Should We Feed Insects to Farmed Animals?

As the climate and other environmental crises worsen, industries are exploring ways to reduce their impact on the planet. In some cases, the changes they propose are meaningful and will have a significant impact, but in far too many instances, the claims amount to little more than greenwashing. So we want to know, will farming insects for animal feed help protect our planet, or is it just another industry distraction?

The Impact of Farmed Animals on the Planet

Before we can consider the impact of mitigations, we need to know the extent of the environmental impact of meat, milk, and eggs… and it’s not good. Animal farming is the primary cause of deforestation, habitat destruction, wildlife loss, and species extinction. It’s the primary user of land and the primary cause of soil degradation. It is also one of the leading causes of climate breakdown, water pollution, and air pollution.

Behind all these devastating impacts is this fact: producing meat, milk, and eggs is resource-intensive but yields comparatively little in the way of food. In fact, animal farming uses 83% of the available land but gives us just 18% of our calories.

Because of the vast and varied negative impacts, animal agriculture — and our habit of eating meat, milk, and eggs, which drives the industry — is cited alongside fossil fuels as one of the most damaging industries on the planet. 

Solutions to the Environmental Problems Caused by Farming Animals

Despite the huge environmental harms caused by the industry, there has been little appetite by governments to regulate it. The powerful agribusiness lobbyists have deep pockets and their influence is exerted right up to the highest levels, even at global climate events like COP.

Against this backdrop of governmental inaction, the industry has put forward its own solutions, suggesting everything from burp masks and nappies for cows to adding seaweed to their feed to reduce methane. Another suggestion is to farm insects to feed to the animals instead of giving the feed made from crops, including soy.

While each of these may offer limited mitigation to one environmental problem, none tackle the scale nor the breadth of the environmental challenges we face.

Beef and dairy are among the worst foods for the environment. Photo credit: We Animals Media

Insects as Animal Feed

There are two main environmental claims made about the value of raising insects for farmed animals’ feed: first, it helps to reduce the amount of land needed, which benefits nature and biodiversity, and second, it helps to reduce pollution by feeding the insects on waste.

Insects as Feed and Nature Restoration 

Growing feed for the world’s tens of billions of farmed animals is incredibly wasteful. It is wasteful of water, energy, and also land, which is a critically important issue for the environment. Most of the world’s soy crop is grown to feed animals like pigs, chickens, and salmons inside factory farms, and much of it is grown on deforested land in Brazil (often deforested by beef farmers before the soy farmers move in). By adding insects to animals’ feed in place of soy, the animal farming industry would reduce its soy demands down to 80 percent of the current total. Of course, this does depend on many factors including what the insects are fed on, but it is a significant reduction. Is it a big enough solution for the size of the problem, though? The answer to that is no. 

To reverse the land-use crisis, which is also a biodiversity and species extinction crisis, and which is a driver of the climate crisis, we need much more impactful action. Research has shown that by far the best way to reduce the amount of land needed to grow food for the human population is to stop farming animals. Switching to a plant-based diet reduces the amount of land needed globally by 75 percent. No other action comes close.

A plant-based diet is better for the climate, water use, land use, and biodiversity, while protecting valuable habitats and preventing air and water pollution

Insects as Feed and Pollution 

Part of the sustainability argument for farming insects is that the animals can be fed on waste, which would further reduce inputs and divert waste products away from landfills and away from causing pollution. It sounds like a great idea, but will the insects really be fed on waste? Environmental journalist George Monbiot is highly skeptical.

“There’s been a lot of talk of feeding livestock on insects, and the idea is that the insects can eat waste… they can eat slurry, they can eat food waste, they can eat crop waste.” he told us. “They will not be fed on waste; they will be fed on dedicated crops. And the reason is always the same: it’s that waste is expensive. It’s low in energy and it’s diverse and complicated, whereas dedicated feedstocks such as corn or wheat or soy are just much easier to handle and higher in energy. So, you’re back to the same old problem that you’re losing part of the food value of those crops by feeding it to animals before you feed it to other animals, before you feed it to humans.”

Perhaps he is right to be skeptical. Cricket farms in Asia often feed the insects on chicken feed pellets.

