It is easy to empathize with the plight of animals in the modern food industry, but as insect-based foods gain traction are we creating an even greater ethical dilemma?
This morning on the radio I heard an interview with an Iowa woman who started her own independent business producing edible crickets and cricket-based foods. At one point the discussion turned towards ethics and the response of vegetarians/vegans, which was brushed aside in favor of the sort of terrible puns and one liners morning radio shows have plagued our airwaves with since the beginning of mics. Even though I am not a vegan or vegetarian, I understood right away the troublesome ethical implications.
Part of this argument may already be familiar, as it has long been used to counter some vegan claims. If we work from historical farming models in which crops are grown outdoors in soil and animals are left to graze in relatively wild habitats, then we are faced with an issue. While you might be able to feed as many or more people from vegetation on the same amount of land required for a single animal to graze upon, when you develop the relatively wild grazing pastures towards that purpose you inevitably kill countless living things and destroy numerous habitats.
So if one cow dies to feed humans, or hundreds of rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and probably millions of insects and other tiny organisms do, which is the more ethical outcome? Are cows more important because they are bigger and more attractive than mice and worms? Where and how do we draw the line?
I think that the logic most often used to resolve this issue is based on a neurocentric worldview, that is, that experiences arise merely as a result of brain activity. Those who argue the primacy of the cow will suggest that a larger, more evolutionary advanced brain means cows have more mental activity than crickets. Since smaller beings have less developed neural mass, their senses are too limited to object to our trespass against them, goes that logic.
The fact is that the question of mind is an entirely unresolved issue, and neurocentrism must be taken on faith, since it is nowhere close to being concluded by the available evidence. Even many physicalists who believe that mind is a byproduct of the bodies matter are uncomfortable placing the seat of consciousness entirely within the brain, since neural transmitters are not limited to that single organ. That mind equates to brain, and that bigger is better, are both problematic assumptions that underlie the cows before crickets camp.
However, I am not even sure that it matters. Whether or not an insects cognitive activity is as rich as those of mammals, individual insects still constitute their own personal agency. As human beings we would shudder at the idea of excluding people of lower cognitive abilities, while recognizing those individuals as a distinct personal agencies due all the rights and respect as anyone else throughout the intellectual spectrum. So how can we draw a line between food sources by brain size, especially considering that we do not even know if that is a relevant standard of mental richness?
Put a more disturbing way, if you had to eat other humans to survive, would it be less wrong to eat children because they are smaller and have less developed neural mass? Or would one mind with more meat be the better ethical bargain?
Not only does eating crickets cost more lives, cricket farming practices are hardly any more humane than poultry or veal, with thousands of the little buggers crowded together in plastic housing units being fattened up for the slaughter, which is accomplished by freezing them to death. This is not a condemnation of insect gastronomy, but an inevitable conclusion that humanities diet has an inestimable cost to every other living thing sharing this planetary experience with us.
In the bigger picture there are no good solutions. There are lots of people and feeding them carries a cost to our environment and our food. Until somebody invents a replication device that can construct customized matter from energy, scarcity is going to be an issue that causes all sorts of ethical uneasiness and environmental degradation. To this end the most effective approach to food ethics is to encourage the existence of such a device. Until then it is certainly reasonable to encourage more compassionate animal husbandry and agricultural practices, but the only one of us who will have earned a self-righteous attitude is the one who engineers our way out of this mess.