What will insect farming look like and actually mean for animal welfare?
Insect farming is the process of raising and breeding insects as livestock to produce insect-based products.
It’s worth having a basic idea of what the process usually looks like. The process is as follows: the insects are first reared in boxes, fed and watered, tracked to help trace back any disease outbreaks or hazards to their source, separated, cleansed, dried, and then eventually processed to obtain the final product. Somewhere during the process, suitable mating conditions are provided so that adults mate to give rise to a new colony of larvae.
This post aims at making clear what the landscape for insect farming will look like in the future as well as assess what the animal welfare aspect of it is.
Why even talk about insect farming?
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The market for feed for animal livestock (poultry, pigs, fish) is the more lucrative and larger market compared to the one for insect-based food for human consumption. Most of the world’s population will not eat insects but certainly will eat meat that may soon be derived from insect feed. This is since this is the only place where insect-based products can actually fill large gaps that exist:
The problem of current animal feed not meeting the nutritional standards required for farmed animals
Since farmed animals only feed on one type of food due to them being monogastric, animal feed requires a large quantity and high quality of protein as well as iron which insects can provide. More specifically, insects have essential amino acids such as lysine, leucine, and methionine. Insects are also able to offer a wide variety of other nutritional benefits since they also contain chitin which according to some studies has properties that boost the immunity of animals. Chitin must be removed by the process of alkaline extraction and degraded by chemicals or enzymes before being added to diets. Most studies have shown that black soldier flies, crickets, yellow mealworms, and silkworms can replace a considerably large percentage of fishmeal and soymeal without affecting the growth or nutritional contents of chickens, fish, pigs, and shrimp.
The issue of a current trend of rising prices of the most common feed ingredients for livestock
In the case of soymeal, soy cultivation is land and water intensive not to mention that it is volatile due to yields which could decline due to rising temperatures and an increased likelihood of droughts as evidenced by recent trends. This all means prices are likely to rise. In contrast, inputs for insect farming can be sourced from organic waste or feed from crops that aren’t affected by climate change induced droughts. Insects can be bred and selected to feed off of food like that making them resilient to such problems.
For fishmeal, supply is almost always limited because the quantities of fish caught are due to ‘largely uncontrollable biological and environmental factors’ and since ‘raw materials cannot be stocked for long’ according to a research paper by MH Durand. What also makes prices high is the increasing demand.
Above is a graph that shows the prices of both fishmeal and soybean meal from 2001 to 2021. We are able to see clearly that they have risen.
The FAO has also reported a global rise in prices for meat as evidenced by the graph above.
This is a graph that shows how feed is the primary cost for the production of US broiler chickens compared to all other costs.
While the surge in prices for meat may also be caused by an increase in aggregate demand from rising populations over the long time period of 20 years, the graph from Figure 1 helps tell us that part of the reason could also be the rising price in animal feed. Prices are likely to continue to rise going into the future or be high due to feed costs being the heaviest influence on costs.
But will insect farming actually expand and become widespread?
Some of the reasons why it is likely to be able to expand and offer insect meals cheaply are:
Likely to be cheap - average costs will be lower when economies of scale are met. Output can cheaply and easily be increased as the CEO of BetterOrigin says in an interview with foodunfolded.com. A few black soldier fly eggs will give rise to kilograms of maggots in a span of just two weeks.
Reliable source of supply - insect-farming is not seasonal in the way fishing for fish meals or farming for soy meals are. Methods of indoor farming are used so it is easy to increase supply when demand rises.
Cheap inputs - sources of feed for the insects being farmed can be organic waste (expired fruits and vegetables, wasted food, and manure) which are abundant and almost ‘free goods’ in a sense. Obviously, macronutrients and micronutrients may need to be added to enrich the feed for insects in order to get high protein concentrations. Insects can be bred selectively so that they adapt to the cheap sources of food given to produce highly nutritious outputs though.
Funding to startups working in this area is quite generous (as evidenced by startups like LIVIN Farms raising $149,429 from a crowdsourcing platform and All Things Bugs, LLC receiving a grant from the government of the US). The emergence of many companies over the past years tells us there are many players that can compete on the basis of innovation and prices or even highly specialize in a niche and achieve efficiency there.
On the other hand, there are constraints that are likely to prevent insect farming from actually kicking off the way one may expect.
High barriers to entry - a company will only be profitable if it scales up production to achieve the economies of scale talked about earlier. However, scaling up production is a costly process. This is mainly because the insect farming process is quite manual unless there is mechanization, particularly for the feeding and separation stages. There exist upfront costs for machinery (such as three-screen circular separators fed by a conveyor and watering systems that provide water without letting fungal growth occur, to name a few) as well. The book ‘Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients’ states that 80% mechanization is needed to help bring down prices by 25% which would be bringing down the price for farmed mealworms from $4 to $1 per pound. This is the only way insect-derived products can be competitive with other protein sources.
