Vegan Thoughts on Insects

October 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

Vegan Thoughts on Insects

The death and use of insects in plant agriculture is a subject not often discussed by vegans, which anti-vegan carnists have recently used to depict vegans as hypocrites. So let’s discuss.

We know honey isn’t vegan. It’s an animal product. Bees work hard for their honey and people steal it for their own pleasure. Vegans know that the pollination of plants is only a byproduct of bees and birds seeking pollen. Unfortunately, due to the modern decline of bee colonies bees are being used in an exploitive way to pollinate some of our crops… in conditions way worse than wild bee farming. It’s an unfortunate necessity. These pollination companies farm bee colonies by feeding them sugar to help them grow in size. They ship the hives on trucks to plant farms and unleash them to do their job for the day. These plant farms that the bees pollinate generally use pesticides, even organic ones, which kill some of the bees by days end.

I’ve seen people argue that farms can and should keep their own bees. Unless they have a variety of crops they wouldn’t keep the bees fed. Also, this doesn’t solve the pesticide dilemma. We both need bees and need to keep other insects away from our crops. Bee death is as inevitable as ant or beetle death. Perhaps we will solve this problem one day.

Let’s discuss how the use/death of insects compare to other animal exploitation and death. We know that all land usage has an ethical footprint. We know no footprint is worse than industrial beef, because of how much grain they consume versus meat they yield. Same goes for farming other mammals and birds. To decipher the bee dilemma we should analyze how we value every life, down to every bee and caterpillar.

With insects, our life comes at their expense. They are both an integral part of our agriculture and the greatest threat to our plant foods. If we value every insect life as much as every cow then people might conclude that we’d only want to consume non industrial animals. People would argue this because a pasture of grass fed cows will encourage the growth of insects while a crop of plants on the same land will kill a great amount of insects. There is one problem with this logic, it would only take 10% of the land to grow the volume of plant food you’d get from a larger pasture of cows. While pastures promote insect growth we can’t neglect that these cows still frequently graze on deforested land or that ungrazed land that returns fully to nature is exponentially better for insects and other animals than fenced off land for grazing. Plus, there isn’t enough land on Earth for us all to eat pasture raised animals. Environmentally, it is absolutely unethical.

The fact remains, it takes far less land to get calories from crops than pasture raised animals. Vegans aren’t only trying to stop animal death, we’ll happily see farm animal populations reduced by 99% if it means they stop getting bred into existence for exploitation, if the remainder are allowed to live on sanctuaries, and if it means more land returns to native animals.

Back to insects, do we accept a reasonable level of insect death in plant agriculture as necessary and ethical? If we care about insects as much as land animals then should we reduce our consumption to lower our insect death footprint? Or, do we accept that insects don’t command the same compassion and value as other animals?

While many of us strive not to be specist and we must acknowledge that insects are breathing feeling animals, they are biologically much different from other animals. One insect can produce thousands of eggs a day. Their self awareness is questionable. They live very short lives. They easily and quickly spread diseases. Throughout our history they have destroyed our food supplies. They can’t just be relocated or fenced off like land animals. Pesticides, even organic ones, became our only protection. You have to be in absolute denial to not realize that in some cases it is absolutely us or them. Even the most ethical animal lovers will differ on their feelings towards insects. But let’s not get bogged down with specist talk.

Let’s discuss the current ethical dilemma, bees. Unlike farmed animals, bees weren’t bred into existence by humans. Bees are native and vital to life on Earth. Unlike the insects that eat our crops, we want bees to thrive to pollinate our crops. While no animal deserves our malice, we should accept that some animals like grasshoppers and caterpillars aren’t conducive to agriculture while others are necessary to grow food.

So, what about honey? Is it as ethically justifiable as sugar? How many insects’ lives are lost per calorie of a crop, like sugar or corn, compared to honey? Neither item is necessary for our survival but if we place our pleasure above the life of insects then which produces less harm? To address this issue I did a quick analysis and it’s likely about a one to one ratio of insect death versus bee exploited. If this is correct, then, vegans need to reconsider if the life of a bee feeding on wild flowers exploited for honey is worse than the death of other native insects for some other sweetener.

