Eating Insects: Cultural Differences, And The Sushi Comparison
As traditional animal agriculture faces increasing criticisms over ethics and sustainability concerns, some have argued for replacing or substituting mammal, fish, and bird protein with insect protein. Many cultures around the world have eaten insects for millennia, but other cultures view them as too disgusting to eat. Why do people eat insects, and what issues exist that make the practice less common?
This study tried to find out, surveying 201 participants who were recruited from India, and 275 from the United States, all through Amazon’s MTurk program. The Indian cohort was much younger, more educated, more religious, and more urban than their American counterparts. About 2/3 of the Indian participants were male, compared with just under half of the Americans.
Subjects were questioned about their willingness to eat various insect foods, both in whole and processed forms. They were asked about their attitudes towards government encouragement of insect consumption and whether insect consumption violates any values they personally held. Questions were also asked to determine to what extent participants found insect consumption beneficial, dangerous, disgusting, and immoral. Finally, the participants were asked about their sushi consumption. The authors believed that there may be a link between willingness to eat insects and sushi consumption, as sushi is a popular food that many cultures have at one time found revolting.
On the whole, the results are perhaps surprising: Indians were much less likely than U.S. adults to have eaten insects or consider doing so in the future. Over 80% of the U.S. respondents were willing to try eating bugs, compared to about a third of Indians. 16% of the U.S. group had already eaten insects in some form – four times the amount that had done so in the Indian group.
The Indians that found insect-eating to be against a personal belief were more religious than those that did not, but this relationship was not seen in the U.S. group. In both groups, men were more likely than women to be willing to try insects, and more supportive of a campaign to increase insect consumption. Those who were in favor of insect consumption tended to focus on the environmental aspects of the practice, not any nutritional or taste benefits.
Amongst the U.S. group, lower level of disgust towards insect consumption was the best predictor of support for the practice. In India, disgust was a similarly powerful predictor, but religiosity was also important. The high level of religious vegetarians in India is likely responsible for this distinction. Getting to the crux of the study, in both groups, eating more sushi was associated with greater support for insect consumption. Importantly, non-religious ethical concerns played very little part in determining support or opposition to the practice.
There are several things we should consider as animal advocates with regards to insect consumption. First, the positive: insects are a much more environmentally-friendly source of protein than mammals, birds, or fish. They consume very few resources and take up little space. They also produce less waste, which results in less pollution. Now, the cons: to get an equivalent amount of food to a fish, bird, or mammal, many more insects need to die. A single chicken breast weighs around 175 grams and contains 284 calories. A single live house cricket weighs around a quarter of a gram. When dried, this is reduced to one-tenth of a gram. Of that one-tenth of a gram, only about a third will end up as cricket meal. 284 calories of cricket flour weighs 62 grams, which would require 2000 crickets. A whole roast chicken provides around 1200 calories, meaning a single chicken provides as much nutrition as nearly 8500 house crickets. Ethically speaking, is this an acceptable tradeoff?
This question, of course, hinges on whether insects can suffer like vertebrates can. Physiologically, many insects do contain nociceptors – nerve endings that are responsible for a pain reaction. Their brains also contain neurotransmitters that affect behavior, such as dopamine and serotonin. However, the subjective experience of suffering is much more difficult to determine than a simple physiological reaction. A robot can be programmed to exhibit pain in response to stimuli, but that does not mean the robot is actually feeling pain. The same may be true of insects, but this is difficult to prove.
Physiologically, it is unlikely that insects experience anything similar to the emotions experienced by vertebrates. Evolutionarily speaking, insects have little to gain from experiencing emotions; they have limited brain space and short lifespans. However, this is ultimately unknowable – we can’t get in the mind of an insect. Some have been shown to exhibit behaviors that may correlate to an emotional state, but this is not definitive.
Based on this, some think that killing an insect is almost certainly more morally justifiable than killing a vertebrate. We know that mammals, birds, and even fish have the ability to experience suffering on a physical and emotional level, while the same cannot be said of insects with the same certainty. However, there is still the possibility that insects have some kind of emotional capacity, no matter how simple. This would mean that killing one may involve inflicting some suffering.
To be on the safe side, plant-based foods should always be the first choice, as we are much more sure about plants’ lack of capacity for suffering than that of insects. However, those who wish to reduce their environmental impact and possibly reduce the amount of animal suffering in the world, but who cannot go completely plant-based, may be interested in adding insects to their diet. Those who wish to encourage the practice would do well to focus on reducing the disgust response that is felt by much of the population, as well as emphasizing the environmental benefits of insect farming over traditional animal agriculture.