Crickets on an Indonesian farm eating chicken feed. Photo credit: We Animals Media

Moreover, farming animals is a major polluter of waterways because those tens of billions of farmed animals all poop and pee every day. The waste gets into rivers and the seas, where it causes ecological collapse. Says Ruth Westcott, the Climate and Nature Emergency Coordinator at Sustain, which conducted a report into the impact of animal farming on the UK’s waterways: “Our rivers are on the brink of ecological collapse. People are waking up to the fact that rivers are the life blood of our country, and a cornerstone of our economy, but we can’t forget that the big industrial livestock farms are a big factor in this disaster.”

​​Some rivers, like the Wye in the UK, are all but dead, due in large part to the chicken farms that surround it, and many more rivers are at risk. It is the same story in the US where the Mississippi River, Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie are all under serious threat from animal agriculture’s waste. In fact, it is the same all over the world — including Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, and Mexico — because wherever there are large numbers of farmed animals, you have large amounts of waste that pollute waterways and kill wildlife. 

So, farming insects may reduce some of the pollution associated with waste crops, but it does nothing to tackle the gargantuan pollution problem caused by farmed animals. In fact, by propping up the industry, it perpetuates this pollution. 

Is Feeding Insects to Farmed Animals an Environmental Solution?

Feeding insects to farmed animals may reduce some aspects of some of the many environmental crises caused by farming animals, but it is tinkering at the edges of the problem rather than solving it. The focus on these kinds of proposals to the detriment of truly impactful solutions has led some groups to question the industry’s motives, even calling the idea “propaganda”. 

Besides, any claims about the real sustainability impact of using insects as feed are based on mere assumptions due to what researchers at the University of Uppsala call “the overwhelming lack of knowledge concerning almost every aspect of production.” Farming insects could actually be detrimental to wildlife.

Farming Insects and Biodiversity

History is littered with examples of problems caused by animals being transported to, escaping to, or released in places where they would not naturally be. This includes salmons who escape from industrial sea farms and mink who escape from fur farms. The outcomes often grab headlines while rectifying the impacts of these escapes can be costly to the taxpayer and, of course, to the animals themselves who did not ask to be there, but nonetheless pay with their lives.

Besides, one of the most shocking impacts caused by our current food system is the wiping out of insects around the world. This has an immediate knock-on effect to bird and amphibian life, and to entire ecosystems. How ironic, then, that we should seek to further harm insects as a way of mitigating the shocking decline of wild insects. Again, the evidence is absolutely clear: the best way to protect and restore nature and biodiversity is to switch to a plant-based diet.

The Ethics of Farming Insects

It is our view that too many animals are already suffering inside the world’s farms, and to farm more will only add to the sum of suffering in the world. That is assuming, of course, that insects feel pain, and it is likely that they do. One study published in Science Advances found that insects, such as fruit flies, can experience chronic pain. Scientists discovered that the flies receive pain messages via “sensory neurons in their ventral nerve cord, the insect equivalent of a spinal cord”. Even after an injury has healed, the flies become hypersensitive and try to protect themselves from negative stimuli throughout their lives, just as other animals do.

What Can Protect The Planet Better than Farming Insects for Feed?

While insect farming may lessen the impact of animal agriculture a little, there is one proven action we can take that has myriad powerful benefits for the planet. It reduces land use by 75 percent, reduces water use, air and water pollution, and our climate impact. If adopted on a wide scale, it will allow vast forests to regenerate, our climate to stabilize, and wildlife to flourish. It is the one action that University of Oxford researcher Joseph Poore called “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gasses, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.” And, he said, it is “far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

It is, of course, eating a plant-based diet.

A plant-based diet is healthy, delicious, and better for animals and the planet


The animal farming industry promotes the farming of insects for feed, in the same way it promotes adding seaweed to animals’ feed to reduce their methane emissions. In both cases — along with burp bags and nappies and all the other blue-sky ideas that have so far emanated from the industry — this amounts to little more than tinkering at the edges of the problem and all the while, the multiple environmental crises grow more urgent. 

Given the choice of business-as-usual or business-as-usual-with-insects, we should ask, what’s the third option? Because choosing between the immense destruction caused by animal farming or a slightly reduced but still immense destruction caused by feeding insects to farmed animals, we would be wise to consider a different approach. As George Monbiot says, it is like choosing between the guillotine and the ax. Neither is a great choice.

But we do have the solution readily available. It costs us less, improves our health, protects animals from unconscionable suffering, and can reverse many of the environmental crises we face today. Eating a plant-based diet is at the very heart of reducing our impact on Earth — on the forests, savannahs, wetlands and mangroves, on the seas and rivers, the air and the climate. Without changing what we eat, we may just lose it all.

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