Let’s for the sake of the discussion argue the earthly and ethical benefits of honey. Wild beekeeping is good for the environment. They improve ecosystems and thus increase the number of wild large land animals in an environment. Most importantly, increasing the population of bees will help them survive extinction. There’s many ways to help repopulate bees: backyard hives, wild local honey farming, or perhaps even a non-profit organization. Repopulation is critically important; important enough to ethically justify bee exploitation in the name of repopulation?

Now that we’ve shown the ethical complexity of the issues of plant agriculture and honey there is one main argument many vegans will have against honey versus bee pollinated produce, that honey is by definition an animal product. We could argue semantics in regard to the definitions of vegan but the ethics are of more interest; we’ve established that the ethics of eating plant foods and honey are similar. So, let’s address the feeling most vegans have about animal products, that they’re gross. Once that vegan light-bulb goes off in our heads, the thought of putting the flesh or ovulation of an animal in our mouths can become revolting.

Honey is unique from every other animal product. It’s regurgitated pollen/sucrose. It’s like stealing nuts from a squirrel, who had them in their mouth. That’s cruel, but unique from other animal products. Many people find honey revolting; I personally find it a quite beautiful resource. It’s bee food used by the whole colony for energy. It’s pollen concentrate. Taking some honey means their colony doesn’t grow as large but it’s not like killing a calf to take the mother’s milk. It’s more like discarded chicken eggs, except for the killed male chicks, the cholesterol, the fact you’re eating an ovulation, the chickens being bred to painstakingly overproduce eggs, and unlike bees backyard chickens aren’t an integral part of the planet. Much like honey, I don’t think milk is a disgusting food. Whether human or cow, milk can be a beautiful thing. Milk is life for babies and while I don’t need or want it today, its consumption does not disgust me. My problem with milk is the killing of baby mammals, the rape, the ethics, ecology, and economics. Everyone’s journey to becoming vegan is different and for many it was an initial disgust upon actually realizing they are eating dead animals. No matter what started it, we all do it for the animals. I only make this point to take the “gross” bias out of the equation so we can critically assess the ethics.

As a community we haven’t fully decided if insects have as much moral values as mammals, birds, and fish. Some one who thinks lesser of insects may suggest it would be ethical to consume insects but I don’t think that breeding insects for the purpose of eating their corpses is as ethical as merely protecting crops or stealing honey from wild local bee colonies that you’ve helped repopulate. The death toll is certainly greater when consuming their bodies. Just because it might not be as unethical a decision as consuming mammal flesh doesn’t make it a better choice than consuming plants. But now that I’ve seen how insects play a role in our lives and learned more about their biology, I have to admit I don’t assign as much moral value to them as I do other animals. I don’t have the same feelings towards a worm in the soil as I do for a pig in a crate. But I still wouldn’t feel comfortable watching someone stick a hook through the worms body. 

We can’t end without mentioning industrial honey, which is not ethically comparable. The bees are fed sugar in captivity and don’t live free to roam and improve the ecology of the planet. If you are a vegan considering local wild honey please consider that honey is often mislabeled as raw and wild when in fact they are just feeding them sugar or buying industrial honey and relabeling it. It would be difficult for any business, even a local wild honey farmer, to make a profit without supplementing the bees with some sugar. After everything we discussed about the ethics of honey it may not be worth the risk of accidentally contributing to unnecessary harm. There’s also the risk of ending up down a slippery slope, frequently eating honey from restaurants that are certainly industrially sourced. As a vegan, I am going to continue to not eat honey and I would encourage you to be very careful if you decide to consume this food.

One day I may keep a backyard beehive and at that time I will reconsider if it is ethical to take a little of their honey, only if they’re outgrowing the limited space I may have for them. Until then, I will continue to avoid consuming honey. I would feel even better about that decision if there was a vegan non-profit I could donate too that works to restore wild bee populations. Let’s get on that, vegans.