The use of insects for food

The use of insects for food

At the end of the twentieth century, more than 100 countries used insects for food.1 In recent years, there has been a surge of farming insects and other terrestrial arthropods, such as arachnids, for the purpose of food production. In the last few years, more than 25 million dollars’ worth of private investment has gone towards the promotion of insect farms, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has dedicated 1.45 million dollars to insect-derived protein projects since 2014.2

This is one of many diverse uses of insects. These include collecting honey and other products from bees, silk production, use of bees as a source of pollination, fiber production3, and energy production.4

Given the criteria for considering whether a being is sentient, in particular the presence of a centralized nervous system, it is reasonable to conclude that a great number of invertebrate animals, including insects, are sentient. This makes practices that cause them harm, like exploiting them for use as food, incompatible with an attitude of respect for others. The situation is made worse by the fact that their small size means the number of animals used in such practices is enormous.

Insect consumption in different places

The diversity of insects used for food is quite broad, including beetles, cockroaches, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, termites, dragonflies, flies, and others. Lepidopterans (mainly butterflies) are almost always eaten in their larval stage; Hymenoptera (which includes bees and ants), in their larval as well as pupal stage; beetles, in their larval stage as well as adult stage. And Orthopterans (including crickets and grasshoppers), Hemipterans (including cicadas and leafhoppers), and termites, are normally eaten in their adult stage.5

The use of these animals for food has been practiced traditionally in various regions:

· Caterpillars and termites are the most commonly eaten insects in Africa. Eating caterpillars is more frequent during the rainy seasons when they are more easily found.6 The majority of the insects eaten are captured.7

· In Asian countries, between 150 and 200 insect species are eaten, with the most common being red palm weevils.8 The following trends have been observed: silkworm consumption (in the pupal stage) is relatively widespread in India; a large number of species are eaten in Thailand, a country in which it is used as a tourist attraction; in China, there is large-scale farming of Polyrhachis vicina ants and housefly larvae; in Japan, rice grasshoppers have been traditionally fried and used in a dish called inago. Eating bee and wasp larvae is also widespread; and in South Korea eating silkworm pupae, and, increasingly, rice grasshoppers (of the species Oxya velox).

· In Australia, people eat moth larvae, which in recent years has been used as a tourist attraction; while in Papua New Guinea, the most commonly eaten insect is the red palm weevil, to the point that festivals centered on the consumption of this animal are organized.

· In certain regions of Latin America, the following animals are eaten: in parts of Mexico escamoles (larvae of hormigas güijeras, or Liometopum apiculatum ants), stingless bees (of the genera Melipona, Scaptotrigona and Trigona), wasp hatchlings, mezcal worms (Lepidoptera larvae that grow on agave stalks, specifically the species Hypopta agavis and Aegiale hesperiaris), and more than twenty species of grasshoppers and locusts; in Colombia,ants of the species Atta laevigata; in Brazil, bees and Atta laevigata ants;9 and in Ecuador, white beetles in the months of October and November.10

In Europe, as well as in other countries such as the U.S., there is no current widespread consumption of these animal products. However, the financing of insect farms is on the rise. This could cause an increase in eating them, as well as the spread of campaigns promoting their consumption.11 The usual practice is to use insects into the production of food for nonhuman animals at first, and for human consumption afterward. There are companies putting products on the market that contain invertebrates among the ingredients, but are hiding it, like insect parts in protein powder, hamburgers, pastas, curry, lollipops, pâté, cookies, bread, and energy bars.12 Currently, insect-derived products can be found in the United Kingdom,13 Germany,14 Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain,15 Canada, and the United States.16

Insect farms

Terrestrial invertebrate animals are very small. This makes treating wounds or illnesses at an individual level difficult and expensive. For example, if a cricket has an illness or an injury on a farm, she will not be treated.17

In countries where there is a widespread aversion to eating insects, there is little legislation related to it. However, in the past few years, owing in part to the promotion of insect consumption by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization18 and other institutions,19 the practice of eating insects has increased.

The European Union has authorized the marketing of the frozen, dried and powdered forms of yellow mealworms (the larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor), migratory locusts and house crickets. There are nine applications for food using insects, which are subject to a safety evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority. The current Novel Food Regulation, applicable since 2018, explicitly considers whole insects as novel foods which must be approved for consumption. However, the European Court of Justice concluded in 2020 that whole insects did not fall within the scope of that regulation and could therefore be marketed without a pre-market authorization. There is currently a transitional period that allows food businesses to continue to market whole insects under certain conditions.20

Some people assert that insects and other arthropods on farms experience less suffering than vertebrate animals can experience, on the grounds that invertebrates are more accustomed to living in confined spaces. The space allocated to insects on farms is extremely small, less than that given to other animals in proportion to their size, and it is common for them to be locked inside containers, boxes, and cages without any kind of lighting.

