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Pushing Insect Welfare

Photo: Black garden ants, by Katja Schulz from Washington, DC, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, some wag created a parody website called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Insects. But here’s the thing: If a satirist can think it, some professor or media handwringer will actually propose or support it.

And So It Has Come to Pass

Matt Reynolds, the climate, food, and biodiversity reporter for Wired, urges us to worry that we are hurting insects. From “Insect Farming Is Booming: But Is It Cruel?“:

It’s a weird twist in our already strange relationship with bugs. We squash them, spray them, eat them, and crush them to make pretty dyes. But we also fret about plummeting wild insect populations and rely on them to pollinate the crops we eat. And with the industrialization of insect farming, bugs are being offered up as a solution to the human-caused climate crisis.

But before we go down that route, we need to ask some really basic questions about insects. Can they feel? And if so, what should we do about it?

Of course, we know that insects are not inanimate. A fly senses when you try to swat it. It is wrong to pull wings from a butterfly, regardless of what it feels, because it is gratuitously cruel with no human benefit. But do we really want to tie ourselves up in knots over whether — and how much — different insect species may experience discomfort when we make beneficial use of them?

I don’t. We have far more urgent issues with which to contend.

But Matt Reynolds Does

It’s about compassion, don’t you know:

For [Professor Lars] Chittka, the fact that scientists have found multiple indicators of sentience in certain insects is reason enough to argue that these animals can have unpleasant experiences. Chittka puts flies and bees in this category, but it’s not at all clear whether findings can be extrapolated to other species. The most commonly farmed insects include crickets, beetles, and flies, and we know a lot less about their lives than those of bees or ants, which are pretty well-studied in insect terms. Even fewer studies have been done on insects when they’re still larvae. This adds another problem because mealworms and black soldier fly larvae are usually killed before they are adults. Are insect larvae less capable of feeling pain than adults? We really don’t know.

Honestly, I don’t care whether larvae feel pain or the extent of a bee’s sensory experiences. What matters is the benefits our various uses of insects provide: the necessity of killing them in mass quantities to prevent human disease, protect animals, and preserve food.

But since we are now farming bugs, advocates are pushing for “insect welfare” standards:

If we’re going to farm animals that are candidates for sentience, then there should be welfare standards, says [philosophy processor Jonathan] Birch. Right now there are no widely recognized welfare guidelines for farmed insects, and few laws that specifically require insect farmers to meet certain welfare standards. . . .

“If there are welfare concerns, you’ve got to intervene at the planning stages, when those facilities are being designed and constructed,” says Bob Fischer, a professor at Texas State University who works on insect welfare. There are many factors that farm designers need to take into account, including temperature, moisture levels, lighting, how crowded the insects are, and what they eat. For insect farmers, these are all engineering problems — they want to make sure as many bugs survive as possible and that the farms are cheap to run — but they’re also intricately tied to animal welfare. . . .

In the EU, most animals must be stunned unconscious before they’re killed, but no such regulations exist for insects. Bugs can be microwaved, steamed, boiled, roasted, frozen, or minced to death. Better Origin’s larvae are fed alive to farmed chickens. We have no idea which method of slaughter is least painful for insects, beyond a general sense that a quick death is better than a protracted one.

Oh well. Whatever gets the job done.

Reductio ad Absurdum

I am tempted to say that the anti-suffering crowd has gone beyond reductio ad absurdum. But these days, there is no such thing as going too far. After all, six rivers now have enforceable rights. And rivers can’t feel a damn thing.

Cross-posted at The Corner.