Humane Insecticides: A Roadmap for Change

Humane Insecticides: A Roadmap for Change

Introduction to the Approach

Helping insects is incredibly urgent because of how many insects there are and how bad their lives might be. But, we have a low level of insight into insect sentience and welfare, or into the ecological impact of significant changes to insect populations. These uncertainties make it difficult to select strategies to reduce insect suffering that aren't very expensive or difficult, like net primary productivity reduction or habitat destruction more broadly.

To avoid this uncertainty, we can identify areas of insect life where there is a significant welfare issue that can be addressed without impacting the local ecology or the number of insects. Humane insecticide advocacy is a proposed approach that potentially avoids these pitfalls. In its simplest form, an insecticide currently in use is replaced with another one with a similar rate of effectiveness at killing, but that kills less painfully.

As part of its stewardship program, Utility Farm will be pursuing significant research into the viability and cost-effectiveness of humane insecticide advocacy in 2018 and 2019. The following is what we see as the path to effective advocacy for the use of humane insecticides and understanding the cost-effectiveness of the approach. This work is split into two research areas—ranking the painfulness of insecticides and researching advocacy methods for humane insecticides.


Insecticide Research

Our first priority is to identify which insecticides might be the least painful. Since advocacy for humane insecticides could only happen after this project is complete, at least for all insecticides available for a particular crop in a particular region, we believe it should be our initial area of focus.

For this kind of assessment, two criteria for painfulness will be used —the mechanism that the insecticide uses to kill and the time it takes to kill the insect. Insecticides can be compared against each other on the basis of these two criteria.

fig 1. painfulness of insecticides used on a particular crop. Arrows represent the kinds of change expected by switching to more humane insecticides.

fig 1. painfulness of insecticides used on a particular crop. Arrows represent the kinds of change expected by switching to more humane insecticides.

In figure 1, the arrows represent the change expected in painfulness by switching to more humane insecticides for a particular crop.

For insecticide {a}, since it kills very quickly, we can do more to reduce suffering by replacing it with a less painful insecticide, which has a similar duration of painful experience.

For insecticide {b}, which uses a less painful mechanism, we increase welfare by replacing it with an insecticide that uses the same mechanism, but takes less time to kill the insect.

Insecticide {c} is perhaps the best insecticide to target with a humane insecticide campaign. By improving either the mechanism or duration, we can be certain we are reducing suffering. And, if we are able to do both, we can reduce even more suffering than we are able to by advocating for alternatives to {a} or {b}.

This approach, with a hard rule of only replacing insecticides by moving down and / or left in figure 1, allows us to avoid complicated questions of making tradeoffs on duration to improve the mechanism, or vice-versa. Yet it still allows significant reductions in insect suffering to be made.

Of course, ranking mechanisms by painfulness might be relatively difficult. It’s also possible that the factors that cause insecticides that use similar mechanisms to kill in less time might be more painful (e.g. the insecticide is simply more concentrated). So, our first priority should be trying to rank the mechanisms of insecticides by painfulness, while also collecting data on duration.

Another risk is that we will simply be unable to rank insecticides by painfulness of mechanism with current research. Since that will significantly lessen our ability to advocate for humane insecticides, we will be starting our project by looking at mechanism painfulness in depth.


Next Steps for Insecticide Research

Utility Farm is developing a database of insecticides currently used, what crops they are used on, where they are legal, how effective they are, their duration of painfulness, and the mechanism they kill with. We also intend to start research into the painfulness of specific mechanisms, both by surveying entomologists and asking them to rank insecticides, and by compiling other available research. We will work to identify crops where the {down,left} rule outlined above is feasible, in order to prioritize advocacy. It is possible that the mechanism research will not be fruitful, in which case we will have to determine whether or not significant enough improvements in duration can be made to justify advocacy.


Advocacy Research

Our advocacy research will help us determine the most cost-effective ways to push for the adoption of more humane insecticides. This could range from the brute force method outlined by Brian Tomasik, where farmers are paid the difference in cost between conventional and humane pesticides, to working with insecticide producers to bring their products into new markets. There are several considerations that need to be addressed before a strategy for advocacy can be established.

-What insecticides are used where? What leads a farmer to use a particular insecticide over another?

-Should spreading concern for insect suffering be part of a humane insecticide campaign?

-Where would the switch to a humane insecticide be the least expensive or most profitable?

-Are there harms or risks to other animals in advocating for humane insecticides?


Potential Advocacy Strategies

The next step in developing an advocacy strategy for humane insecticides is evaluating potential advocacy approaches. Below is a brief list of possible approaches, as well as some comments on their potential cost-effectiveness.