How insects used for food are killed

The premature death of insects on farms is commonplace (as it is in the wild). In fact, 99% of crickets who are fed food scraps and straw die within three months.21

We know little about how invertebrate animals experience pain, and about which stimuli are painful to them. In addition, it is difficult to make them lose consciousness. Therefore, no one can assure that it’s possible to kill them painlessly.22

Before removing them from confinement, the common practice is to leave mealworms and crickets without food for between 12 and 24 hours, and to reduce the oxygen concentration of housefly larvae.

Removing animals from their compartments involves manual or mechanical methods. It is common to use vibrating machines on larvae, while crickets are taken out with vertical devices (stackers, cardboard tubes, or egg cartons).

After they are removed from confinement, the next stage is to chill them to temperatures close to 0ºC (32ºF), keeping them alive but immobilizing them. This is done to animals like black soldier ant larvae, mealworms, and crickets.23

These animals are killed using various methods, such as freezing, immersion in hot water, microwaves, infrared tunnel ovens, or grinding. The usual practice is to kill crickets and mealworms with hot water or steam, and to grid black soldier ants or submerge them in water at a temperature greater than 80ºC (176ºF).

Killing some animals involves freezing, using methods like cryogenization, fluidization, and impingement cooling via the use of carbon dioxide, liquid nitrogen, or cold air. Before freezing them, it’s usual to chill them in order to immobilize them.24

Questioning speciesism as a way of preventing harm to invertebrate animals

As we have seen, the number of terrestrial invertebrates used as food for humans is increasing. The exploitation and death of these invertebrate animals occurs because their interests are not considered due to speciesist prejudices.

The consumption of these animals has been defended from environmentalist points of view.25 This is an example of the disagreement between environmentalist positions and those centered on the defense of animals. Farming and eating invertebrate animals harms them, and this will continue while their interests are not taken into consideration. In fact, as already mentioned above, due to their sheer numbers, they may be the animals most greatly affected by human exploitation.

Further readings

Carere, C. & Mather, J. (eds.) (2019) The welfare of invertebrate animals, Dordrecht: Springer.

Dobermann, D.; Swift, J. A. & Field, L. M. (2017) “Opportunities and hurdles of edible insects for food and feed”, Nutrition Bulletin, 42, pp. 293-308.

Elwood, R. W. (2011) “Pain and suffering in invertebrates?”, ILAR Journal, 52, pp. 175-184.

Erens, J.; Haverkort, F.; Kapsomenou, E. & Luijben, A. (2012) A bug’s life: Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare, Wageningen: Wageningen University & Research.

Gahukar, R. T. (2011) “Entomophagy and human food security”, International Journal of Tropical Insect Science, 31, pp. 129-144.

Horvath, K.; Angeletti, D.; Nascetti, G. & Carere, C. (2013) “Invertebrate welfare: An overlooked issue”, Annali dell’Istituto Superiore di Sanità, 49, pp. 9-17 [accessed on 28 September 2019].

La Barbera, F.; Verneau, F.; Amato, M. & Grunert, K. (2018) “Understanding Westerners’ disgust for the eating of insects: The role of food neophobia and implicit associations”, Food Quality and Preference, 64, pp. 120-125.

Jongema, Y. (2017) “List of edible insects of the world”, Wageningen University & Research, April 1 [accessed on 21 September de 2019].

Klein, C. & Barron, A. B. (2016) “Insects have the capacity for subjective experience”, Animal Sentience, 53, 1 (9) [accessed on 14 January 2019].

Knutsson, S. (2015) The moral importance of small animals, Master’s thesis, Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg [accessed on 4 September 2019].

Knutsson, S. (2017 [2016]) “Reducing suffering amongst invertebrates such as insects”, Wild-Animal Suffering Research, July 14 [accessed on 21 September 2019].

Shelomi, M. (2015) “Why we still don’t eat insects: Assessing entomophagy promotion through a diffusion of innovations framework”, Trends in Food Science & Technology, 45, pp. 311-318.

Tomasik, B. (2016 [2015]) “The importance of insect suffering”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Apr 25 [accessed on 20 July 2019].

Vantomme, P.; Mertens, E.; Huis. A. van & Klunder, H. (2012) Assessing the potential of insects as food and feed in assuring food security: Summary report, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [accessed on 29 September 2019].

Veldkamp, T.; Duinkerken, G. van; Huis, A. van; Lakemond, C. M. M.; Ottevanger, E.; Bosch, G. & Boekel, M. A. J. S. van (2012) Insects as a sustainable feed ingredient in pig and poultry diets – A feasibility study, Lelystad: Wageningen UR Livestock Research [accessed on 2 September 2019].

Yen, A. L. (2009) “Edible insects: Traditional knowledge or western phobia?”, Entomological Research, 39, pp. 289-298 [accessed on 22 June 2021].

Yen, A. L. (2015) “Insects as food and feed in the Asia Pacific region: current perspectives and future directions”, Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, 1, pp. 33-55.


1 MacEvilly, C. (2000) “Bugs in the system”, Nutrition Bulletin, 25, pp. 267-268.

2 Huis, A. van; Itterbeeck, J. van; Klunder, H.; Mertens, E.; Halloran, A.; Muir, G. & Vantomme, P. (comps.) (2013) Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, p. 10 [accessed on 19 September 2019].

