Eating insects mite not be the future

| 24th June 2019
Bug crawling on leaf

Insects are mooted as a promising alternative protein

Insects are now sold as food in the UK - but there are looming moral risks with farming them.

Do we know that insects are automata, unable to feel anything, moving their bodies to a ticking body clock which is utterly separated from conscious feeling? 

It may not be evident from shiny supermarket displays, but there are deep cracks in our food system.

Its potential in solving the climate emergency is untapped. The world’s livestock population is rising inexorably through the tens of billions.

Rural communities are struggling to make decent returns on their work. And public health is overlooked by a food environment at loggerheads with our needs.

Solutions

Thankfully, there is a wide range of pressure-valves which might ease the situation, if consumers, citizens, and policymakers want to reach for them.

One is meat alternatives. Once regarded as “cardboard”, plant-based burgers are now all the rage: even on Wall St.

The stock price of Beyond Burger went through the roof for a second time recently, even after the initial eye-catching rise when it was floated on the stock market last month.

The Beyond Burger will be widely available soon and will help to reduce emissions. And “clean meat”, actual meat created from animal cells rather than living animals, is set to revolutionise meat in coming decades, cutting emissions and resource use.

But do we have tools that are available now that might help fix the food system? We do. One mooted option is eating insects.

Insects are eaten in many countries and were recently brought to the UK as food. Sainsbury’s underlined “growing interest in edible insects” as it launched a roasted cricket product in 250 shops last winter.

Sainsbury’s cited evidence that insects use less land and water, and produce fewer emissions, when compared to traditional meat. 

And insects are also used as feed for livestock. It was announced only last week that the Canadian government is looking into this as the practice becomes more widespread.

Cagey

But there is a looming moral risk to farming insects.

One insect provides little food (even less if used as animal feed rather than food). So they would be farmed in very large numbers to be at all viable.

A case I picked out at random from an internet search is of a South African factory which “within a few weeks” had 8.5 billion flies in its cages on any given day. As they can procreate and grow very quickly, the turnover would be high.

I am aware that this may not seem like a problem at all. But there is some scientific evidence that insects are sentient, capable of feeling pleasure and pain: the research is inconclusive.

This uncertainty gives rise to a problem. Farmed in vats in huge numbers, my questions is: what if they do turn out to be sentient, capable of feeling pleasure and pain?

We might set up an edible insect industry in the UK only to discover that these billions – trillions – of insects we are cramming into cages can feel, are conscious, are suffering.

It is hard to imagine, I can see. It’s hard to think that insects really are conscious, in the way dogs or foxes or pigs are. But we must ask: do we know that insects are automata, unable to feel anything, moving their bodies to a ticking body clock which is utterly separated from conscious feeling? No, we do not.

Given the risk, the chance that at least some insects are conscious, it would be unwise to create a fresh industry which farms them in such gigantic numbers. This is in part as there are good alternatives.

Pulses: beating heart of the future?

Among them is revitalising pulses. Whilst pulses are an older form of protein, they are being used in new ways and could be at the centre of things in future. Pulses are the edible seeds of legume plants. They include peas, beans, and lentils, and are a source of plant protein.

Exceptionally, pulses extract nutrition from the air, meaning they are not so reliant on fertiliser, whose application on land generates emissions.

Pulse crops have low water requirements, and are much more efficient in their land use than livestock. This is important as we desperately need to unlock land for a national reforestation project, which is the only sure-fire way of taking back some of the emissions we have unwisely produced.

From a health perspective, pulses are low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and offer iron, potassium and other minerals. They are a great source of plant protein.

Protein from pulses is “significantly less expensive” than that of animal foods, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization recently told the Grow Green conference. Furthermore, pulses lower food waste, as they can be stored for long periods and have very low spoilage rates, the global body said.

Rural economies

It is not just their environmental, health, and practical benefits that mean we should reinvigorate the pulse industry and encourage a culture of eating them.

These wonder crops could bolster rural economies too. Market trends are putting pressure on farms. There are shifts away from dairy and certain meats, towards other options such as the Beyond Burger.

But that signal from Wall St is representative of an opportunity for British farming. The Beyond Burger, and many like it, are made from peas.

Peas and other pulses are produced in the UK. Government should support farmers going back to these heritage crops, using them to address the pressure farmers face.

And it’s not just burgers. Something like the humble British oat (not a pulse, but still a source of protein) is just waiting to be transformed into an uber-sustainable British oat milk alternative.

As the plant-based sector takes off, government should support rural communities in benefitting. The government could also fund land managers to reforest, helping us towards the now-official policy of becoming a carbon neutral country by 2050.

Healing the cracks

And so through rethinking both government policy and our shopping lists we can begin to heal those cracks in our system, invisible from the food aisle but so present to the individuals who help make up our food system.

The climate emergency can be addressed as pulses are very carbon light and can help achieve negative emissions by making room for reforestation.

The neglect of animals will be tamed by stemming our ever-growing global reliance on animal protein. Rural economies can tap into market trends and higher margins. And our health will be improved by eating foods which are under-consumed relative to health guidelines.

Will this likely come about? Well, eating patterns are already changing, conversations are happening.

Our Plate Up for the Planet roadshow is touring the UK to continue these conversations; you can sign up to eat green for a week here. And we are in a time of great change for the policies that govern our food and farming systems. Policymakers now have the chance to think anew about the future of protein.

This author 

William Gildea is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society. Follow the Grow Green campaign on Twitter, @GrowGreenTeam. Readers are invited to sign up to the Plate Up for the Planet challenge here.

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