humid temperatures and can easily drown in a pool of water, damp sponges are often included in the bins to both regulate humidity and provide a drinking source. This video tour of a cricket farm in Finland gives a good sense of the situation, as does this photo of a Canadian farm:

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

Lewis Bollard, who runs the farm animal welfare program at Open Philanthropy — the effective, altruist-inspired grantmaking group funded by billionaires Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz — recently published an excellent rundown of the perils of insect meat, specifically when it comes to industrializing insect meat production.

First and foremost for animal welfare supporters, the market for human-edible insects is completely overshadowed by the market for insects as feed for farm animals. Most insects are raised to be fed to farmed fish and chickens (or ground up into pet food). “Insect farming isn’t an alternative to factory farming — it’s a supplier,” Bollard writes.

This usage further indicts the environmental case for insect farming, he argues: “Feeding corn to insects, then feeding them to chickens, is inherently less efficient than just feeding the corn to chickens.” (To be fair, this is more an argument against the current insect-farming industry, as opposed to what some proponents want it to become: a system to feed humans more efficiently.)

Then there are the insects themselves. As Bollard notes, we really have no idea if insects are “sentient” in the way that, say, a pig or cow appears to be (or if they’re sentient at all). Pigs are really smart; they can play video games. Flies, by contrast, aren’t going to trounce you at Skyrim. Some smart people are trying to think through what we do know about insect sentience, but we still don’t know a lot.

Rethink Priorities has tried to pull together what we know about the welfare experience of insects on farms, but similarly, it’s not a lot. Insect farms mostly freeze and/or shred their animals, but we don’t know much about whether those methods cause the insects significant pain.

If you’ve read this far and aren’t a vegan or vegetarian, or even someone who thinks about animal welfare much at all, all of this may seem absurd. Insects are not creatures whose welfare we’re used to considering, an indifference that even makes its way into our vernacular. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly” doesn’t mean “she’s not a sociopath” in the same way that “she wouldn’t kick a dog” does — it means “she wouldn’t do a mean thing so trivial no one should care about it.”

But humans are constantly expanding our circle of moral concern. And though most humans have yet to expand their moral circle to fully include farm animals, attitudes on animal welfare have certainly evolved. The number of pets in the US has more than doubled since the 1970s, while the number euthanized every year has fallen dramatically, from 20 million to 3 million. Humans have become less comfortable killing animals just for being a nuisance: A half-century ago, it wasn’t so uncommon for dog owners to euthanize their pet because it was cheaper than putting them in a kennel during their vacation. That’s unimaginable today.

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

For me, the most sobering finding of Rethink Priorities’s research is that around 1 trillion insects are already raised and killed on farms every year — a staggering number, since we’re still at the start of the insect-food boom. Because insects live very short lives, that annual total encompasses many generations; only between 79 billion and 94 billion farmed insects are alive at any given time.

I don’t know for sure whether those insects feel pain — but if there’s even a small chance they do, the scale of the suffering that would imply is massive. I’m not categorically against insect farming, but I do hope we can learn more about what insects’ lives are like before we start farming them at an even greater scale.

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