Insects As Food: Hard Fact Versus Possible Fact

» October 18th, 2014

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.



22 Responses to Insects As Food: Hard Fact Versus Possible Fact

  1. scott says:

    Interesting, thanks. I am thinking about this. Previously, you responded to my comment about growing crops for insects by saying that they are detritivores, so we wouldn’t need to. What exactly to you envision feeding them and where would that food come from, in a large-scale operation? I looked it up and not all insects are detritivores, from what I saw (I learned that I already eat detritivores: mushrooms). If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate your view of how feeding them would work. This part is still obscure to me. Thanks in advance, should you choose to respond.

    Thanks very much for all of your thoughtful writing. You are a super-valuable resource.

  2. Anita Walsh says:

    Regarding the problem of ‘pest’ insects, which seems to be the topic of conversation, and with the exception of inconvenient, pesky ones like flies and mosquitos and cockroaches, who can be avoided, discouraged or caught and removed, we are looking at insects who harm crops. They can be deterred, better; natural predators, such as birds, preying mantis, snakes etc. can be encouraged and protected and provided habitat in and around the environs of food crops. As hard as we work to protect farmed animals, including fish, and hunted animals, another great task is restoring natural habitats and predators. Farming and habitat maintenance are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Nothing would do us greater good than the proliferation of many small organic farms employing the above-mentioned maintenance of habitat as well as crops. The grasshopper who so cleverly clings to my garden gate, and with my gaze, moves to the far side of the handle, is not someone I would eat. If a bird find hims, they are in that dance that is natural to them.

  3. John T. Maher says:

    The eating insects issue is actually either simpler or more complicated than one might think at first blush. The level of complexity depends upon the limitations of one’s mode of analysis. I am dissatisfied with JMC’s analysis traditional reliance upon tradition deontology and utlitarianism and do not see this as saying anything new or useful.Instead, I consider the insect issue through Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), which de-privileges the human, and refer to Levi Bryant’s observation in the excellent Larval Subjects blog that a flat ontology does not presume a flat ethics. This works nicely here because it places humans on an equal footing with insects, allows humans to kill and eat animals, and allows for a a utilitarian-type ‘lesser harm’ precautionary approach (“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”, Tim Morton and Graham Harman would approve!) when humans decide who to kill. Everyone wins except the insects, whose worlds the eater changes, insofar as predation is assumed not to help them as a species (although it might). As far as the main argument goes that there is an ethical imperative (!) to eat insects, winding through James (not Vasile’s) Stanescu’s “post-lapsarian” framework, I refer the reader to Ian Bogost’s wonderful observation on ethics themselves as a (following Morton) hyperobject in OOO as “a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation”. That is what can be said of any call to arms to eat bugs whose worlds we do not understand as opposed to eating other critters, it as anthropocentric an argument as any other kind of human endeavor. We just care about bugs less which brings us back to Carey Wolfe. And under OOO this is OK.

  4. anim says:

    I am reminded of
    Shakespeare: “And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
    In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
    As when a giant dies.”

    And Da Vinci of Bees:
    “And many others will be deprived of their store and their food, and will be cruelly submerged and drowned by folks devoid of reason. Oh Justice of God! Why dost thou not wake and behold thy creatures thus ill used?”

    Personally, I think eating of farmed insects will just open the door to pushing the door ever wider–the temptation will be encouraged by such an enterprise. I never subscribed to Peter Singer, I am more in line with George Bernard Shaw when he referred to “vulgar utilitarianism.” If we can create an industry of farming insects and whatever problems will arise from that, then surely we can create a plant agriculture system that reduces harvest deaths as much as possible.

    • James says:

      I agree with your final point, but I also see no need to disentangle the efforts. We can reduce incidental animal deaths by improving farming methods and eating insects. As for the quotes you include, they are poetic indeed, but I’m looking for harder evidence to guide my way through this critically important question. Thanks.

  5. Karen Harris says:

    I find your argument for eating insects not without merit.
    In spite of proclamations to the contrary, most of us, vegans included, do draw distinctions in our everyday lives in terms of what is permissible and acceptable. To use an example from a previous blog – we continue to drive even though it causes the death of an untold number of insects, but we would not drive if it necessitated running over dozens of wild animals or dogs or cats.
    That said, I am wondering where all of this is heading.
    Isn’t it hard enough for meat eaters to stop eating meat in favor of vegetables? Are we now supposed to convince them to eat only insects instead?
    I think that it would only serve to open the whole concept of veganism up to further ridicule and further marginalization.

