August 4, 2016 by Radek
I think most people would agree that harming anything that can suffer or feel pain is a negative thing. Unfortunately, our current food and agricultural industries contributes to this bad practice regularly. So what can a person do if she wants to reduce the inhumane treatment of animals while getting all the nutritional benefits that animal foods provide? The answer lies in the insect kingdom.
Are they sentient creatures? Do they feel pain?
Whether an organism is sentient or not has a big impact on how humans think about it and how they treat it. That’s why, at least for vegans, plants are ok to eat, but animals are not. Insects are sort of a special case in this sense, because while they belong to the animal category, their sentience is still up for debate.
It is a controversial topic, but even tenacious supporters of insect sentience, such as Jeffrey Lockwood, an entomologist whose graduate students have to anesthetize insects before conducting experiments on them, say that there is no hard evidence for this claim. Hans Smid, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, an expert on parasitic wasps, which are some of the most behaviorally sophisticated insects on Earth, on the other hand, said: “I am absolutely convinced that insects do not feel pain.”
It is also important to note that from an evolutionary standpoint the function of pain is to provide a long-term protection for an organism, or in other words, give it the ability to learn from its mistakes. Robert Elwood, a biological science professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, said that pain would provide no evolutionary advantages to insects. The average lifespan of a field cricket is a few weeks—its protection comes from its remarkable reproductive efficiency. There is also the fact that most insects don’t have nociceptors, the nerves that larger vertebrates use to transmit pain signals.
That being said, some research that was carried out using fruit flies [Drosophila melanogaster] as a model organism, found that the genes for nociception were the same for mammals, suggesting that nociception occurs in at least some insects. However, it is uncertain whether these are just reflexes or whether higher neural systems are involved. Also there is a lack of evidence that insects possess the cognitive ability to even experience suffering.
Animal welfare of farmed insects
When it comes to intensively farmed animals, the standards to which the animal production industry should aspire are: freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, and distress, and the expression of normal behavior. Now, let’s look at how hard it is to accommodate that for insect.
Freedom from hunger and thirst are the easiest to solve. Crickets can thrive on what we call food-waste, and there will never be a shortage of that as long as humans are around. Evaluating normal behavior isn’t easy but one thing that will have a big impact on it, and also on disease, is how much space the animals are living in. This is one of the biggest problems for conventional animal farming. Animals get sick and have to be injected with antibiotics regularly just to survive in high densities, this is not needed for insect farming.
For example, locusts and crickets naturally live in high densities, and mealworms have a tendency to cluster. Kevin Bachhuber, who opened Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown Ohio, said that their crickets are housed in large troughs, each holding about 3,000 crickets, within a 5,000-square-foot warehouse. If a trough gets too full, crickets start to eat each other, which is obviously a scenario that farmers try to avoid by providing enough space at all times.
Hibernation, they just go to sleep
Pain, injury, fear, and distress are all closely tied to the degree of sentience discussed above. Until conclusive proof has been gathered, insects should probably be granted the benefit of the doubt as a precaution. That’s why insect-killing methods that prevent suffering are being used.
For example, crickets have a hibernation-like state called diapause phase that is activated when their environment turns inhospitable. All the farmer has to do is to reduce the temperature, and they naturally go into suspended animation. They are then frozen, which kills them. There is no neurological pain for them in this process; they just gradually slow down as they naturally would without any added stress.
Should vegans eat insects?
Insects can provide substantial amounts of vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, and other essential nutrients that vegan diets are often lacking. When it comes to animal cruelty, they could make a huge difference too. When there is no pain, there is no suffering. When there is no suffering, there is no harm to be done.
So yes, every vegan who wants to stay healthy and reduce the inhumane treatment of animals should look at insects, and crickets especially, as a viable food choice.