Insect farming bakes, boils and shreds animals by the trillion. It’s immoral, risky and won’t resolve the climate crisis
Jeff Sebo is clinical associate professor of environmental studies, affiliated professor of bioethics, medical ethics, and philosophy, and director of the animal studies MA programme at New York University. He is also on the executive committee at the NYU Center for Environmental and Animal Protection and the advisory board for the Animals in Context series at NYU Press. He is co-author of Chimpanzee Rights (2018) and Food, Animals, and the Environment (2018).
Jason Schukraft is a senior research manager at the think-tank Rethink Priorities in California. Before joining the RP team, he earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. He specialises in questions at the intersection of epistemology and applied ethics.
Edited byPam Weintraub
The future of animal farming is taking shape in a small city in central Illinois. A startup called InnovaFeed is building a production site that will house more farmed animals than any other location in the history of the world. But the animals in question are not cows, pigs or chickens – they are black soldier fly larvae.
When the facility is fully operational, InnovaFeed hopes to produce 60,000 metric tonnes of insect protein from the fly larvae each year. By one conservative estimate, that amounts to around 780 billion larvae killed annually. If you lined up that many larvae end-to-end, the line would stretch from Earth to the Moon and back 25 times.
Interest in insect farming is booming. Insects have been heralded as a sustainable alternative to traditional animal agriculture, with a litany of articles touting the environmental benefits of insect protein. Socially minded investors have piled into the space, with recent funding rounds totalling more than $950 million. InnovaFeed plans to construct 20 production facilities by 2030. The company competes against the likes of AgriProtein in South Africa and Ÿnsect in France, both of which harbour comparably ambitious goals. The industry is small now, but poised to grow 50 times larger in the next decade.
Lost in all the hype is an uncomfortable question: do we want to encourage a food system that farms animals by the trillion?
By number of animals killed annually, the most farmed insects are crickets, mealworm beetle larvae and black soldier fly larvae. The most common slaughter methods on these farms include baking, boiling, freezing and shredding. In most jurisdictions, there are no welfare regulations that govern insect slaughter. Operators are free to kill the insects in whatever manner is most efficient.
The word ‘farm’ typically evokes images of green pastures, but insect farms are industrial complexes – more akin to manufacturing plants than pastured meadows. Black soldier fly larvae and mealworm beetle larvae are generally raised in large plastic bins, while crickets are raised in cardboard lattices. Although some farms pay lip service to the welfare of their insect livestock, in practice the animals are too numerous to be treated as anything other than a material input to a chemical process. On one black soldier fly farm in China, workers use a vacuum tube to transport live insects from their growth racks to a mechanical separator that sorts larvae from waste. The animals are then loaded onto a conveyor belt and sent through a large oven to be baked to death. The dried insects can be processed into pellets, chitin, oil and powdered meal.
There is much we do not know about the conditions in which farmed insects are reared. Industry executives are tight-lipped about proprietary strategies that might give them a competitive advantage. But concentrated animal agriculture has not gone well for the estimated 74 billion land animals and approximately 51 to 167 billion fish killed for food on commercial farms every year. We have little reason to suspect that farmers are taking better care of insects. To be profitable, insects must be farmed at very high densities. And while some species of insects prefer group living, for others, high density is likely to increase the risk of disease and cannibalism. As with other animals subjected to factory farming, humans are pressing insects into conditions for which they are not well adapted.
While insect farming is the newest way in which humans kill insects in large numbers, it is far from the only way. Humans kill insects for silk, for carmine dye, for shellac (a type of resin) and for many other products. We apply insecticides in our homes, schools and offices. Most significantly, farmers spray vast amounts of chemicals on our fields and orchards, killing more than a quadrillion insects every year with agricultural pesticides.
Whether we should care about what humans do to insects depends, in part, on the moral status of insects. Some people believe that all animals, no matter how small, matter morally. Many others reject this view, arguing that only sentient creatures – who can consciously experience pleasure and pain – matter from a moral point of view. Even if we accept this more restrictive view, we should be wary of mistreating insects. Insects might be sentient. And given the number of individual animals at stake, we should err on the side of caution.
The scientific evidence for insect sentience is stronger than you might expect. Despite vast differences in size, body plan and evolutionary history, insects exhibit many of the same traits that we typically take to be evidence of sentience in mammals…