The Life and Death of Insects

» October 23rd, 2014

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.

41 Responses to The Life and Death of Insects

  1. Anita Walsh says:

    There is absolutely no need to add insects to a human diet. Maybe there are some tribes or people in desperate situations who regularly do eat insects, I guess we could find that out quickly. This obligation business of farming and eating insects makes no sense at all ( to me ). We have enough insects, if you don’t include those whom we rely upon for various services, like pollinators and ants , and probably millions of other species providing ecological services we haven’t even become aware of … because they are all endangered, out in the world of reduced habitat, pesticides, toxic pollutants; etc. Why mess with the balance any further ? Why fantasize a maniacal ‘farming and slaughtering ‘ plot in the first place. Initially, it almost seems that you have not observed, been around, saved, marveled at, insects much.

    • James says:

      “it almost seems that you have not observed, been around, saved, marveled at, insects much.”

      In fact, I’ve written a book on insects: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-13942-7/american-pests. You need to read the previous posts. When you eat plants a “farming and slaughtering” scenario is already happening. Insects are not endangered. They are the last thing from endangered.

      • Anita Walsh says:

        Why is the decline of bees and other pollinators so prevalent? How about the fact that we don’t need to harm them to live healthy lives? The tired explanation which is true, that more insects and other animals are killed in growing crops to feed livestock, isn’t that more connected to the vast problem at hand ? Why does Edward O. Wilson value the ant ? I did leave a comment on your previous article, which I read. If we are to improve things I truly believe we will have more small organic farms, natural predators available, habitats incorporated. not by killing insects en mass on purpose.

        • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

          “How about the fact that we don’t need to harm them to live healthy lives?”
          except that commercial pollination of common vegan foods kills staggering numbers of bees. if bees were sentient i suspect they would fear vegans far more than omnivores.

          “we will have more small organic farms”

          that *by definition* rely on the flesh, blood, bones, and excretions of sentient animals. as a vegan, i find the organic farming movement to be ethically repulsive.

  2. Ann says:

    A life is a life.

  3. Tracy McDonnell says:

    The large-scale “collateral damage” to (smaller) animals which is apparently your justification for focusing on eating insects instead of plants is not a given. The true wave of the future is not humans eating insects, it’s humans developing veganic permaculture on a global scale. Your “insect industry” scenario would be a nightmare, not only for the insects but for (most) humans, from an aesthetic if not a nutritional standpoint. In contrast, veganic permaculture has the potential to truly get us “back to the garden” in a way that is both humane, just, satisfying, healthy and sustainable. See also: http://www.veganicpermaculture.com/
    http://www.youtube.com/?v=h6oRV9dnVEQ

  4. Tracy McDonnell says:

    Additional links on veganic permaculture, courtesy of Colin Wright:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stock-free_agriculture

    Posts on this issue by Anders Branderud:
    http://bloganders.blogspot.no/2014/04/vegan-permaculture-vegan-ecological-and.html

    “Vegan Agriculture Network”:
    http://www.goveganic.net/rubrique22.html

    “Vegan Organic Network”:
    http://veganorganic.net

    “Veganic Gardening and Farming Resources” on Gentleworld:
    http://gentleworld.org/veganic-gardening-and-farming-resources

    “The Vegan Book of Permaculture: Recipes for Healthy Eating and Earthright Living by Graham Burnett”:
    http://permanentpublications.co.uk/port/the-vegan-book-of-permaculture-recipes-for-healthy-eating-and-earthright-living-by-graham-burnett

    “Spiral Seed”:
    http://spiralseed.co.uk

    “Stockfree Organic Services”:
    http://www.stockfreeorganic.net

    “One Path to Veganic Permaculture”:
    http://veganicpermaculture.com

    “Sunizona Family Farms”:
    http://m.sunizonafamilyfarms.com

    “Build a $300 underground greenhouse for year-round gardening”:
    http://www.treehugger.com/green-architecture/build-underground-greenhouse-garden-year-round.html

    “Veganic Gardening At Home”:
    http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/2014/07/veganic-gardening-at-home

    “No, Cows Don’t Make Fertilizer”:
    http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2013/03/no-cows-dont-make-fertilizer.html

    “Impressions from the 3rd Grade Farming Field Trip”:
    https://www.facebook.com/notes/stephen-augustine/impressions-from-the-3rd-grade-farming-field-trip/4782848227858

    • James says:

      Pursuing veganic agriculture is an excellent idea. We are obligated to do it. But it’s by no means mutually exclusive from the obligation to eat insects. Both are after achieving the same goal.

    • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

      generation of veganic fertilizer also results in animal death. there is no insurmountable environmental or ethical reason to avoid *SYNTHETIC* fertilizer.

  5. Marc Bedner says:

    If you are going to push for eating insects even if they are sentient, then we need to consider another nonendangered species which thrives in crowded conditions. Cannibalism anyone?

    • James says:

      This question is one that, if you take the land ethic seriously, becomes the logical conclusion. But that’s the problem with the land ethic. It fails to acknowledge that our survival as individual and fully sentient humans trumps moral obligation to other species. Cannibalism would undoubtedly be a good thing for the ecosystem. But it would render human existence meaningless. I’m not self-loathing enough to go there.

  6. Rucio says:

    You are indeed becoming a total bore here. Everything you argue about insects has already been said about other animals to justify their mass exploitation and slaughter. Even about other humans.

    And telling vegans what they are “morally obligated” to do is as offensive coming from another vegan as it is from a grass-fed beef proponent.

    • James says:

      I’ve offered a number of arguments for why cows and crickets do not deserve the same level of moral consideration. I’m open to having those arguments proven wrong. But you need to do that. Rather than make blanket statements without substantiation, I urge you to avoid insults and make arguments.

      • Rucio says:

        The argument is simply that cows and crickets DO deserve the same level of moral consideration. That is the vegan ethic. It is not a question of sentience or whatever other anthropocentric rationalization you want to apply.

        I really don’t have a problem with anyone eating insects, although I don’t see any good coming from “farming” them. It’s just absurd to suggest that it should be a part of veganism. Your very language in this post has devolved into that of “humane meat” advocates.

        (As for insult, you set yourself up for the confirmation.)

        • James says:

          Your logic is circular. To say that a behavior is wrong because it does not adhere to a preexisting definition (in this case, veganism) is to subsume the demand for a real argument (which you still won’t provide) under the guise of a label that may or may not best accomplish the goal that we both seek–to reduce the suffering of animals who can suffer. My argument is that veganism may not be the best approach to reducing the harm humans do to animals. My previous posts on insects have laid out why I think that is the case. Thus, in the interests of having a genuine and fruitful discussion (and possibly getting me to change my mind), you must do more than say, in essence, “veganism does not allow for eating crickets.” I really don’t care about the insult, honestly, so no worries there. But I do care about logic.

          • Rucio says:

            Any circularity is in your framing the question as one of “animals who can suffer”. In other words, you’ve already asserted the conclusion in the premise.

            Furthermore, if, rather than arguing that veganism may not be the best approach to reducing harm to animals (other than insects), you are attempting to redefine veganism to include eating insects, then the burden is yours.

        • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

          “It’s just absurd to suggest that it should be a part of veganism.”

          Thankfully deontic vegans don’t get to decide who is and is not vegan. Many utilitarian (see vegan action and vegan outreach position on insects and honey) vegans accept the ambiguity of insects and insect products (shellack, honey, silk etc).

          Moreover, many deontic vegans are not at all consistent when it come to their own avoidance of insect “suffering”: honey is verboten but shellack is “don’t ask don’t tell”.

          • Rucio says:

            We are all, really, merely veganish.

          • Rucio says:

            “Vegan” is generally understood to mean no animal flesh or products. It is not a “deontic” or utilitarian or pseudo-religious proposition, but just a simple definition. Nobody’s a perfect vegan, but if everybody’s a vegan by their own definitions, than the word means nothing.

          • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

            “Vegan” is generally understood to mean no animal flesh or products.

            Generally understood as “NO” by deontic vegans but not by many utilitarian vegans:

            http://vegan.org/frequently-asked-questions/

            “Again, it depends on one’s definition of vegan. Insects are animals, and so insect products, such as honey and silk, are not traditionally considered vegan. Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain.”

            http://www.veganoutreach.org/advocacy/definingvegan.html

            “This may sound odd coming from a co-founder of Vegan Outreach, but it doesn’t matter what label anyone places on me, or what label anyone places on themselves. For example, if Peter Singer (author of Animal Liberation) were to eat a dish that contains hidden dairy when at a colleague’s house, or if Carole Morton (who runs Green Acres Farm Sanctuary and is a humane agent in a rural PA county) were to eat the eggs laid by the hens she has rescued … do I want to cut them off, shun them from our vegan club?”

          • Rucio says:

            That’s essentially what I already said. Many vegans fudge the line with invertebrate animals. But asserting that vegans are “morally obligated to eat insects” is a lot more offensive than asserting that they shouldn’t. As I also pointed out earlier, that’s not much different than Alan Savory asserting that we are morally obligated to eat free-range beef to save the planet. Even if his evidence were sound, we are certainly not obligated.

