Insects may be sentient, but sentience is not the most realistic reason to not eat them
LAUSANNE, Switzerland––Probably most of us in the English-speaking world, when very small and still unduly trusting, heard someone say “Open your mouth and shut your eyes, and I’ll give you something to make you wise,” did so, and had someone shove a bug, slug, or worm into our mouths.
Very few of those bugs, slugs, or worms were ingested. Most of us spat the bug, slug, or worm out as rapidly as possible, and either ran to tell an adult, tried to beat the hell out of the prankster, and/or sought to victimize someone else with the same ancient gag-inducing gag.
Exhibitionism, bee barf, & cannibal cats
From this near-universal experience, we might infer that most humans have no appetite for bugs, slugs, and worms, neighborhood geeks, frat house exhibitionists, and members of a very few remote tribes in the farthest corners of distant rainforests being the sole exceptions coming quickly to mind.
The closest most of us come to eating bugs, slugs, and worms is eating honey. Honey, as vegan police officers often point out, is bee barf; but bee barf consists no more of actual bees than cat puke normally consists of actual cats, cannibalistic cats being exceedingly rare.
That being the case, humans of normal dietary inclinations, especially vegans and vegetarians, must have wondered on April 11, 2023, when the Swiss-based vegan investment online periodical Beyond Impact, formerly Beyond Animal, mentioned that, “Some consider insect-based as an alternative protein source.”
Two billion bug-eaters among eight billion humans?!
But this was not just a shock-and-awe geek gimmick to draw reader attention to another relatively mundane vegan business news item.
Beyond Impact had a serious reason to discuss bug-eating, summarized a year earlier, on April 29, 2022, by Matilde Nuñez del Prado Alanes for the Brazil-based online periodical Sentient Media.
“According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,” Alanes wrote, “in 2013 insects were still part of the traditional diet of at least two billion people around the world, mostly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Most of the small six-legged land animals consumed for food today are collected from the wild. However, in some countries, insect farms have existed for several decades.
Palm weevil larvae & black soldier flies
“Such is the case in Thailand,” Alanes said, “where experts estimate there are 20,000 small- to medium-scale cricket farms and about 5,000 for palm weevil larvae, and in China, where there are even some industrial-scale cockroach farms intended mainly for the production of medicines and animal feed.
“Recently the European Union authorized the use of insects as animal feed,” Alanes reported, “and the United States approved the use of black soldier flies in dog food. Also, Canada allows the marketing of food products based on insects of some species for both human and animal consumption. These initiatives are being replicated in other countries, which creates a favorable legal framework for the growth of the sector.”
The insect parts allowance
So this trend goes beyond a few oddballs eating chocolate-covered ants and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration allowance of an average of one or more whole insects, two or more rodent hairs, 50 or more insect fragments, or one or more fragments of rodent dung per quarter cup of cornmeal.
These contaminants are allowed, the CBS News program Good Day Sacramento explained on October 4, 2019, only because it is practically impossible to exclude them in smaller amounts. They are not included, or ingested, on purpose.
“We don’t invest or engage in solutions involving harm to sentient beings,” Beyond Impact felt obliged to explain, with abundant footnotes backing up each contention.
Insects are sentient
“First and foremost,” Beyond Impact said, “insects are sentient creatures capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Insects may not have the same level of consciousness as other animals,” Beyond Impact acknowledged, but cited “growing evidence that suggests that insects are more sentient than previously thought. For example, research has shown that insects can experience emotions like fear and may even be capable of forming memories.”
No surprise there, for anyone who ever watched a beehive, or watched ants marching in and out of a kitchen no matter how vigorously one tries to caulk every visible entrance.
Contended Beyond Impact, “If we believe animals should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering, we must also extend that belief to insects.”
Probably most vegans, vegetarians, and even some omnivores and carnivores would agree. This appears to be a reasonable extension of Mr. Rogers’ simple prescription that he did not eat anything that had a mother.
Nature doesn’t do moral philosophy
But human philosophical reasoning unfortunately has no basis in nature and ecology.
Reality is that humans cannot survive without killing insects by the untold multi-billions, both to protect food crops and to protect ourselves. Mosquito-borne diseases alone kill about 750,000 people per year, according to the World Health Organization, and this is a marked reduction from the toll of a few decades ago, when insecticides were much less effective and more sparingly applied.
Though the global human population was much less before the invention of DDT, the mosquito-borne death toll was in the millions, and this is in no way meant as an argument against the abolition of DDT in favor of insecticides with much less severe consequences to fish and birds.
