Large-scale industrial insect farming is a relatively new industry and is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. There are a few industrial size insect farms starting around the world that are rearing insects, mainly for fish feed, but some products are also popping up little by little for human consumption as well. The human consumption of insects is called entomophagy, not to be confused with entomology, the branch of zoology concerned with the study of insects. There are over 1000 different insects species used today as food, but the most common insects being farmed on an industrial scale are the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor), black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) and house cricket (Acheta domesticus). Insects are seen as a sustainable substitute, especially for the consumption of livestock. The traditional protein source livestock is not only expensive, but also environmentally unsustainable – compared to an insect or vegetarian diet, meat production is ineffective and uses staggering amounts of water, land and feed. For example, a cow consumes 12 times more resources than crickets that give the comparable nutrition as meat.
To read more about the topic, have a look at FAO’s Edible Insect document available here.
Along with the environmental issues, another ethical concern associated with meat consumption is the main topic of this blog: animal welfare. The basis of animal welfare legislation is the so-called Brambell’s five freedoms model.
The five freedoms are:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
- Freedom to express normal behavior.
- Freedom from fear and distress.
The basic cause for ethical problems in traditional animal farming is that it is economically beneficial to keep the animals in environments that are not natural for them. For example the unnatural, stressful environment and unnatural density of animals can lead to health issues, but economically it’s cheaper to deal with it by extensive medication than by providing more space.
As it stands today, when high-scale insect farms are emerging, it is economically beneficial for insect farms to respect the five freedoms. According to multiple industrial scale farmers interviewed in the research document “A Bug’s Life. Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare”, the more the industrial environment resembles the natural environment of the insect, the more productive and healthy the insect will be. There are a few exceptions, however. Some farmers use juvenile hormone to prevent the larvae of Tenebrio molitor from moulting into pupae and later into beetles. Another example is gender ratio manipulation. In order to maximize the breeding activities of the adult insect, the natural ratio of male and female insects is modified. These are two instances where the animals’ right to express their normal behaviour is interfered with. To read more about this topic, you can find the full “A Bug’s Life”-document is available here: http://venik.nl/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Rapport-Large-scale-insect-rearing-in-relation-to-animal-welfare.pdf
Hypocritical approach on animal rights.
People tend to be hypocritical about animal rights. For example, domestic animals are loved by their owners and a lot of time and effort is put into their wellbeing, because they are considered ‘cute’ and can show affection. Animals like rats do not receive the same degree of compassion, let alone cockroaches or spiders. This fact will affect the public’s view on the growing industry significantly. Even if in the future insect farms would not be able to provide an ethical environment for the insects, the public would not be as concerned with defending, for example, fly larvae in the same way that it is increasingly doing with livestock. Insect farming hasn’t yet reached a scale comparable to livestock farming at this point. It remains to be seen if farms will be able to provide the animals with the five freedoms and how the public will perceive the industry when it grows bigger.
For the last point some food for thought.
The big moral question that the consumer is facing when it comes to entomophagy is: is it morally correct to eat insects and other animals? And if not, can the immorality of eating insects be overlooked for the sake of the greater good?
If carefully controlled, insects can be fed with biological waste streams. This would make insect products clearly the most environmentally sustainable protein source, not only over livestock and fish but also over soya beans. If the carbon footprint of the end product does not count in the production of the insects’ feed (as it is otherwise considered waste), the only environmental impact comes from electricity usage on the farm, packing and transportation. When looking at the issues associated with soya bean farming, not even a full vegan diet gets away with a clear environmental conscience. For this reason, even a consumer who is conscious of the animal rights of insects must consider entomophagy over vegetable based proteins for an even lower environmental impact.
My blog is clearly pro-entomophagy, but an opposite view exists as well. Here is a link to a blog where the author speaks against insect farming for ethical reasons. The author makes some relevant and respectable points from his ethical point of view, but is guilty of fallacy when referring to “A Bug’s Life” and high mortality rates. Specifically, when the author writes “…in practice, farms don’t want to spend too much effort on maintenance or optimal welfare”, this conclusion has already been overruled by researchers of the “A Bug’s Life” document. According to their knowledge and the multiple farmers they interviewed, it is essential for the success of the farm to put a lot of effort into the maintenance and optimization of the insects’ welfare.
I hope you found my first ever blog interesting to read! As you may have noticed I’ve left out multiple references to make the text easier to read, also for people who are not interested in the topic for purely professional or research reasons. In case you would like to know more, leave a comment. I’ll do my best to answer all the questions!
In Paris 4th January 2015. Ilkka Taponen
Updated 2017- version can be found from my Medium-site.
For general information on insect farming: FAO’s Edible insects.
Study on animal welfare in industrial farming: “A Bug’s Life. Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare”
About the environmental impacts when using insects of a part of fish feed: Life Cycle Assessment on Icelandic Arctic char fed with three different feed types.