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Insect Welfare: Why it matters and how the animal movement can contribute to it

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When we hear the word 'animal', instead of thinking about a dog or a cow, we should think about an octopus, a bee or any other invertebrate, as they account for the vast majority of animals.

VANESSA GISCHKOW GARBINI: Over 99.9% of animals in the world are invertebrates. Therefore, when we hear the word “animal” instead of thinking about a dog or a cow, we should think about an octopus, a bee or any other invertebrate, as they account for the vast majority of animals. There is an estimation that, at any time, there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.

If the number of insects in the world is impressive, so is the extent of human use of those animals… Some products involve insect exploitation without consumers even realizing it. Silk and carmine are great examples of that… Among the many examples of insect exploitation, insect farming might be the most relevant one… Especially because edible insects are being considered the “food of the future,” breeding insects as livestock is raising animal welfare concerns…

Besides not thinking about insects when we hear the word “animals,” we also exclude them from our scope of moral consideration. We tend to just assume that insects are not sentient beings – or at least that they are not as as vertebrates… Research developed so far indicate that there is a chance we might be wrong in our assumptions.

Eusocial insects – a category of animals that live in organized families where each member has a specific role – are deemed extremely successful and intelligent by science. An experiment made with honey bees revealed that they had the tendency to choose larger delayed rewards over small immediate ones, which indicates a higher ability of self-control than rats and pigeons. Ants, for their turn, have the capacity to lead the youngest from the nest to food sources, a technique called “tandem running.” Also, studies have shown that fruit flies have the ability to do develop complex forms of learning…

Some researchers appeal to the precautionary principle to argue that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it should be assumed that sentience is present. As insects are considered animals, their welfare should be supported by animal protection NGOs. Yet the number of nonprofits that include insect welfare in their agenda is very small, and there is no single organization that deals with it as a single issue…

In a world where animals are generally seen as commodities, it is not surprising that insects’ welfare is widely disregarded. But what about the animal advocacy movement? How to explain the silence of most animal protection organizations on the matter of insect suffering?… It is estimated that only less than 1% of total spending made by effective animal activism community is allocated to invertebrate welfare… Even though sentience is currently one of the main resources to which animal advocates turn to as an attempt to increase insect protection…

Advocacy on insect welfare still has a long way to go and a lot of room to grow, some NGOs already started the work. Wild Animal Initiative, RethinkPriorities, Effective Altruism Foundation, Faunalytics and PETA are just some of the effective altruism nonprofits that devoted a part of their agenda to insect protection. Among conservation groups, The Xerces Society, Buglife, Pollinator Partnership and the Center for Biological Diversity are a few worth mention.

Lack of reference to insects’ welfare is also perceptible in the legal field. Despite the existence of some research on bugs protection in environmental law, the perspective is mainly conservationist. Insect protection is not amongst the most favorite topics of animal law academics and scholars as well.

The issue is not frequently covered by animal law curricula, which might be due to a skepticism surrounding the worthiness of fighting for legal protection of insects. The challenge just seems too big, especially because insects are usually not “likable.” International treaties offer a level of protection to some insects, at least for conservation purposes…

In spite of the unfavorable scenario described above, improving insect welfare is not only necessary, but possible. Yes, people are not usually very sympathetic to insects, especially for esthetical reasons. However, that is not an uncrossable obstacle for advancing insect protection. It can actually even help stop cruelties that insects have been systematically suffering. Thus, access to information could be a helpful tool to reducing use of insects in products that people have no awareness contain them…

Not surprisingly, the most effective solutions involve just quitting consuming products that, while not essential for human survival, involve death, harm and potential suffering for individuals whose subjective experiences we know so little about. For instance, not only can humans live without honey and carmine but we also have the mental capacity to come up with effective replacements for those products – like maple syrup and beetroot-based food coloring.

Besides, the fact that insect farming has become a prospective future, discovering more about those animals’ consciousness is fundamental… Animal advocacy, for its turn, has an important role in raising awareness on insects’ welfare and on the viability of a plant-based diet for humans, highlighting the possibility of excluding of all kinds of animal farming.

It is only an acknowledgement that the difference between the two groups may not that big. Since lack of studies still does not allow us to have a better grasp on the broadness of insects’ sentience, and since alternatives that reduce their suffering are available and feasible, there is no reason why cruel activities towards insects should keep going unabatedly. The animal protection movement, including animal law, should act as a positive model and increase inclusion of insects’ welfare in their agendas. SOURCE…

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