Should Vegetarians Consider Eating Insects?

In the last few years, there has been a push from various bodies—including the UN—to get Western countries to adopt eating insects as an alternative to meat. Insects have been hailed as a type of super food. They are: rich in protein; environmentally friendly to harvest; sustainable; and, they’re already eaten, and enjoyed, in many other parts of the world. There have been a number of occasions recently that I’ve been asked, as a (moral) vegetarian, for my thoughts on eating insects. “What if…?” and “Would you…?” questions are quite a common occurrence for veggies, but this one actually got me thinking.

The immediate response, to me, seems to be: Well, it depends on why the person has decided to become vegetarian. There are three central moral reasons I can think of that could motivate a person’s choice to become vegetarian. They are: 1) Reduction of environmental impact; 2) Reduction of suffering; and, 3) A belief that unnecessary killing is wrong. Applied to the case of insects, it seems to me that only (3) provides possible grounds against the practice. But, I’ll address all three here.

1)    The Reduction of Environmental Impact:

A common reason for vegetarianism concerns the fact that meat production causes quite significant environmental damage. As things currently stand, the meat industry is responsible for a non-negligible percentage of annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (about 14% according to Wikipedia), and is a significant contributor to water pollution. Eating meat supports such bad environmental practices, and thus people choose to refrain on environmental grounds.

Insects don’t pose the same problem. The same amount of crop used for beef production can produce 9 times the amount of produce in insects. This means that there is significantly less environmental and water costs involved in their production. In fact, one of the central arguments deployed in favour of eating insects is their environmental friendliness and efficiency of production. The environmental argument, then, seems to fail as a reason for not eating insects.  

2)    The Reduction of Suffering:

Another reason for vegetarianism concerns the infliction of unnecessary suffering. The production and slaughter of huge numbers of animals a year causes suffering that need not occur. There are a sufficient number of alternatives to meat out there that most of us could do without it if we so chose. This isn’t the case for everyone, of course. But, it is reasonable (to my mind) to say that eating meat is permissible if one has no other option. Even then suffering should be minimized. However, as I’ve already said, for most of us meat consumption isn’t necessary. This means that the suffering caused by the meat industry is also—in a large part—not necessary. Thus, some choose to abstain from supporting the industry.

This, too, fails as an argument against eating insects. Research does not, on balance, support the view that insects feel pain. The inability to feel pain should assuage most, if not all, of our concerns about suffering. It may be that the ability to feel physical pain is not a necessary condition for the possibility of suffering. However, I imagine that the type of suffering that does not involve physical pain would require rather sophisticated cognitive abilities. I doubt that insects have the necessary cognitive abilities for this form of suffering. [1] Thus, the arguments for vegetarianism that are based on the belief that we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering where we can are insufficient to demonstrate the impermissibility of eating insects. [2] (Even Peter Singer seems to find eating insects permissible).

3)    A Belief that Unnecessary Killing is Wrong:

A last reason for vegetarianism concerns the belief that it is wrong to raise something merely to kill it, when we don’t need to. This isn’t like the suffering argument. The concern isn’t that the meat industry causes unnecessary pain, but rather that the practice of raising livestock for slaughter is wrong. This means that the meat industry would be impermissible even if all meat were ‘happy meat’ and produced in an environmentally sustainable way. People who take this view are vegetarian because they view the practice of eating meat itself as wrong.

This could motivate an argument against eating insects: Insects are living things. Raising living things to kill them is wrong. Thus, we shouldn’t raise and kill insects. Now I have to admit that I find this argument compelling when applied to animals we more typically associate with the meat industry. Animals that are more cognitively sophisticated than insects, and—if I’m being honest—that I can empathize with. Empathy is important because it signals to me that these other animals can have an interest that is worth protecting. In this case it’s the interest in not being slaughtered. When such an interest is present, we have an obligation to take it into consideration. The interest in staying alive is a very strong one indeed, stronger than our interest in eating meat (again, for those of us for whom it is a choice). Thus, we ought to refrain from raising animals to kill them. 

Can the same be said of insects? I doubt it. For the same reason they don’t qualify as candidates for cognitive or emotional suffering, I doubt they qualify as bearers of a sufficiently strong interest. It seems, then, that the third argument also fails provide grounds against eating insects. I’m still uneasy about the idea, but can’t summon any principled grounds why. Maybe, then, those who are vegetarian for one or all of the three reasons mentioned above shouldn’t have a problem with eating insects. I’d be interested to know what others think.

[1] The type of suffering I’m thinking of here would be emotional or cognitive (or a mixture of the two). No physical sensation of pain is necessary for either of those, but they certainly count as suffering to my mind.

[2] Assuming that current research is correct. If it is not, then the argument will need to be reevaluated. I imagine that the reevaluation would have to take the form of a weighing between the benefits of reduced environmental impact and the losses of inflicting suffering. The balance that is struck between these two will depend on empirical factors such as the amount of insect production and the extent to which it displaces current meat production. 

By Luke J. Davies. Follow Luke on Twitter!

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5 Responses to Should Vegetarians Consider Eating Insects?

  • Dylan Matthews says:

    Research does not, on balance, support the view that insects feel pain.