Nature created most animal life to kill bugs
There is indeed reason to be deeply concerned about endocrine-disrupting insecticides, the cumulative effects of ingesting organo-phosphate residues, and the loss of pollinating insects attributed to the use of neonicotinoid insecticides.
Every effective method of insect control, if used to excess, can harm every other form of life as well, including ourselves.
At the same time, to abandon insect control, whether for ecological or philosophical reasons, would be to commit mass suicide, if not by starvation, then by sacrificing our bodies to a range of parasites attacking our every organ, both internal and external.
Like it or not, nature created humans––along with most freshwater fish, most terrestrial birds, and every other mammal––to kill bugs, and mostly to eat bugs.
Vertebrate insectivores, including all of our ancestors, emerged about 400 million years ago. The first vertebrate herbivores, the dycynodont therapsids, did not appear in the fossil record until around 120 million years later.
Even then though, our most direct ancestors remained insectivores until about 70 million years ago. To grossly oversimplify, the bat bone connects to the lemur bone, the lemur bone connects to the monkey bone, the monkey bone connects to the ape bone, and the ape bone connects to the human bone, now hear the word of the Lord!
The choice of veganism does not free us from nature
Humans have evolved away from insectivorous habits, and even have the option of choosing not to be carnivores, since enough of our ancestors were herbivorous to leave us perfectly capable of living long, healthy lives without eating meat, or for that matter, without deliberately eating any animal products or byproducts.
Yet it is a conceit to believe that our own moral constructs, including even a choice of strict veganism, can somehow elevate us entirely above our historical role as either enemy of many insects while living, or insect food, living or dead.
Sentience, whether ours or theirs, has little or nothing to do with it. A botfly maggot may be as sentient as any of us, but if infesting a human must be killed, or it will wreak terribly painful consequences on the human who chose to spare it.
Do geckos get a pass?
Beyond Impact had several other reasons for eschewing insect parts as food for either humans or other animals kept in domesticity, presumably exempting pet geckos and other human-kept animals who are, in fact, obligate insectivores.
For example, said Beyond Impact, “It is crucial to understand how insect protein is made. There may be a perception among people that they ‘die off’ and are collected. That is far from being true.”
Crickets are often frozen, silk worms are boiled alive, and some insects raised for consumption are gassed with carbon dioxide.
Whether any of these killing methods are “better” or “worse” in terms of inflicting suffering on insects than the effects of common insecticides may be debated, and is also beside the point, since using pesticides to poison insects meant to be eaten would poison the consumers as well.
“None are conceived without sin”
“At Beyond Impact,” the editors sniffed, “we take the view that we don’t need to cause pain and suffering to insects any more than we do to other animals. We can thrive on plant-based, fermented, and cellular-derived proteins.”
And just how do the Beyond Impact editors imagine their plant-based, fermented, and cellular-derived proteins are produced?
Anything that grows on a plant, especially if stored for any length of time before use, must undergo multiple fumigations, freezing, and often irradiation to kill insects, just to ensure that enough of it arrives at destination to be made into anything edible.
Though animal-based products and byproducts require even more aggressive treatment to combat insects, no food for humans is produced without causing insects pain and suffering, much as we might wish it were otherwise. In this respect, none of us are conceived without sin.
Drifting from the impossible to the practical, Beyond Impact noted that “Another argument against insect-based protein is that it is less sustainable than other alternative protein sources. Several factors make them less sustainable than other options.
“For one, insects require a lot of energy to produce,” Beyond Impact explained. “Insects are cold-blooded, so they are less efficient at converting feed into protein than warm-blooded animals. Additionally, the process of harvesting and processing insects requires a significant amount of energy.
“Further, while insects may require less land and water than other livestock,” Beyond Impact mentioned, “they still require significant production resources. For example, crickets require a specific diet to ensure they are healthy and nutritious, meaning they must be fed a diet of grains and vegetables. This diet requires significant amounts of land and water to produce.”
It also, by the way, entails killing perhaps as many insects as the insect farm produces.
10.3% of Europeans would replace meat with insects?
“Finally, there is the issue of consumer sentiment,” Beyond Impact said, coming back around to “open your mouth and shut your eyes.”
Continued Beyond Impact, “While some people may be open to eating insects, others find the idea repulsive. This is not a minor consideration. Customer preferences can make or break a new product, and it’s unclear whether there is a large enough market for insect-based protein to make it a viable alternative to traditional protein sources for human consumption.
