Would you eat bugs? How about a dog?

by Eszter Hargittai on May 21, 2017

In my German class in Zurich this week, we read a piece about how important bugs may be to the future of feeding the planet thanks to being high in protein and having considerably lower environmental costs for production. Several of my classmates seemed visibly disturbed by this. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten bugs before – have you? – but I don’t have a problem with the concept. I’m not a vegetarian and don’t see why I should be any more put off by bugs than a cow or a chicken. If I think about the origins of a cow or a chicken, I may wince, but I still like the food. Why would that be different with bugs?

In the domain of animal consumption, Switzerland tends to garner outrage, because it is legal to eat cats and dogs. This may be disgusting to many Europeans and Americans, but it’s not at all uncommon in countries elsewhere such as in Asia. It is clearly in many ways a cultural issue. While many Europeans and Americans don’t think twice about eating cows and pigs, they are not on the menu elsewhere. (I purposefully said “cow” and “pig” in that last sentence instead of “beef” and “pork”. Why don’t we just say the animal at hand? I enjoyed the ponderings on this MetaFilter thread about that question although didn’t really get a satisfying answer.)

Growing up in Hungary, I ate cow tongue on occasion, something quite tasty, but clearly revolting to some who had never considered it (I base that on personal experiences talking to folks elsewhere about it). Unless you are a vegetarian, it seems it would be hard to make the case that one animal is okay while another is not as long as it is produced and prepared under healthy conditions. (And let’s not even get started on how much of the meat we consume anyway would not qualify as such!) Should pet Miss Piggy be an easier case for dinner than pet dog Spot?

Curiously, the author of the piece advocating for bugs as a source of nutrition and who herself eats them said that she is a vegetarian due to ethical reasons. I cannot reconcile then, how she can justify eating bugs. Anyone want to defend her position?



Graham 05.21.17 at 10:48 am

It’s less likely that insects are able to suffer?


conchis 05.21.17 at 10:57 am

“Anyone want to defend her position?”

Doesn’t seem difficult if you (plausibly) consider environmental reasons to be a subset of ethical reasons.


Merkwürdigliebe 05.21.17 at 11:13 am

I’m pretty sure the meat/animal dichotomy in English has its roots on the Norman invasion of England where the French-speaking nobles maintained the porc-boeuf-veau vocabulary for the meat on their tables while the native peasants continued to call the animals in their care by the old Anglo-Saxon names.


Ebenezer Scrooge 05.21.17 at 11:14 am

One distinction (I’m not sure if it is a moral one) is that we routinely kill insects in self-protection. We don’t do this to other fauna, largely because we’ve already killed off the threatening ones.


SusanC 05.21.17 at 11:15 am

Personally, I think the reason for not eating cats, dogs or horses is that they are among the few species of animals that can “read” human emotions. Most other animals will just assume that human beings are dangerous predators. Your dog, on the other hand, trusts you — and can possibly read you well enough to tell if you’re lying. You can’t eat another dog in case your own dog might see your guilt.

[On the other hand, there’s an old joke about cats to the effect that if they were larger than you, you’ld be their lunch. And we seem quite happy with sharing a house with a miniaturized tiger]


Merkwürdigliebe 05.21.17 at 11:19 am

Certain schools of ethics would consider an insect diet comparably worse than one based on traditional agricultural animals, given the much higher number of lives that must be ended to obtain a portion.


Eszter Hargittai 05.21.17 at 11:31 am

conchis – Okay, but then why not say that you’re a vegetarian for environmental reasons? Because you also have other reasons? But if you have other reasons – like concern for the life of the animal – then wouldn’t they still apply? (Also see Merkwürdigliebe’s second comment.)

Merkwürdigliebe – Yes, the linked-to MetaFilter thread discusses something related, but then people note how similar trends are true in other languages, which are not explained by these historical specifics.

Ebenezer Scrooge – Hmm, well, we kill off some, but not others. It’s not like it’s that common to go around killing worms or crickets, is it? (Some of us won’t kill insects like spiders either as long as we can just move them to what is for us a more convenient location, an act that is often possible.)

SusanC – Horses are another interesting example. There seem to be lots of cultures where they are routinely consumed.


Eszter Hargittai 05.21.17 at 11:35 am

I forgot to respond to Graham’s comment: “It’s less likely that insects are able to suffer?”

I don’t know much about animals, but why would this be the case? And is it the suffering of animals that holds back people from eating animals or is it that you are taking an innocent life (whatever “innocent” would mean there)? I have absolutely no problem with people being vegetarians nor do I feel that they need to justify it in any way. But in this case I don’t understand the reasoning behind bugs being okay while other animals are not.


ET 05.21.17 at 11:41 am

I became a vegetarian 40 yrs ago, based on not wanting others to do what I didn’t want to do – kill animals. I’ve since adjusted my diet to include occasional fish (which I would kill) and my lifestyle to participate in small scale animal farming including slaughter. I still call myself a vegetarian and am happy to defend my choice. No needed to consider eating bugs/no bugs, eyes/no eyes, or tongues/no tongues.
It’s a luxury to be able to chose but maybe we all need to reconsider sometimes.


Chris Bertram 05.21.17 at 12:06 pm

Tongue is pretty commonly eaten in the UK


chris y 05.21.17 at 12:18 pm

ET: Why would you kill a fish if you wouldn’t kill a rabbit? Also, you are not a vegetarian by any definition but your own; you restrict your diet to vegetables and fish, a widespread habit for which there is no formal name although “pescitarian” is often used. And if you would kill a fish, would you kill a prawn or an oyster? If not, why not? What privileges a prawn over a salmon? But if you would kill a prawn and eat it, why not a beetle, since DNA analysis shows that insects are nested within crustacea?


Val 05.21.17 at 12:19 pm

I’m a vegetarian (mainly) for both environmental and ethical/affective reasons. I do occasionally eat fish and would eat insects if necessary.

Could be that your conceptual/ethical framework for making judgements is ‘wrong’ rather than that position, but if you want a suggestion why it’s ok, I’d say it’s something to do with what SusanC said, also we domesticate animals so we can eat them, which I think is pretty awful really. It is treating them as things for our use rather than beings in their own right.

I don’t mind people killing the occasional wild animal or insect if they need the food/protein, but not keeping them for that purpose and eating them everyday. I think that’s morally wrong as well as physically bad for the health of people and planet.


oldster 05.21.17 at 12:40 pm

“I don’t know much about animals, but why would this be the case?”

Because you have to have a fairly complex nervous system in order to suffer, and insects don’t have sufficient complexity. Lots of animals have nociceptors, i.e. nerves that respond to tissue damage of various sorts. But not all animals have brains, much less complex brains. Not all animals can experience suffering, which requires some higher level of sentience.

“And is it the suffering of animals that holds back people from eating animals…?”

For lots of people: yes. It is the suffering. As you go on to point out, it’s really not clear what “innocence” could mean in the case of animals. (“I don’t eat innocent cows, but once that heifer ate my prize petunias, I ate her with relish!”)

But there are almost as many motivations for vegetarianism as there are vegetarians. In my own case, suffering is a significant consideration. But if we could genetically modify cows so that they were born brain-dead, and otherwise developed normally, this would not reconcile me to eating their flesh. There are other issues in play (in my own motivations) about how we relate to the natural world, and also about which human traits we want to foster or discourage.

There really are lots and lots of positions to take, and lots of ways to take consistent ones.


oldster 05.21.17 at 12:51 pm

As a further instance of consistent positions to take (though I don’t share the motivation):

I know several people who eat vegetarian as a way of following, but simplifying, the kosher diet. It’s a lot easier to avoid mixing flesh and milk if you just don’t eat flesh at all.

What’s the underlying rationale behind this position? Well, there are commandments from God, and this is one way of obeying them. Again, not the view that moves me, but it does move some.

I suppose I am just saying, let’s not treat people’s food choices as a game of “spot the inconsistency!” Doubtless some of our food choices are inconsistent (or more commonly, unprincipled), but that’s true of lots of other areas of human behavior. But there will appear to be more inconsistency than there is, if we assume that everyone must have the same principles in mind.


bks 05.21.17 at 12:53 pm

The head of one stalk of wheat can contain 30,000 mites (arachnids). People eat “bugs” all the time without knowing it.


graeme 05.21.17 at 1:27 pm

I’ve long held the view that fairly hard-line vegetarianism and veganism was more or less correct, ethically. But I still eat meat because ethics have never been relevant to how I conduct myself and in this I am only following the example of those around me.


ADifferentChris 05.21.17 at 1:35 pm

Order life by cognitive complexity – how similar they are to humans; how easily we can form relationships to them.

Top category includes dogs and pigs. Next is cats and dolphins. Etc. Bugs will be far down, though above plants & fungi.

Then, apply the ethical argument between two categories. Appeal to the behavioural beauty of the higher categories; their human similarities; the breadth of meaning in human relationships with them. That’s my vegetarian justification for eating bugs.

That’s also why I come to a different conclusion from Susan. I think eating pork is wrong, as pigs are as sociable and amicable as dogs. Likewise for octopus vs. fish.