    I’d be interested in your response to Brian Tomasik on this point; his arguments that we should give at least some weight to insect welfare seem at least a bit persuasive to me.

  • T says:

    Because I think this is a great piece which probes some really interesting questions, I’ll help with the comments. I have no idea if this is sound reasoning, but here goes:

    It seems to me that when considering the moral status of an organism (particularly whether to eat or not eat it) that pain — or rather the organism’s avoidance of pain — is perhaps not an end in itself.

    Pain is an evolved, albeit unpleasant, feature of certain animals nervous systems that helps them navigate their environment/ umwelt (if i’ve used this correctly). While pain/harm may be the proximate thing to avoid, the ‘ultimate’ goal is of course survival or flourishing (relative to the being in question).

    Pain is just one of many biological ‘tools’ we use to stay alive and get our genes through to the next generation. And just because we — and other ‘higher-order’ species– have, on one level, a more sophisticated experience of our world, does this necessary make our lives more important…? Perhaps the question isn’t so much – does the animal feel pain, but rather does the animal have an interest in life…?

    Insects certainly have an interest in life, in the sense that it’s reasonable to infer that they want to live not die (except in the case of the bee that ‘wilfully’ sacrifices its life for the colony – although this is also a strategy for getting its genes through, albeit indirectly); a rock clearly doesn’t. The problem with this line of reasoning however is that Plants also have an interest in life. They ‘seek’ light, water and avoidance of pests etc, so maybe this line of reason just isn’t practical…I don’t know?

    As an aside, I’ve often wondered if rather than a meat eater asking what animals I should stop eating, it might be worth asking a vegetarian – at what point would you consider eating another non-plant life form? I’m not a vegetarian, but I feel I might have to yield one day. If I do, I’d like to still eat molluscs, prawns (sustainably harvested), and yes, insects. But i’m not sure this is justified under the above argument and doesn’t just constitute convenient speciesism? If someone can help me demolish the above argument so I can continue to eat ‘lower order’ life forms id be very grateful. Thanks,

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    Whether arthropods have ‘pain’ has been debated, and I think the research consensus is yes, they have receptors for stimuli that in mammals elicit pain experiences and perform actions to avoid things that cause such stimulation. But they are also fundamentally different in their segmented nervous system, so the ‘pain’ might be far more local to parts of it than it would be in a vertebrate (insects that lose limbs do not seem to suffer the same kind of pain as mammals). The alienness of invertebrates makes judging tricky.

    The deep issue is suffering or moral value. We do not have clear answers here. But if insects count morally or can suffer, then we have a *way* bigger problem than whether vegetarians can eat them. If insects suffer, the sheer amount of insect suffering overwhelms anything we are doing – right this moment cordyceps fungi are zombifying millions of insects across the world, nematode worms and wasp larvae are growing inside billions, countless insects are eaten by other animals, trampled or just getting hurt. If they count, Earth is a frightening hellworld. In this case we mammals are nearly irrelevant except that we can try to change the world to be a better place for some of the poor insects.

  • T says:

    Hi Anders. Re your point (and to paraphrase) that if insects count then we have a much bigger problem…. Is this necessarily the case? I agree that billions of insect lives are being ended – probably every minute – and it’s simply impractical and undesirable to try and intervene in this natural event. At the same time however there are potentially millions – or at least hundreds of thousands of mammals dying each day too. Given this natural ‘tragedy’ of “hell-hole” proportions, one might also argue that paying any concern to mammals is equally pointless compared to what is happening in nature. Indeed, many meat eaters challenge the futility of vegetarianism on this very point, which I don’t find all that convincing.

    If insects ‘count’, it doesn’t mean we ought to try and save the lives of insects in the wild any more than id advocate running mercy missions to snatch zebra from claws of lions, fish from jaws of crocodiles, or baby birds from the jaws of rats.

    Even if millions of mammals are being attacked and killed by predators under what we would consider (if it were us) horrifically painful conditions, it still makes sense to treat ‘our’ animals humanly – the ones we actively seek or bring into being via farming- even if it’s a drop in the bucket? This argument could be extended to insects.

    Perhaps the question isn’t so much, do they suffer, but how should we, as conscious rational beings (who can decide whether we wish to eat another organism or not) treat those animals that fall within ‘our’ sphere of control? There seems to be something morally uneasy about killing something deliberately where satisfactory substitutes exist? Regardless of the suffering out ‘there’ in nature…

  • Brian Tomasik says:

    As others have said, the jury is out on whether insects can feel pain, but it’s not as though we’re certain they can’t. Moreover, because you need to eat thousands of times more insects than larger animals for the same amount of protein, it naively appears vastly worse to eat insects, even if you have only a 10% or 1% probability on their sentience. This argument needs to be adjusted to account for insects’ complexity, but it would still remain the case that entomophagy would be morally problematic.

    The approach that commenter T proposes is akin to biocentrism or preference utilitarianism extended to all of life. I have some sympathy for this position, but I think entomophagy looks bad even on hedonistic-utilitarian grounds.

    To the point that Anders raised about wild-animal suffering, I would add that there are people (including me) who feel that nature is indeed a hellhole of untold proportions given that insects have a nontrivial probability of being sentient (or, as I would put it, a nontrivial degree of sentience). I’ve written more about all of these topics on my website.

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