Saturday, December 10, 2011

More on Humane Insecticides from Jeff Lockwood

Below is an email conversation with Jeffrey Lockwood on the subject of humane insecticides. Thanks so much for the insights, Jeff!

[me:] What's your tentative rank order for the humaneness of insect-control methods?

Also, I'd like to support research on this question in more seriousness within a few years. How would you recommend beginning that process? Would I contact professors and grad students to see if one of them would be interested in writing a paper on the topic? (Maybe for an ethics journal or maybe a more science-based one.)

Suppose the effort got a little more traction. How would we then go about advocating for the use of humane insecticides? For example, imagine that the Humane Society got interested in the cause and wanted to run a campaign. What could they do? Maybe find and support farms willing to switch to the better methods? Ask schools to buy from those farms (similar to the current cage-free-egg campaigns)?

[Jeff:] As for a tentative rank order for the humaneness of insect control methods, that's a real challenge! But let me try a very 'soft' ranking:

Cultural control: Preventing insects from occupying a resource (e.g., habitat modification) seems the most humane approach as no beings are directly harmed (at least [when] this is possible).

Physical control: [... Some] forms of physical control would likely cause suffering (e.g., picking and crushing) but the duration would be relatively brief.

Biological control - predators: Death from predators is often relatively rapid, although this is not certain. Larger predators (e.g., birds or skunks) are rather more efficient in their killing than small predators (e.g., ants or beetles).

Chemical control - neurotoxins: Depending on the dose, it appears that death comes quickly. Of course, at low doses the individual may be rendered physiologically and behaviorally dysfunctional and prone to a slow death. It should also be noted that many non-insect species are likely to be intoxicated, and these non-target species would substantially lower the ranking of this approach if taken into account. [me: This assumes they're not better off dead. I think killing non-target organisms may be a bonus because their lives probably aren't worth living.]

Chemical control - growth regulators: The insect, in my observations, often dies very slowly in a protracted state of dysfunctionality during which the individual is highly susceptible to scavengers and small predators.

Biological control - pathogens: The type of pathogen matters a great deal. Many viruses, for example, don't appear to inflict substantial suffering. However, various fungi appear to work rather slowly and erode the capacity of the insect.

Biological control - parasites: As with pathogens, there are many different parasites. However, it does not appear that death is quick and the quality of life appears to slowly erode. It has been noted, however, that some parasitized insects appear to act normally for much of the period of parasitization.

These are really brainstormed rankings and I'd be very open to refutation of my simplistic rationales.

As for moving the discussion into a wider venue, I can offer a few ideas. It might make sense to begin with a symposium as part of a national meeting. Perhaps the Entomological Society of America would be an interesting venue. Or you might go with a more philosophical setting for the discussion. There are also some organizations that fund/host workshops -- and I can imagine that a 1-week meeting to gather people together to hash out ideas, argue about positions, and exchange perspectives could be extremely exciting. Some journals are open to proposals for "special issues" (Psyche and Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics come to mind), and you might also approach some academic publishers with this concept (this would be particularly viable following a symposium or workshop).

In terms of taking the concept into the realm of application, I would think that the Human[e] Society might be a fine organization. The concept of human[e] pest control/management is very intriguing. Of course, most people won't put a great deal of energy or thought into the matter. However, if there were alternatives that were no more (or even less) expensive AND more humane, then it could well matter to many people. In the best of all worlds, the Humane Society might provide a scoring or ranking system for methods and products (and even provide some explicit endorsement for consumers). The Freedom Foods label through the RSPCA would be one such model (perhaps insects could even be incorporated into the considerations for producers who seek this label). I suspect that some of the "what to do?" possibilities might make a most interesting session in a symposium or workshop.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lockwood on Insect Pain

Jeffrey Lockwood is an entomologist with whom I've had several email conversations about insect suffering. He defends the possibility of insect sentience in several pages of Lockwood, J. A. 1987. The moral standing of insects and the ethics of extinction. Florida Entomologist 70: 70-89.

He has a new blog post, "Do Bugs Feel Pain?," presenting three lines of evidence that the answer to this question may be "yes."

After this, he says:

So, given that we can’t be sure whether insects experience pain, how should we treat these creatures? When I was teaching insect anatomy and physiology I insisted that the students anesthetized insects before conducting experiments that we would expect to inflict pain on a mouse. My rational[e] is two-fold.

First, it seems ethically obligatory to guard against the possibility that insects feel pain. If we use anesthetic and it turns out that insects don’t experience pain, the material cost of our mistake is very low (a few extra minutes to apply cold or carbon dioxide). However, if we don’t use anesthetic and it turns out that the insects were in agony, then the moral cost of our mistake is quite high.

Second, I think that treating insects as if they can experience pain cultivates an attitude of respect toward living organisms. And this seems like a good thing. We learn the methods of dissection through practices—and we also learn virtues such as compassion through practice. Perhaps we become overly careful in our actions by including animals that aren’t sentient, but world that is more mindful of other beings than is strictly necessary is okay with me.

Of course, there are circumstances in which we are justified in crushing, poisoning, or otherwise harming insects. Nobody wants to suffer hunger or malaria. We must protect our food and bodies. And so inflicting suffering and death is part of life; we live with the existential dilemma that we must kill to live. But we are also obligated to minimize the harm that we do—and insects are a part of this duty.

I agree that killing insects isn't necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, if I were an insect, because my lifespan would be so short, I would prefer to be killed with minimal pain now rather than die by parasites, dehydration, or in a spider's web a few weeks later. (This assumes that life itself would be pleasant, which is dubious.)

However, this killing should be as painless as possible. Jeff endorses euthanasia in the case of laboratory experimentation, but I maintain that it's quantitatively orders of magnitude more important in the case of insecticides on crops. There's a broad spectrum (pardon the pun) of painfulness in the realm of insect-control methods. Some insect-killing practices, like spraying Bt or introducing natural predators, would seem to be very unpleasant. Others, like pheromone disruption or prevention, are nearly free of suffering for the targets, and as a bonus, they reduce insect populations for the future, preventing many lives of suffering before those lives get started.

I hope eventually to do more research and perhaps advocacy in the realm of encouraging farmers to adopt more humane methods of pest control that simultaneously continue to prevent insect lives that aren't worth living. Suggestions from readers on how to begin this are welcome!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Matched Donations for Vegan Outreach through 30 June 2011

Since 1 May 2011, Vegan Outreach has been matching donations dollar-for-dollar, and the matching drive continues through the end of June. One way to donate is to sponsor someone on the Team Vegan page, although contributions to the general fund will be matched as well. I encourage you to donate!

Below is a powerful video about factory farming from February 2011. The information is nothing new, but the footage and presentation is very compelling. Keep in mind, of course, huge quantitative difference between milk/beef and chicken/fish. (You can even observe the contrast visually from the shots of huge numbers of small fish being harvested.)

It's heartening to see how much suffering we can prevent by just a little bit of money donated on our part.