Lupita 05.21.17 at 1:42 pm

I eat bugs, like a snack of crunchy grasshoppers and ant egg tacos. I also eat fungi and larvae. If bugs are part of the cuisine and traditions you grow up in, you think nothing of it. The cuisine I am referring to is Mesoamerican, which included human flesh sold in markets, next to the flower stand, so keep that it mind.

As to not eating dogs and cats, I think it is because they are meat-eaters, so raising an animal on meat in order to eventually consume their meat would be counter-productive.


DavidtheK 05.21.17 at 1:50 pm

I am a vegetarian; though I do eat fish, eggs and dairy products. I became one for a combination of reasons – economic circumstances, a strong environmentalist streak, and disgust at the weak communal response to the Rubashkin scandal..

I also keep Kosher so that would rule out bugs and most non-conventional animals as food. The Torah makes a strange exception in that it allows locusts to be eaten. I understand they were common among Yemeni Jews and others from the Arabian peninsula. I think there are people in Israel trying to popularize the dish.

When I did eat meat I used to enjoy beef tongue. I liked it as a cold-cut and my late mother and my sister-in-law both had excellent recipes for it. I read Emile Zola’s “Germinal” for a history class as an undergraduate and recall a description of a feast in the book which included both squirrel and rabbit.


M Caswell 05.21.17 at 1:51 pm

I don’t like the idea of eating predators like cats and dogs. Owls and eagles, neither. I’d sooner eat bugs, or at least worms. The thought of cat broth (which I imagine is thin and insipid) is quite disgusting to me.


Eric 05.21.17 at 1:53 pm

I’ve eaten grasshoppers (tiny ones, so they didn’t look so obviously like bugs) in Mexico. They were delicious. I’m also fond of beef tongue, which a friend of mine calls “the only food that tastes you back”.


MisterMr 05.21.17 at 2:12 pm

I’m a vegetarian, and I wouldn’t eat bugs, mostly because I find the idea disgusting (even before I was a vegetarian I didn’t eat slugs, though I did eat crustaceans). I do eat eggs, cheese etc.

I think that it is misleading to call someone who eats bugs a “vegetarian”, but mostly for clarity of language, I”ve nothing against bug eating in principle but I would call this “bugetarian” or something.

I would note that horse and donkey meat is quite common in Italy, so is tongue (which is very good according to my memories), and in some parts of Italy dogs and cats were also eaten (I’ve met vatious people who did eat cats and think that non-cat-eaters are just effete wimps, it seems that cats taste like rabbit).

Personally I’m a vegetarian because I don’t want to cause suffering in others, where “others” include also animals but on a descending scale from “most similar to human” to “least similar”, so for example I would never ever eak a monkey or an ape, bud I couldn’t care less about eating clams; eating chicken is less bat than eating pork but worse than eating fish etc. .
But since it would be a pain to estabilish a clear boundary I just don’t eat animals as a whole, including clams.

This story about “consistency” turns out very often, but I don’t understand it very well: for example suppose that I don’t want to pollute so I buy books made with recycled paper, but for some books I love particularly I make an ecxception and buy them in deluxe white paper edition: nobody would see this as an inconsistency, so why applying this sort of manichean “consistency” rule on vegetarians?

Once a woman I knew told me that I was inconsistent beacause when I eat vegetables I’m still taking their life, and how can I know that they don’t suffer? And she tought this was a serious incosistency (after this, I often say that I’m not a vegetarian to save animals from suffering, but rather in order to cause sufferings to soybeans and carrots! Bwahaha, how evil!).

Also the reasoning of “more souls” for the bugs sounds strange to me, because I don’t believe in the existence of “souls” either for humans or animals. Speaking of this though I have this hypothesis on why most people wouldn’t eat “cats, dogs and horses”:

While I don’t believe in the existence of a supernatural soul, I think that the soul is the way the ancient mind conceptualised “consciousness and identity”.

Consciousness and identity, while in some sense exist only inside one’s head, in a general sense are an intersubjective thing because they mean that I see myself with the eyes of other and I see myself as part of a society (outside of which both would be meaningless, hence both are largely linguistic in nature).
“Pets” are animals that, as noted by other commenters above, living among humans can read you and thus in part enter in this “society” (though I don’t think that dogs and cats are the only animals that can “read” humans, I’ve heard that porks for example are very intelligent). So what distinguishes “pets” from other animals is that we recognize them as partially inside of “society”, whereas we don’t see animals that we don’t know in the same way.


Bill Benzon 05.21.17 at 2:24 pm

Here’s a classic article by Edmund Leach, “Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse” (1964), that speaks to some of these issues:


Note that it has been rather severely critiqued, John Halverson, “Animal Categories and Terms of Abuse” (1976):



Eszter Hargittai 05.21.17 at 2:29 pm

MisterMR – The consistency question came up here for me, because she calls herself a vegetarian, which as I understand it means that one does not eat meat. If we had a word for people who do not buy books unless they are made from recycled paper – say, recycledpapertarian – and then you told me that you bought some books that are made from non-recycled paper then I may ask you how that is consistent with your recycledpapertarianism (for what it’s worth, it is the kind of thing I would indeed ask a friend if I saw her doing so, not to be critical, rather, because I would be curious). And then you would explain that for some specific books you make an exception for xyz reason. I’m not sure the analogy is very good though, because the woman in the piece is inconsistent toward a whole category of food. If it turns out that you don’t care whether book paper is recycled for a whole category of books you buy regularly then I might question why you would call yourself a recycledpapertarian and whether calling yourself that is consistent with your behavior. I can also think of non-hypothetical scenarios where I question consistency (like someone who is very health-conscious about parts of their life, but smokes several times a day).


RD 05.21.17 at 2:54 pm

Soylent Green anyone?
It’s quite delicious!
Also, once upon a time there was a horse meat shop in Seattle’s Pike Street Market.


Faustusnotes 05.21.17 at 3:01 pm

It’s impossible to eat modern crops without killing bugs. Just the bugs that die on the windshield of the truck delivering your food are a large number.

It’s also impossible to be a vegetarian without killing animals. Male cows don’t make cheese and male chickens don’t make eggs. The only vaguely non hypocritical way to get your food is to be vegan (which I was for precisely this reason until vitamin b12 deficiency got me). And even being vegan kills lots of mice and birds during food production. But as a vegetarian you’re at least minimizing the harm.

More recently I have been thinking that the real ethical choice is to eschew fish, since killing fish carries a huge environmental cost. Maybe it’s better to eat chicken than fish. But ultimately bugs are the way to go. I guess if you imagine them as prawns it’s doable?


Faustusnotes 05.21.17 at 3:03 pm

Ask my understanding is that eating dogs and cats is becoming considerably rarer in Asia as it develops and they move from working animals to pets.


LFC 05.21.17 at 3:05 pm

DavidtheK @19
I read Emile Zola’s “Germinal” for a history class as an undergraduate and recall a description of a feast in the book which included both squirrel and rabbit.

As a p.s. one might note that many of the central characters in Germinal are exploited coal miners often living at the edge of subsistence, so a feast of squirrel and rabbit might be read in that context. Otoh, it might have been a celebratory occasion — I don’t recall the precise scene. (Squirrel and rabbit might have been eaten fairly routinely in small towns in 19th-cent. France.)


Abby 05.21.17 at 3:11 pm


Eszter Hargittai 05.21.17 at 3:12 pm

Faustusnotes – Re B12 vitamin deficiency, I have it and get injections for it since I didn’t respond to pill supplements. Of course, those are inconvenient and not cheap if in the US if you can’t administer them yourself (they were about $30 each after insurance). But after about a year of getting regular shots (every two weeks then every month), I went down to every three months and we’ll be checking this summer if I can go off it altogether. If you want to go back to being vegan, could that be an option?


Dr. Hilarius 05.21.17 at 3:26 pm

One of the requirements of an entomology class taught by the late Prof. John Edwards (University of Washington) was to eat three different kinds of insects. John was from New Zealand and had studied at Cambridge with V. B. Wigglesworth (I had to get in the name). I recall bee larva, grasshoppers but can’t recall the third. This was in the 70s. Don’t know if John was able to maintain this requirement in later years.


DrDick 05.21.17 at 3:30 pm

I have no ethical issues with eating insects, dogs, cats, or horses, though there are some aesthetic issues with bugs. I would probably eat grasshopper, however. While I have never eaten horse or dog, I know several people who have and all say they are quite good. I have eaten every part of a cow and a pig (not just as sausage), and none of it is bad, though much of the innards are rather bland. Tongue, however, is really good. Ultimately this is a purely cultural bias, no different the the Jewish/Muslim ban on pork or the Hindu ban on beef.


Omega Centauri 05.21.17 at 3:34 pm

I think there is a practical distinction based upon the animal size. Modern humans don’t normally eat entire cows, hoofs and large intestines and all. But for something as small as an insect, its impractical to separate out the organs you want to eat, from those that are ground up and fed to the hogs. Although if you eat sausage and hamburger, or worse chicken nuggets, you are probably consuming organs you wouldn’t find appealing. So we don’t get to be selective about parts anymore if we go to small scale animals.

There are experiments whose goal is to grow “meat” in a cell culture, rather than as part of a large animal. So in the future we may be able to have our carnivorous diet, and never kill any non plant that contains a nerve cell.

