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.


  1. Further comments from Jeff: "As for the Human[e] Society or ESA, you don't come across as crazy--just unusually curious and concerned about a phenomenon that matters to few people (at present). You could frame the issue not as: 'How do we stop all the needless suffering of insects at the hands of cruel and clueless humans?' but along these lines: 'What if insects can feel pain--how would this change our pest management and other practices?' or 'What is the current thinking on insect pain and what does this mean for laboratory, agricultural and other practices?' or 'We are legitimately concerned about how we kill pestiferous rodents and birds--should we extend our ethics to invertebrate pests?' or 'If you could kill an insect instantly or slowly, which would you choose--and what does this tell us about our moral duties?' or 'Do we have ethical obligations to insects different than our duties to plants?' or 'What does modern science reveal about the sentience and suffering of insects?'. You see, posing an initiative, symposium or workshop in the form of a question draws people in and opens the door to dialogue. One approach would be to submit a poster presentation to ESA and then visit with people who come by, provide handouts that people can take away when you're not around so that they contact you, or post a 'contact me' list on the poster for people to put their email addresses."

  2. Sterile insect technique seems like one promising approach to research. It can significantly lower invertebrate populations without causing more suffering than would have happened by natural deaths.

    1. Not counting the lives and deaths of the extra insects they would have to breed.