Insects are deficient in some nutrients - they have shown to be deficient in vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, and vitamin E. They are also deficient in calcium (which is an important nutrient for egg-laying hens as laying eggs uses up their calcium stores). The chitin in insects has some digestibility concerns as well. This means that it is hard to say whether insects will ever be able to fully replace soy and fishmeal for livestock feed.
Insect farming as a concept is new and there are many unanswered questions still - according to the book ‘Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients’ we are still unsure what the most efficient rearing methods are and out of the 5.5 million insect species that exist in the world we have only explored a limited set of insects’ potential to be used. This means that a lot of time will have to be taken to conduct research and reach the scale of insect farming that is needed.
Government regulations - due to the relative newness of the concept, mass farming of insects is an area governments of countries may be wary about. Concerns of bioaccumulation of toxins (if insects feed on organic matter that happens to actually contain it) as well as worries of the spread of pathogens are acute. While these two issues can be mitigated in the insect farming process through having cleaning and tracing methods and despite the FAO backing, there may be some hurdles for prospective companies just as there would be in any new field.
What can we conclude from all of this? It can be said that insect farming will grow into a giant industry but the question to ask is when. A good estimate would be in the next 10-15 years. It is likely to keep growing after that as well. Market research done by Meticulous Research valued the global insect protein industry at $7.9 billion by 2030. It should be clear, though, that it will take time to eventually become large. It is also certain that if the ongoing trend with regards to prices of soy and fish meals worsens, there is no reason to not believe insect meals could replace them.
Above is a graph from the book “Insects as Sustainable Feed Ingredients” and it shows how there has been a steep increase in insect-derived product companies over the past years.
How many insects are we talking?
Based off of fermi calculations I have done, I found out that roughly 150 million tonnes of insect-based products will be used as feed if it replaces soybean meals only. 100 g of insects generally contains twice as much protein as 100 g of soybeans meaning that 279.2 million tonnes of soybean feed would be replaced by 139.6 million tonnes of insect feed (1/2 of 279.2 million). Bearing in mind that insects contain chitin ,from which protein is undigestible, we can estimate that more tonnes of insects would be used globally to about 150. This means that trillions of insects will be farmed.
What implications does insect farming have for insect welfare and broader animal welfare?
Insects likely feel pain. A Rethink Priorities report written in 2020 estimates that already 1 trillion to 1.2 trillion insects are raised on farms annually for food and animal feed. Given this is only likely to grow, the sheer number of insects that will be farmed is exceptionally large. There is a high likelihood as well that insects feel pain. That being said, our understanding of this is very murky. Scientists broadly agree that insects feel something called nociception which is a ‘stinging or irritating feeling’ as a reflexive response to something like pain. One may posit that that isn’t enough to make us worry about the welfare of insects because pain must not just be short-lived but also have emotions attached to it. However recent studies have also shown that insects meet those two criteria as well. Bees exhibit behaviors that showcase pleasure by buzzing and some sense of fear when trapped in a spider web apart from a potential ‘reflex response’ accordingly. Fruit flies are able to feel chronic pain after an injury as they become oversensitive in the region they experienced injury even after recovery. To read more about the sensitivity of insects I’d recommend going through this overview by the BBC here. Evolutionarily, all of this should make sense as being able to ‘feel pain’ allows insects to survive better.
Insects could suffer when farmed. This is because more painful methods of death like oxygen deprivation and heating could be preferred over more humane methods since they are much cheaper than methods like freezing which require a lot of infrastructure. Mass farming in the trillions could lead to overcrowding and claustrophobic conditions for insects causing pain as well as the possibility of disease spreading. Insects engage in cannibalism which can lead to a lot of suffering when farmed.
A big thing that a lot of literature misses when addressing animal welfare conditions is that insect farming could be something to favor. There are two things worth considering:
Insect farming does not have to be that bad for insects
Methods like freezing are known to be more humane. This is because insects are ectothermic or ‘cold-blooded’ which means freezing just lowers their metabolisms, having them die in the same way they would die naturally in the wild.
Painkillers can be administered to insects while they are being grown. A study shows that fruit flies don’t respond to morphine and are only partially responsive to cocaine. However, there is some hope that there are ways to help insects alleviate the worst forms of suffering they may endure when being grown.