Of course we all accidentally eat bugs from time to time. We occasionally breathe one eat whilst out jogging. And I’m sure vegetarian meals occasionally serve the occasional small bug that was clinging onto that lettuce leaf. So at least in a purist sense, its impossible to be one.


oldster 05.21.17 at 3:41 pm

“Also, once upon a time there was a horse meat shop in Seattle’s Pike Street Market.”

Yeah, I miss that. The best thing was seeing the guys tossing whole horse carcasses back and forth between the stalls. Quite a show!


MisterMr 05.21.17 at 3:49 pm

@Eszter Hargittai 24

” And then you would explain that for some specific books you make an exception for xyz reason.”

This is the sort of “cathecorical” thinking that I find strange.
Suppose that I don’t want to kill animals to eat, so I don’t eat cow. But I eat cheese, in whose production in reality a lot of cows are killed. Why am I so “incosistent”?
Because I live in Italy, where I can find many vegetarian meals in traditional restaurants (like pizza margherita), but no vegan full meal, so mantaining a vegan diet would be an hassle. So I do this kind of math:

Being vegetarian: +3 ethical points
Being vegan: + 4 ethical points (non-cumulative)
Not being able to eat outdoor: -5 annoyance points.

Vegetarian total value: 3+0=3 (win)
Vegan total value: 4-5=-1 (lose)

so I am vegetarian but not vegan. Note that there is no “cathegory shift” here, just plain old laziness.

I think that this kind of “evaluation of results” is the way we usually make choices, but my particular choice (when I say that I don’t kill cows but still kill them for cheese) for some reason is taken as “inconsistent” by some.


Jake Gibson 05.21.17 at 4:01 pm

Tongue is not high on my list, but I have eaten it. I have eaten scrapple and souse, but don’t care for either. Brains and eggs is pretty good. Their is an old saying by pig farmers,”we eat everything but the assholes and those we elect to congress.”


Anarcissie 05.21.17 at 4:14 pm

Omega Centauri 05.21.17 at 3:34 pm @ 33 —
In that case, people could enjoy cannibalism as well — eat human flesh without having to kill a person, which might otherwise be an objection I suppose. If this seems disgusting or horrifying, one might want to meditate on the source of the horror. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between a human being and a dog or a pig with regard to the structure of the nervous system or the interests of the animal in going on living.


Theophylact 05.21.17 at 4:17 pm

Horsemeat used to be on the menu at the Harvard Faculty Club. And of course you can still find a boucherie chevaline in France (this one is in Pézenas).


Yankee 05.21.17 at 5:24 pm

If there is an analytical ethics postulate that it’s wrong to take life, and you object to bugs, by what principle not also yeasts and bacteria?

… There’s a relation to the question about abortion, and I propose that the resolution in both cases is we may limit our concern to the status of time-binders, collectors of experience. Bugs seem to have no individual consciousness in this sense, being fancy windup gadgets, although apparently capable of social consciousness. Generalized mammals, like newborn babies, experience and learn. But the postulate assumes an overweening individualism that I personally would disown … we’re all just part of the flow here.


Adam Roberts 05.21.17 at 5:44 pm

I’ve eaten swan. The Cambridge college I attended used to serve it whenever one of their fellows won a Nobel prize, which happened quite a lot. It tasted a bit like duck, a little coarser, quite greasy, which I daresay is what you’d expect it to taste like.

Why do I say so? Because there’s an element in this larger debate which I don’t often see aired, but which seems to me crucial. The ethical constraints are discussed, as it were, in the abstract, rather than being situated in social and historical continuities. For a long time eating meat of any kind was a high status activity, vegetables were low status food. Henry VIII ate only meat, because that’s what a king did; his peasants rarely ate meat, and then it would be as part of a special celebration or festival. Now that food of all kind is cheaper relative to average earnings than it’s ever been in history, pretty much anyone in the West who wants to can eat meat. People who do so may say they prefer it on grounds of the taste, but to a large extent they do so because deep historical-cultural roots persuade them that doing so is a high status activity, and that’s desirable. A sort of quasi-Nietzschean Genealogy of Carnivorousness argument. Hence: swan. If I say ‘I’ve eaten swan’ one of the things I’m doing is bragging: because odds are — you haven’t.

And in turn this seems to me liable to be a more pragmatic strategy against meat eating, and in favour of vegetarianism (assuming we’re agreed we want to reduce meat eating and promote vegetarianism) than the ‘ethics’ or ‘save the planet’ arguments. Because we see the semiology of ‘status’ shift all the time: it used to be that pale skin was high status and tanned skin low, because the latter meant you were poor and had to work outside, and the latter that you were rich and could lounge around indoors all day. Now the reverse is the case: pale skin now connotes relative poverty (stuck in a dingy office all day) and tanned skin relative higher status (rich enough to jet off to Bermuda to top up your tan). So tans become desirable, despite the associated health risks. Something similar could be orchestrated with regard to diet, and indeed, something similar may already be being orchestrated — an organic vegetarian risotto is probably higher status than a Big Mac, after all.

If I’m right about this, then one thrust of contemporary ‘ethical’ eating might be wrongheaded: the drive for people to eat more expensive, free range meats. Because those sorts of meats, by being more expensive, are higher status and so more socially attractive; and that still shapes a cultural climate in which I, eating my steak, look down on you, nibbling on your lettuce leaf.


Suzanne 05.21.17 at 6:47 pm

My maternal grandparents had a farm so raising animals to eat was nothing particularly appalling to me growing up. My father, who grew up poor, hunted jackrabbits for the family dinner when he was a child and we raised rabbits to eat them (rabbit is quite good, leaner than chicken, and expensive to buy). He taught me how to kill a rabbit and I’ve done it.

The vegan stuff seemed a bit like a bourgeois preoccupation to me initially, but it is a reasonable response to corporatized farming.

Limiting your consumption to fish may be good for you personally but it’s not good for the oceans and fish farming as practiced in many places is not healthy or pretty.

As to eating insects – I’ve watched others do so on TV and it looks like they fry up pretty well. I wouldn’t eat them unless driven to do so, however.

@5:Well, if you die and your body isn’t discovered immediately, any dog or cat you have will start to eat you (“She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner/…..Poor Marie”). My cat has all the kibble he wants and shows very little interest in making a serious effort to hunt anything. I wonder if unlimited kibble would have the same effect on a leopard. Not tempted to try the experiment, although I don’t think a leopard could eat much more than my cat.

I would never eat a dog or horse short of a Donner Party situation. We as a species owe them too much, including our very survival. They have provided us with transportation, companionship, love, and loyalty, even in the face of horrible maltreatment. Bless them all, every one, even Grandpa’s grumpy old buckskin, an inveterate nipper.

(I feel the same way about cats, but it’s purely personal.)


RD 05.21.17 at 7:19 pm

LFC @ 28
There is a bit in the original “Joy of Cooking” on skinning squirrel.


Matt 05.21.17 at 7:24 pm

Quoting from machine-translated text:

It should now be known: Around eight billion people can not eat steak, schnitzel and fish sticks regularly. If the consumption remains as high as it is at present, it is difficult to provide all people with animal protein.

It feels like I am I missing an implied argument for the importance of specifically animal protein. Why expend such effort to overcome aversion to eating insects when there are already plant based sources of protein that are widely available and have no such aversion to overcome? (Maybe it’s just the grown-up version of your parents telling you that you have to at least try a bit before you decide you don’t like it.)

Are there many people out there who can’t bear to go meatless but are indifferent as to whether they’re eating cows or grasshoppers? I can’t imagine that eating insects that eat plants is any more resource-efficient than just eating plants… unless it’s a situation like with grass pastured beef, that some land can’t support cultivated crops that humans eat directly yet it can feed edible animals.


RD 05.21.17 at 7:30 pm

Dogs are more than pets.
They aid in hunting, rescue us, find contraband, protect property, sense disasters and disease, herd sheep, kill vermin…on and on.


JimV 05.21.17 at 7:33 pm

SusanC would seem not to be a cat-person. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Contrary evidence as to whether your pet cat would eat you if it could:

Pet cats (most of them) get along fine with babies and puppies. John Cole of Balloon Juice had two dogs and cat when he fostered two young puppies. The cat was the only one who played with the puppies, letting them use it as a tackling dummy without rancor. It was big enough to eat them.

There is a famous case of a farm cat adopting some ducklings.

Lions raised from cubs and then released in to the wild have much later recognized their associated humans and been quite affectionate with them. (See YouTube for examples.)

Of course cat and dog personalities vary, as humans’ do. Except the ones like Trump tend to get disposed of early.

As for eating habits, an article I read in “Scientific American” years ago said that by 2050 there would be so many humans that there would only be one bowl of rice per day to feed them – assuming by then we had killed all other animals which would otherwise compete with us for grain (such as cows), or for the land to raise the grain on. (Yes it took into account the slowing of population growth in developed countries.) Of course this scenario assumes we won’t kill off our excess population through wars or starvation. (It is the rosy scenario.)


SusanC 05.21.17 at 7:51 pm

This beings backs memories of the time I was in a restaurant in France and didn’t know what une anguille was. After a short conversation with the waiter, I establish that it’s something like a fish (ok, it swims). Well, that’s OK, I can eat fish. And then it arrives…

I have no ethical problem with eating une anguille, but I’m not keen on the taste.

