Animal Welfare in Insect Farming

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: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

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:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior.
  5. 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: http://reducing-suffering.org/why-i-dont-support-eating-insects/. 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: https://medium.com/@itaponen/animal-welfare-in-insect-farming-213a7224ef3d#.n6v9yewbt

Further reading:

For general information on insect farming: FAO’s Edible insects: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

Study on animal welfare in industrial farming: “A Bug’s Life. Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare”

http://venik.nl/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Rapport-Large-scale-insect-rearing-in-relation-to-animal-welfare.pdf

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:

http://skemman.is/stream/get/1946/15119/36564/1/Birgir_%C3%96rn_Sm%C3%A1rason.pdf

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4 thoughts on “Animal Welfare in Insect Farming

  1. Thanks for raising the issue of insect welfare. 🙂

    When I said “in practice, farms don’t want to spend too much effort on maintenance or optimal welfare”, I was referring to non-insect factory farms, though I did follow up by saying: “it’s not clear that in the long run the entomophagy business wouldn’t go in a similar direction as the livestock business.” I agree there’s a prima facie case that insect factory farms might never become as inhumane per animal as livestock factory farms because insects have fewer complex needs. But one can imagine insect farms in the long run cutting corners in various ways, such as
    – ignoring cannibalism
    – allowing some increased chance of disease to afflict the colony if that means less maintenance work
    – crowding insects that normally would prefer lots of space (though it’s true that some insect species like crowding).

    Anyway, I think the bigger issue is not that conditions on insect farms are bad but that insects inherently suffer more than bigger animals because they have such short lives and high infant-mortality rates. Even an insect farm with perfect conditions would still create significant suffering by the high mortality of insects under normal circumstances. And the slaughter methods of insect farms are not always humane. For instance, as the “Bug’s Life” paper explains, the Kreca company sterilizes insects for human consumption by immersing them in hot water (p. 21, Box 4, first paragraph).

    Finally, my impression is that most insects farmed for human consumption are fed high-quality plants (fruits, veggies, grains) rather than food waste, in which case choosing “entomophagy over vegetable based proteins for an even lower environmental impact” would not be correct. I’d be glad to hear if you know of human-food insects that are actually fed organic wastes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Mr Tomasik for the great comment! Your input made the blog a lot more interesting for the readers. Here below I answer some of the points raised in the comment.

    “..But one can imagine insect farms in the long run cutting corners in various ways, such as
    – ignoring cannibalism..”

    According to my limited knowledge (I am not a biologist), the three animals discussed in the blog prefer eating the feed over each other. Because the farmers want to ensure the most efficient growing sufficient feed is always available. If cannibalism occurs among the mentioned three animals, it happens only to the same extent as in nature.

    EDIT, 13th of January. The book “Mass production of beneficial organisms” claims that insects that tent to be cannibalistic are not suitable for large scale farming because the cannibalism makes the farming non-profitable.

    “.. allowing some increased chance of disease to afflict the colony if that means less maintenance work..”

    This comment I disagree with. The risk of disease outbreak is one of the main risks for the business of the farmers. A disease outbreak might lead to huge loss of animals (=money), so it is logical for the farmers to do their best to minimize the risks of disease outbreaks in the farm.

    “..The slaughter methods of insect farms are not always humane. For instance, as the “Bug’s Life” paper explains, the Kreca company sterilizes insects for human consumption by immersing them in hot water (p. 21, Box 4, first paragraph).”

    This is a very good point and in my opinion the most likely the place where unethical treatment of insect might be economically beneficial. The example of the use of hot water creates unnecessary pain as there are other option available. Other examples in the same paper are mechanical crushing in a split second (P. 19), asphyxiation, cooling, freeze-drying and “insect shedder” (p. 20).

    Some insects have the ability to go to the state of hibernation. If the method of cooling is used for killing, the animal falls first by instinct to hibernation and then after that dies as the coldness is too much for it to survive. This might be the most ethical way of killing of insects that have the ability to hibernate.

    “..Finally, my impression is that most insects farmed for human consumption are fed high-quality plants (fruits, veggies, grains) rather than food waste, in which case choosing “entomophagy over vegetable based proteins for an even lower environmental impact” would not be correct. I’d be glad to hear if you know of human-food insects that are actually fed organic wastes.”

    To my knowledge at the moment there are no companies doing this in industrial level. However, it is fair to notice that there are only a few industrial-size companies doing any kind of insect products for human consumption. I am sure that when the insect- products became more common and more companies join in producing them we will see insect products for human consumption fed on waste.

    Using waste as feed for the insect is possible in theory, but before it happens in practice few questions must be answered; the first is the challenge of marketing. How will people welcome a product that has eaten “waste”? Second is the non-consistent composition of waste compared to high-quality feed that is made for the insect. This can cause problems in the storing and the daily farming routines. Some insects eat naturally manure and urine. Using these two externalities of livestock farms would be very beneficial economically, but there is a danger of accumulation of heavy metals.

    There at least two companies that have announced that they use waste as feed for the farming of the black soldier fly. The fly is not fed to humans, but to for example fish farms that produce products for human consumption. A certain insect company says they are using offal-waste, second example company says they are using “pre-customer” food waste. When the companies are using these types of wastes that are consistent by quality and the one eating the final product is not a human, the two challenges mentioned earlier are not issues.

    Like

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