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Insects feel pain too

New research suggests that insects can feel pain and, while creepy-crawlies aren’t exactly cuddly, these findings are sure to bug vegans, says Alasdair Mitchell


For years, fishing enthusiasts claimed that fish don’t feel pain. This has since been shown to be an over-simplification. The fact that fish can feel some sort of pain doesn’t mean that sport fishing is inhumane, of course, though some antis fervently believe that it is and campaign against fishing. But it does mean the pro-fishing argument is harder to sustain, especially in this age of catch-and-release.

Insects feel pain

New research now appears to show something interesting about insects, slugs and bugs. It could be an embarrassment for the meat-free lobby, because insects and bugs are killed in their trillions in to produce the supposedly cruelty-free alternative foods that are championed by the vegan movement. How many bugs die to produce a tonne of tofu?

A recent article in The Times began: “Using pesticides and farming insects for food could cause ‘mass suffering’, because many species of bugs and insects feel pain, academics have warned. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London and the London School of Economics analysed 300 scientific papers and said evidence that insects feel pain is accumulating.”


The scientists found that insects have a capacity for ‘nociception’, which allows them “to detect potentially or actually damaging stimuli”. In human brains, such signals translate into the sensation we know as pain. The purpose of the discomfort may be to initiate flight or to stop doing whatever it is that is causing the sensation, therefore preventing damage. It is not clear if insects feel pain in the way a mammal does. But researchers have found that fruit flies will move away from a heated surface, while cockroaches will flee when stung by a wasp. They concluded that it is conceivable that insects have painful experiences. This is reinforced by research showing the way bumblebees react to harmful stimuli is “similar” to pain responses in humans.

You might expect the antis to leap on this sort of finding with glee. They always decry ‘speciesism’, where one species — notably the human — is held to have superior rights over another. Yet they seem to be curiously muted about the plight of insects. How odd. Insects may not be as cuddly as mammals, but surely they still count as living creatures, so vegans should take care not to harm them. Yet the growing of arable crops to produce the sort of plant-based foods that vegans eat entails the killing of colossal numbers of moths, caterpillars, flies, slugs and other critters. The sheer scale of the slaughter of bugs in the name of crop protection and production dwarfs anything related to animal farming.

We all know pesticides have far-reaching effects on all sorts of wildlife, but so too do the routine cutting, crushing, washing and handling of crops during the harvest and storage process. Even so-called green pest control — which entails setting predatory insects loose to kill other insects — amounts to bringing about the death of living creatures to facilitate the production of human food. How can vegans justify any form of plant farming, when it compromises the welfare of insects?