One consideration is the relatively small size of the insecticide market. While it is a 15 billion dollar industry, there are just 10-15 companies that produce the vast majority of insecticides globally.

A final consideration is the extent to which a particular strategy raises concern for insect wellbeing. While raising concern for insects is a separate goal from widespread humane insecticide use, it may contribute to reducing wild animal suffering in the future.

Paying Farmers

One approach to introducing humane insecticides is paying farmers the difference in cost between the more and less humane insecticides. Brian Tomasik completed a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the cost-effectiveness of this approach that suggests that it could be fairly inexpensive to help a large number of animals. Additionally, if the new insecticides are readily available, it would likely be relatively easy to do. Because of the nature of this approach, we should not consider advocacy strategies that are less cost-effective than this one. Given Tomasik’s findings, this suggests that, if more humane insecticides can be identified, it is a promising method for effective animal advocates to reduce wild animal suffering.

Utility Farm conducted an informal survey of US conventional monocrop farmers to find barriers to switching insecticides. While the sample size was small, we found that farmers were primarily motivated by cost and effectiveness. We also found that the insecticides available to farmers in different regions vary significantly, so it is possible that there is opportunity to work with distributors of insecticides to introduce more humane products that might, for historical reasons, not be available everywhere. We intend to formally conduct this survey on a larger scale, but first are working on strategies to identify humane insecticides so that we can be more specific in our surveying.


Regulatory Advocacy

A second approach is advocating for humane insecticides on a public policy level. In the farmed animal advocacy movement, this approach has been relatively unsuccessful. In the United States, the few laws that protect farmed animals have been established either through ballot initiatives or the threat of ballot initiatives (CITE). While stronger protections exist in Europe, the movement has not made significant progress on this front. It is possible that there would be other reasons to regulate insecticides in a manner that benefits insects, such as to protect human welfare, and that regulatory advocacy on these issues would be cost-effective. However, they would do little to raise concern for insects.


Regulatory Enforcement Advocacy

It is possible that jurisdictions currently have unenforced regulations that, if enforced, would promote the use of more humane insecticides. In countries such as China, where there is systemic failure to regulate pesticides, pushing for better regulatory enforcement could be effective advocacy. This approach would be unlikely to raise concern for insects.


Targeting Distributors

Another approach would be to target distributors to enforce humane insecticide policies for the insecticides they sell. If commitments could be secured from major distributors, the cost-effectiveness would potentially be massive.


Targeting Producers

Similarly, targeting producers of insecticides to encourage them to use more humane products or working with them to enter new markets would both be potentially cost-effective approaches to introducing the products. There are probably several other strategies for targeting producers that need to be considered as well, given the relatively small number of them.


Targeting Businesses

The farmed animal advocacy movement has had the most success by targeting businesses, especially with negative pressure, to adopt animal welfare policies. Similarly, businesses that purchase large amounts of produce could be pressured to adopt humane insecticide policies. However, if most insecticides are used on crops that feed animals, it is less clear if these policies would be effective at the business level.


Humane Labeling

Relatedly, introducing a humane insecticide label for products and working with consumer packaged goods companies to work toward certification is potentially a useful way to raise concern for insect wellbeing, but is unlikely to be cost-effective.


Next Steps Required For Advocacy

Utility Farm’s first steps for advocacy research will be completing a database of insecticide producers and distributors. This will be part of the broader insecticide database we are building that is outlined above. We also intend to conduct larger, formal surveys of farmers to understand their willingness to change the insecticides that they use.



Concern for insects might cause insecticide use to decrease - it is possible that raising concern for insects could naively cause an increase in the amount of organic food purchased, which might negatively impact insects.

Concern for insects might spread conservationist values - another risk is that raising concern for insects might cause an increase in conservationist values, which may directly conflict with the goals of the movement to reduce wild animal suffering.

Both of the risks outlined above are especially relevant for the strategies that raise concern for insects. However, a third risk is that insects do not have the capacity to feel pain, and due to that, all of these kinds of interventions would never be effective at reducing suffering.

Should non-lethal pest management strategies be considered?

One non-lethal pest management strategy is the use of pheromones to affect insect behavior. While pheromones could be used to simply discourage insects from eating crops, which might not impact populations, the strategy can also be used to discourage mating, and reduce insect population overall—this seems promising as a potential strategy for reducing insect suffering and will be included in Utility Farm’s research agenda for humane insecticides.


What Can You Do?

If you’re interested in getting involved in this program, we are looking currently hiring a paid researcher, and are looking for volunteers to work on this program. Check out the position and get in touch!

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