By James McWilliams
Until very recently the idea of eating insects was taboo for most first-world consumers. But that’s beginning to change. In fact, if media exposure means anything, a veritable insectivore revolution is underway among food adventurers and sustainability experts alike.
That enthusiasm is justified. Insects are nutrient-dense, low-impact critters that thrive in densely packed conditions, eat agricultural waste, and reproduce exponentially without human intervention. When it comes to providing incredibly healthy whole foods with minimal resources to feed a burgeoning population, insects hit the bulls-eye.
But not everyone is lining up to crunch on crickets. Despite entmophagy’s many promises, one group of conscientious consumers remains nervously ambivalent: vegans. On the face of things, the question seems moot. Vegans don’t eat animals; insects are animals; vegans therefore don’t eat insects. End of story. But this simple little syllogism betrays the very real possibility that vegans, by virtue of their quest to reduce animal suffering, may not only be permitted to eat insects—they may be obligated to do so.
This argument begins with an agricultural reality that we too often ignore: the untold number of sentient animals killed to grow and harvest edible crops. Farmers routinely unleash an arsenal of agricultural weaponry upon unquestionably sentient “pests”—squirrels, rabbits, mice, moles, voles, deer, wolves, and coyote—who compete for cultivated calories. Come harvest time, combines and harvesters unavoidably shred millions of self-aware critters who creep among the crops. The suffering that’s required to bring seemingly “humane” foods to our plate is thereby just as palpable as the suffering of those animals slaughtered to feed us chicken, pork, and beef.
In and of itself, this inevitable agricultural reality isn’t necessarily the vegan’s problem. Vegans can convincingly respond that incidental animal deaths caused from growing kale are ethically preferable to directly killing animals to eat bacon. This response carries added weight when it’s complemented with genuine efforts to improve agriculture in order to minimize rates of incidental death. There’s such a thing, for example, as veganic agriculture—farming in a way that attempts to reduce animal suffering—and considerable gains have been achieved in this noble endeavor.
All that said, with the insect option now on the table the vegan equation has fundamentally changed. The choice is no longer between incidental or non-incidental deaths of obviously sentient creatures. It’s no longer between the mice crushed by a combine and the pig taken to the abattoir. Instead, it’s now between the intentional death of animals who likely suffer minimally or not at all (insects) and those that clearly do suffer (bunnies, deer, mice, etc.) when plants are grown. This choice makes it far more difficult to reconcile the vegan’s defining dictum—to reduce harm done to animals—with an exclusively plant-based diet. After all, the more vegans replaced plant-based calories with insect-based calories, the fewer animals they’d end up harming. This is the vegan’s dilemma.
There is, of course, a temptation to dismiss the dilemma altogether by insisting that insects are sentient creatures—that is to say, that they can suffer. But the evidence on this point is flimsy at best. While the question of insect sentience has produced a minefield of disagreement among scientists and philosophers, even the most dogged supporters of the proposition (such as Jeffrey Lockwood, an entomologist who has his graduate students anesthetize insects before experimenting on them) concede that there’s no hard evidence to support the prospect of insect suffering—unlike the suffering of mammals incidentally killed for plant production.
Other entomologists insist that the idea of insect suffering is totally implausible. Hans Smid, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is an expert on the brains of parasitic wasps, which are some of the most behaviorally sophisticated insects on Earth. “I am absolutely convinced,” he told the Washington Post, “that insects do not feel pain.” Robert Elwood, a professor of the biological sciences at Queens University in Belfast, notes that pain would provide insects no evolutionary advantages. “From an evolutionary perspective,” he told the Post, the only reason for pain that makes sense to me is that it enables long-term protection.” The average lifespan of a field cricket is a few weeks—its protection, in essence, comes from its remarkable reproductive efficiency, not its ability to learn from mistakes.
It would be disingenuous for vegans to cite the precautionary principle in light of the lack of consensus on the question of insect sentience. For one, the little confusion that exists has to be weighed against the key competing moral consideration: those untold numbers of vertebrates that suffer without question when plants are grown for people to eat. If vegans who are unsure that insects suffer take the leap and eat insects anyway, they know there’s a slim chance animals might suffer. But if they stick to an exclusive plant-based diet, they have to concede that animals will definitely suffer.
To take this point a step further, even if one believes that insects almost definitely suffer, the nature of insect death would be far less painful than the death experienced by fuzzy mammals ground up by harvesters and gutted by rodenticides. When a fly is swatted, death is so swift that it’s virtually imperceptible. Not so for the field mice. If the goal is to reduce suffering, the choice is unavoidable: Vegans should eat insects.
As a longtime vegan and vegan advocate, I’m well aware how this argument threatens the vegan identity. Of course, it’s much easier to declare, “I don’t eat animals or animal products” than it is to blur the lines that serve as clear ethical commandments. But as the prospect of eating insects gains traction, vegans may be forced to acknowledge the inconvenient fact that including these critters in our diet—yes, eating animals—is an essential way to achieve the ultimate vegan goal of reducing the suffering of animals who we know can suffer.
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