When I’m ordering in restaurants in Tokyo – with only beginner’s Japanese – I feel I’m living even more dangerously with respect to what kind of sea creature might arrive.


Z 05.21.17 at 8:06 pm

I don’t eat bugs and never will because I find them revolting (and I’m convinced that this is not strictly cultural; Homo Sapiens are mostly just not insectivorous by choice) while I find dozen vegetarian sources of protein delicious. I wouldn’t eat a dog because 1) one does not do that in my culture 2) I share with them (as with all social mammals) a sense of empathy and caring, so the thought of killing them makes me sad (and 3) I’m convinced I wouldn’t like their meat, seeing as the meat of carnivorous mammals usually has a very distinctive taste). When I was a teenager, I was tutoring my best friend, whose widowed mother was a horse butcher, and each time I came, she would cook meat for me. Her personal circumstances were quite difficult, so I felt it would be unpleasant if not insulting on my part to refuse to eat her meals. So in all likelihood I ate horse many times though I would never do it of my own volition.

I can imagine many ethical reasons (as well as emotional ones, if you accept that emotions have a role to play in ethics) to eat bugs and not eat mammals and birds. For instance, insects are unable to experience pain in a way even remotely comparable to the way we do. They also do not care for their young in the same way as mammals and birds do, so have developed a completely different range of pro-social behaviors, making (at least some) ethical judgments about them harder to make soundly.

It seems to me that what you eat and how you eat it, and more generally how you relate to other living organisms, is inextricably linked with core anthropological and cultural properties, and as such are not human behaviors very amenable to rational explanations or consistent intellectual examinations (to give just an example, you destroy entire ecosystems every time you shower, usually using chemical weapons). In view of this, I find oldster’s recommendation (let’s not treat people’s food choices as a game of “spot the inconsistency!”) very wise.


hix 05.21.17 at 8:20 pm

Eating dogs and cats is illegal in the rest of Europe ? I dont think so.


painedumonde 05.21.17 at 9:03 pm

I’m sure it’s species, or at least kingdom, centric; insects don’t have recognizable faces, hence she feels no compassion for them.

Did we have to defend her position or offend? ;-)


Joshua W. Burton 05.21.17 at 9:21 pm

oldster @14: Doubtless some of our food choices are inconsistent (or more commonly, unprincipled), but that’s true of lots of other areas of human behavior. But there will appear to be more inconsistency than there is, if we assume that everyone must have the same principles in mind.

Many years ago, I heard a first-hand account by an Indian who had made good friends during her time in Egypt — good enough that she was confronted by a dinner hostess about the Hindu practice of cremation. “They wouldn’t … well, burn an infant corpse, would they?” Shocked, the Egyptian husband came to the guest’s defense before she could get a reply formulated. “La la la, of course they don’t burn babies, what’s wrong with you? You should apologize!” Urbane enough to recognize the beam in her own eye, the guest refrained from solicitously inquiring about Arab customs equally foreign and disturbing to her own sensibilities.

I mention this only because the dog- and cat-eating Swiss are much better known in circles I frequent for having the largest kashrut-observing population in the world that is directly impacted by national laws banning ritual slaughter of cows, sheep and goats, and also for having maintained these laws for over a century, with a tenacity that varies from unapologetic to vindictive as the seasonal winds of politics blow across the Alps.


Eszter Hargittai 05.21.17 at 9:25 pm

Adam Roberts @40 – I thought you were going somewhere else with your argument. I thought you were going to argue that nowadays it is actually the privileged thing to be a vegetarian, because it is only then that you can really afford to eat healthy with alternative sources of protein, enough variety, etc. A Big Mac is lower status than your organic vegetarian risotto not because it is meat, but because it is from a fast-food restaurant and those don’t tend to have much status these days (in certain countries, anyway).

Matt @43 – Good point, having read the full article, I don’t know what the argument is against getting the protein from non-animal sources.

JimV @45 – As per the passage Matt @43 translated, the article does indeed argue that we’ll run out of sources of protein by 2050 if we don’t change something.

Z @47 – I don’t see how you can argue that it’s inherent to humans to be repulsed by bugs when people have been eating it in all sorts of places for quite some time.

Several LOL comments in the thread, didn’t expect those, thanks.


Joshua W. Burton 05.21.17 at 9:28 pm

DavidtheK @19: disgust at the weak communal response to the Rubashkin scandal

Yes, yes, yes! Horrifying, still not over it. These are different faces, FWIW.


Joshua W. Burton 05.21.17 at 9:57 pm

painedumonde @49: I’m sure it’s species, or at least kingdom, centric; insects don’t have recognizable faces, hence she feels no compassion for them.

I don’t know of any organized movement to draw the ethical bright line as between protostomes and deuterostomes, but this notion has both cladistic and aesthetic virtues. She who would eat an octopus, grasshopper or lobster, but not a sea urchin, tuna or gorilla, can reasonably say that she is observing a consistent “till they have faces” standard, by eating nothing that eats with a mouth homologous to her own. The protostome gut runs in the other direction, so if you recognized an insect face it would have to be from behind.


Philippe 05.21.17 at 10:35 pm

I happen to be in Korea at the moment and no later than yesterday came across two different shops openly advertising and selling dog meat. Plenty of bugs on sale on markets here too as well as a stunning variety of other species , each animal thoroughly and methodically and thoroughly cut into parts so that no small piece , to the smallest organ, goes to waste. At the end carcasses and bones are sold to flavor broths.


Suzanne 05.22.17 at 12:58 am

@45: Cats can also be highly protective. A local news item from awhile back featured a family cat who unhesitatingly charged a dog that had trespassed on the property and was mauling a toddler. The cat ran him off.


Carol 05.22.17 at 1:09 am

I would eat bugs before I would eat a dog or a cat. In fact I have eaten ants. Asuncion day in the Department of Santander in Colombia celebrates the rise of of hormigas culonas – big bottom ants about the size of cockroaches. The insects are roasted salted and eaten like peanuts and have been used as topping on pizza. (https://www.pri.org/stories/2011-05-11/northern-colombia-hunt-gourmet-big-butt-ants). I question whether humans can exist on insects and believe humans will do what is required to survive.


Faustusnotes 05.22.17 at 1:20 am

Ezster it was my goal as a vegan to show an alternative way of living that was practical, feasible and realistic. Discovering that it is literally impossible on that diet to get basic nutrients or to eat enough protein to maintain physical fitness meant that as a radical human choice it was off the table. So now the animals are back on the table.


LFC 05.22.17 at 1:20 am

RD @42
Re ‘Joy of Cooking’ and squirrel:
I think that had probably been removed by the time of the edition that was around the house when I was a kid. But since I probably never opened the book (I had basically no interest in cooking and still don’t [thank goodness for the microwave]), I’m not sure.


Julie 05.22.17 at 1:37 am

Slightly tangential: there is an awesome ABC podcast series for kids called Short & Curly, on ethical questions. They had a great episode on “Should you eat your pet?” Other favourites were “should pugs exist?” and “Is Dumbledore as great as he seems?”. Highly recommended.


RD 05.22.17 at 2:19 am

Remember some adventurers in Borneo being nauseated by their guides turning over logs to find squiggly thumb sized larvae and pinching off their little black heads and sucking out the innards, and vomiting at the sight of the Europeans eating canned spagghetti.


Belle Waring 05.22.17 at 3:26 am

I think suggestions that insects become a major source of protein generally imagine roasted insects ground up and used as meal. They require relatively little biomass to sustain them prior to being eaten and reproduce very quickly. As to why they should be preferred to non-animal sources, I think the idea is rather that they will supplement them. Crickets eaten whole are a little too crunchy with legs poking about for my tastes but the flavor is fine–they are popular as a street snack in Thailand. I have eaten a whole lightly toasted witchetty grub which was quite good, having little in the way of offending legs, and the grubs are good in a creamy soup. Bugs are eaten in lots of cultures and certainly with relish by hunter-gatherers (and by extension, one imagines, early humans); for this reason I think the disgust factor is to a large degree cultural. I super-don’t want to eat scorpions, though! They are served at Chinese banquets sometimes. I would have to be VERY worried about offending my hosts to eat them. I think they are an example of Cantonese people proverbially eating anything that moves with its back to the sky, which is to say, everything.


Procopius 05.22.17 at 4:33 am

I remember back around World War II, in a world of meat rationing, we ate cow tongue regularly. Brains were available, but I don’t remember if we ate them. Also, that was not long after the Great Depression, and my mother was always inclined to try “cheaper cuts” of meat. I well remember the time she served us rabbit, but that didn’t go well. I was reading somewhere recently that as recently as the middle ages people routinely ate parts of animals, such as lungs, that we normally don’t eat now. I now live in Thailand, and have come to see the economics of food in terms of the time required to raise a food animal, as well as the labor necessary to feed it. Fish, for example, used to be plentiful in streams and canals, so the only labor they required were throwing and drawing in a net to catch them. Chickens pretty much take care of finding their own food. Pigs are more expensive, require more labor including finding food for them. My first wife was from the Northeast, and various kinds of insect were common in her earlier diet. Red ants were favored. There’s a species that makes nests in bushes, so easy to gather large numbers. There’s an insect that I think is called a palmetto bug in America, looks like a cockroach to me, that was even sold in the market up to twenty years ago. Maybe it still is. People use nets to catch them during the season. I think it has a lot to do with how rich the tribe is. Tribes with lots of resources can afford to be picky about what they eat. Tribes closer to nature have to eat (and enjoy) food that takes less labor, and not throw away parts of food animals.


galanx 05.22.17 at 4:54 am

I was invited to a special meal here in Taiwan that included fried grasshopper (delicious) and fried wasps (nutty, but leggy). A teenage girl showed up late, and was disgusted by the strange food- luckily there was some normal stuff as well- duck tongue and fish cheeks and eyeballs.


peter ramus 05.22.17 at 5:40 am

Good dog. Passable claret.


