Society

Dissecting The Ethics Of Eating Bugs

While bugs and insects have less of an environmental impact than other protein sources, the question remains of how to humanly harvest them.

nsects sold at Zhongshan Road Street Food Night Market in Nanning, China

Insects sold at Zhongshan Road Street Food Night Market in Nanning, China

Matan Shelomi

What is the life of a cricket worth?

Insect farming is a rapidly growing industry, with hundreds of companies worldwide rearing insects at industrial scales. The global value of insect farming is expected to surpass $1.18 billion by 2023.

Farmed insects, or "mini-livestock," refers to insects such as crickets and mealworms raised for the sole purpose of being sold as food or animal feed.

These are not the fried tarantulas on a stick hawked to tourists or scorpion lollipops sold as novelties. High-protein insect powder can be used in foods from breads to buns, pasta and protein bars. Such products are already available in countries including the United, Switzerland and Finland.


As an entomologist who has studied the potential and promotion of edible insects in new markets, I have seen how much progress has been made in the past decade in normalizing the idea of eating insects worldwide. Now is the time to evaluate the ethical aspects of insect farming.

Insects for humanity

The main motivation for edible insects' rising popularity is environmental. Producing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of insect protein requires about 10% of the feed, water and land used for the same amount of beef production, and releases as little as 1% of the greenhouse gases. Insects have a lower environmental impact even compared to other meat alternatives like dairy, gluten and mycoprotein.

Raising insects on waste products significantly ups these benefits. Black soldier flies can be raised on agriculture byproducts like vegetable peels or spent grains. The larvae are then used as feed for fish and poultry, recycling waste and reducing reliance on more expensive soymeal and fishmeal feeds.

Besides being big business, insect farms also provide important sources of protein and income for rural households. They can be established cheaply, with little space, and are a boon for smallholder farmers who lack the resources for livestock, all the while sustainably providing feed and fertilizer.

A good example is the Insects for Peace program that has helped ex-combatants in post-conflict Colombia with their reintegration. The former soldiers have found livelihood farming black soldier flies, which are used as a feed component for livestock.

An insect farm in Bergen op Zoom, in the Netherlands — Photo: Action Press/ZUMA

Is insect meat cruelty-free?

An additional bonus is that insects do not evoke much empathy. With exceptions, even vegetarians rarely think twice about swatted mosquitoes, let alone the millions of agricultural pests killed when farming crops.

Those who do mind can rest assured that farmed insects lead net-positive lives, with no fear of predators or starvation. Insect welfare is conveniently easy: While cramped, hot, filthy settings in factory farms are cruel for vertebrates, they are ideal for insects like mealworms that thrive when crowded together. One can imagine that there are not many requirements to set up a humane cockroach farm, though one's neighbors might disapprove.

The slaughter of insects is another issue.

Recent surveys of U.K. insect farmers found many are concerned about insect pain perception and providing their mini-livestock a "good death." The most common slaughter methods large-scale insect farmers use are freezing or freeze-drying, with the assumption that the cold-blooded insects will humanely fall asleep and never wake up.

While insects can and do sense physical pain, they likely do not do so consciously. Invertebrate neurologist Shelley Adamo notes that many insect behaviors are "Incongruent" with pain as mammals experience it, citing reports of insects walking normally on broken legs or mantids mating while their partner eats them alive. Entomologist Craig H Eisemann's influential review of the field, "Do Insects Feel Pain?" concluded that they are missing too many neurological, chemical and behavioral signs for a pain state.

Nonetheless, scholars such as Eisemann and other advocates agree that insects should be farmed and killed with the assumption that they do feel pain. That means the slaughter method should be as quick and painless as possible.

While certainly less potentially painful than boiling, as extreme heat is known to induce pain responses in insects, freezing is slow. Shredding is a popular alternative: At their small size, insects can be reduced to powder almost instantaneously, before they could sense any pain. Current surveys suggest public perception of pulverization is still negative compared with freezing, but insect farmers increasingly view it as the more humane choice.

The low probability that farmed insects suffer pain, if they can "suffer" at all, combined with the environmental and social benefits of insect farming, caused philosopher Chris Meyers to argue that eating insects is not only morally acceptable but also morally good.

This idea gave rise to the term "entovegan." Like pescatarians follow a vegetarian diet but still eat seafood, entovegans happily eat arthropods, secure in the knowledge that their diet is both sustainable and ethical.

How much are are insect lives worth?

What gives some strict vegans pause is the sheer number of insects involved.

In a 2020 preprint, animal welfare activist Abraham Rowe calculates that 1 trillion to 1.2 trillion individual insects are farmed annually for food and feed, not including harvested wild insects. On average, 79 billion to 94 billion farmed insects are alive on farms globally in any given day, compared with only about 22 billion chickens, Earth's most popular meat.

So, how valuable is an insect's life compared with a plant's or a bacterium's? Capacity for consciousness is a popular metric for determining if an organism has moral standing, even though there is no agreement on how to actually measure that.

If one assumes, hypothetically, that insects are 0.1% as sentient as cows, or that the probability that insects can suffer is 0.1%, then killing 1,000 crickets has a similar ethical footprint as killing one cow. That may seem generous, yet in his guide "How to Reply to Some Ethical Objections to Entomophagy," philosopher Bob Fisher calculates that one cow produces as much meat as 900,000 crickets.

The math changes, however, when one considers how many animals die in agricultural fields: Conservative estimates place at least 10 million invertebrates per acre of crops at risk from pesticides, as well as thousands of small, undeniably conscious vertebrates like mice and rabbits at risk from mechanical harvesters. This math adds millions of deaths not only to traditional meat production through the fields of feed, but also to almost any cultivated crops, including soy. To quote biologists Charles Nicoll and Sharon Russell, "There is no such thing as a bloodless veggieburger."

Fisher calculated that the number of insects killed to produce a plant-based diet or an insect-based diet are about the same, meaning entoveganism and veganism are in that sense equivalent. Eating insects raised on organic wastes — all but eliminating the environmental and animal death costs of plant farming — may be the best option of them all.

The rise in insect farming means questions about insect sentience and slaughter are no longer just philosophical: The well-being of trillions of creatures is at stake.

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Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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