Evaluating The Emerging Insect Industry
Increasingly, people are becoming aware of the environmental and ethical damage done by consuming non-human animals. Emissions from ruminants—namely, cows—are a major roadblock to combatting climate change, as well as a significant pollutant of global water systems. Chicken farming, too, poses serious sustainability problems in terms of pollution and land use. Of course, these concerns are hardly the only reason to dramatically reduce or eliminate the consumption of non-human animals. That the most commonly farmed species (specifically, cows, pigs, and chickens) have a tremendous capacity for suffering poses a moral problem of tragic proportions. All told, nearly 74 billion non-human land animals are killed each year directly for consumption. These combined ethical and eco dilemmas have inspired the budding industry of insect consumption. While the most popular candidates are mealworms, Black Soldier Fly larvae, and crickets, certainly others are “on the table,” as it were. Nevertheless, major questions remain as to the sustainability of this practice and whether it in fact avoids the suffering associated with traditional farming of non-human animals. In an attempt to fill some of the relevant knowledge gaps, the Dutch Council on Animal Affairs (RDA) commissioned a report to answer in particular:
- How safe is the consumption of insects?
- What about greenhouse gas emissions and ammonia?
- How dangerous are escaped insects, and should we take insect welfare into consideration?
In writing this advisory, the RDA’s aim was “to create an overview of the interests of humans, animals, and the environment within [the insect consumption industry] sector, and thus reveal any gaps in policy, legislation or research requiring attention.”
In answering each of these questions in turn, the report first highlights the relative safety of insect consumption. For markets and regulatory bodies, this is a key issue. While acknowledging that much remains unknown with respect to the health risks for various types of farms, the report states, “[T]he microbiological risks [associated with insect farming] do not differ significantly from (and are sometimes even smaller than) the risks associated with foods of common production animals.” Therefore, the in-principal health risks of insect consumption should be comparable to current practices of farming other non-human animals. A potential problem, however, lies in the existing consequences of human pollution, namely, the accumulation of heavy metals in species relatively low in food webs in their natural ecosystems. Insects, as such, are among those species broadly which may have higher levels of these toxins. As a related point, the report also addresses issues of contamination and biodiversity. Crucially, the main takeaway under this section is that more research is needed before any conclusions can be decisively reached. Specifically, understandings of spacing requirements for the benefit of the insects, but also to avoid health outbreaks that could negatively affect humans must be more adequately studied. What is imminently clear is that best practices should be standardized, and vigilance should be paramount.
Next, the environmental impact of insects relative to traditionally farmed non-human animals is likely dramatically lower. This is due largely to the land use requirements and proposed farming practices that would enable large-scale production. This said, the report has fairly little to say on this front. A potential concern would be ammonia emission, although the amount released is probably trivial compared to, for example, methane emission associated with the growth and slaughter of cows. In some ways, the environmental concern is a subsidiary of the public health umbrella. That is, many of the concerns relevant to sustainability are difficult to separate from the public health component, such as biodiversity, economic value, contamination, the health of the insect populations, and landscape architecture. With all of this in mind, the tone of the report is cautionary if reserved: it recommends an approach to all of these concerns via the precautionary principle, researching extensively into the logistics and consequences (both beneficial and undesirable), and proceeding slowly yet deliberately.
Finally, and of the greatest interest to animal welfare advocates, is the moral consideration of the animals. In light of the potential environmental benefits of insect consumption, the ethical dilemma poses a major roadblock. It is far from clear that insects lack a capacity to suffer. Indeed, the report highlights that cockroaches “…have been shown to possess over one million neurons, which – in combination with their complex neurobiological organization – fulfill the preconditions for sentience. The journal Science published a study in which bumblebees displayed a certain emotional capacity; another article demonstrated the plausibility of subjective experience in insects. “We therefore cannot ignore that some insects may be considered ‘sentient beings’,” states the report. Among its many progressive policies, the Netherlands acknowledges the intrinsic value of animals, “…with due consideration of their capacity for sentient experience.” Although the status of consciousness in insects is ambiguous, this agnosticism should immediately give us pause in assessing whether, should we choose to consume them at scale, we would be causing massive amounts of suffering. The RDA abides by this position, highlighting the need to observe animal welfare consideration standards. They go even a step further, emphasizing that previous scientific work has demonstrated the apparent capacity for emotions in bees and octopodes, and so also recommend treating insects as sentient creatures.
Thus, the RDA recognizes—in its members’ words—the “inherent dignity” of insects. This is a critical position for many reasons, not least of which include an increasing respect of the rights of non-human animals, as well as the possibility that, in acknowledging this status in insects, we may soon extend it to other traditionally farmed animals. For the purposes of animal welfare advocates, this is a clear silver lining. Although the environmental impact of substituting insect consumption for a significant portion of that of other non-human animals is likely substantial, it does not erase that we may be opening a whole new can of worms, as one might have it, with respect to suffering. The report appropriately concludes by saying, “Because of the wide array of public interests, it is important for the government to monitor developments in the insect sector, to continue to promote relevant research and to ensure early and transparent knowledge exchange.” While diplomatically put, this conclusion offers a necessary kernel: collectively, we must demand and enforce openness and transparency in this budding industry that at once has the potential to significantly influence the state of climate change and to create untold suffering. In this way, animal welfare advocacy has a unique opportunity to steer the course of a sector from its beginning.