Insects – What Does The Future Hold For Them?
You’ve probably seen some of the recent articles on the dangers of a global decline in insect populations. Indeed, researchers believe our free use of insecticides for the protection of crops is driving such ecosystem threatening phenomena.
Is the disappearance of wild insects just an issue to be considered on an anthropocentric and ecocentric level? Or should we actually consider the individuals? In the parlance of our times, should insect welfare be a thing?
Philosophers and animal behaviorists have been pondering the issue of insect consciousness and sentience for a while now. Actually, scientific work in this field has picked up speed in recent years as more and more animals are classified as sentient, and are protected from aversive treatment by humans.
Scientists C. Klein and A. B. Barron pushed the issue forward in a big way in 2016, when the researchers proposed that insect brains do in fact support functions analogous to those of vertebrates, in terms of potentially experiencing subjective states. Their work resulted in a lot of interest and further research within the animal sentience community. A good example of this is the recent discovery of social learning in bumblebees – researchers were able to teach the insects a new foraging behavior which then was continuously taught by the learned bees to other members of the colony. Most impressively, the knowledge was sustained throughout generations!
Interestingly, other researchers offered their take on the issues raised by Klein & Barron, by submitting their commentary on the matter. A noteworthy addition came from M. Tye, the author of several books on consciousness, including Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Are Animals Conscious? The British philosopher argued that sentience among insects could even vary, species to species, and be of a very different form than that of ours. He includes examples of bees behaving anxiously and tse-tse flies feeding actively despite heavy bodily injuries. Meanwhile, researchers from the university of Bristol, UK, warned that neurophysiological and behavioral evidence of such states in animals do not necessarily imply that they are felt by the animal. In other words, having emotions does not necessarily mean sentience.
One can think of this as another form of intelligence: despite the fact that our bodies know how to digest and process food or contract muscles in convenient ways, all of these biological feats take part subconsciously. Are we, therefore, really in charge of them? Or are we, too, biological automata? This view was further supported by the researchers’ work with bumblebees, where they had found that these animals exhibit states similar to how we experience optimism. Furthermore they found that, analogous to humans, reward processing acts via dopamine neurotransmission in bumblebees.
Is sentience, then, even the right term to use? If so, could this type of evidence be the basis for establishing insects as animals requiring our attention and protection?
Despite ongoing debates on what level of consciousness insects may possess or not, some researchers support acting in accordance with the precautionary principle when dealing with animals whose sentience is still indeterminable. A couple of articles previously covered by Faunalytics argue just that; one noted specifically that, since the questionable sentience of millions of animals involves a huge risk for suffering, precaution makes sense; the other notes that, if implemented rigorously, the precautionary principle could offer shortcuts to protect many species effectively and in time.
No matter what side we land on when it comes to the precautionary principle, if insect sentience and the ability to suffer are proven, the question of insect welfare then becomes a reality. In that case, what might an insect welfare policy encompass? Do we even understand what can ensure good well-being of bugs and larvae? In any case, their killing, use in scientific research, and use as a food product, would be immediate issues that would need to be addressed.
Many people breathe a bit easier thinking that the little bug we’ve just stepped onto might not feel pain. However, most of us can also surely imagine non-pain driven aversive states. A good example to illustrate this comes from a recent study by a group of Australian scientists. They found that bees do not self-administer pain relieving medicine upon injury – they do, however, increase their food consumption. This is not necessarily a “pain” response similar to one that mammals have evolved, but surely shows that the injury is undesirable nonetheless, as indicated by the higher caloric demand.
Would it then make more sense to establish some sort of overarching moral baseline that’s not connected to the perception of pain per se? A notable example could be seen in the U.S. declaration of independence, declaring that all men [sic] are endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This type of thinking already exists in a limited way beyond our species, when we think of declarations of animal welfare and rights. Could the same work for insects?
Imagine the case of the rearing of insects for feed or food, scaled up… Millions of dollars have already been raised by numerous start-ups to farm insects as feed for animal agriculture. Although much slower to join the race, products intended for direct human consumption, such as the Exo Protein bar, Buff bar, and Insekt bar are also popping up across the globe. Although Google Trends do not reveal any significant increases in the number of searches for insects as food, the mere fact that the farmed animal industry is starting to incorporate insect meal into the feeds of farmed fish and chickens is deeply worrying. If we take insect sentience seriously, the implications are huge.
Of course, this begs the question: what would the basis of insect welfare policy be when we know so little about their biology? Vets specializing in insects are hard to come by after all. How could insect farms identify problems and treat ill individuals? Meanwhile, the average hobbyist keeping cockroaches or crickets in their basement might be the most knowledgeable person on the matter.
Insects as food are often marketed as a more “sustainable” protein source. This makes sense since in practice insect farming simply involves thousands of little animals crammed into tiny dark spaces and be fed on food waste or inedible biomass. The one factor that’s holding back an exponential growth in insect consumption is the so-called Ick! factor.
Most people in the West report disgust when the topic of eating bugs and larvae is brought up. However, our reservations towards, and repulsion from, invertebrates may be a double-edged sword as several studies show that the likelihood of species protection and conservation is related to how we perceive the animals in question. In the end, we end up spending most of our energy and efforts to save affectionate and lovable mammals or intelligent birds, neglecting species that are timid or more distant from us.
All in all, insect sentience, and their capacity to feel pain or suffer, are understudied and poorly understood areas, leaving so many unanswered questions. Animal advocates will surely suggest that we should choose a responsible course of action – one that establishes the inability to enter negative states first, and only then condones the rearing of millions of creatures for the sole purposes of physical manipulation or death.
Luckily, organizations such as the Wild Animal Initiative are already taking steps towards alleviating insect suffering. Specifically, they started a project to identify the most “humane insecticides” to aid wild insects. While the factor of disgust still protects them from becoming a major source of food for us for the time being, insects are definitely atop the confirmed-to-feel waiting list.