“If there are welfare concerns, you need to intervene in the planning stages, when those facilities are being designed and built,” says Bob Fischer, a Texas State University professor who works on insect welfare. There are many factors that barn designers must take into account, including temperature, humidity levels, lighting, the number of insects, and what they eat. For insect farmers, these are all engineering problems: they want to make sure that as many insects as possible survive and that the farms are cheap to run, but they are also intimately tied to animal welfare.
Here is good news. Some insect larvae seem to like living in crowded conditions, says Fotis Fotiadis, founder of Cambridge, UK-based insect farming start-up Better Origin. He rents containers equipped with trays where farmers can grow their own black soldier fly larvae, compressed to 10,000 per tray in dark, humid conditions. “What we think is high welfare for animals might not be high welfare for insects. We need to have a new understanding of what the insects want to do,” says Fotiadis.
The problem is that we only have a very limited understanding of what insects like to do. Black soldier fly larvae may like crowded conditions, but what about the adults? Chittka remembers visiting a facility where adult black soldier flies were kept without food and in crowded conditions. “It seemed strange to me,” says Chittka. Some insect farms—as best origin—Do not feed adult black soldier flies which are used to rear larvae, but recent research suggests that adult women live longer and lay more eggs if they are fed. “Letting the adults lay their eggs and die is what the industry currently tends to do, in line with other animal industries, and it will likely remain the status quo until there is a market opportunity for a higher welfare insect,” he says. fotiadis.
An even bigger dilemma is how the insects should be killed. In the EU, most animals must be stunned before being killed, but there are no such regulations for insects. Insects can be microwaved, steamed, boiled, roasted, frozen, or chopped to death. Better Origin larvae are fed live to free-range chickens. We have no idea which method of killing is less painful for the insects, beyond the general feeling that a quick kill is better than a long one. “Trying to make sure that we’re killing quickly and efficiently, given the level of uncertainty, is perhaps one of the most important things we can do,” says Fischer.
The issue for Fischer is not whether we should farm insects, but rather taking insect welfare more seriously and making sure the industry does too. “Insects for food and food are happening. Is growing. It’s not going to collapse in the next 10 years,” he says. And the numbers we are talking about are so large that even a small improvement in welfare standards could make a difference in the lives of trillions of perhaps sentient creatures. That’s why Fischer hopes that instead of splitting into opposing camps, animal sentience researchers and the insect farming industry can come together and discuss what higher-welfare insect farming might look like.
And that means two things. One, it involves more work on animal sentience, particularly the handful of species that are most frequently bred. “For at least these insect species, we would like to have some certainty as to what constitutes a humane culling procedure and what are acceptable rearing conditions, etc.,” Chittka says. “We need that investigation now.”
It’s also about broadening our sense of which animals deserve our compassion. It’s easy to look a dog or a chimpanzee in the eye and intuit that these animals have feelings that we can influence. It’s much harder to look at a tray of mealworms and make the same observation. However, if we are going to start breeding these animals en masse, the kindest thing to do might be to err on the side of caution.