Viva!’s Head of Investigations, Lex Rigby, looks at whether eating bugs is the future of sustainable food or a cruel practice that should be avoided...
As the impact of the climate emergency becomes ever more present, a race to find novel solutions to feeding the nation has begun. We, the collective British public, seem genuinely repulsed by the thought of eating insects as a source of protein.
However, some environmental campaigners are championing the little critters as a ‘sustainable’ alternative to more conventionally farmed animals like cows or sheep. But what of insect sentience? Is it ethical to farm arthropods and what other impacts should be considered?
Using insects for animal feed
In countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, insects have been consumed by humans for hundreds of years. They’re mostly collected from the wild, although farms growing crickets, mealworms and palm weevil larvae are on the rise and becoming increasingly commonplace.
For Western travellers though, eating insects has been more of a holiday novelty than need, and regular viewers of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! rightly squirm during the Bushtucker Trials – when unsuspecting creatures are cruelly eaten alive.
With a deep-rooted cultural gross factor attributed to the insect family, a dinner of pancrustacean hexapod invertebrates is never going to sound appetising. Yet, feeding insects to the animals some of us do deem appetising enough to eat, like pigs and chickens, is gaining traction as a viable substitute to unsustainable soya, maize and fish-based animal feed.
Insect feed is is gaining traction as a viable substitute to unsustainable soya, maize and fish-based animal feed. Photo © Artem Zakharov via Adobe Stock
Soya cultivation is one of the leading causes of deforestation around the world. Most of this soya is used to feed pigs, poultry and farmed fish, along with fishmeal produced from wild-caught fish that further contributes to the pressure of overfishing.
In the UK alone, there are over one billion farmed animals to feed every year. So, to ease pressure on dwindling global resources, meat producers are being encouraged to source local soya and import European plant-based proteins, such as the lupin bean, field bean and alfalfa instead.
However, unlike simply eating the plant-based proteins ourselves and thus fixing the problem of an unsustainable food system, these alternatives just transfer the pressure to other regions and other crops.
Intensive insect farming and the environment
Until recently, regulation in the West has been the main barrier to the development of farmed animal feed made with insects. Since the BSE crisis in the early ’90s, a ban on livestock feed made of animal remains or processed animal proteins (PAPs) was put in place, but the European Union lifted this in 2022 for pig and poultry farmers.
The UK government is clearly supportive too – in 2020, they awarded £10 million to a company called Entocycle to build a large-scale black soldier fly farm near London.
Supporters claim some of the main benefits to insect-based feed is that insects require much less water and land – they’re minuscule in size and can be reared with the use of vertical-farming methods – and emit fewer greenhouse gases than other farmed animals to produce the same amount of protein.
Crickets, for example, emit less than 0.1 per cent of the emissions of cows to produce the same amount of protein and use just 23 litres of water per gram of protein compared to 112 litres for beef protein. Insects also fair better in terms of land and water use when compared to chickpeas too.
The fact that insects may be farmed anywhere, in any environment, without destroying land and fed on a diet of food waste – typically surplus fruit and vegetables, discarded brewer’s grains and coffee grounds – is highly appealing for those that continue to exploit animals. Nevertheless, farming insects to solve one problem will undoubtedly cause more.
Supporters of insect farming claim it requires less land to farm, however the ethics of insects farming are unclear. Photo © ณัฐวุฒิ เงินสันเทียะ via Adobe Stock
Ethical considerations with farming insects
There are already discussions about the need for a ‘better bug’ – one that grows bigger in less time – and the industry is turning towards forensic entomologists in the field of criminal investigation, studying why some insects grow much more quickly than others, for the answer.
It seems that genetic modification through selective breeding is well and truly on the agenda and ready to exploit insects in similar ways to chickens – ensuring the fast-growing varieties prevail.
Unsurprisingly, there’s an overwhelming lack of knowledge regarding the suitability of insects for intensive farming practices. We know very little about their emotional lives – their behaviours, intelligence and sentience – and therefore what they require from their environment and feed to meet welfare needs.
The scientific community is yet to come to a consensus in terms of just how much pain and suffering insect farming would inflict, but it would be wrong to assume it won’t.
The scientific community is yet to come to a consensus in terms of just how much pain and suffering insect farming would inflict. Photo © wetzkaz via Adobe Stock
Managing waste is another major consideration yet to be addressed, as well as how mass escapes of non-native genetically altered organisms may wreak havoc on natural ecosystems. We only need look to the despicable Scottish salmon industry to illustrate how large-scale breakouts of farmed animals weaken wild gene pools and negatively impact biodiversity in the area.
Without further research, there’s the potential for insect farming to mimic many of the dire consequences of all factory farming, including how zoonotic diseases can mutate and spread with ease. It’s abundantly clear that livestock farming is a leading contributor to the destruction of our planet.
Providing an alternative feed source with a clever marketing strategy about it not costing the Earth isn’t going to change that.
Factory farming is at the heart of almost every major environmental catastrophe, including the climate crisis.
We cannot afford to waste yet more time and energy working out how to exploit more animals when, thanks to the most comprehensive study to date on the detrimental effects of animal agriculture, we already know that the single biggest action an individual can take to lower their impact on the planet is to go vegan.
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Featured image credit: Amnat Jomjun via Getty Images