Buzzing: On the morality of eating insects
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This week in Buzzing:
On the morality of eating insects
Q&A: Antoine Hubert, Ÿnsect
Test corner: Mealworm burrito
Last week, fellow Substack (this newsletter’s platform) writer Scott Alexander wrote a post in his Astral Codex Ten newsletter about the morality of eating insects. It’s a topic I planned to cover at some stage, but one that I kept postponing because it didn’t feel urgent/newsworthy, and also because theoretical philosophising isn’t my forte.
Alexander argues that he wouldn’t eat insects because a) he didn’t want to, and b) it was morally wrong. The basic premise is this: there are reasonable grounds to assume that insects are sentient beings; it would take 1.8 million mealworms to make the same amount of “meat” as one cow (one cow yields 220kg of beef and one mealworm weighs about 120mg); therefore, from a moral point of view, it would be much better to kill just one life than 1.8 million.
You can’t argue with the number of lives lost, but you could argue that there is a hierarchy of sentience (mammals at the top, insects at the bottom, birds and fish in the middle). You could also argue that factory farmed insects suffer less than factory farmed animals because insects like to crowd together. But what about high-welfare animals such as pasture-fed cattle or farmyard chickens? How happy are they compared to the mealworms in my mealworm kit or the mealworms farmed by Ÿnsect (see Q&A below)?
This is the kind of tortured comparison that my brain struggles with, partly because it doesn’t resonate. My motivation for no longer eating fish and seafood and drastically cutting my meat consumption is all to do with trying to do my bit for the environment rather than the moral cost of eating animals. By the moral mathematical reasoning above, eating blue whale would be preferable to eating mealworms, but we can probably all agree that that wouldn’t be a good idea.
I would never kill an animal gratuitously (except for mosquitoes and clothes moths…) and whatever animals I do choose to eat (some insects, and the highest welfare meat I can find for special occasions), I would want them to be dispatched as humanely as possible. On that basis, I am comfortable with the idea of eating animals, including potentially millions of insects. In effect, I have attached greater moral value to minimising my environmental footprint than to the suffering of individual animals.
Such moral calculations are deeply personal: my moral compass will be different to many others’ and there isn’t a right or wrong choice. What it’s made me realise is that people come at their dietary preferences for different reasons: I had thought about this very briefly when I heard that some vegetarians and vegans were prepared to eat insects. It’s clear to me now that this is something I should explore in greater depths. I’d love to know what you think.
The Q&A, Antoine Hubert, CEO & co-founder of Ÿnsect
Hubert co-founded Ÿnsect in 2011 after a long-term interest in food waste and composting led him and his co-founders to look at insect protein. The French mealworm company has hit big milestones since: it is currently building the largest vertical mealworm farm in the world; last year, it raised $372 million, the largest amount ever raised by a non-American company in the agtech sector; and in April this year, it announced that it had acquired Dutch insect protein company Protifarm. With the EU set to approve more insect products and species over the next year, the company is on a roll.
Why did you decide to focus on mealworms when you launched instead of more “popular” insects such as Black Soldier Fly (BSF) or crickets?
Crickets are popular for human food, BSF for animal feed. But with mealworms, we found something that could address all markets. Their protein content is higher than BSF, so that makes them very interesting for animal feed. And they were already consumed as food.
We also invested a lot in science and found that there were significant nutritional and health benefits to mealworms: they reduce mortality in farmed fish and seafood, and they help accelerate growth. Our frass (mealworm manure) also significantly increases crop yields in rapeseed and vineyards.
Why did you decide to acquire Protifarm?
We’ve known each other for a long time. We farm slightly different species (we farm yellow mealworm and they farm buffalo worm) but it’s still a mealworm and in a market dominated by crickets and BSF, we found that we had many affinities: we had similar ideas when it came to vertical farming, automation, insect biology and genetics. Many things were converging but we were on different markets: we focus on animal feed and they focus on food, so it was very complementary.
Also, Protifarm is based in the Netherlands, which is one of the largest markets for food and agribusiness, and it’s been involved in the insect sector right from the beginning.
What’s next for Ÿnsect?
Our new plant in Amiens will start testing at the end of the year and we’ll start selling products in 2022. But we won’t reach full capacity until 2023: it takes time to build a colony. The plant’s capacity is already fully subscribed so we’re planning to double the capacity in Amiens, then expand in the Netherlands and North America.
Test corner: Mealworm burrito
Last week, I cooked my very first batch of home-grown mealworms. It was ridiculously satisfying: I got the same buzz I do when cooking with products from our allotment. To know that this is something I had tended and grown, that had been raised on oats, local brewing waste and discarded apple cores was really gratifying. The frass will go to the allotment too.
I was therefore keen to give my mealworms the star treatment: I chose to simply oven-roast them in Tex-Mex spices (a mix of paprika, cumin and coriander) and put them in a burrito. They were paired with black beans, a simple tomato salsa, avocado, spring onion, chopped yellow pepper and a couple of dollops of soured cream.
The mealworms were just the right spicy/nutty counterpart to all the other lovely fresh and zingy flavours. My little boy had the same as me, although he did need reassurance that they were, indeed, dead: having watched and fed them for the past few months, I can see where he was coming from. My daughter said she preferred the pancakes or the blissballs, so that’s what I’ll do with the next batch.
Mealworms were frozen overnight to kill them humanely
They were then blanched for 2 min
I then oven-roasted them at 180C for 8 min with the spice mix (equal quantities of paprika, cumin and coriander, plus a little salt and oil)