The author—Carol Adams— of one of my favorite books written about animals and humans—The Sexual Politics of Meat—will be speaking this Monday at Texas State University in San Marcos. The event is at 11 am and it’s free. Details here. If you’re in the area, please come. Her evolving presentation is widely recognized as a signature statement at the intersection of feminism and animal rights.
At the risk of being a total bore, I have a few more thoughts to shake out on the proposition that vegans are morally obligated to eat insects. Some readers have suggested that insects might very well be sentient. The underlying fear, a legitimate (if unlikely) one, is that if we’re wrong in our assumption that insects don’t experience pain, we’d end up being complicit in the horrible infliction of mass suffering.
But would we be? Is that true? Consider this proposition: even if insects could suffer, they wouldn’t suffer while being raised. In fact, unlike farm animals, most insects thrive in densely packed conditions and tight spaces. They would eat a diet that was “all natural” by insect standards—agricultural and food waste—and they would in no way have to be manipulated to enhance breeding (they have that one covered). An insect farm could reliably replicate natural conditions. Whereas farm animals can never be themselves on even the most humane farms, this would not be true for insects. Insects could be insects.
As I imagine it, the only stage in the cycle of production when an insect would suffer would be during slaughter. But that’s not quite the right, either. Think about slaughter. Slaughter implies a process, one in which too many procedures could and do go awry. A multi-hundred pound beast never goes gently. By contrast, the death of an insect—a quick and massive and singular and decisive whack—would happen so quickly that the critter wouldn’t experience pain in any meaningful way. Little room to screw that up. The lights would go out, that would be that, and I’d have my non-supplemental B-12.
Relatedly, the lights would go out when the insect had lived almost the entirety of its life. Given the rate of insect predation in the wild, insects might actually even be better off on a farm being raised for human food than living “natural” conditions where they’d be prey to everything that so much as twitches (even plants!). Think about it: a life in an environment where even plants prey on you or a life of leisure where you are thwacked painlessly in your 11th hour? I know what I’d choose. I almost wish for it.
What follows are some blurbs that have come in for The Modern Savage. I’m deeply grateful for them and hope you will pass them on to people you think would benefit from reading my forthcoming book. Once again, preorders are very helpful. You can do that here.
“I think James McWilliams is far and away the single best writer the vegans have so far produced…One of the most intelligent books I have ever read. His is a powerful voice that will resonate far beyond those interested in animal rights.”
—Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ph.D., bestselling author of Dogs Never Lie About Love
“McWilliams has issued a powerful challenge to the ‘compassionate omnivore’ movement. The Modern Savage is a book that everyone concerned about food, animals and the environment should read.”
—Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University
“James McWilliams ably demonstrates that we’ve often underestimated the mental lives of farm animals, and that we need to start taking their interests more seriously. He doesn’t skirt tough issues nor does he take positions based on what may be popular at the time. Such a moral accounting would lead to a revolution in both how we produce food and what food we eat.”
—Paul Shapiro, vice president, The Humane Society of the United States
“James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound. He explains in plain, accessible, and highly readable language what follows if we reject factory farming as morally reprehensible animal abuse, as most of us do. First, if animals matter morally, then killing them in any context is always wrong when we have a vegan alternative. Second, consumers of “humane” or “sustainable” animal-based foods will be surprised to learn that animal suffering routinely attends local and small-scale animal farming. McWilliams tells a riveting story while building an unassailable argument for veganism as the answer to our well-justified revulsion towards industrialized animal agriculture.”
—Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law, Cornell University, and author of Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger and Other Questions People Ask Vegans on The Modern Savage
Unlike the farm animals that we slaughter by the millions, there’s no hard evidence that insects experience suffering. The most convincing scientific defenses of that possibility all concede this point. Of course, there’s also no hard evidence that insects don’t suffer. I appreciate the argument that we should, in light of this ambiguity, err on the side of caution and avoid intentionally harming them, and I equally appreciate readers reiterating that perspective. That said, I disagree. I’m still going to argue that we have an obligation to (possibly) harm insects.
By eating them.
I’m not going to lay out the physiological data at this point (I’m still gathering and interviewing), but there’s enough very strong evidence that insects do not suffer for me to consider the essential competing moral consideration: the untold number of rats, mice, bunnies, moles, voles, prairie dogs, wolves, deer, coyotes, snakes, and, yes, insects, that interfere with the crops grown for vegans to eat. Looking over my previous two posts, and the array of comments that followed, my sense is that this calculus was poorly explained.
So . . .
