In many communities around the world, eating insects is just another part of everyday life, despite being relatively unheard of in the western world. But while scientists have been telling us of the huge environmental benefits of eating insects and even farming them for food, they could also be seen as a more humane and ethical source of food.
For decades, the meat industry has been condemned by environmental and animal welfare groups for a number of reasons, including use of land and water, gas emissions and the mistreatment of animals. While the eating of insects has been widely suggested as a way of reducing the damaging effects of the meat industry, it has also been suggested as a way to reduce the numbers of animals being exploited from intensive meat farming around the world.
This week, the New York Times reported on the little-known intelligence of hens, who have been shown to be able to do basic arithmetic, use a degree of “common sense”, recognise partially-hidden objects and multi-task. In a similar way, geese have been shown to mate for life and share duties raising families, showing strong evidence of a capability to feel emotions. If animals such as these are capable of showing intelligence and emotion which resembles that of us humans, is it fair, then, to subject them to the cramped cages and appalling conditions of the meat industry?
While some would argue that it is unfair to judge whether any living thing dies for its meat based on intelligence, there are a number of reasons why it is thought that farming insects, rather than more intelligent animals is a more ethical and humane choice:
Ability to feel pain- The insect nervous system differs greatly from that of larger animals such as birds or mammals. They lack the receptors which humans and other animals have to translate pain signals into an emotional response. While insects may respond to certain stimuli such as heat or light, pain is an evolutionary feature which larger animals use to recognise danger and ultimately, survive. Because insects generally have a shorter lifespan, there is less need for them to be able to experience such feelings. As a result, being farmed for food is a far less painful and traumatic experience for insects as it is for birds or livestock.
Size- Part of the reason why larger animals such as birds and livestock suffer during the farming process is their size. The smaller the area of living space for these animals, the cheaper the process of obtaining their meat, leading to corners being cut to keep expenses down. This usually leads to animals being kept in tiny, cramped cages and enclosures. An individual insect it just a tiny fraction of the size of one of these animals, allowing the size of “insect farms” to be kept down and costs kept low. Insects, unlike birds and livestock are often used to living in enclosed colonies and small spaces which are relative to the size of their bodies, making this kind of environment not too dissimilar to their usual habitat. This makes the intensive farming of insects much less unnatural and distressing than that of larger animals.
Life cycles- Lifespans vary greatly from insect to insect, but for most, the adult life is measured in months rather than years. Often, insects will spend longer developing as eggs than as actual adults. This fairly rapid turnover of insect life cycles leads many to see the farming and eating of insects as a more humane process than that of farming livestock, particularly in the case of meats such as lamb or veal, when very young animals are taken away to be slaughtered.
Emotional capabilities- Much like the way that insects cannot feel pain, or at least, feel it to the same degree as humans or larger animals, insects also lack the same capability to experience emotions such as love or fear. While a certain level of instinct may kick in to keep insects away from immediate danger, they lack the same brain structures possessed by humans and larger animals and therefore are considered to experience far less by way of emotions. This also stretches to the emotional bond that many animals share with family members, friends or mates. While many insects display social elements and team work, this has been shown to be caused by pheromones rather than an emotional connection. In contrast, many animals, such as geese, mate for life, and most others have a significant bond with their parents, offspring or siblings. For this reason, choosing to farm and eat insects, who are free from the same kinds of emotional bonds and subsequent trauma, are seen as a more humane food choice when it comes to intensive farming.
Of course, farming and eating insects will never be as cruelty-free as living on a plant-based diet, and very few vegetarians will be rushing out to buy insects to keep their protein levels up. But if the farming and eating of insects can at least help to reduce the pressure put on the meat industry to cater for worldwide demand, perhaps fewer intelligent animals will have to see out their remaining days in such undignified conditions.
For information on the environmental and social benefits of eating insects rather than animal meat, click here.
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