“Only 10.3% of Europeans stated they would be willing to replace meat with insects,” Beyond Impact said, citing a recent survey.
ANIMALS 24-7 finds the survey data inherently suspect, having yet to observe any playground bully or frat house geek who would rather eat bugs than meat burgers, both of which we have found thoroughly disgusting even in concept since childhood, since before first being victimized by the “Open your mouth and shut your eyes” trick.
“The only real market for insect protein is animal feed,” Beyond Impact finished, “which therefore perpetuates the exploitation of animals already being farmed, which is antithetical to Beyond Impact’s mission. We don’t see a future for insect protein that does not involve the exploitation of other sentient beings.”
On that much, Beyond Impact and ANIMALS 24-7 can agree.
Karen Davis, PhD says
Whatever is true for Nature outside of human beings, within our own species there is a clear moral difference between the harm we bring to other sentient beings inadvertently, like stepping on an insect while walking, and deliberately killing sentient beings to satisfy needless culinary appetites and other needless appetites. There’s a difference between legitimate self-defense and wanton killing. Since we can get all the protein and other nutrients we need to eat directly from plant sources, massacring insects for human food is wanton animal abuse. Animal agribusiness and its mass-media public relations extension is conditioning the public to believe that the only way to meet the rising human population’s “protein needs” (cliche) is by killing more millions and billions of animals and adding new animals to the carnage by factory farming insects, and now, the octopus.
Mass-media, from the NY Times to all the little local papers around the U.S. are telling readers that eggs are a “staple,” an absolute necessity for a protein-healthy diet, baking cakes, eating breakfast, etc. The only consumers reporters quote in the echo chambers are those who complain about the price of eggs or the scarcity of eggs and other chants. Not a word about the hell the hens are living in to produce zillions of eggs. Like the wretched carriage horses in New York City, if eggs and all animal flesh and mammary milk disappeared tomorrow from the grocery shelves, after a couple days whining about the loss, the disappearance of these “necessities” would be forgotten, as long as there were satisfying replacements, which there are already in the form of plant-based foods of all kinds, even here in semi-rural Virginia at Walmart and Food Lion.
As long as the mass-media keep telling readers and viewers that plant-based foods are inferior to the taste of animal pain and mouthfuls of animal misery, it will be hard to change people’s food habits. Of course, the problem is not only the media, but the media are a significant contributor to the mass-misery of animal life on the planet.
Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns. http://www.upc-online.org
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing, with gratitude.
It’s quite obvious to me that insects are sentient; and anyone observing them closely would have to come to this conclusion.
Graeme M says
I think it’s reasonable to observe that killing insects to defend crops is ethically permissible though clearly we should hope to minimise any consequent additional harms such as species extinction, pollution etc. I think a lot of people view veganism as the idea we should do least harm, but that isn’t quite true. Reducing suffering might be a consequence of vegan choices, but veganism really is about respecting the basic rights of other animals whenever we can.
That is why anyone who endorses vegan ethics might choose not to buy animal products and why it isn’t some appalling ethical failure to eat crops that require the killing of insects and other pests in croplands.
Vasu Murti says
Author Keith Akers, in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983), notes that by arguing against the killing of plants, the meat-eater “seeks to reduce vegetarianism to absurdity. If vegetarians object to killing living creatures (it is argued), then logically they should object to killing plants and insects as well as animals. But this is absurd. Therefore, it can’t be wrong to kill animals.
“Fruitarians take the argument concerning plants quite seriously; they do not eat any food which causes injury or death to either animals or plants. This means, in their view, a diet of those fruits, nuts and seeds which can be eaten without the destruction of the plant that produces the food.
“Finding an ethically significant line between plants and animals, though, is not particularly difficult. Plants have no evolutionary need to feel pain, and completely lack a central nervous system. Nature does not create pain gratuitously, but only when it enables the organism to survive. Animals, being mobile, would benefit from having a sense of pain; plants would not.”
In determining a boundary between sentient and insentient life, Peter Singer in Animal Liberation suggests that “somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster seems as good a place to draw the line as any, and better than most.”
Keith Akers states further, “Even if one does not want to become a fruitarian and believes that plants have feelings (against all evidence to the contrary), it does not follow that vegetarianism is absurd. We ought to destroy as few plants as possible. And by raising and eating an animal for food, many more plants are destroyed indirectly by the animals we eat than if we merely ate the plants directly.”