Let’s say insects do suffer. If we honored that suffering by not eating them we’d be lending the same moral consideration to their lives as we would to the obviously sentient animals we kill through pest control to protect plant crops. In other words, out of caution, we’d equate the possibility of suffering (insects) to the fact of suffering (bunnies, deer, etc). That’s a risky choice, riskier than readers have considered. But if, taking another risk, we assumed that insects do not suffer and ate them in an effort to offset the production of sentient-animal-destroying plant crops, we’d privilege the fact of suffering over the possibility of suffering. Granted this is not an ideal choice—prioritizing possibility and fact–but it happens to be the one that’s in front of us. In light of it, I conclude that we must, even if only in utilitarian terms, eat insects. Vegans too often act as if ethics is easy. It never is.
Let me make one more move here. Again, let’s assume insects do suffer. A number of scientists and ethicists who have examined this issue (such as Peter Singer) have conceded that, even if this is true, their suffering is not as consequential as that of higher order animals. Maybe suffering has gradations and maybe those gradations need to be considered. This proposition can be evaluated in concrete physical terms. To wit: do you think that a fly swatted with a magazine experiences/suffers the pain of death the same way a farm animal does? My sense is to say no. So, even if insects do suffer the experience of pain, the fleeting nature of that pain might very well justify the choice to eat them and, in so doing, offset the suffering of animals who we know suffer when they are shot and churned to death by harvesters to make us feel so incredibly great about eating plants.
My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.
All that said, here we go. I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.
Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.
As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.
Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.
Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.
The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.
The more I learn about contemporary agriculture of all forms the more I’m convinced that the decision to avoid eating animals is a limited response to the myriad problems of modern farming. I’m in no way suggesting that eating exclusively plants should be abandoned as a strategy of reform. But I am saying that, in and of itself, its promises are modest at best. We need a new perspective on the issue, one that thinks bigger about agriculture’s future.
Begin with the common vegan claim that a vegan diet does not harm animals. This claim, which typically means to say that vegans do not intentionally harm domesticated or hunted animals, overlooks the fact that untold numbers of sentient little creatures—I’m excluding insects here (more on them soon)—are sliced and diced and crushed to harvest our plant-based diet. It also overlooks the fact that vegetable farmers rarely suffer larger animals—say, deer—from cutting into their profits. Lead injections are par for the course on the happy veggie farm, as are insecticides (even organic) that harm more than insects.
As much as we would like to sidestep this issue, vegans cannot declare themselves free from harm and tuck into their tofu. In fact, there may be cases in which raising and killing and eating one large farm animal, instead of clearing the land to raise kale and kill vermin, is—at least in utilitarian terms—less harmful to the animal world. I’m not at all saying eating domesticated animals is a choice we should make, but I am noting that there are arguments to be made that it could reduce animal suffering. That’s tough medicine to take, but we need to at least swallow it.
Many of you have no doubt heard some version or other of this objection. I think it needs to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken it, if for no other reason than the fact that it nudges us towards a radically new way to conceptualize food and the human-animal relationship. Again—I’m not going to any way suggest eating domesticated of hunted creatures. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think in a more radical way about animals, food, and agriculture; more radical than just saying no to eating critters.
It’s comforting and relatively easy to give up animal products and declare our hands clean. But they’re only clean in the way that the person who fails to pull the switch to kill one person instead of five in the famous trolley experiment has clean hands. As it now stands, anyone who eats has animal blood on her hands. So if deciding to give up animal products is not enough, or only a symbolic gesture in light of the problem’s severity, what are we supposed to do? What are our options.
We must be advocates, of course. But we have to maximize our advocacy. I would argue that advocating a plant-based diet is meaningless if it’s not complemented by an equal, if not stronger, advocacy for climate controlled agriculture. That is, vegans who think they are helping animals by not eating them would be much more effective if they enjoined veganism with advocacy for a farming future that could realistically eliminate all animal harm. Growing food indoors, where condition are carefully monitored, is quite possible if we’re willing to give up row crops and eat a diversity of whole plants.
As agriculture now stands, we cannot assume that not eating animals alone would necessarily reduce animal suffering. Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed. Move agriculture inside—that is, radically rethink and advocate and invest in a new form of agriculture—and the game really changes in a way that improves the lives of animals, not to mention that of humans who, having decided not to channel our resources into domesticated animals can start cultivating the thousands of nutrient dense crops we now neglect
I would even suggest—tentatively—that this agricultural future could include room for eating animals at the margins, where the ethics of killing sentient animals intentionally don’t apply. I’ve written extensively about roadkill as a viable dietary supplement and I’m as eager as ever to support that option. I’ve also written about eating insects and, although not as convinced, I feel fairly sure that this could be an acceptable dietary choice in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment. We should, in essence, eat like bonobos.
