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A BUG’S LIFE: More people are eating insects for food, but is it ethical to farm them?

The rise in insect farming means questions about insect sentience and slaughter are no longer just philosophical: The well-being of trillions of creatures is at stake.

MATAN SHELOMI: What is the life of a cricket worth? Insect farming is a rapidly growing industry, with hundreds of companies worldwide rearing insects at industrial scales. The global value of insect farming is expected to surpass US$1.18 billion by 2023. Farmed insects, or “mini-livestock,” refers to insects such as crickets and mealworms raised for the sole purpose of being sold as food or animal feed…

Is insect meat cruelty-free?… insects do not evoke much empathy. With exceptions, even vegetarians rarely think twice about swatted mosquitoes, let alone the millions of agricultural pests killed when farming crops… Those who do mind can rest assured that farmed insects lead net-positive lives, with no fear of predators or starvation. Insect welfare is conveniently easy: While cramped, hot, filthy settings in factory farms are cruel for vertebrates, they are ideal for insects like mealworms that thrive when crowded together… The slaughter of insects is another issue.

Recent surveys of U.K. insect farmers found many are concerned about insect pain perception and providing their mini-livestock a “good death.” The most common slaughter methods large-scale insect farmers use are freezing or freeze-drying, with the assumption that the cold-blooded insects will humanely fall asleep and never wake up.

While insects can and do sense physical pain, they likely do not do so consciously. Invertebrate neurologist Shelley Adamo notes that many insect behaviors are “incongruent” with pain as mammals experience it, citing reports of insects walking normally on broken legs or mantids mating while their partner eats them alive.

Entomologist Craig H Eisemann’s influential review of the field, “Do Insects Feel Pain?,” concluded that they are missing too many neurological, chemical and behavioral signs for a pain state. Nonetheless, scholars such as Eisemann and other advocates agree that insects should be farmed and killed with the assumption that they do feel pain. That means the slaughter method should be as quick and painless as possible.

While certainly less potentially painful than boiling, as extreme heat is known to induce pain responses in insects, freezing is slow. Shredding is a popular alternative: At their small size, insects can be reduced to powder almost instantaneously, before they could sense any pain. Current surveys suggest public perception of pulverization is still negative compared with freezing, but insect farmers increasingly view it as the more humane choice…

How much are insect lives worth? What gives some strict vegans pause is the sheer number of insects involved. In a 2020 preprint, animal welfare activist Abraham Rowe calculates that 1 trillion to 1.2 trillion individual insects are farmed annually for food and feed, not including harvested wild insects. On average, 79 billion to 94 billion farmed insects are alive on farms globally in any given day, compared with only about 22 billion chickens, Earth’s most popular meat.

So, how valuable is an insect’s life compared with a plant’s or a bacterium’s? Capacity for consciousness is a popular metric for determining if an organism has moral standing, even though there is no agreement on how to actually measure that… If one assumes, hypothetically, that insects are 0.1% as sentient as cows, or that the probability that insects can suffer is 0.1%, then killing 1,000 crickets has a similar ethical footprint as killing one cow. That may seem generous, yet in his guide “How to Reply to Some Ethical Objections to Entomophagy,” philosopher Bob Fisher calculates that one cow produces as much meat as 900,000 crickets.

The math changes, however, when one considers how many animals die in agricultural fields: Conservative estimates place at least 10 million invertebrates per acre of crops at risk from pesticides, as well as thousands of small, undeniably conscious vertebrates like mice and rabbits at risk from mechanical harvesters… The rise in insect farming means questions about insect sentience and slaughter are no longer just philosophical: The well-being of trillions of creatures is at stake. SOURCE…


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