Do Consumers Care About Farmed Insect Welfare?
Much like factory farming, the push toward providing insect protein on a global scale will inevitably lead to industrialization. There is support for expanding the sector, with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently approving dried yellow mealworms and frozen and dried migratory locusts as safe for human consumption. Some predict that the insect farming industry will grow ten times its current size by 2025. However, as the industry expands, it remains unclear how consumers feel about the current methods used to farm insects.
Typically there are three main approaches to animal welfare:
- Biological Functioning: Focuses on animals being healthy, productive, and reproductive
- Affective States: Defines animal welfare as maximizing positive and minimizing negative experiences
- Natural Living: Focuses on animals being able to express their species-specific natural behaviors
While insects are categorized as “farmed animals” in E.U. regulation, invertebrates are currently not included in the E.U.’s animal welfare directive, highlighting a serious mismatch. Only a few laws and organizations include farming guidelines specific to insects. Unfortunately, they are not binding regulations, allowing insect farmers to work in a legal gray area. As a result, the most common farming practices have arisen from a ‘trial-and-error’ approach without much oversight.
It’s not easy to know what constitutes good insect welfare, because insect species vary greatly when it comes to their diet, density, and other needs. Even ensuring freedom from fear and distress is difficult, as it’s unclear how to study these things in insects. Furthermore, there is no scientific consensus on whether insects can even feel stress. However, given how many individuals are being farmed, the absence of proof should not be misunderstood to mean that insects don’t feel stress and other negative emotional states.
Many studies highlight consumers’ concerns about animal welfare regarding other farmed animals. Indeed, animal welfare concerns are known to influence food purchases. Research has found that anthropomorphism can lead to pro-animal attitudes and support for animal welfare. Humans typically anthropomorphize animals who are biologically more similar to us, and this can have consequences for their welfare: people who care for the well-being of a given species tend to be more willing to pay for improved welfare or alternatives. Similarly, anthropomorphization can have a significant effect on how humans perceive an animal’s moral status. Another factor that influences welfare considerations is motivation, as many meat-eaters will devalue farmed animals’ abilities as justification for eating them.
Unfortunately, most people see invertebrates as less sentient than other animals at the outset, rating their mental capacities significantly lower than vertebrates. Since few consumers have personal experiences with the animal farming industry, there is a lack of knowledge when it comes to common on-farm practices, leading to uncertainty about what proper husbandry and welfare should even look like. This is especially the case for insect farming, and the knowledge gap has largely been filled by information from the media. One study found that farmed insects are typically described as products, biomass, raw materials, or ingredients rather than animals. Similarly, the killing of insects is called harvesting, while the consumption of insects in general is often portrayed as ethical. This may encourage consumers to feel little moral concern for farmed insects.
Unless insect welfare is highlighted in mainstream media, consumers will likely not question the ethical standards of insect farming. To further complicate things, there are differences between how specific types of insects are regarded. For example, people tend to differentiate ‘good’ insects such as butterflies and bees from other insects that inspire aversion. To overcome these negative feelings, the authors suggest increasing people’s exposure to insect farming, highlighting the complex capabilities of farmed insect species, and pointing out the negative welfare issues they face. This is because research has found that experience and familiarity can positively influence people’s concerns for animal welfare.
There is an urgent need to investigate consumers’ attitudes, knowledge, and behavior regarding insect welfare. Such research can also help us understand what interventions will work to promote insect protection. In the meantime, the authors call for mandatory farmed insect welfare regulations that go beyond voluntary guidelines. In addition to campaigning for better welfare standards and research, animal advocates can help farmed insects by making the public more aware of them and what they go through. We must act now, as insect farming is expanding quickly.