(Meat-eaters indirectly kill ten times more plants than do vegetarians!)
“What about insects?” asks Akers, “While there may be reason to kill insects, there is no reason to kill them for food. One distinguishes between the way meat animals are killed for food and the way insects are killed.
“Insects are killed only when they intrude upon human territory, posing a threat to the comfort, health, or well-being of humans. There is a huge difference between ridding oneself of intruders and going out of one’s way to find and kill something which would otherwise be harmless.”
According to Akers:
“These questions may have a certain fascination for philosophers, but most vegetarians are not bothered by them. For any vegetarian who is not a biological pacifist, there would not seem to be any particular difficulty in distinguishing ethically between insects and plants on the one hand, and animals and humans on the other.”
Organic farming is a direct response to the moral question of unnecessarily killing insects!
I’d like to see a return to organic farming.
Merritt Clifton says
Vasu Murthi’s comment as originally submitted was more than three times as long. Deleted for space considerations were approximately 1,000 words worth of critiques of pesticide use from a variety of respected but by now thoroughly obsolete sources, including writings from Francis Moore Lappe, John Robbins, Lewis Regenstein, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all originating from data first published between 1966 and 1979.
Those writings were useful and accurate information back then, but the broad-spectrum, long-lasting first generation spray pesticides of that era mostly long since passed out of common agricultural use, and even if still sold under the same brand names, have been extensively reformulated.
We are still having environmental problems, no question about it, as result of the intensive use of DDT, lead arsenate, methyl mercury, parathion, the original dioxin-laden formulation of 2,4,5-T, and many other farm chemicals that were used decades ago, back when I was a young reporter on the farm beat. Exposing that stuff and the consequences therefrom was a huge part of my early career––but that stuff is not what we are looking at now.
Most farm pesticides today break down within a few days of sunlight, are relatively species-specific, and are engineered to avoid bio-accumulation. The term “eco-toxicity” had not even been invented 40-dd years ago, but these days a chemical cannot reach the market without passing an eco-toxicity screen.
Organic agriculture, meanwhile, is enormously more destructive to both animal and plant life than most organic agriculture advocates imagine, as I saw first-hand while covering agriculture for two different newspapers edited and published by organic agriculture entrepreneurs. Reality is that the outcomes my employers imagined fell far short of promise, both in productivity and in ecological impact.
Consider the difference between planting a field of corn the conventional way, as currently practiced, vs. the organic way.
If you plant corn the organic way, you harrow the field & then saturate it with organic pig slurry, if you can find any.
Harrowing, though admired by organic advocates to the point of the pro-organic magazine Country Life having originally been called Harrowsmith, is practically the original prescription for soil erosion.
But that’s not all. Ever wonder why gulls, crows, et al follow a harrow, as soon as the dust settles?
They are feasting on a smorgasbord of sliced & diced small critters, everything from worms to bunnies. Anything that isn’t at least a foot down is likely to be either dismembered or merely exposed to sunlight (deadly to worms) & birds.
Ironically, harrowing, in aerating the topsoil, tends to kill most of the small animals, including insects, that help nature to do the same job.
That’s only the beginning. The seeding operation is typically defended against birds by shotgun. From the time the corn begins to grow, the organic farmer defends it further with every weapon he can muster, knowing that the bugs are going to cut deeply into his profit margin. Anything big enough to shoot or trap “buys the farm.”
The conventionally farming neighbor doesn’t harrow. He kills off any competing foliage with a broadleaf herbicide that does the job, then disappears. The conventional farmer plants by seed-drilling. The seeds are coated with pesticide, typically Furadan, which kills any small critter who finds & tries to eat those seeds, but most small critters who eat corn kernels look for them on top of the ground, not six inches deep. Most of the life of the field is relatively little affected.
The field is then sprayed at least once, often several times, with insecticides & maybe fungicides. Right after the spraying, birds may become intoxicated or even poisoned, flying in front of cars if not killed outright. Cats and some wildlife may die of secondary poisoning from eating poisoned birds, a phenomenon I was among the first to document, gathering samples for testing by Agriculture Canada. But the effect is short-term. It is much less deadly to everything but the bugs than the continuous effort to keep out anything that might munch a leaf or a cob.
After harvest, the conventional farmer leaves the ground-fallen remnant cobs for the deer, raccoons, & muskrats.
The organic farmer, having reaped about 20% less corn than his conventional neighbor despite all his lethal effort, is back to harrowing.