Insect farming may be sustainable, but is it ethical?

The food companies have found a new animal to breed. In an effort to be more sustainable, the industry is turning to insects as an alternative source of protein. But new research on insect susceptibility and behavior raises ethical questions about this surprising trend.

Humans have fed on insects for centuries and continue to do so today. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in 2013 insects were still part of the traditional diet of at least two billion people around the world, mainly in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Most of the small, six-legged land animals consumed for food today are taken from the wild. However, in some countries, insect farms have existed for several decades.

This is the case in Thailand, where experts estimate there are 20,000 farms of small to medium-sized crickets and around 5,000 for palm weevil larvae, and in China, where there are even cockroach farms. on an industrial scale intended mainly for the production of medicines. and animal feed. Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Kenya also have insect farms, mainly for crickets. Most of these operations are small-scale and not technologically advanced.

In the countries of the North, the food industry based on insects is an emerging sector which is developing rapidly. Until recently, apart from cultural rejection by potential consumers, one of the main obstacles to the growth of the industry was in the legal field, since most Western countries did not have regulations allowing the marketing of edible insects. However, recently the EU has allowed the use of insects as animal feed and the US has approved the use of black soldier flies in dog food. In addition, Canada allows the marketing of food products made from insects of certain species for human and animal consumption. These initiatives are replicated in other countries, creating a favorable legal framework for the growth of the sector.

Canada currently has the largest farm of crickets for human consumption in North America, where between 8 and 10 million individuals are harvested each week, in addition to several insect farms whose production is intended to feed the fish, poultry and pets. One of the largest insect farms in the world was opened in the Netherlands in 2019, and France is also among the top insect producers. Meanwhile, the United States is expected to produce about 60,000 metric tons of animal feed and 20,000 metric tons of oils for poultry and hog rations per year at the world’s largest insect farm that will be built in Illinois by 2024.

According to Statista, the global market for edible insects could grow from $406 million in 2018 to $1.2 billion by 2023. Projections are so high that even some food industry giants, such as Wilbur Ellis, Cargill Inc. and McDonald’s threw their hats. the ring.

The propaganda of insect breeding

In recent years, the insect-based food industry, supported by FAO, has successfully championed insects as a sustainable source of protein. Insects need far less water and land and emit far fewer greenhouse gases than conventionally farmed animals to produce the same amount of protein. Additionally, the industry says it could help reduce food and agricultural waste around the world. The list of so-called benefits is so long that several prestigious Western media such as The Guardian, Financial Times, National Geographic, BBC, The Times, New Scientist, The New York Times, Netflix & WWF, Wired and Forbes, among which d others, celebrate the initiative.

But for insect farming to live up to its promise, the industry would need to expand on a large scale, which in turn could present environmental and health issues. In an article published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, a group of scientists state that “a lack of basic research on nearly every aspect of production means that the future environmental impact of mass farming of insects is largely unknown”.

According to them, it is not enough to compare the feed conversion ratios (FCR) of insects with those of other livestock to determine their sustainability. “While it is true that insects can offer significantly better FCRs and a smaller land use footprint compared to traditional farming systems, this does not guarantee that the insect-as-food industry will be environmentally friendly,” they say.

In an interview with Reuters, Asa Berggren, a conservation biologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and co-author of the paper, expressed concern about the largely unknown impacts of mass insect farming. “How do you produce the food they eat, where do you produce it, what do you use?” and “Are we going to use fossil fuels to heat and cool the facilities (where the insects are grown)?” What about transportation? are some of the questions she puts on the table.

Considering that currently, according to the Eurogroup for Animals based on analyzes by IPIFF, a group that promotes insects for human consumption and animal feed, “about one third of insect producers use feed that include soy,” Bergreen’s questions don’t seem so out of place.

Others wonder about the possible negative effects of industry on biodiversity. “For insect breeding to work, scientists need to create a better insect,” reads one headline. Indeed, for the industry to make enough profit to stay afloat, it must minimize production costs and, therefore, generate more goods. In the case of insect farming, this means that they need insects that grow more and in less time. The industry has already put its best scientists to the test, creating genetically modified versions of today’s highest breeding insects: mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers for human food, and black flies, house flies and others for food. animal feed.

“What happens if insects are accidentally released in a country to which they are imported? The bugs are tiny and they come out,” says Bergreen. Little is known about the possible impacts of a leak, let alone in the case of a leak involving genetically modified animals. Alarmingly, there is also not much information about the zoonotic diseases that the mass production of new insect species could cause.

And the insects themselves?

Even though farming insects proves to be more sustainable than raising cows, chickens and pigs for food, proponents rarely mention the ethical concerns raised by the industry. Research on sensitivity, emotions, behavior, intelligence and other relevant aspects of insect life is quite recent, so the scientific community has not yet reached a consensus on pain and pain. suffering that breeding insects would cause. However, more and more studies support the idea that many species of insects experience a variety of different emotions.

Macquarie University scientists Andrew B. Barron and Colin Klein consider that “the insect brain may indeed be capable of ‘phenomenal awareness'” and have “the ability to be aware of sensations and emotions “. Along the same lines, a recent BBC article mentions that “there is mounting evidence that insects can experience a remarkable range of feelings” and that they can be “optimistic, cynical or frightened, and react to pain as any mammal would.” According to Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D. in ethology and author of the book super fly, flies exhibit demanding social lives, idiosyncratic behavior, and sensitivities to stimuli that might be very similar to ours. For example, fruit flies are able to learn from what their peers are doing, they even suffer from insomnia, and they respond to effective human painkillers for chronic pain the same way we do.

“If industry predictions prove accurate, these farms could soon kill more than 50 trillion insects a year. That’s more insects killed for food in a single year than the number of mammals killed by humans for food in the entire history of civilization,” write Jeff Sebo, director of the Animal Studies MA program at the New York University, and Jason Schukraft, senior research director at the think tank Rethink Priorities. In addition, the conditions insects are subjected to can lead to premature death, as well as cannibalism, which is common in other farm animals when they are under a lot of stress.

Although it is not yet certain whether the insects are susceptible, the latest studies suggest that there is a good chance that they are. According to Dr Steve Cooke, associate professor of political theory at the University of Leicester, “it is important not to exclude insects from consideration, and perhaps to adopt a precautionary principle given the risks they run to make mistakes”.

Ethical concerns about the rapid growth of insect farming are growing, in part because producers plan to sell most insects as animal feed. According to the European Fund for the Circular Bioeconomy, “a growing number reveals that most of the insect meal produced will be used for livestock and fish feed”. The fund says the growers are banking on “the pet food market as the most immediate business and growth opportunity for the insect industry.” This means that despite the industry’s promise to be more sustainable than traditional farming, it will be virtually impossible for it to be more ethical. Raising insects will not reduce animal suffering. This will only add more species to the food system.