    • Mary Finelli says:

      “I think that it would only serve to open the whole concept of veganism up to further ridicule and further marginalization.”

      I fear you are right, and the same would be true of trying to convince vegans to opt for eating insects. I can appreciate intellectual curiosity but I hope this is merely an academic exercise and not something that is seriously being considered as part of a book proposal as had been alluded to in a previous column. I think it has the potential to harm animal advocacy in general and further reduce the moral status of nonhuman animals.

  6. Paul Tomes says:


    My comment will fail to add weight to either side of the conversation.

    However, my intent is to say thank you for these essays. This is one of the few sites where, a week later, I find myself coming back to the same piece as I consider your thoughts.

    If I may be so bold as to call myself ‘relatively normal’, I made an informed choice several years ago to be vegetarian (not vegan) and you push me to consider my values and that, James, is what provides true value to any conversation.

    Cheers, Paul

  7. Tim Gier says:

    Hi James,

    Universal generalizations fall with only one counterexample. “All animals suffer” is one such generalization to which, it seems to me, single-celled animals are the obvious counterexample. Since not all animals suffer, then, the questions are Which animals do suffer?, What does it mean for an animal to suffer?, and Why must it matter to me that any animal does suffer? I take it that your interest (in this post) in insects concerns the first two of those questions and not the third.

    As I read the relevant literature, insects, arthropods, and worms aren’t capable of suffering, but I also think that neither are most non-mammalian water-going creatures. Fishes and crustaceans, for example, don’t suffer.

    But what is suffering? I think you’re right. There are (at least) varying degrees of suffering. For instance, I suppose that what it feels like to me to suffer isn’t the same as it would have felt like to a person living a thousand years ago in Medieval Europe. What it is for a human to suffer has as much to do with what any human expects to find in suffering as it has to do with any supposedly objective physiological state. That is, if I think, because of the society & culture in which I am embedded, that I suffer because of some physical malady I happen to have, there’s good reason to think that another person in another time and place would have accepted such a malady without suffering. After all, no one can tell me that I am suffering; I have to think it for it to be true. There are known cases in which a person appears to all the world to be in pain but who reports not being in pain. Not all things that look from the outside like suffering are, from the inside, as it were, actual suffering.

    Not all animals who appear to us to be suffering are necessarily experiencing any suffering at all. And, to look at the second question more closely, what is it to suffer anyway? If the brain structures of two creatures are dissimilar, then it’s at least plausible, if not certain, that the mental states of those two creatures will be different as well. What it feels like to experience pain & suffering for a mouse may not be anything like what you and I take to be pain & suffering, however the mouse may appear from the outside. Surely it’s not the case that when a mouse sees the Empire State Building that the mouse is having the same experience that you & I would presumably have. Why must it be the case that when a mouse experiences noxious stimuli that it feels the same as when you and I do? I see no reason to think that it does necessarily. Not all creatures who experience pain & suffering experience it in the same ways that all others do. There is no thing or object that is “pain” or that is “suffering”, of which each living creature partakes in the same way or to the same degree. Pain & suffering are mental states, the interpretations of minds embedded in a bodies.

    Hence, not all animals suffer and, even when we concede that some other animals do suffer, not all suffering is the same.

    When it comes to how I will live my life, I will count the suffering of those most like me for more than the supposed suffering of those unlike me. I suspect that most human beings will do as well. This is a descriptive claim, not a prescriptive one. I will leave it to others to attempt to work out an answer to my third question (Why must it matter to me that any animal does suffer?); I expect all such attempts to fail.

    Eat insects? Sure, if you have the stomach for it. The bugs themselves won’t mind.

    • James says:

      Nice to hear from you. Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. Very, very useful.

    • Mary Finelli says:

      Numerous disputable points in your comment but I will limit it to this: What is the basis for your statement that fishes don’t suffer? Here are examples of acknowledgement by the scientific community to the contrary:
      and here is a recent article that spells out evidence of the capacity of fish to suffer:

      “I will leave it to others to attempt to work out an answer to my third question (Why must it matter to me that any animal does suffer?); I expect all such attempts to fail.”
      Very possibly true if you can’t figure that out for yourself.