            (Regarding evidence, James McW stacks his a bit by ignoring the tremendous land use required for animal agriculture feed. Switching to a vegan diet would reduce that land use to an eighteenth. Whereas farming insects would add a new land use, since it would obviously replace non-insect meat, not plants, in the diet.)

          • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

            I’m not particularly interested in “moral” obligations so I ignored that part of his essay. That being said, I can understand why under utilitarian grounds insects might become an “ethical” imperative.

            And like Matt Ball’s famous comment about burgers — I hope I would do the right thing if an ethical source of insect protein were developed.

            “Whereas farming insects would add a new land use, since it would obviously replace non-insect meat, not plants, in the diet.”

            I don’t agree with this. If insect products were more available they would almost certainly replace some of the plant-based proteins veg*ns consume. For example, I would not be surprised to learn that seitan has a higher suffering index than grub/termite patties. Moreover, because insects can be farmed using agricultural byproducts they can potentially subtract from land use.

  7. Karen Harris says:

    I think that Tracy raises the key issue here. While I understand and appreciate your intellectual rigor, and do understand your point of view, again, I am not sure and am troubled by where you are heading with this. If you care about animal suffering, which I know that you do, why come up with a plan that absolutely would set the vegan movement back on it’s heels. This line of thinking is a meat eaters dream – veganism becomes an even easier target. It is one thing to point out the damage to a multitude of species in the production of crops, which I think is clearly honest and valid. It is another to propose that if we really care about animals – we should eschew plants and eat insects!

    • James says:

      I don’t think we should avoid intellectual consistency and logical coherence out of fear of where “the enemy” takes it. Truth prevails, or so I’d like to think.

      • Karen Harris says:

        Truth prevails? I haven’t seen much evidence of that in the 61 years I have been on the planet. More often, I have witnessed the unintended consequences of misguided lines of thinking that get seized upon by the media, with the potential to do great harm.
        For better or worse, I guess I am not as idealistic as you are.

    • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

      ” a plan that absolutely would set the vegan movement back on it’s heels”

      i vehemently disagree. the deontic point of view is, imo, a real barrier to wider acceptance of veganism because it leads to internecine fights over trivial issues, such as, honey and oysters. as a utilitarian vegan i am interested in “avoiding exploitation and cruelty” and could care less about pseudo-religious “don’t consume animals” dogma.

      i also enthusiastically welcome ostrovegans and insectivegans into the vegan/veganish fold.

  8. Mary Finelli says:

    There is a vast diversity of insects with vastly differing ways of living. Which are you proposing be used as human food?

    • James says:

      This is a good question and very much open to discussion. I’ll start here: not honeybees.

      • Mary Finelli says:

        Okay, but if you’re going to seriously propose we start eating insects you should be more specific than that. A lot more.

      • Sailesh Rao says:

        Sounds eerily similar to how we divided the animal world into that which we love (dogs, cats) and that which we torture and eat (cows, pigs, sheep)…

  9. Daniel Sweeney says:

    Does the practicality of convincing populations to eat insects weigh into its merits at all?
    If primarily eating insects would decrease suffering, I don’t see how enough people could ever be convinced, making its impact insignificant. This seems like more of a theoretical endeavor, rather than anything that could really work. We can hardly get people to eat a vegetable that is not soaked in butter and cheese.
    Also, is it nutritionally adequate to eat insects?
    I am anxious to read your book on insects. I love insects. I realize my driving and my kale cause their death, but I just don’t think I could ever make the leap to eating them in lieu of plants.

  10. Taylor says:

    From National Geographic:
    “U.N. Urges Eating Insects; 8 Popular Bugs to Try”
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130514-edible-insects-entomophagy-science-food-bugs-beetles/

    The report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.:
    “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

  11. Sailesh Rao says:

    Fascinating discussion! I suppose that the same kinds of discussions happened 2600 years ago during the birth of Jainism, which is why Jain monks wear masks and gently brush insects off their paths as they walk. Jain monks don’t eat root vegetables and some even avoid fruits and vegetables that didn’t fall off the plants and trees on their own.

    As Tracy MacDonald pointed out, we need to begin questioning the fundamental assumptions that lead us to such a startling conclusion, that veganism OBLIGATES us to eat insects. Or for that matter, to eat roadkill!!