Z 05.22.17 at 6:29 am

I don’t see how you can argue that it’s inherent to humans to be repulsed by bugs when people have been eating it in all sorts of places for quite some time.

In a thread on the ethics of eating meat and bugs, I think it is good to unpack this statement.

First, there is a presumption that human beings won’t do something that is inherently (i.e biologically) repulsive to them. But, among humans, cultural and social circumstances trump such biological distastes anytime. You can think of a million examples but let us start with torture: with a scanner, you can actually see the neurological process that induces the revulsion we have at seeing someone being tortured, and yet “people have been torturing people in all sorts of places for quite some time” is arguably even more true that the variant about eating insects.

Regarding the precise question at hand, the reason we have a distaste towards bugs is actually quite simple. First, we are omnivorous animals and as such picky about our food (contrary to what pop-biology would perhaps suggest, it is of course omnivorous animals which have an evolutionary advantage at being picky, so they generally are, just compare how rats and chimps feed compare to, say, hawks and if you don’t have that at hand, compare a dog or a cat to a baby interacting with their respective range of admissible food). Second, our guts (which have evolved a lot compared to even our closest cousins) don’t digest insect cuticles very well (this is why insofar as there are large scale insect consumption in the world, it is usually in the heavily fried and seasoned variety, or of larvae with a favorable ratio of protein to cuticle). (More speculatively, many insects are human parasites so repulsion to them might have been selected through evolution.) Precisely for the same reason of inherent distaste well-grounded on biological properties of our digestive system, very few human beings regularly eat raw meat by choice (though of course many have done so and will do so under suitable cultural and social circumstances).


Eszter Hargittai 05.22.17 at 6:42 am

Z @65 – Sure, people do all sorts of things that they may not desire to do in various circumstances. However, as many examples (in this thread and elsewhere) show, people in all sorts of parts of the world eat bugs even when there are all sorts of other alternatives, which would suggest that they are doing it by choice presumably because they get some value out of it, including pleasure. As for raw meat, (a) lots of people eat raw fish and like it; (b) most other meat people eat is cooked indeed. So then how is eating cooked bugs different?


Z 05.22.17 at 7:05 am

All that being written, I trust it was already clear in my first post that if I don’t believe my own lack of taste for insects is strictly (i.e 100%) of cultural, anthropological or psychological origin, I of course agree with e.g Belle @61 that is overwhelmingly so (hard to quantify these things, but maybe 99%).


Z 05.22.17 at 7:23 am

Estzer, I think you are attributing to me and arguing against a position much stronger than the one I hold or argue for in this thread. All I have been saying (and then again, in a parenthetical) is that I believe that there is a tiny influence of our biology on our consumption of insects or lack thereof. This parenthetical aside, my first post was all on how I believed food consumption habits were cultural.

(a) lots of people eat raw fish and like it;

Raw fish is nowhere as hard to digest as raw meat, so the fact that lots of people eat raw fish while few eat raw meat is an indication that biology does play a (tiny but) real role in our food consumption, not an indication of the converse.

(b) most other meat people eat is cooked indeed. So then how is eating cooked bugs different?

It is (very slightly) different because our guts are very well adapted to extract nutrients from cooked meat while they are still quite poorly adapted to extract nutrients even from heavily fried or cooked insect cuticles. But don’t mistake me: I don’t claim and never have that this is the sole reason many more people eat meat than people eat insects, I don’t claim and never have that this is the main reason, I just claim that it is a vanishingly tiny but not non-existent reason.


reason 05.22.17 at 8:16 am

Interest declaration (I’m an omnivore in an otherwise Vegan family).

I find the ethical arguments re eating meat problematic. Firstly, in order to eat vegetables in the first place we have to do damage to wild animals (otherwise called pests). This is not obviously worse that allowing animals to live that otherwise wouldn’t. Of course it damages humans to treat these animals unnecessarily cruelly and the extra resources required by meat production extend the damage to the natural world caused by humans. All animal life involves competition and predation, protecting a wolf will cause damage to many individual sheep or deer or whatever. Absolutist views of the ethics involved all seem wrong to me.


Eszter Hargittai 05.22.17 at 10:00 am

Z – I misread the intention of your statement in your original note. I thought you were rejecting the cultural explanation I had suggested.


passer-by 05.22.17 at 12:34 pm

@DavidtheK: during the feast in Germinal, they eat rabbit (still very commonly eaten in France), not squirrel (not eaten in France, although it used to be one of those last-resort foods for extremely poor people).

The French also do still eat horse sometimes, although horsemeat consumption is slowly disappearing (it is, actually, very tasty), but, contrary to Italy, that’s not an ancient tradition. Eating horsemeat had been forbidden by the Christian church in the early Middle Ages, as a way to combat pagan traditions. Although people would still eat horse when starving (hence the “soldiers eating their horses” as signalling military disaster), that interdiction was only lifted in France in 1866. Eating horse became widespread during the Paris commune. The sudden oversupply of horses that were needed less and less by peasants, aristocrats and soldiers alike, turned horses into a relatively cheap and abundant supply of meat from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. Horsemeat was particularly “popular” after WWII, but as soon as economic conditions changed, its popularity waned. Given how useful and expensive horses were in an agrarian / aristocratic society, it is logical that they would not be routinely eaten before that.

Raw meat (tartare) is an extremely popular delicacy (on top of the fact that the French also like their meat cooked rare, apart from pork, which is too dangerous to eat undercooked). I have heard that for a restaurant to have tartare on the menu was a way of signalling quality, because meat can only be offered raw if its quality and freshness are guaranteed, just like eggs.

As far as I can tell, most food preferences regarding meat result from regional mixes of a) community building by drawing culinary boundaries, b) economic calculus (non-dietary usefulness of the animal + energy expanded in feeding it vs calories produced by its consumption), c) status signalling. In regions with plentiful access to protein from large domesticated animals, not eating bugs (which, in Europe eg, are quite small and not overabundant) would logically and easily fulfill all three options (like eating rats – potentially dangerous, very few calories per piece, and accessible to even the poorest starving people, so very low status).


Miguel Madeira 05.22.17 at 1:56 pm

At least in Portugal, rabbit is a perfectly common food, in the same category as cow, pig, chicken or turkey; even horse, although not common, it is not particularly strange as a food.


Mario 05.22.17 at 2:03 pm

As far as I can tell, few vegetarians and vegans believe that their behavior really makes a difference. The point is rather not to be responsible for that suffering. That always has seemed to me a slightly self-centered concept of the universe.

(Something that is often overlooked is that farm animals as species get something in return from this business, namely, no need to hunt for food, and almost guaranteed survival of the species as long as humans eat meat. This is a dark universe quite fundamentally not about us.)

If the point is to feed an ever growing population, I don’t think bugs are the obvious solution. Bacteria and yeasts can be more easily coerced into cheap mass production of valuable proteins. Still, I wager that it would be quite difficult to beat the ability of chicken, pigs, and cattle to do that.


Trader Joe 05.22.17 at 2:17 pm

@40 Adam
I think the cultural point about the ‘status’ associated with particular foods regardless of what they are is a very good one.

I’ve regularly witnessed the suburban upper-middle class ritual that I would describe as “my organic is purer than your organic” where people boast about the cost of all the stuff they bought at Whole foods and that they get their bread from some special gluten free bakery and all sorts of similar peacock-feathering ranging from lighter menstral flows to that their poop doesn’t stink as much (really, I’ve heard people say this).

If bugs cost $30 a pound and were ‘free range, organic, farm raised in human bug-atoriums there would be a wait list to put bugs on the Thanksgiving table….since they don’t, there isn’t.

I think the same goes for meats like horse, dog, squirrel and rabbit…these were long viewed as ‘low class’ meats that only people who couldn’t get ‘real’ meat would eat. A far easier to make and much less subtle distinction than degree of sentience or suffering.

Never underestimate the power of positional goods (both high and low status).


DrDick 05.22.17 at 2:56 pm

Z@67 –
Given that many peoples around the world routinely eat insects and, from what I hear from people who have tried them (not uncommon among us cultural anthropologists), that they actually taste good, this is clearly a purely cultural (i.e., learned) behavior/reaction.


reason 05.22.17 at 3:04 pm

“If the point is to feed an ever growing population, I don’t think bugs are the obvious solution. Bacteria and yeasts can be more easily coerced into cheap mass production of valuable proteins. Still, I wager that it would be quite difficult to beat the ability of chicken, pigs, and cattle to do that.”