These ideas are at the core of a book proposal I’m now writing on rethinking the meaning and form of agriculture for a sustainable future. Be assured: raising and hunting animals for the purposes of consumption are not part of that future. Eating animals might be. Vegan activism has a role, but not nearly as essential a role as a new way of advocating for farming, one that would be best for the animal world and the environment.
Humans have been practicing agriculture for less than a 10th of our contemporary existence. Who’s to say we got it right the first time? It’s time to start over. Not eating animals raised or killed for food should be a starting point. But it’s not the be all and end all of a future that’s based on just food. To advocate for veganism as a singular path to justice for animals in agriculture is misguided. There so much more involved.
There are innumerable ways to eat a healthy diet, but plant-based, when done right, is undeniably one of them. For me, a longtime marathoner, the litmus test of my nutrient intake and balance has always been the quality of my running. Since transitioning to a plant-based diet, the quality of my running has not only improved as I’ve gotten older, but it has exceeded my performance when I was in peak shape back in my 20s (over 20 years ago!).
Official proof of this improvement came last Saturday when I ran the St. George, Utah marathon three minutes faster than my pervious personal best (done back when I was 25). When I crossed the finish line I was stunned. Simply unbelieving. I was even more stunned when I looked at my mile splits and discovered that the last 7 miles were faster than the first 7 miles. Freakish. Reflecting on my preparation, I kept coming back to a decision I made a week before the race: I was going to eat meals that were radically nutrient dense.
Meals like this (quinoa, amaranth, cashews, sunflower seeds, bananas, blueberries, mint):
And this: (peppers, zucchini, okra, quinoa, onions)
I think these made the difference. These foods are not only radically nutrient dense. They are radically sustaining, keeping me strong well after the race and into the recovery period (with the help of some delicious IPAs), which has been pretty mild. The real beauty of these meals is how simple they are to prepare, cheap to buy the ingredients for, and tasty to eat. No animals required. One should never be smug about much of anything, especially something as variable as diet. At the same time, when it works for us we should say so.
My 3:11 marathon speaks volumes for the virtues of plant-based eating.
(Sorry for the gaps here; I have no idea how to get rid of them.)
“Just be compassionate.” So goes the practically mantra-like phrase popular among those who advocate for animal justice. It seems to be an unassailable advice, a perfect lead rope to the land of reform. “Expand the circle of compassion”!
It becomes complicated, though, when considered in light of another fundamental quality of social life: justice. Thing is, it’s possible to be compassionate and, at the same time, unjust.
A dear friend applies for a job. You are head of hiring. A better-qualified applicant sends a resume across the transom but, because you know your friend is in financial straits and would be greatly relieved by this job offer, you give the job to your friend. That’s compassionate. But it’s also unjust.
Matters get complicated here because compassion is a felt emotion while justice is an understood concept. That’s overstating the distinction a bit, but still, emotions sometimes lead us to just decisions but they are as likely to lead us away from them. I know that my emotions have caused trouble on more than one occasion.
It happens. I recall my former neighbor, the owner of Max, a massive Weimaraner dog, defending Max—“oh you’re still a good boy Maxie”—after he was appropriately deemed an “out of control beast” by a neighborhood kid who Max had yanked off his bike. My neighbor’s canine compassion—however biased—outweighed the justice of a due apology.
Compassion, in other words, is never enough. There must be moral justice, too, and that requires thinking critically—often disinterestedly so—about justifying moral choice. On many occasions, readers will suggest that The Pitchfork not get overly tangled in the intricacy of ideas, lest we lose sight of the bedrock message of compassion. But those ideas, however abstract or entangled, keep compassion on target, maximizing its potential while protecting it against itself.
So I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads “Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them.” You could say that’s a sign of compassion, and it is. But it’s also a statement that everyone who advocates for animal interests needs to be able to justify without emotion and, yes, without compassion. Do that, and then your heart flow with love for the creatures who, by virtue of justice, we choose to respect as a moral imperative.
Loyal readers: I’m on the verge of launching The Daily Pitchfork, a website dedicated to promoting accuracy and context in the field of animal journalism. What follows are some tentative standards that we’re asking journalists to consider when they write about animals in the mainstream media. Please provide feedback, suggestions, and critiques. Also, if you are interested in doing volunteer work for The Daily Pitchfork please send me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Daily Pitchfork’s Basic Standards For Animal Journalism (DRAFT):
1) Many animals are the sentient subjects of a life. They experience pleasure and pain. Journalists writing about these animals must—if only implicitly—acknowledge the reality of their consciousness. When they do so through the perspective of animal advocates, they must use the proper terminology to describe the advocate (not everyone is an “animal rights activist”).
