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Should Sentient Insects Be Farmed for Food and Feed?

A recent review considers the welfare aspects of the commercial use of insects.

 CLARA METIVIER BEUKES/Unsplash
Source: CLARA METIVIER BEUKES/Unsplash

The topics of insect cognition and sentience are highly controversial and hotly debated.1 I recently read an essay by insect sentience experts Helen Lambert, Angie Elwin, and Neil D’Cruze called “Wouldn’t hurt a fly? A review of insect cognition and sentience in relation to their use as food and feed,” in which these researchers conclude that there is evidence of impressive cognitive capacities and sentience in a range of insect species, and I’m pleased that Helen could take the time to answer a few questions about this most important piece.2 Here’s what she had to say.

Why did you write “Wouldn’t hurt a fly”?

Society is becoming ever more conscious of the negative impacts that industrial-scale farming is having on the welfare of animals and the environment. A lot of attention recently has focused on finding alternative, sustainable, and humane solutions to meet the huge global demand for protein to feed people and livestock. One proposed solution is to step up the production of edible insects, given that they offer such a rich source of protein and can be produced with relatively fewer environmental impacts. In fact, the edible insect industry has seen a huge spike in interest over the past decade, not only among NGO’s and scientists, but insects are also actively promoted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as the “future prospect for food and feed security.”

As the industry grows, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that production does not cause poor welfare. However, currently, there is a lack of insight into the capacity of insects to perceive and feel. This is why we wanted to write this article reviewing the evidence of insect sentience and cognition in the scientific literature. Understanding the extent and complexities of insect sentience will be vital for establishing the animal welfare impacts associated with the commercial sourcing and production of them. By writing this article, we hope that our findings will have implications for how insects are farmed in the future, particularly in the context of reducing any potential negative impacts on animal welfare.

How does your paper relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I have spent the majority of my career promoting and identifying the amazing world of animal sentience. I am deeply passionate about highlighting those species who are often disregarded as being incapable of feeling. This is the third review we have performed of this type. The last two were on reptiles, and the first was on all animals.

Who is your intended audience?

We want to inspire other researchers to explore the minds of insects, as there is still so much more to learn. We also want those who are involved in the farming of insects to take notice as the insect farming industry is growing quickly, without knowing exactly what is at stake. In particular, time and research should be allocated to finding humane and sustainable methods of farming insects to ensure that the welfare of insects is considered and protected.

We may even find that some insects are wholly unsuited to farming in this way. More broadly, national and international bodies responsible for ensuring the welfare of animals in farming and food production systems should take note. After all, whether or not an animal is sentient and capable of suffering is at the heart of the matter when it comes to protective legislation.

What are some of the topics you weave into your essay, and what are some of your major messages?

Insect farming is considered to be the answer to food security issues, as both a feed for livestock and as a protein source for humans. The industry is growing at a considerable rate, yet we still know very little about the animals involved. Can they suffer? What is a humane death? Is it humane to farm insects?

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations (FAO) launched its report on edible insects. Since then, the industry has exploded, and numerous conferences, journals, and companies have been created. Despite this, there is still no consensus regarding major welfare considerations, such as slaughter, as there have not been the scientific investigations needed.

Beyond the farming of insects for protein, there is also the potential for insects to suffer during other types of commercial trade and as a result of human activities. For example, some insects, like beetles, are widely targeted for the exotic pet market. For others, such as bees, wild populations have been heavily impacted by the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in agriculture.

However, insects are generally thought of as unfeeling beings, and therefore their welfare is often neglected in legislation and in how they are farmed. Even those with the best intentions do not have the scientific knowledge required, as so little has been done to date. Our review highlights the numerous cognitive capacities found in insects, which shows that there is more to insects than we often realize. Our findings demonstrate the need for more research to be performed into the subjective minds of insects to see what they are capable of feeling, particularly in light of their foreseen role in feeding the planet.

How does your paper differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

As far as we are aware, this is the only one of its kind that has attempted to explore what is known about the minds of insects in this way.

What are some of your current projects?

We are currently working on two more reviews of animal sentience, one focused on amphibians and one on fish. I am also working with lots of different organizations around the world as part of my consultancy. As an animal welfare research consultant, I work on all sorts of welfare and sentience-related projects and cover all sorts of subjects.

References

In conversation with Dr. Helen Lambert.

Notes

1) See, for example. Jeff Sebo's "Don’t farm bugs" and for further discussions of insect cognition and sentience see "Insect Brain Capable of Conscious Subjective Experience," "Insect sentience and the rise of a new inclusive ethics" and extensive discussions of this essay, and also click here and here.

2) The abstract for this essay reads: Globally, there is increasing pressure to find solutions for feeding the growing human population. One of the proposed answers to this problem is to farm edible insects, both for human consumption and as feed for domesticated livestock. But what do we know about these miniature livestock? Are they capable of suffering, and if so, what does this mean for this new and growing industry? Here, we review a fraction of what is currently known about insect sentience and cognition, by focusing on a portion of the published scientific literature over the past 31 years (1990–2020). Specifically, our review aimed to (1) assess the extent to which insect sentience and cognition featured in a selection of the scientific literature published between 1990 and 2020, (2) assess which aspects have been studied, and in which insect taxa, and (3) identify the insect species currently being promoted in policy for farming, and the reasons why edible insects are now on the global policy agenda. We found evidence that many species of insects, across a broad range of taxonomic Orders, are assumed and/or confirmed to be capable of a range of cognitive abilities, and that there is reason to believe that some species may also feel important emotional states such as stress. The market for insects as feed and food is set to become a booming industry in the future, yet our review highlights how we still know very little about the minds of insects and their capacity to suffer in farming systems. We hope that our findings will stimulate additional research and subsequent policy development relating to how insects are farmed in the future, particularly in the context of mitigating any potential negative animal welfare impacts.

Bekoff, Marc. Flies: The Fascinating Lives of the Most Successful Insects. (A new fact-filled book shows why flies deserve respect for who they truly are.)

_____. Animal Emotions, Animal Sentience, and Why They Matter.

_____. Sentience is Everywhere: Indeed, It's an Inconvenient Truth.

_____. Animal Sentience is Not Science Fiction: Recent Literature.

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