I don’t get what you mean by any of this.

1. An ever growing population can not indefinitely be fed on a finite earth regardless of what you use as an intermediary.
2. Why exactly is it difficult to beat the ability of chicken, pigs and cattle to produce valuable proteins? Bugs (and some fish) can already do it (cold-bloodedness comes with some advantages).


RD 05.22.17 at 3:16 pm

Procopius @ 62
My Scottish colleague’s Grandmother’s Haggis:
Take lungs, kidneys,liver, thymus, heart,etc.from sheep and chop.
Cook oats in mutton broth made from bones.
Mix with the offal.
Thicken with blood.
Stuff stomach with this and tie off ends like a big sausage.
Poach in more mutton broth.
Flame with Scotch.
Slice and serve with more Scotch. (lots!)


RD 05.22.17 at 3:19 pm

At my Sicilian friends Easter dinner, it was required of me, as guest of honor ,to share the Lamb’s eyeballs with my host.


Mario 05.22.17 at 3:35 pm


Heh, well, I grant you #1. But as long as we haven’t hit the limit, we have some wiggle room, I guess…

Some advantages of chicken, pigs, and cattle have over almost anything else when considering industrial scale production:

* Reasonably cheap to feed. Pigs are great for recycling many organic wastes.
* Cheap and easy to handle, because they live on land, like we do.
* Large. Can be practically looked at at an individual level if need arises (it’s not practical to keep fish or worms in stalls, and good luck figuring out what’s wrong with a sick grass hopper).
* Those meats have a high acceptance among the population
* …as well as a well understood health impact (nobody knows what happens if you completely substitute the established meats by insects in a human diet at scale).

I don’t say it is impossible to beat the ability of chicken, pigs and cattle to produce valuable proteins en masse. Just that it will not be easy at all.


RD 05.22.17 at 4:01 pm

Mario @ 73
You would lose your wager.
5 acres of good pasture,more if poor, per steer plus 1000s of gallon of h2o plus feed, hormones and antibiotics, if finished so, to get a few hundred #s of beef!
Pigs do better, but try to woo a client with pork chops or fried chicken.(OTS)


Nicholas Martin 05.22.17 at 4:04 pm

Had deep-fried bugs a few times in China; they are quite a good snack food while drinking. Also ate various species of lugworm and jellyfish while in Southern China; some were good, others not so much.


MattF 05.22.17 at 4:59 pm

I recently re-read Terry Pratchett’s ‘Feet of Clay’, where it was noted that Angua, the werewolf who belongs to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, could be referred to as a ‘humanitarian’.


RD 05.22.17 at 5:29 pm

Remember,too, that 1/2 of the corn and soy grown is fed to animals.


Doug K 05.22.17 at 5:40 pm

galanx @ 63, fish cheeks are delicious and not revolting at all.. any time I cook a whole fish, I sneak the cheeks out for my personal delectation. On one of these occasions #1 son was offered $20 (not by me) to eat the eyeballs. He said it was the easiest $20 he ever earned, would have eaten them just on a dare.

In 2006 in Lausanne, several of the restaurants had ‘filet de cheval’ on the menu, as the most expensive item. It seems horsemeat is a delicacy in some cultures.

I have eaten bugs, as a boy, as part of the usual dares: but not since then. Vat-grown meat seems to me the best bet for a meat-eating future, assuming there is a future at all.

The French masters/Saxon serfs made sense to me for the beef/cow distinction, but did not realize how many other languages have the same distinction between the fleshmeats and the animal itself. Interesting..

Taking up hunting provoked some thought about this –
I recall an interview with a French chef, part of some new wave of cuisine, where he said his primary concern when cooking was to remember that in order to produce the meal, something had to die: the approach was always through gratitude and reverence. Even our language hides the animal and its death from us. As historian Robert Bartlett observes, “When it’s in a cold and muddy field covered in dung, it’s named in English with the old Saxon name – ox, cow, pig, elk. When it’s been cooked and carved and put on a table with a glass of wine, it’s named in French (by the Norman conquerors) – beef, pork, venison.” It seems more honest to do one’s own killing, though of course this also might be mere affectation.

As a hunter and fisherman I think often about the ethics of killing to eat. The ethics of catch-and-release fishing bother me every time though admittedly not enough to actually stop fishing. It seems unpleasantly close to torture as I pull in a struggling frightened creature, for nothing but my entertainment: in a way it’s a relief to simply kill and eat, putting our needs above the trouts’ needs as they put theirs above the damselflies’. In Germany, catch-and-release fishing is banned, because of the torture aspect. Anything you catch has to be killed and eaten. My father taught us this about shooting/killing as well. I still remember my brother sitting down to a little dish of roast sparrows..


Alex K. 05.22.17 at 7:30 pm

“They require relatively little biomass to sustain them prior to being eaten and reproduce very quickly.” (Belle Waring)

This seems to me the insects’ principal advantage as a source of protein. It sounds gross, but certain types of flies feeding on manure, offal, or leftovers can produce larvae with a high content of easily extractable, edible protein. One obvious use would be as chicken feed, a more sustainable option than fish flour or treated soybeans. It might also be possible, in theory at least, to do away with the chicken (pig, cattle) stage altogether and use the larvae-sourced protein for human consumption.


Orange Watch 05.22.17 at 8:35 pm


As far as I can tell, few vegetarians and vegans believe that their behavior really makes a difference.

It’s like voting. You know it doesn’t matter if you as an individual and in pure isolation do or don’t do it, but at the same time you know that it does matter if millions, thousands, or possibly even just hundreds of you do or don’t. The impact is more on normalizing the behavior so it might eventually scale upwards to the point where it’s more than just a rounding error to be lost in economic and/or ethical calculations – and that can never happen unless individuals are willing to engage in “insignificant, meaningless” actions.

@ the OP and some subsequent comments by Eszter about consistency (e.g. #24): the reason people concern themselves about consistency WRT diet but not things such as paper usage is because of the social significance, frequency, and ubiquity of eating. It also may come down to hospitality conventions (e.g. “I prepare food, and any guest who would not eat what I prepared for them is a terrible ingrate” regardless of whether or not the hypothetical vegetarian would ever be a guest). There are a great many people who find the idea of vegetarianism extremely and personally offensive, and that makes sense from a certain perspective. The urge to judge ethical vegetarians for perceived inconsistency very often seems driven by an assumption that the vegetarians are passing judgement on omnivores for their normal, day-to-day lives and how dare they? Status also plays into this, ofc, and it’s cheating to opt out of the look-how-expensive-my-meat-is-don’t-you-wish-you-could-afford-it game.

(Honestly, a lot of anti-vegetarian rhetoric looks structurally similar to populist anti-intellectual rhetoric; i.e., pre-emptive elitism to counter presumed elitism.)


Conrad Hughes 05.22.17 at 8:48 pm

To the categorical absolutists (“You can’t be vegetarian if …”), my father recently introduced me recently to the biological/bacteriological terms “facultative” and “obligate” — having recently started to experiment with veganism, I describe myself as a facultative vegan if someone really pries on the subject, because I’m a vegan when the option is available. The obligate vegan is the one who cannot survive in a non-vegan environment. These terms are more usually applied to such things as anaerobic bacteria.

It might also be worth thinking of the ecological notion of mean trophic level: how high on the food chain one eats. Our mean trophic level re: fish has dropped over the decades as we’ve fished out all of the top-level predators and are now eating things much lower on the food chain than would have been of interest in the past. Of course, trophic level doesn’t account for the social status accorded @Adam Roberts’ (not *the* Adam Roberts??) excellent example of swan.

Personally, as a self-styled (i.e. non-, according to some here) vegetarian of some twenty years, the only animal “meat” I’ve consciously consumed in that time has been invertebrate. This is substantially connected to the ethical arguments of resource efficiency, antibiotic use, and, yes, a non-absolutist approach to animal rights. I don’t accord as much value to a fly as to a gorilla. Things like Alexander in Global Food Security make it clear that cultured meat and insects are both strong candidates for better land use efficiency, though I suspect that both, as they industrialise, will incur heavy antibiotic use and become ethically unsupportable according to some of my personal values.

When we have a discrete vocabulary (omnivore, pescetarian, vegetarian, vegan) to describe points that are arguably on multiple somewhat-continuous spectra, getting overly fussy about word meanings may prevent you from actually communicating with people.


Matt 05.22.17 at 9:41 pm

Things like Alexander in Global Food Security make it clear that cultured meat and insects are both strong candidates for better land use efficiency

Looking at figure 2, the HALF index of land intensity, it appears that there are huge savings from reducing beef consumption and substantial savings from reducing goat/mutton consumption. After those two groupings it is surprising just how little additional savings are possible from further substitutions. If I’m eyeballing the chart correctly, it looks like eggs, poultry, pork, carp, tilapia, crickets, and mealworm larvae are close enough in impacts that their error bars all overlap. Cultured meat is in the middle of the same group, between eggs and poultry, with its error bars overlapping too.


Orange Watch 05.22.17 at 9:47 pm

Conrad Hughes@87:

Things like Alexander in Global Food Security make it clear that cultured meat and insects are both strong candidates for better land use efficiency, though I suspect that both, as they industrialise, will incur heavy antibiotic use and become ethically unsupportable according to some of my personal values.