2) Many animals—particularly farm animals—are the products of extensive genetic manipulation. Failure to recognize animals’ genetic situation fosters basic misunderstandings about their behavior. Journalists writing about these animals are obligated to frame their lives in the relevant genetic histories, noting when appropriate how that history shapes an animal’s behavior.
3) The animals we eat and wear have to be slaughtered for these purposes. The nature of this process varies from backyard butchery to industrialized slaughter. Journalists writing about the life cycle of farm animals have an obligation to note the reality of slaughter, provide some insight into what it entails, and, when appropriate, illuminate the discomfort consumers and animals might have with the slaughtering process.
4) The industrialization of animal agriculture has been, and continues to be, exposed for its unacceptable environmental and ethical practices. At the same time, journalists have increasingly turned their attention to non-industrial (small, local, humane) alternatives. Writers must evaluate the environmental and ethical nature of these alternatives on their own terms rather than in comparison to the industrial models. They must do so, moreover, with the support of peer reviewed research rather than farmers’ claims to “sustainability” or “humaneness.”
5) Animals have perspectives on their own lives. They cannot, however, articulate them for us the way other oppressed groups can. Journalists nonetheless have a duty to consider those perspectives. Doing so does not require anyone to adopt “an animal rights” position, but only to make a charitable effort—drawing on the work of animal ethology when possible—to give a voice to the voiceless.
I want to pick up an idea from my last post and make some critical distinctions. In the post I questioned the logic of fighting for animal welfare without explicitly opposing animal agriculture per se. When I put a variation of this concern to welfare-standards architect Andrew Gunther, he disingenuously responded that “death is not a welfare issue.” To which I wrote: that’s patently ludicrous. It is THE ultimate welfare issue.
Reflecting on the piece, I realized something beyond the simple illogic of Gunther’s response bothered me. Indeed, something about the complete phrase he used— “death is not a welfare issue; quality of life is a welfare issue”—elevated my annoyance to a new level. Why? I think it has something to do with my deeply held belief that any resort to simplistic sloganeering suggests, if not the cover up of an unpleasant reality, then at least intellectual laziness, or something like it. Yes, we seek slogans to simplify, and doing so is often necessary. But we also seek them to distort. And, in my gut, that’s what I think is happening in this case. And it’s not excusable.
Two things to note here. First, I do not disagree per se with organized attempts to promote animal welfare standards. I endorse any move that will improve a farm animal’s full quality of life. But I also have to agree with the larger vision behind the articulation. I must, in other words, understand and support the purity and scope of the underlying motives. If the motive is to improve the lives of animals while doing nothing to promote the complete end of animal agriculture, and if the failure to confront animal agriculture as a whole is obscured in a pithy phrase, I’m hesitant to endorse the effort. In fact I’m prone to lash out. But if the motive is to simultaneously improve welfare standards while working transparently to end the system that makes those standards necessary in the first place, I’m on board. In short: proper framing, scope of vision, motivations—these factors matter. But saying “death is not a welfare issue” denies their importance.
Now, if an individual or organization chooses to take the latter approach—trying to enhance animal welfare while also attempting to end animal agriculture as a whole—the question of logical consistency arguably persists. Readers of Gary Francione get this point about as well as you’d get a hammer to the head. Those who support welfare reforms can quickly end up stretched across his well-grooved chopping block for not conceding the point. And why not, you inconsistent nitwit? How, after all, can you advocate animal abolition and incremental welfare improvements at the same time?! Hard to square that circle. But here in Realityville, the fact remains: it needs to be attempted. So, rather than devise some bullshit slogan, or seek refuge in some la-la land of moral perfection, we’d be much better off declaring “I realize that this might seem contradictory,” owning that apparent inconsistency, and moving ahead as the inherently flawed but essentially good creatures that we are. Again, no slogan required.
My second point is related (and shorter). No matter what role we play in the broad sweep of animal advocacy, we have to shoot straight. If an idea has a weak flank, acknowledge it. If a tactic has a downside, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. If your move backfires, admit it. If your vision is impossibly idealistic, defend it on those grounds. More to the point, I guess, is this: when you make qualified progress—say, by getting farmers to adopt some nominal improvements for animal welfare—don’t declare victory. Because it’s not a victory. It’s a noble and perhaps inevitable duty undertaken in the context of an agrarian mentality we’ve inherited and cannot easily expunge. In my mind there are no victories until we end animal agriculture once and for all–erase that mentality for good. But we’ll never get there if we don’t accept this challenge for what it is and stop using words to obscure inadequate tactics grounded in moral cowardice.