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Got Entomophagy?

By James McWilliams
June 2013

entomophagy eating insects

The sticking point for the ethical-minded eater, of course, is that eating insects is still eating animals. Philosophically, morally, epistemologically, ontologically, (and any other “cally” you can think of), this is a rather tough sticking point. Whether or not insects matter any more or less than cows, pigs, chickens, and fish is a question that, by virtue of raising it, you make vegan blood boil.

There’s lots of journalistic chatter out there about eating insects (entomophagy). Most American media accounts have exploited a kind “ew gross” angle in order to appeal to that massive case of collective ADD known as the the United States of America. But other reports have been a bit more substantial, taking serious the proposition that consuming insects might actually be a viable option to reduce and eventually eliminate our current consumption of beef, chicken, fish, and pork while making a dent in world hunger. Much of this media attention has been generated by a recent UN report suggesting that we—as in the World—eat insects. Check it out, out, and out.

On the face of it, the logic is convincing. Sort of. Insects are everywhere (I’m looking at one at this moment, an ant with wings who has stopped to explore the bruised part of an apple sitting on my counter). Insects are relatively nutritious. If they were “domesticated,” insects wouldn’t require the resources nor cause comparable environmental damage to feed a global population nearing 9 billion. Insects evidently taste good. Or at least so say the swarm of entomologists I got to know when writing my book American Pests. I recall one seeing a picture of an asparagus beetle and saying “yum, that guy tastes like pineapple.”

The sticking point for the ethical-minded eater, of course, is that eating insects is still eating animals. Philosophically, morally, epistemologically, ontologically, (and any other “cally” you can think of), this is a rather tough sticking point. Whether or not insects matter any more or less than cows, pigs, chickens, and fish is a question that, by virtue of raising it, you make vegan blood boil. “Yes, all animals matter!!!,” we declare. And we mean it. Well, kind of. I mean, we don’t mean it enough to live according to that dictum, at least not as carefully as we live according to the dictum that we won’t eat animals. To wit: I don’t eat animals (or wear them). I could go a step further and make the decision to stop driving, taking buses and trains, and avoiding flying in order to spare the lives of billions of insects. I could do this, but—like you—I won’t. Not a chance. Why? Because it would be entirely inconvenient.

Cross the convenience threshold—which, I fear, if you are honest you have to) and you must make some hard admissions. Once you acknowledge that your approach to the animal world, however compassionate, necessarily requires (at some point) making self-interested choices based on convenience that will allow for a certain level of harm, you automatically open the door to compromise. You automatically affirm, as Mountain suggested in one of his comments yesterday, the existence of a continuum, as well as the fact that you occupy a place on it. Put differently, when you admit that your behavior toward animals (behavior, not ideology) comes down to convenience, you abandon faith in absolute adherence to a moral standard while creating space for the perpetual challenge of inching toward that standard through a series of pragmatic steps. Some people call that selling out. I call it wisdom.

If you’re still with me, you may not be for much longer. If it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that insect consumption could realistically reduce the consumption of cows, pigs, chickens, and fish, vegans should, I would tentatively suggest, support it. There’s little evidence that insects are sentient. Unlike a cow, pig, chicken, or fish, they do not make reasoned decisions to avoid discomfort (to my knowledge), most insects have very short life spans (many live less than a day), and they are the most rapidly adaptable and abundant critters on earth. As a class of animals, they resist individualism and embrace a radical collectivity that downplays their atomistic identities. I just cannot believe that a beetle’s sense of self is comparable to a pig’s. I may be wrong, but thoughtful observation suggests otherwise.

I’m just thinking aloud here. But I do wonder if this might be a cause we’d be willing, however reluctantly, to entertain as yet another strategy to wean the world off a diet that requires the slaughter of 10 billion animals a year, each and every one of whom we know for a hard fact suffers immensely?