Actually, what I’ve read of cultured meat suggests that it requires a sufficiently sterile environment for growth that antibiotics should not be necessary. I’ve seen this touted as something in its favor in recent articles disusing advances in the industry.

The faculative/obligate distinction is a useful one.


Eszter Hargittai 05.22.17 at 10:08 pm

Conrad Hughes @ 87 – getting overly fussy about word meanings may prevent you from actually communicating with people. — Hehe, you say that 80+ comments in of an interesting discussion. ;-)


Conrad Hughes 05.22.17 at 10:36 pm

Orange Watch@89: completely agree, there is that interesting possibility; here in Scotland while the Environmental Protection Agency is utterly failing to prevent pollution from marine sea lice (aka salmon) farms it appears that some farmers are successfully creating land-based farms which, due to their pure created environment, don’t have to deal with lice and the associated “treatments” at all. This’ll be interesting: one of the major threads in the organic movement has been that treating the soil as a sterile environment where all inputs can be human-managed is a catastrophic misreading of the complex mechanisms by which the most nutritionally valuable foodstuffs can be produced. Such pristine fish farming smacks of the same, and given that there’s some evidence that the organics were at least slightly right about plants I wonder whether that’ll be amplified or muted with fish. Exciting times.

Eszter Hargattai@90: ha yes, well perhaps my phrasing was a little poncey, but maybe I can rephrase to something along the lines of “please don’t let your first response to someone be that their self-identification is wrong”…?


RD 05.22.17 at 11:48 pm

Doug K @ 84
My commercial fisherman friend reserves halibut cheeks from his catch for personal use.
Thread of the year ,IMHO.
We all eat.
As my militantly Gay friend puts it,
“Don’t tell me what to eat or who to F#@*.”



RD 05.23.17 at 12:03 am

And then there is the Frat which offered road kill as the initiation feed.
Ivy, no less.
BTW, working my way through, I was a tree surgeon’s helper.
Trimming grossly overgrown ivy on an unnamed library, we disturbed a thriving colony.
Owls, snakes and many rodents living in this forest.
Had to be removed.
Ivy is destructive to masonry.
Ivy is better gone, both usages.


JRLRC 05.23.17 at 3:44 am

I´m mexican and can confirm that people (lots of people) eat bugs because of cultural circumstances. Of course, that culture has to do with past contexts (the options within them), and did not and does not conflict with pleasure. The bugs eaten in México are abundant, cheap (generally), protein-rich and subject of rational preparations (health-wise and flavor-wise), even sophisticated and exquisite ones. I have eaten bugs hundreds of times and really like and enjoy them. It´s the case that mexican food is full of biodiversity…


maidhc 05.23.17 at 6:49 am

Frying and eating crickets and grasshoppers used to be a favorite childhood occupation in the American Midwest during the 19th century.


Mario 05.23.17 at 8:40 am

The ethical questions around the vegan diet have a very concrete, very personal meaning for me. A cousin of mine, as well as his wife, are vegan. I don’t have a problem with that, though it bothers me a lot that they feed their small children a vegan diet. Which is risky. I really hope their kids grow up healthy, but it sickens me to think that it is more likely than not that they have long term damage from undernourishment. Here’s a very difficult thought I have on this: should I report my cousin and his wife to the authorities?

Either way: for me they’ve got their ethics completely backwards.

Re. acres of pasture for beef: that shows that beef is expensive, not that it is inefficient. We’ve been talking about the production of high quality proteins, and I have my doubt that it is possible to match the quality of beef with worms. I’m open to be shown otherwise, but, you know, Angus beef and stuff. I realize that that makes my argument a bit tautological, but IMO not entirely.


Lynne 05.23.17 at 12:59 pm

Mario, in Canada if you believe the children are in danger you are legally obligated to report the situation.


Adam Roberts 05.23.17 at 1:27 pm

87: “@Adam Roberts (not *the* Adam Roberts??) …”

*looks around nervously*


Conrad Hughes 05.23.17 at 3:41 pm

Mario @ 96: relax. 375 million vegans/vegetarians might beg to differ re: meat/fish-free diets being incomplete. We’ve got more than 2,500 years of evidence on that.

This also ties in with mythologies of meat and masculinity. If those weren’t so pernicious they’d be funny in context of all the stories about moobs and meat (which, to be clear, I don’t necessarily endorse or believe: unsure of the solidity of evidence for same).


Suzanne 05.23.17 at 4:09 pm

Trout aren’t consciously putting their needs above the survival other forms of life. We do that. I agree with you about the troubling aspects of catch-and-release, but if people are determined to fish in parlous environmental situations, it seems better than allowing the fish population to be endangered for amusement and/or food (when equivalent nourishment is easily obtainable by other means).


dSmith 05.23.17 at 4:59 pm

I have read that the animals we normally eat live on stuff we can’t eat like grass while cats and dogs are carnivores so economically it makes no sense to raise them for their meat.


Orange Watch 05.23.17 at 5:06 pm

Vat-grown beef is a thing, and its “quality” is literally “beef” (right down to marbling in the most recent developments). Also, is beef quantitatively “higher quality” than pork or fowl? Because if you can’t demonstrate that, than no, it is inefficient, even leaving cultured beef out of the discussion.


djw 05.23.17 at 10:09 pm

My theory on the relatively common (if not universal) taboo on eating cats and dogs: unlike pretty much all other domesticated animals (to my knowledge), cats and dogs weren’t domesticated due to a decision to do so by humans; the domestication process was unplanned and mutual (humans and wolves working together while hunting the same prey; cats moving in and making themselves useful as pest control where grain storage attracted many rodents). Our relationship with them, at a species level, is considerably less one-sided.

For that reason, the taboo is (on my theory) a cousin of sorts of the anti-cannibalism taboo. One reason we might not want to eat other humans is because we’re the same species, which wouldn’t apply, but another might be because it’s easy to imagine them as members of our community, which would or could extend to dogs and cats. Perhaps the taboo is missing/weaker where the link to our shared history is weaker?

(Regarding bugs, I’ve eaten them a handful of times and it never would have occurred to be squeamish about it. Same with Cow Tongue.)


Omega Centauri 05.23.17 at 10:30 pm

Lots of modern city folk love shrimp, but could never imagine being able to eat a (land) bug. But to me, a shrimp is just a bug that lives in the ocean.


Joshua W. Burton 05.23.17 at 11:41 pm

Conrad Hughes @99: We’ve got more than 2,500 years of evidence on that.

Actually, no. There are no known examples of premodern human cultures that survive without cobalamin (organic cobalt, aka vitamin B12) produced by exogenous gut bacteria, either in food derived from ruminant tissues (meat, milk) or in human feces. No known eukaryote fixes cobalt, no known fermentation process outside of mammalian colons has been shown to make cobalt bioavailable to humans, and our own colons are too far downstream for us to absorb our own B12 (though the sacred Ganges is rich with other people’s).

Mario @96 was specifically concerned about children raised vegan in first-world conditions, where none of these historically proven sources are reliable. Millions of vegans may beg to differ, but biochemical fact need not hear their plea.


MisterMr 05.24.17 at 12:24 am

Re: myths about meat eating and masculinity.

Some years ago, I was chatting with friends in the gymn/dojo I go (Nippon Kempo, one of the various brands of karate) and during the chat I said that I am a vegetarian. Then this friend of mine said, seriously:

“I’ve nothing against vegetarian, gays, or all those people, as long as they don’t mess with me”.
So while it never occurred to me before, now I’m convinced that there is some cultural connection between masculinity and meat eating.


Chris (merian) W. 05.24.17 at 12:48 am

Food taboos, and what is and isn’t considered commonplace food, are endlessly fascinating topics. For me, it was a surprise to learn that some people consider eating rabbit or cow / calf tongue as in any way adventurous (for reasons other than explicit religious rules, which of course can fall any which way), or steak tartare for reasons other than iffy hygiene. Raw fish was new, and its degree of yuckiness much discussed among my childhood peer group. Eating horse in France and Italy or frog legs was new but not adventurous, as was various wild meats once I moved to the North (moose, caribou, wild duck/grouse/ptarmigan, beaver). Muktuk was a step up (I like it in itself, but the seal oil it’s usually served with is a bit too much of an acquired taste for me; it’s unsurprising that some young urban people eat it with (supermarket) wasabi), and akutaq (“ice cream” made from vegetable fat, wild blueberries, sugar and cooked fish) is excellent.

But that these patterns are contingent on culture doesn’t make them non-existent or inoperable.

Over my lifetime, mainstream awareness of how complex the ethical choices around food are has increased. It’s clearly naive to think that a vegetarian or vegan diet is a shortcut to a clean ethical slate, or even in every case the most ethical option. I’ve progressively much reduced my consumption of beef, but since I moved to the US, frankly, just looking at the sheer size of commercial chicken breasts makes me wonder what’s going on. And we cannot all be specialists in every agricultural production chain (nor should we be). It’s an incentive for seeking out sources outside the big-chain grocery store. The ethical situation regarding horse meat in the US appears to be extremely convoluted, with a whole raft of unintended consequences. Fisheries can be sustainable, but we’d need to be scrupulously honest about monitoring, causes, and consequences.