Here is a take that I don’t quite agree with but feel free to disagree: insects would’ve died from insecticides if soymeals were the alternative. Around 80% of global soy is fed to livestock according to the WWF and insecticides could potentially cause pain in insects in large numbers. Shifting to insect farming where methods of death like freezing and drying could be more preferable than poison from insecticides.
The issue with this I have with this take is that the number of insects that will die due to insect farming will far surpass the deaths from insecticides but also insecticides limit larvae so don’t cause death as much as they just prevent population growth. It could also be untrue that insecticides are as painful as they are made out to be but that raises the annoying question of whether insects feel as much pain as other animals at all because if that were true there’s no point in discussing this.
Insect farming could be beneficial to the welfare of other farmed animals particularly fish and chickens which suffer the most due to factory farming.
Given that there is not full certainty insects feel comparable levels of pain as other animals but since we know fish undergo a lot of pain when finished using the methods currently in place, if insect meals easily can replace up to 25% of fishmeals that would mean considerably less fish would need to be farmed as feed.
Insects through the nutritional benefits offer the animals that consume them
a. Sources of high protein and iron and are likely to do so for cheap as explained earlier. One of the big concerns with the shift from caged-farming of chickens to cageless farming is an increase in mortality for chickens because they will have to move more and currently don’t have the nutritional requirements to support that lifestyle. This cuts into the profitability of companies that are mulling over making the transition. This could be revolutionary as it helps factory farms make that much needed transition.
b. Moreover, the usage of insect feed may provide chickens the ability to forage and select what specific insect they want which is a behavioral trait insects keenly prefer as opposed to not having that choice.
It might be worth reading through a report produced by OpenPhil on farmed hens which dives deep into the welfare of chickens.
Chitin in insects could potentially boost immunity according to studies making it less likely farmed animals suffer from diseases. This also means less antibiotics can be used which is a real positive since it may also mean less antibiotic strains of disease that could cause suffering not just to animals but humans.
The potential concerns to other animals is whether they’ll be able to digest insect feed or prefer eating it altogether. However, through using enzymes and just knowledge of the fact that a lot of these animals naturally eat insects it can be concluded that these concerns are not very large.
It is quite hard to conclude whether insect farming is good for broader animal welfare. This is due to how little we actually know about what actually is painful but also due to the speculative and non-exclusive nature of a lot of the benefits listed above for other farmed animals. Insect farming is not beneficial to insects and at best pain from it after mitigation might be worth trading off for some of the benefits other animals may receive. It would be reasonable to give moral precedence to fish (or chickens) on the metric of proximity as we have greater knowledge over fish (or chicken) suffering than we do or would ever have over insect suffering. This does not mean that we should tolerate insect suffering of course as it would make sense to take no chances on insect pain. If it is the case that insects feel just as much pain and a lot of the benefits for other farms discussed earlier can be achieved through other means such that it is unnecessary to farm insects, the farming of insects should be opposed altogether. I think the view in the Effective Altruism community of insect farming being something we should with full-force disagree with is particularly harmful as more information and discussion is needed in this area before making that move.
What do we do now about insect farming?
To get the best outcomes for animal welfare as a whole, it is important to ensure that we find ways to get insect companies to cause the least amount of suffering possible to insects rather than try finding ways to prevent insect farming from happening as it will inevitably occur. It is already hard to convince people to value or care about the suffering of chickens and pigs, let alone insects which people view with disgust and utter lack of concern. Therefore, it is important to get caring for the welfare of insects aligned to the profit incentives that companies have. Freezing or shredding as a method of death already seems to be more efficient although slightly costly at start. Freezing allows for insects to be preserved and stored in a way such that microbial growth does not occur either since it is at lower temperatures. Shredding is a fast method likely to cause less pain when done right. Disease outbreaks and overcrowding leading to cannibalism add costs when more insects die in the process itself so it would make sense to prevent such occurrences. Despite administering painkillers seeming like a far off bet, I posit farmers would hate for insects to be in massive amounts of pain during the farming process because it limits their ability to feed and mate which are necessary for growing them in the quantities needed. Importantly, these are only a few examples of how insect welfare and profits could be aligned and I’m not very sure how likely that allignment will occur. But as more insects are farmed we must constantly figure out ways to make it as humane as possible for insects while working within the confines of profit-mindedness since they are insects afterall with no strong emotional appeal like other farmed animals.
The other thing to do is to fill in the gaps in the animal feed industry with plant-based alternatives. This is especially hard to do given climate change and even higher upfront costs but it could be helpful exploring or strengthening alternatives to insect farming.
To conclude, insect farming is an industry that will grow and the impacts it has on insect and animal welfare, as murky as they are, warrant for us to still try to err on the side of caution by adopting the most humane practices for insects.
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