‘Minilivestock’: Is Farming Insects A Solution To Agriculture’s Problems?
Humans have eaten insects for millenia. Even today, people in Italy and Croatia treat cheese infested with maggots, for example, as a delicacy. While the spread of organized religion and colonialism may have caused most Western societies to view insect-eating as disgusting and uncivilized today, small movements in some Western countries are trying to reclaim the practice. This study reviews the arguments for using insects as our main source of protein, rather than other animals or plants.
The researchers attest that ‘minilivestock’, or farming insects rather than cows, pigs, or chickens, is better for the environment and for human health. To make their case, they conducted a literature review on the topic. First and foremost, they found that farming animals for food is the biggest contributor of pollution and a huge factor in human-driven climate change, in addition to destroying land and biodiversity. It also uses a huge amount of water and energy compared to producing plant foods.
Turning their attention to the actual production and consumption of insects, they argue insects can be a ‘cleaner’ food than conventional animals used for food, such as lobsters and chickens. This is because insects are often herbivorous and may feed only on particular plants, so it is easier to control the quality of their diet. Otherwise, insects can eat foods inedible to humans such as invasive plants, leaf litter, and animal manure, thus reducing waste and pollution.
On the level of resource consumption and distribution, insects potentially require less energy and land to rear for food, and they have more edible parts. For example, 80% of a cricket’s body is edible as compared to 58% of a chicken’s. This means that consuming insects is technically more efficient,and it also means that insects could be used as a high-nutritional-density for animal feed instead of soy and wheat, which means more soy and wheat can be fed to humans rather than to animals.
The researchers also discuss some of the risks and challenges associated with farming insects, such as the lack of standards regulating the quality of insects used for food. Outside of insect farming, the paper notes that, if insect eating became popular, people may begin to gather insects for food unsustainably and kill off populations or damage ecosystems. That’s a big “if” however: the researchers note that insect-eating is seen as “disgusting” in Western contexts and this may take a lot of effort to overcome – a factor which we’ve covered before in our library.
It’s worth noting that, from an animal advocacy perspective, the researchers do not wade into the ethical issues of farming insects. There is room to explore the ethical trade-off between a diet based on protein from insects vs. a diet based on protein from conventional animals used for food, for people who insist on animal proteins in their diet. Do insects have a lesser degree of sentience than larger animals? Does the capacity to suffer correspond with sentience? Does the capacity to suffer determine how we should treat animals morally? And since many insects are killed in growing various crops for animal feed, could using insects for animal feed cause fewer insect deaths than using grains and legumes?
In short, the “minilivestock option” is not a simple one. If it is to succeed, especially in Western contexts, it will be fighting an uphill battle against consumer perception and ethical qualms, and producers will have to work hard to promote the supposed positive aspects.