3 Rossman, S. (2018) “2019 food trends: Cricket powder, edible insect start-ups spark love for bugs”, USA Today [accessed on 21 September 2019].

4 Myers, M. L. & Barnard, D. L. (1998) “Beekeeping, insect raising and silk production”, in Stellman, J. M. (ed.) Encyclopedia of occupational health and safety, 4th ed., Geneva: International Labour Office, ch. 70 [accessed on 28 September 2019].

5 One example of this is the InDIRECT project, which has received financing from the European Union.

6 Vantomme, P.; Göhler, D. & N’Deckere-Ziangba, F. (2004) “Contribution of forest insects to food security and forest conservation: The example of caterpillars in Central Africa”, ODI Wildlife Policy Briefing, 3 [accessed on 2 October 2019].

7 Mutungi, C.; Irungu, F. G.; Nduko, J.; Mutua, F.; Affognon, H.; Nakimbugwe, D.; Ekesi, S. & Fiaboe, K. K. M. (2017) “Postharvest processes of edible insects in Africa: A review of processing methods, and the implications for nutrition, safety and new products development”, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 59, pp. 276-298.

8 Johnson, D. V. (2010) “The contribution of edible forest insects to human nutrition and to forest management”, in Durst, P. B.; Johnson, D. V.; Leslie, R. N. & Shono, K. (eds.) (2010) Forest insects as food: Humans bite back, Bangkok: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, pp. 5-22 [accessed on 3 October 2019].

9 Huis, A. van; Itterbeeck, J. van; Klunder, H.; Mertens, E.; Halloran, A.; Muir, G. & Vantomme, P. (comps.) (2013) Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, op. cit., p. 18.

10 DeFoliart, G. R. (1999) “Insects as food: Why the western attitude is important”, Annual Review of Entomology, 44, pp. 21-50, pp. 23-40.

11 There are organizations working at the private level for the defense and promotion of the insect production sector, such as the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF).

12 Melgar‐Lalanne, G.; Hernández‐Álvarez, A.-J. & Salinas‐Castro, A. (2019) “Edible insects processing: Traditional and innovative technologies”, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 18, pp. 1166-1191 [accessed on 29 September 2019].

13 Horton, H. (2018) “Edible insects hit UK supermarkets as Sainsbury’s stocks bug grub”, The Telegraph, 17 November [accessed on 23 September 2019].

14 The Straits Times (2018) “German start-up puts insect burgers on supermarket shelves”, ST Food, Apr 23 [accessed on 1 October 2019].

15 Europa Press (2018) “Carrefour lanza una gama de nuevos alimentos elaborados con insectos, entre ellos pasta y snacks”, epeconomí, 30/05/2018 [accessed on 28 September 2019].

16 Huis, A. van; Itterbeeck, J. van; Klunder, H.; Mertens, E.; Halloran, A.; Muir, G. & Vantomme, P. (comps.) (2013) Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, op. cit., pp. 29-30.

17 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2019) “Insects for food and feed”, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [accessed on 22 September 2019].

18 Carpendale, M. (2019) “Thoughts on the welfare of farmed insects”, Effective Altruism Forum, 8th May [accessed on 15 September 2019].

19 Waugh, R. (2012) “Four legs good, six legs better? EU to spend 3 million Euros to promote eating insects ‘as alternative source of protein’”, Daily Mail Online, 30 January [accessed on 22 September 2019].

20 European Commission. Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (2021) “Approval of third insect as a Novel Food”, European Commission [accessed on 30 April 2022].

21 Lundy, M. E. & Parrella, M. P. (2015) “Crickets are not a free lunch: Protein capture from scalable organic side-streams via high-density populations of Acheta domesticus”, PLOS ONE, 10 (4) [accessed on 23 September 2019].

22 Carpendale, M. (2019) “Thoughts on the welfare of farmed insects”, op. cit.

23 International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) (2019) Guide on good hygiene practices for European Union (EU) producers of insects as food and feed, op. cit., pp. 36-39.

24 Ibid., pp. 49-51.

25 Dennis G. A. B. O.; Itterbeeck, J. van; Heetkamp, M. J. W.; Brand, H.; Joop, J. A. van L & Huis, A. van (2010) “An exploration on greenhouse gas and ammonia production by insect species suitable for animal or human consumption”, PLOS ONE, 5 (12) [accessed on 29 September 2019]. Premalatha, M.; Abbasi, T.; Abbasi, T. & Abbasi, S. A. (2011) “Energy-efficient food production to reduce global warming and ecodegradation: The use of edible insects”, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 15, pp. 4357-4360. Huis, A. van; Itterbeeck, J. van; Klunder, H.; Mertens, E.; Halloran, A.; Muir, G. & Vantomme, P. (comps.) (2013) Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, op. cit., pp. 59-64. Suzuki, D. (2018) “Save the planet; eat an insect”, David Suzuki Foundation, February 8 [accessed on 29 September 2019].