For some of the slightly or definitely taboo meats — horse, dog, cat — there’s clearly a lack of ethical oversight of animal welfare, and that’s what puts me off even before considering whether my relationship to the species would allow for the option to consider them as food.


Conrad Hughes 05.24.17 at 12:03 pm

Joshua W. Burton @ 105 I stand (most eloquently) corrected and educated; thank you.

Nevertheless it seems likely to me that if bringing your child up as a vegan constituted child abuse, our first world governments might have taken action already. On the balance of probabilities, vegans, having thought about food enough to choose to be vegan, seem likely to approach their child’s upbringing similarly carefully — though there are documented exceptions, just as there are documented instances of first world omnivores with malnourished children.

I’m all for Mario @ 96 speaking to his cousin about this (I suspect _he’ll_ get an education), but reporting said cousin to “the authorities” seems more likely to impair Mario’s family life than anything else…


reason 05.24.17 at 1:43 pm

Mario @96
“Re. acres of pasture for beef: that shows that beef is expensive, not that it is inefficient. ”

This is little odd. What IS efficiency if not price (since price is a reflection of opportunity cost)? (Maybe you are trying to say that nutrient value of beef is so high that it counteracts the high price. Seriously?) And in the limit (especially when we are talking about high quality land) one man’s expensive feed is potentially another mans famine.


RD 05.24.17 at 2:17 pm

Chris @ 107
Silly old joke:
“Do you have any henways?”
“What’s a henway?”
“Oh, about 3 1/2 pounds.”
The Empire Cornish Game Hens sold at Costco are all 3 1/2 pounds.
A typical chicken today is 5-6 pounds.


reason 05.24.17 at 3:00 pm

With regard to fish, this is also tricky ethically.

We (meaning in this case mankind) are without question putting our land resources under enormous pressure in order to feed the world population in a style to which they are accustomed (or becoming accustomed to). That we should use the resources of 2/3 of the earth’s surface unused, seems to be unconscionable (it must increase the pressure on the land resources, and animal/plant life dependent on those resources). On the other hand, there is the way we go about harvesting those resources! But those are surely, two quite separate questions.

In find in general, the whole ethical field filled with such dichotomies. It seems it is not so much whether animals are killed or allowed to live that matters here, but how they are killed and why. I’m not sure that the animals themselves though, care about such distinctions (which is interesting isn’t it).


Mike Toreno 05.24.17 at 3:37 pm

I thought about the bug suffering issue, especially in the context of boiling live lobsters, but I read an article that was trying to figure it out too, and one of the things they said was that injury doesn’t immobilize a bug or cause it to avoid using the injured limb or other body part. If I got a nail through my hand, I would curl up, immobile. One time I fell off a swing without letting go of the chain and tore off half my fingernail. I stayed in bed all day reading and coping with the pain. If you chop off the back half of a beetle, the front half tries to scurry away, and if there is enough of it left to get traction, it DOES scurry away.

Fishing – if I got a fishhook through my lip, I’d be immobilized with the agony. A fish pulls the hook and the line with all its strength, and a big fish can do this for hours.

Eating a bug, I’d think about how unusual it was, and about eating organs. I don’t eat the organs of crabs and lobster, except just the few that are identified as delicacies.

I’d eat a dog or cat to avoid immediate starvation, I wouldn’t kill MY dog or cat for food even to avoid immediate starvation.


oldster 05.24.17 at 4:56 pm

Joshua Burton @105–

Thanks for sending me to the Wiki page on B12, which confirms all you say.

So what gives with historical vegetarians and vegans? Do you have any hypotheses on where they were getting their cobalamin from?

I mean–population-wide deficiency is a possibility, I guess. Or a lot of consumption of human excrement? Or vegans secretly noshing on cows when no one is looking? Any theories?


Mario 05.24.17 at 7:21 pm

Maybe you are trying to say that nutrient value of beef is so high that it counteracts the high price. Seriously?

Not counteracts, but justifies. And yes, seriously.

Look, I’m human being. I’m not a soulless chemical process where you can substitute this for that and all is well because the equations balance out nicely. Of course the nutrient value of beef is higher than that of worms, simply because eating e.g. mealworms regularly is demeaning, while eating good beef regularly is nothing of the sort. At least for me, that’s as clear as day. Specially with a good wine, beef makes me happy and nurtures my soul in a way that I’m sure a mealworm diet won’t be able to.

(Re. my cousin: his kids look fine, so I guess he gives them supplements.)


Orange Watch 05.24.17 at 9:10 pm


So… cultured beef is or is not “good enough”? If they get the flavor and texture “right” (and they’re close – possibly already there – on both counts), is it still a soulless abomination that doesn’t “nurture the soul”?

In any case, it would be better to label this objection as finding alternatives distasteful, because efficiency WRT food normally doesn’t refer to the amount of class markers and social status a given food provides – it refers to nutritional value obtained in relation to resources consumed in production. It’s perfectly acceptable to find small feed animals to be undesirable as food, but that doesn’t make them inefficient, nor does (or can) everyone enjoy such a distinct luxury of protein pickiness in perpetuity.


Collin Street 05.24.17 at 9:17 pm

So what gives with historical vegetarians and vegans? Do you have any hypotheses on where they were getting their cobalamin from?

AIUI, it’s thought that foecal contamination of food and water plays a major role.


SusanC 05.24.17 at 9:54 pm

Re. vegans and vitamin B12 … you could always take B12 tablets, but my first thought was that that celebrated British delicacy, marmite, is a source of B12 and probably vegan. And indeed (I just looked it up) the National Health Service’s advice page for vegans mentions marmite specifically.

People from other countries may however consider marmite to be “not food” ;-)


Chris "merian" 05.24.17 at 9:56 pm

Is there any evidence for historical societies that practiced widespread strict veganism, throughout a lifetime? When I look I mostly find examples of philosophers practicing particularly strict asceticism later in life. Many other famous vegetarians, or vegetarian societies, drink milk, and/or eat eggs. While modern Buddhists appear to be often vegan (I mostly know about some in the West who have access to supplementation and medicine), historically this doesn’t appear to have been the case.

I could imagine such societies existed, what with nursing children for several years, and low life expectancy: Most people would be killed off by infections before deficiencies got to them. But this scenario would hardly be evidence of the sustainability and healthfulness of strict veganism, especially not from childhood, on a population level. (I have no doubt that it’s ok for many adults.)

And even the strictest vegan by now needs to accept that in today’s (and tomorrow’s) population densities, any style of food production has impact on animal life. (As have the other aspect of human life on Earth.)


Joshua W. Burton 05.25.17 at 12:01 am

oldster @114: Any theories?

Well, trace cobalt is indispensible; it’s a slow deficiency disease (years, in adults) because once supplied you conserve it well, but zero B12 will literally kill you eventually. All the B vitamin deficiencies, which are mutually related by historical contingency of discovery and similarity of some symptoms rather than by structural chemistry, are pretty horrible: irreversible neurological damage impacting mood, memory and motor function come before the frank symptoms. I don’t want to die of any deficiency disease, but I’d far rather survive acute scurvy or rickets than pellagra and friends.

The obvious guess is probably the correct one: human fecal ingestion, which is a good tradeoff if life is cheap enough that you’re willing to lose several percent of your children to V. cholerae, S. dysenteriae, and good old E. coli. The Indian subcontinent is singular in a lot of ways involving excrement, as well as with regard to widespread vegan practice. Field defecation is rare in Africa and Indonesia, for instance, but almost universal and protected by strong cultural norms in village India. (A privy that must be manually cleaned every couple of years is a capital expense well within reach of subsistence farmers everywhere; a brick privy that will last for generations, because you could never visit a temple again if you serviced it, costs a couple of years’ wages, so there are very few of them on the subcontinent.) I already alluded to river immersion, as well.


RD 05.25.17 at 4:41 am

I believe it’d B1 deficiency which causes the 6 foot rooster hallucinations and pink elephants in acute alcoholism.
Maybe by something else too?
“That’s not 3rd Ave. It’s the Nile. And those aren’t Yellow Cabs. They’re Cleopatra’s barges.”
Paraphrase from Lost Weekend.


J-D 05.25.17 at 8:31 am

I remember reading the suggestion that people in India (and perhaps elsewhere) eating vegan diets are probably obtaining their vitamin B12 requirement from incidentally consumed insect fragments (legs, wings, and so on) which could only be eliminated from vegetable foods by a thorough washing; and I see that bks at comment 15 above has stated that the head of one stalk of what contains 30,000 mites, which presumably act as just such a source of B12.


Conrad Hughes 05.25.17 at 12:08 pm

It’d be interesting to see this fully worked out somewhere; houseflies contain no B12, but termites can provide almost 1µg per mg — and one termite can easily weigh 2mg, providing the human RDA of B12 in one tasty mouthful.

Elsewhere (funny both papers are from 1984) it appears that one day’s output of human faeces (median 128g) contains as much as 5µg of cobalamin, so you’d need around 50g to reach RDA.

I suspect people would notice if they were eating one termite or two ounces of shit a day on average, but maybe not. Wonder how much higher the B12 RDA is than the absolute minimum you can get away with.

From eating insects to eating excrement, mmmm; where next…

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