Like most people, I have eaten bugs. Also, like most Americans, this consumption has been unintentional and often in ignorance. In some cases, I’ve sucked in a whole bug while running. In most cases, the bugs are bug parts in foods—the FDA allows a certain percentage of “debris” in our food and some of that is composes of bugs.
While Americans typically do not willingly and knowingly eat insects, about 2 billion people do and there are about 2,000 species that are known to be edible. As might be guessed, many of the people who eat insect live in developing countries. As the countries develop, people tend to switch away from eating insects. This is hardly surprising—eating meat is generally seen as a sign of status while eating insects typically is not. However, there are excellent reasons to utilize insects on a large scale as a food source for humans and animals. Some of these reasons are practical while others are ethical.
One practical reason to utilize insects as a food source is the efficiency of insects. 10 pounds of feed will yield 4.8 pounds of cricket protein, 4.5 pounds of salmon, 2.2 pounds of chicken, 1.1 pounds of pork, and .4 pounds of beef. With an ever-growing human population, increased efficiency will be critical to providing people with enough food.
A second practical reason to utilize insects as a food source is that they require less land to produce protein. For example, it takes 269 square feet to produce a pound of pork protein while it requires only 88 square feet to generate one pound of mealworm protein. Given an ever-expanding population and every-less available land, this is a strong selling point for insect farming as a food source. It is also morally relevant, at least for those who are concerned about the environmental impact of food production.
A third reason, which might be rejected by those who deny climate change, is that producing insect protein generates less greenhouse gas. The above-mentioned pound of pork generates 38 pounds of CO2 while a pound of mealworms produces only 14. For those who believe that CO2 production is a problem, this is clearly both a moral and practical reason in favor of using insects for food. For those who think that CO2 has no impact or does not matter, this would be no advantage.
A fourth practical reason is that while many food animals are fed using food that humans could also eat (like grain and corn based feed), many insects readily consume organic waste that is unfit for human consumption. As such, insects can transform low-value feed material (such as garbage) into higher value feed or food. This would also provide a moral reason, at least for those who favor reducing the waste that ends up in landfills. This could provide some interesting business opportunities and combinations—imagine a waste processing business that “processes” organic waste with insects and then converts the insects to feed, food or for use in other products (such as medicine, lipstick and alcoholic beverages).
Perhaps the main moral argument in favor of choosing insect protein over protein from animals such as chicken, pigs and cows is based on the assumption than insects have a lower moral status than such animals or at least would suffer less.
In terms of the lower status version, the argument would be a variation on one commonly used to support vegetarianism over eating meat: plants have a lower moral status than animals; therefore it is preferable to eat plants rather than animals. Assuming that insects have a lower moral status than chickens, pigs, cows, etc., then using insects for food would be morally preferable. This, of course, also rests on the assumption that it is preferable to do wrong (in this case kill and eat) to beings with a lesser moral status than to those with a higher status.
In terms of the suffering argument, this would be a stock utilitarian style argument. The usual calculation involves weighing the harms (in this case, the suffering) against the benefits. Insects are, on the face of it, less able to suffer (and less able understand their own suffering) than animals like pigs and cows. Also, insects would seem to suffer less under the conditions in which they would be raised. While chickens might be factory farmed with their beaks clipped and confined to tiny cages, mealworms would be pretty much doing what they would do in the “wild” when being raised as food. While the insect would still be killed, it would seem that the overall suffering generated by using insects as food would be far less than that created by using animals like pigs and cows as food. This would seem to be a morally compelling argument.
The most obvious problem with using insects as food is what people call the “yuck factor.” Bugs are generally seen as dirty and gross—things that you do not want to find in food, let alone being the food. Some of the “yuck” is visual—seeing the insect as one eats it. One obvious solution is to process insects into forms that look like “normal” foods, such as powders, pastes, and the classic “mystery meat patty.” People can also learn to overcome the distaste, much as some people have to overcome their initial rejection of foods like lobster and crab.
Another concern is that insect might bear the stigma of being a food suitable for “primitive” cultures and not suitable for “civilized” people. Insect based food products might also be regarded as lacking in status, especially in contrast with traditional meats. These are, of course, all matters of social perception. Just as they are created, they can be altered. As such, these problems could be overcome.
Since I grew up eating lobsters and crabs (I’m from Maine), I am already fine with eating “bug-like” creatures. So, I would not have any problem with eating actual bugs, provided that they are safe to eat. I will admit that I probably will not be serving up plates of fried beetles to my friends, but I would have no problem serving up food containing properly processed insects. And not just because it would be, at least initially, funny.