How Do Insect Farmers Feel About Slaughter?
“Edible insect” farming is emerging as an alternative protein industry in Western countries. However, the lack of standard practices, the uncertainty around insect sentience, and the perception of insects as “doubly other” (neither human, nor an animal who is conventionally eaten) make this industry a new field of research with plenty of trial-and-error. While consumer attitudes towards “edible insects” have been explored, the views of insect farmers have largely been left out of the picture. This paper attempts to fill this gap by examining U.K.-based insect farmers’ concerns about insect slaughter and their perceptions of “humane” insect death.
The author conducted interviews with 12 insect farmers active in the U.K. between July 2017 and May 2018. Both the farmers and their farms varied substantially. Some farmers had a degree in entomology, while others had no formal background. Some farms were located in the farmers’ houses, while others were more professional operations located in converted barns. All farmers raised and slaughtered crickets, mealworms, or both.
Research suggests that the relationship between farmers and their farmed animals is complicated. Specifically, it requires a form of detachment to raise another animal with the purpose of killing them. In the existing literature, insects have not been considered in the same way. Insect production has commonly been seen as an industry that disregards any ethical issues. The sheer number of insects raised for slaughter tends to further amplify the emotional distance between farmers and farmed animals.
However, the farmers in this study were aware of the ambiguity around insect sentience. Because it’s not clear how much insects suffer or can feel pain, some of the farmers shared that it’s emotionally difficult to kill them. Furthermore, existing animal welfare science isn’t easily transferable to insect farming. For example, some insects might thrive in dense populations, which isn’t usually the case for other farmed animals. The farmers also don’t get actionable advice from the U.K. Food Standard Agency, meaning that most have to rely on their best judgment when it comes to insect welfare practices.
The farmers’ concern about their insects seems to be motivated both by their feelings for the animals themselves as well as consumer expectations. In other words, farmers felt consumers would be more likely to accept their products if the insects were treated humanely. But what does seem to be the case, is that the large number of animals housed on insect farms makes the killing easier, as they are seen less as individuals.
When talking about the killing of insects, the farmers all wanted to find the most “humane” method possible. Usually, the process of slaughter starts with a 1-2 day starvation period to empty the insects’ gut contents. While the farmers didn’t seem to care as much about how such starvation would affect the well-being of the insects, most farmers use freezing as a killing method out of welfare concerns. Most farmers place the insects into the fridge first, where they allegedly “fall asleep” before being transferred to a freezer. This is perceived as a non-intrusive way of letting insects die in their sleep.
Overall, the results suggest that farmers do show some level of concern for their insects. Despite what existing literature suggests, insects are not necessarily seen as pure commodities. It seems that the uncertainty around insect sentience and farming as well as their “otherness” does not prevent ethical considerations in insect farming, but rather invites it. Advocates can use this information to encourage more research and regulations around the welfare of insects used in the food industry. Studies like this may also be a stepping stone to question whether we should be farming insects at all given how little we know about them and their needs.