Insect Farming: Adding Up To Global Suffering?
Insect farming has recently gained attention in areas of the world that are not usually engaged in this farming practice. Today, more than 1 trillion insects are farmed for food worldwide. Where they exist, current laws and regulations concerning insect welfare seem to lack the knowledge required to grant sufficient levels of welfare to the farmed insects.
In this article, the author investigates the world of insect farming, paying particular attention to welfare challenges. The author’s research stems from the assumption that insects are sentient “in a morally relevant way” and, consequently, their suffering matters. The author also highlights that the scale of this practice will end up adding billions of deaths to the already impressive numbers of sentient beings slaughtered for food.
The resources used to make the estimates for this article are surveys, datasets and direct conversations with insect farmers and farm workers both in Europe and the United States. The research only includes estimates about insects eaten full or powdered for human or animal consumption.
Today most insects are farmed as a replacement for animal feed, particularly chicken and fish feed. Another use for insects is to become human food. While insects are part of the local diet in Asia, Latin America and Africa, U.S. and Europe consumers are not yet well acquainted with the idea of eating insects. This reluctance is accompanied by strict legislation concerning both animal and human use. Finally, insects are also farmed to become food for our companion animals. Insects are already used as reptile and bird food, but there is a growing interest in using them as a protein additive in companion animal food.
So, the interest towards insect farming and consumption is increasing but what about insect welfare? Is it possible to determine welfare standards for insects, and if so, how will these standard be enforced? Different types of insect may have different welfare requirements and, as this study argues, there isn’t enough knowledge of the insect needs and little attention is paid to their living condition.
The author of this research groups the most farmed insects in 4 categories: crickets, mealworms, black soldier flies, and others. This last category includes insects and small invertebrates farmed for food such as scorpions and caterpillars. The study also identified the main outcomes for farmed insects: being sold slaughtered, being sold alive, and death before processing.
The study then focused in on the following welfare concerns:
- Light – some farmers breed insects in total darkness, which can affect their circadian rhythm
- Temperature – it can affect insects’ breeding behaviour and development
- Humidity – a change in humidity can quickly become fatal for insects
- Rearing density – higher density can cause cannibalism and spread of disease
- Cleanliness – unclean facilities can lead to disease
- Food – moldy or soggy food can poison the insects
The main causes of death before processing were identified as:
- Water-related death, such as drowning, the use of contaminated water or scarcity of drinking water leading to dehydration
- Cannibalism, insects need chitin, if this is not provided with nutrition they can resort to cannibalism
- Food contamination, moldy or infrequent changes can be fatal
- Diet chicken feed, insect feed must meet the insects nutrional needs, improper feeding could led to nutritional deficits
- Disease, mostly viral infection or parasites usually causing multiple deaths at once
Slaughter methods change according to the different use of insects, the most common are shredding and freezing. Heating, boiling, live-freezing and asphyxiation are also commonly used. The Veterinary Medical Association recommends euthanasia for invertebrates, a practice which is not considered cost effective by farmers.
Transportation can also be fatal for the insects. This study highlights a lack of clear information about the number of deaths occurring during the shipping process. Insects may end up crushed by boxes, stuck in packing tape or cannibalized by other insects. The author could not find accurate information on what happens to the insects after they are sold.
Finally, this study tried to gather information on how insect farming is legally regulated in each country. This is a particularly difficult task for the author because, while Europe and the U.S. have created (or are currently creating) sets of regulation on this area, the countries where wild insect collection is an established practice often lack regulation on their use.
Overall, this study can help advocates understand the scale of insect farming and provide basic information on the practices used by farmers. Given the interest of investors in this field, it is important that advocates familiarize themselves with the needs of insects in order to participate critically in the insect farming debate.