      • Karen Dawn says:

        I, too, was surprised to read the assertion that fish do not suffer. I would have thought the work of Culum Brown had put that question to rest:
        And I so appreciate Taylor’s posting, below, of the New Scientist article reprinted in the Washington Post, regarding the suffering of other invertebrates.
        But then those assertions were no more surprising than, “I suppose that what it feels like to me to suffer isn’t the same as it would have felt like to a person living a thousand years ago in Medieval Europe.” My thoughts are so different. When I read works written close to half a millennium ago, Shakespearean for example, I identify with the suffering so beautifully described and I would be surprised to learn that our basic make up had changed drastically in the half millennium before Shakespeare (or 600 years to be more precise) and then stayed the same until the present day.

  8. Taylor says:

    Here are a couple of articles on the science involved in determining whether invertebrates, including insects, can experience pain. The first is from 1991, the second from 2014.

    • Karen Dawn says:

      I had not seen that relatively recent New Scientist/Washington Post article and am appreciative of your having posted it. As with the experiments on fish, described in Culum Brown’s paper that I posted above, I think experiments that show different effects with and without anesthesia make arguments against the experience of pain harder to swallow.

  9. Karen Harris says:

    In an ideal world, pain and suffering -hard to ascertain and hard to define – would not be the measuring stick determining whether or not an animal deserves to live or die. Ideally all living creatures would have a right to their lives, whether they suffer or not, and whatever form that life takes. The problem is that we have to make choices in order to survive. How to do that without being anthropocentric? Probably impossible, as others have suggested.

  10. Ann says:

    I’m not sure why pain is the sole relevant criterion in determining whether or not we have an obligation to encourage the intentional killing of insects.

    “We show for the first time that agitated bees are more likely to classify ambiguous stimuli as predicting punishment. Shaken bees also have lower levels of hemolymph dopamine, octopamine, and serotonin. In demonstrating state-dependent modulation of categorization in bees, and thereby a cognitive component of emotion, we show that the bees’ response to a negatively valenced event has more in common with that of vertebrates than previously thought. This finding reinforces the use of cognitive bias as a measure of negative emotional states across species and suggests that honeybees could be regarded as exhibiting emotions.”

    “Fruit flies ‘think’ before they act, a study suggests. Neuroscientists showed that fruit flies take longer to make more difficult decisions. In experiments asking fruit flies to distinguish between ever closer concentrations of an odor, the researchers found that the flies don’t act instinctively or impulsively. Instead they appear to accumulate information before committing to a choice.”

    • Taylor says:

      It’s worth considering whether organisms or even other systems that cannot experience sensory pain might nonetheless possess some degree of consciousness. If that’s the case, then the absence of the capacity for pain in individual insects would not necessarily rule out their being conscious. And although I strongly disagree with John T. Maher about the usefulness of the concepts of moral rights and being the “subject of a life” (I think these are crucially important for ethics), I agree with him that there may be facets to consciousness that go beyond the sense of individual self and that may have ethical import.

      I highly recommend this TED talk on consciousness by philosopher David Chalmers. Chalmers argues that we should seriously consider a form of panpsychism — that consciousness is a fundamental, non-reducible feature of the universe and that perhaps every material system, natural or artificial, has a degree of consciousness that depends on its complexity. He suggests that its degree of consciousness will affect a system’s moral status.

    • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

      “Fruit flies ‘think’ before they act, a study suggests.”

      Pure speculation by non-scientists in a magazine. A more likely explanation for this phenomenon would be simply that weaker stimuli require longer periods of entrainment.

      The study by Bateson et al along with other studies suggest that bees have some capability for second-order learning. Nevertheless, this study does not address the question of whether Bees can perceive pain. Discriminatory learning is not evidence of sentience.

      Elwood argues that only a few invertebrates show the cognitive sophistication that might be a prerequisite for sentience:

      Others, such as, Victoria Braithwaite and Donald Broom are even more skeptical of pain perception in invertebrates. To my knowledge, there is simply no evidence that insects experience pain as anything other than a reflex response.

  11. James,

    I appreciate your willingness to explore these topics, even though I’m not particularly keen on eating insects.

    Interestingly, Fast Company magazine published an article today (“Can Better Packaging Convince You To Eat Bugs?”) about food companies that are trying to introduce insects to societies such as ours that don’t currently find them edible:

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