I don't eat anything with a face.
This has been the rule that has governed my food choices for the past decade. I decided to convert myself to vegetarianism because of the environment —I was not willing to participate in a system that generates greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and dramatically alters the planet's ecosystems.
After years of feeding myself with faceless proteins, which are the most environmentally friendly, I finally found a face that gets along with my green sensibilities. And it belongs to an insect.
Started in 2014, Next Millennium is one of the first farms in North America to grow crickets and worms for human consumption. It is owned by Jarrod Goldin, a chiropractor by profession, and his brothers Ryan and Darren, who had raised crickets before, but was selling them to pet stores.
Here, up to 15 million crickets are raised in a series of large white bins, which are constructed so that the insects' waste falls below their living quarters. Each bin receives fresh water via an irrigation system and has controlled light, temperature, and humidity settings. The crickets are farmed and processed in a way that the family believes is the most humane. They're even considering installing a ramp system so that any wayward crickets won't accidentally be trod upon.
Next Millennium also raises mealworms on-site. Goldin assures me that the larvae, which prefer warm environments, are raised in "cozy bins" and similarly "very humane conditions," with a diet that's supplemented by vegetables.
Goldin admits that they way they've chosen to raise their stock—everything from using running water instead of still water, to their choice of feed—is entirely subjective. "Whether it makes a physiological difference to the cricket or not, I'm not sure," he confesses. "I'm not sure what it would take to treat an insect inhumanely."
The truth is, nobody really knows. While proof of suffering vertebrates is relatively straightforward—pain can be measured through an increase in blood pressure, the release of stress hormones, and vocalization—it's a bit trickier when it comes to invertebrates.
There is consensus that insects experience nociception, or the ability to perceive potential harm, but there's no evidence that they actually register pain. In fact, there's a lot of evidence to the contrary. Take, for example, the male praying mantis that continues to mate even while being eaten by its female partner. And c'mon, who hasn't stuck a toothpick in a fly and watched it continue to walk around, seemingly unaffected?
"The issue of pain is such a subjective one," says Steve Marshall, an entomologist from the University of Guelph. "Insects certainly respond to a negative stimulus. But is the insect thinking, Oh my, I'm suffering here because of these unfavourable conditions? I don't think so. I think that's an anthropocentric way to look at it."
While most vegetarians (myself included) would be horrified at the prospect of slaughtering a baby lamb, they wouldn't baulk at the idea of swatting a mosquito.
But for many, determining the moral weight of eating insects isn't limited to their capacity for suffering. Some argue that the number of lives lost is the problem. When the farm expands, Goldin estimates that each week, Next Millennium Farms will roast and grind close to 5,000 kg (about 11,000 lbs) of crickets to produce 1,250 kg (about 2,200 lbs) of cricket flour, which is used in treats like cupcakes, macaroons, and pancakes. It's a process that kills millions of insects, and it's these sheer numbers that some find appalling.
This is probably why PETA—in news that will surprise no one—doesn't support eating insects. On the other hand, Peter Singer, a renowned ethicist and founder of the animal liberation movement, says that he's "agnostic" about killing insects.
But for those on lower moral ground, the suffering of insects isn't even on their radar. In fact, the conversation about insect welfare is a new one, despite bugs being cultivated and used in food for thousands of years. (That shiny coating on jelly beans or the deep red colour in your cake mix? You can thank the lac insect and the cochineal scale insect, respectively.) While most vegetarians (myself included) would be horrified at the prospect of slaughtering a baby lamb, they wouldn't baulk at the idea of swatting a mosquito. It seems that when it comes to killing living creatures, there's a double standard; it's much easier to be sympathetic to the cute and cuddly than the creepy and crawly.
Even for experts like Marshall, it's not an easy question to answer. "Should we kill any living thing? That's a pretty difficult philosophical issue to wrestle with, given that we're not able to photosynthesize," he says. "Until that happens, we're going to have to take energy from other organisms and handle it as ethically and responsibly as possible."
"It's really a matter of choosing the best of all evils," agrees Goldin.
The demand for this necessary evil is seemingly limitless. Since starting their business less than two years ago, Next Millennium has already expanded their facilities from 10,000 to 30,000 square feet, with plans to scale up further. Goldin says that every week they receive up to 20 phone calls from food and wellness companies who are interested in collaborating or using cricket flour in their products.
Although there are only about five insect farms in North America, the industry seems poised for growth. But without insect welfare legislation, what's to stop newcomers from eschewing the Next Millennium-style approach in favour of "factory farming" insects?
If you ask Ilkka Taponen, head of operations at the Helsinki-based Nordic Insect Economy, money is the biggest barrier. "The ethical treatment is the most economically beneficial," explains the insect farmer. After all, if crickets were kept in tightly enclosed areas or conditions that differed dramatically from their natural environment, they would cannibalize one another and disease would run rampant.
However, Taponen concedes that there are two opportunities where insect rights could easily be abused. First, while dry-freezing insects is the preferred method of euthanizing insects (Next Millennium Farm does this), it's also more expensive. It's possible that larger farms would kill insects with arguably more "painful" methods: they could be sprayed with hot water or crushed. Second, breeding methods could be altered to hatch unnaturally large insects. "Maybe the breeding will lead to higher mortality rates, but it will be accepted if the gained biomass exceeds the lost biomass," says Taponen.
As it stands, with an absence of proof that insects feel pain, the existing guidelines for humanely farming insects appear more rooted in marketing than in ethics. For example, Next Millennium considered feeding the natural foragers post-consumer waste from restaurants, which would cut down on operating costs, reduce the price for consumers, and minimize overall environmental impact. But Goldin admits both the crickets and mealworms receive a high-end, organic, non-GMO food formula primarily to appeal to the Whole Foods shopper. After all, the first hurdle was to get consumers to consider eating insects—getting them to consider eating insects that were fed garbage would be a marketing nightmare.
Interestingly, according to some interpretations of Leviticus, eating crickets is kosher. However, Goldin says that getting a Rabbi to "hechsher" or certify the farm remains a challenge. It's still up for debate whether eating invertebrates is halal—and depending on the school of thought, insects would have to be "slaughtered" in ways that would naturally lead to death, including cutting off an insect's head. In other words, death by deep-freeze would probably be haram.
"Let's just deal with one paradigm shift at a time," says Goldin. "It's just beginning."