Meet the speaker: Meghan Barrett

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Meghan Barrett is assistant Professor of Biology at Indiana University Indianapolis & Director at the Insect Welfare Research Society. She researches insect neurobiology, thermal adaptations, and the welfare of insects farmed as food and feed.

Meghan will speak at AWF Discussion Forum on 13th May 2024 on the session dedicated to insect welfare, The minds of insects and why they matter.

What sparked your interest in the topic?

I earned my PhD in Biology, specializing in insect neuroecology (and thermal physiology). Many people assume—as did I—that there is a ‘lack of adaptive value for pain in insects’. However, a review of the philosophical and empirical literature on animal minds, insect neuroanatomy, and insect behavior demonstrated to me that this is not a well-supported fact; rather, there is considerable uncertainty about insect sentience at this time. Many entomologists working in this area have acknowledged this uncertainty, and, thus, have advocated for adopting a precautionary approach in our treatment of insects to promote their possible welfare.

Inspired by calls for moral caution issued by even my more skeptical predecessors, I use empirical tools I learned as a physiologist and neuroscientist to research methods for improving insect welfare in my lab. I have a particular interest in cases where large numbers of animals are highly managed, as those are the cases where welfare improvements may be the most tractable for benefiting the animals as well as most useful to real people facing ethical dilemmas in their work. This led me to focus my current work primarily on insect welfare in farming and research contexts.

Why is this topic particularly relevant now?

The topic of insect welfare has always been relevant; the insects have just been ignored. Humans have reared and managed insects for millennia, from the beneficial honeybees and silkworm moths to the disease vectors and agricultural pest species we seek to control. However, the topic is particularly relevant now as insects appear to be at the edge of our expanding moral circle. And, regarding farmed insect welfare specifically, the topic is becoming increasingly important due to the rapid growth of the insects as food and feed industry, which aims to produce protein to feed our growing human population. This new industry adds trillions of additional insect livestock animals to the world each year. So, promoting the welfare of these animals is an increasingly important topic.

What are the key issues of your topic?

Can insects feel? If so, when during development might that capacity be present?  What are valuable proxies for assessing the presence or absence of sentience in insects? Given their diversity and phylogenetic distance from humans, what data are needed to understand the kinds of affective experiences that these animals may have?

What welfare concerns do insects face in contexts where they are used or managed, such as in farms and labs? Moreover, what welfare concerns do they face in the wild? How might we improve insect welfare—in our research, on farms, in the wild, in zoos, etc.?

What are you hoping delegates will take away from your session?

The evidence for insect sentience is stronger than you might have initially believed—but there is still serious uncertainty that warrants further investigation of their neurobiology and behavior. Given the scale of our use and management of these animals, the plausibility of their sentience means they warrant some ethical consideration. Minimally, where practical for our other aims, we should aim to improve their welfare. To do this, we must collect species- and context-specific data on what actually harms or promotes the welfare of these very diverse animals. The work of improving insect lives requires collaboration between insect experts, welfare scientists, producers, veterinarians, and more.

Are there any statistics, research, new developments, or case studies that you can share with us about the topic?

Stats: Over 1 - 1.2 trillion insects are farmed as food and feed each year; at least 15x the number of terrestrial vertebrate livestock.

Some interesting papers on insect pain paradigms:

1. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0281874

2.https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/physiology/articles/10.3389/fphys.2019.01100/full

3. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aaw4099

In-review preprint on the historical arguments around insect pain, refuting the Eisemann et al. 1984 paper: https://osf.io/preprints/osf/ng7pu

Paper on farmed BSF welfare: https://doi.org/10.3920/JIFF2022.0041

Paper on farmed mealworm welfare: https://brill.com/view/journals/jiff/aop/article-10.1163-23524588-20230104/article-10.1163-23524588-20230104.xml

Paper on farmed cricket welfare: https://brill.com/view/journals/jiff/aop/article-10.1163-23524588-00001087/article-10.1163-23524588-00001087.xml?language=en

Paper on humane grinding of BSFL: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/animal-welfare/article/grinding-as-a-slaughter-method-for-farmed-black-soldier-fly-hermetia-illucens-larvae-empirical-recommendations-to-achieve-instantaneous-killing/C26063788B2DB16DB74766815911BCAB

A case study on wild insect suffering (not peer-reviewed): https://rethinkpriorities.org/publications/spongy-moth-outbreaks

Following the Discussion Forum, what can we do to continue advancing animal welfare knowledge on this issue?

Connecting with the Insect Welfare Research Society, which I direct, is a great way to stay informed about advancements in the field of invertebrate welfare science, especially through our monthly research newsletter and seminar series (both run by academic experts). We also have an internal membership database of experts that can be tapped for relevant opportunities and a fantastic strategic advisory group of leaders in the fields of ethics, philosophy of mind, insect neuroethology and behavior, and animal welfare science.

Further, anyone wanting to take insect welfare seriously should consider: 1) researching insect welfare in interdisciplinary collaborations that span the welfare-insect science divide; 2) opening up funding for research or training opportunities in insect or invertebrate welfare; 3) organizing and inviting workshops or symposium on insect welfare to increase education and familiarity with the topic across disciplines. Finally, we can all think differently about our everyday interactions with the insects in our lives, giving their welfare some consideration before we act.