    Is the fundamental assumption that lots of small animals and insect pollinators HAVE TO DIE to grow kale and other plant foods valid? I had lunch with Keegan Kuhn, the co-producer of Cowspiracy, the other day, and he went in his backyard and harvested some kale for our lunch. He’s one of the gentlest people I’ve known and I don’t believe that he’s shooting deer or poisoning them or spraying insecticides in order to grow kale. Perhaps we’re jumping to conclusions thinking that only mechanized industrial agriculture can feed human societies, while Vandana Shiva and others are claiming the only agroecological methods are sustainable? Agroecological methods are much more benign, require lower land and water use footprints, but more manual labor.

    Secondly, is the fundamental assumption that lots of animals and insects HAVE TO DIE in order for humans to travel places at high speeds valid? If we begin with compassion for all life as our core ethic, could we design our transportation systems to minimize such deaths?

    I suggest that James is reaching such startling conclusions because we’re stuck in agricultural and transportation systems that were designed with reckless disregard for the well-being of non-human life forms.

  12. Mary Finelli says:

    Seaweed: yes! Insects: No!

    “A 2010 Wageningen University study estimated that a seaweed farm covering 180,000 square kilometres – roughly the size of Washington State – could provide enough protein for the world’s population.”

    “We consider seaweed to be far more accessible to mainstream America than insects. But like insects, seaweed is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and is grown with minimal environmental impact”

    from: ARE SEAWEED SNACKS THE FUTURE AS THE TIDE TURNS ON MEAT CONSUMPTION? http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/nov/05/seaweed-burgers-snack-meat-consumption-resources

    Seaweed recipes: http://fishfeel.org/recipes.php?cat=a20&curpg=2#resapee

  13. Vaalea says:

    Besides the vegan issue, I want you to explain how exactly you are going to factory farm all the insects for 7+ billion people’s diet. What are you going to feed the insects? How much, from what source?
    “Forage losses are seldom estimated but it has been shown in Alberta that even a moderate infestation of 10 grasshoppers/square metre can consume 16-60% of the available forage depending on the condition of the forage stand.” http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=626d78ef-2444-4fae-98fc-95e05d88e759

  14. WhoopiPele says:

    Can someone at least develop insect based cat food?! I would happily feed my cats mussels and insects instead of supporting chicken/seafood factory farming.

  15. MORAL PRIORITIES

    Long-time vegan advocate James McWilliams has lately proposed consuming insects instead of plants.

    1. Yes, the moral imperative is (i) to cause no suffering at all to sentient beings if it is not essential for human survival, (ii) to minimize any suffering that is essential for human survival, and (iii) to reduce the rate of human population growth.

    2. Yes, animals suffer and die in the plant agriculture that feeds the vast and growing human population, and all means should be developed to minimize that suffering — eliminating it altogether if it ever becomes possible.

    3. But the scale of completely unnecessary agony that is being caused to countless sentient animals every moment, hour, day, worldwide today by humans’ completely unnecessary demand for meat, fish, dairy, eggs and fur is so monstrously huge and horrible that it is idle to speculate about one day switching to insect consumption rather than focussing today on re-directing existing agriculture to feeding humans instead of to feeding sentient victims purpose-bred, needlessly, to be brutalized and slaughtered to feed those same humans.

    4. Speculations about a hypothetical future entomological alternative, just like speculations about hypothetical future cloned or synthesized meat just give us another excuse to wait, and meanwhile continue to sustain the animal agony caused by our needless consumption of meat, fish, dairy, eggs and fur, instead of taking the small and obvious first step of switching to a plant-based diet and cruelty-free clothing.

    5. If we wish to speculate, let’s speculate rather (a) about inventing ways to minimize or eliminate animal suffering in agriculture and (b) about reducing the growth of the human population.

    Meanwhile, the first priority is not to persuade people to eat insects instead of plants, but to eat plants instead of animals.

    And for every layman or entomologist who insists that “there’s no hard evidence to support the prospect of insect suffering” there are countless laymen and zoologists (among them Descartes) who insist that there’s no hard evidence to support the prospect of animal suffering.

    What is really behind all this is the “other minds problem”: The only suffering you can be absolutely sure about is your own. Let’s give invertebrates the benefit of the doubt too, even if they are small. The nociceptive systems of insects and snails are much like those of lobsters or octopuses, which in turn are not very different from those of vertebrates and mammals, including us.

    The “quick and massive and singular and decisive whack” for “minimal suffering” that James McWilliams seems to be imagining for insects is as self-deceptive as it is in the minds of the countless meat-eaters who imagine that something like that is how cows’, calves’, pigs’, chickens’, turkeys’, fish’ or lobsters’ lives are ended for their plates — or the way fox’s, coyotes’, dogs’, cats’ lives are ended for their fur trim.
    http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/skywritings/index.php?/archives/286-.html

Leave a Reply