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The Arthropoda Foundation

Tens of trillions of insects are used or killed by humans across dozens of industries. Despite being the most numerous animal species reared by animal industries, we know next to nothing about what’s good or bad for these animals. And right now, funding for this work is scarce. Traditional science funders won’t pay for it; and within EA, the focus is on advocacy, not research. So, welfare science needs your help.

We’re launching the Arthropoda Foundation, a fund to ensure that insect welfare science gets the essential resources it needs to provide decision-relevant answers to pressing questions. Every dollar we raise will be granted to research projects that can’t be funded any other way.

We’re in a critical moment for this work. Over the last year, field-building efforts have accelerated, setting up academic labs that can tackle key studies. However, funding for these studies is now uncertain. We need resources to sustain the research required to improve the welfare of insects.

Why do we need a fund?

We need a fund because we need a runway for high-priority research. Scientists need to make plans over several years, not a few months. They have to commit now to a grad student who starts next year and finishes a project two years after that. The fund helps guarantee that resources will be there to support academics in the long-term, ensuring that entire labs can remain devoted to this work.

We need a fund because we need to let researchers be researchers, not fundraisers. A fund doesn’t just buy critical research; it buys the ability of the world’s few insect welfare scientists to focus on what matters.

We need a fund because funding scientific research on insect welfare isn’t easy for individual donors. First, it’s hard to know what to fund. As some of the few researchers who have worked on these issues in EA, we’re lending our expertise to vet opportunities. Second, universities take overhead that reduces the impact of your donations; an independent fund can use the board’s volunteer labor to make the many small reimbursements that are required to cover costs directly. Third, if you’re a donor who’s giving below the amounts required to support entire projects, your opportunities are extremely limited. This fund smooths over such hurdles, ensuring that everyone can support the highest value research.

This fund gives a brand new field some time to get established, it gives that field the resources required to produce essential science, and it keeps that research as cost-effective as possible. Please support welfare science.

Team

Bob Fischer is a Professor at Texas State University and the lead project manager and author of the Moral Weight Project, a research project to build comparative models of moral weight across animal species.

Daniela Waldhorn is the Director of Animal Welfare research at Rethink Priorities, a board member of the Centre for Animal Ethics at Pompeu Fabra University, and lead author on the largest initial EA project focused on studying invertebrate welfare.

Abraham Rowe is the Principal of Good Structures, a nonprofit operations service provider, and was previously the COO of Rethink Priorities, and the co-founder and Executive Director of Wild Animal Initiative, an academic field-building and grantmaking organization supporting research on wild animal welfare.

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Thank you Bob, Daniela and Abraham for this initiative! I hope you will succeed in raising the necessary funds.

A little anecdote to illustrate just how useful I think your work would be: For one of my forthcoming papers addressing the issue of insect farming, I had the opportunity to realise how few studies there are on the question of insect welfare, particularly in a farming context. The studies on the sentience or well-being of insects that exist to date have almost never looked at insects specifically used for food or feed (notably the black soldier fly and, to a lesser extent, the tenebrio molitor.) Similarly, there is very little data on what constitutes good or bad rearing conditions for the insects used and the least harmful ways of killing them, particularly in the light of the practices currently favoured by the industry. 
tl;dr: I strongly agree there's a huge data gap that would be extremely useful to address in an attempt to bring this issue to the attention of decision-makers. 

Happy to see this. I think new funds are really valuable now for different EA-related causes. I assume we really want to get away from a reliance on OP, and in the process, want to partner more with collaborators that aren't conventional EAs.

Kudos for organizing! 

I'm glad this now exists, and the leadership seems great! My impression is that work on restricting the growth of the farmed insect industry is similarly very funding-constrained. Given that, I'm curious about the decision to focus the foundation's efforts exclusively on scientific research rather than also supporting policy or advocacy work.

Granted, many worthwhile causes are funding-constrained. However, our view is both that it's especially hard to fund empirical research and that it's especially important to fund it, as it's essential to improving industry practices. Understandably, others may have different priorities, but after thinking long and hard about the various strategic considerations, this is where we land.

What a brilliant logo!

Thank you for this timely initiative, Daniela, Abraham and Bob.

Voluntarily pioneering a highly neglected, underfunded, and morally almost forgotten field must come with no small burdens, but also with great opportunities. Best wishes for the future.

Great to see!

Here it sounds like the fund is focused on farmed insects, but the website seems more broadly concerned with arthropods. Will it include other arthropods? Will it include wild arthropods, too?

I think the vast majority of arthropods, by numbers of individuals, are wild mites, springtails and copepods, and it seems important to know more about them, like their possible sentience and moral weights, whether their lives are good or bad, and how they are affected by human activity. I'd guess interventions that affect the numbers of animals used by humans usually affect many times more mites, springtails and/or copepods.

Good question, Michael. Yes, we're open to funding research on other arthropods. For now, the best way to ensure that there's a stable field of insect of welfare science seems to be to back work on farmed insect welfare. But as that changes, funding priorities will change too.

Thanks for this work, it's great to see! I'm curious how much room for funding you believe this fund / field has?

Great question, Caroline! We think there's quite a lot of room right now. We could easily grant out ~$100K per year for the next couple of years; and as the field grows, we would expect to be able to grant out two or three times that annually. However, even relatively small amounts can be useful. Funding a master's student in the US, for instance, often costs less than $35K per year and some studies can cost roughly the same amount. So, every little bit helps!

I’ve never been able to understand how any serious consideration of insect welfare doesn’t immediately lead to the unacceptable conclusion that any cause other than the welfare of demodex mites or nematodes is almost meaningless.

How do you envision useful, practical ideas emerging from further insect/arthropod welfare work, rather than just a lot of absurd conclusions?

To me this sort of work seems to risk playing into the stereotype of the EA community as head-in-the-cloud philosophisers who care more about intellectualising than practical outcomes

Thanks for the question! This is something I've talked with people a lot about, so have a lot of thoughts on it — apologies for the long response in advance! Answering for myself, and not other people involved:

I’ve never been able to understand how any serious consideration of insect welfare doesn’t immediately lead to the unacceptable conclusion that any cause other than the welfare of demodex mites or nematodes is almost meaningless.

  • I broadly don't buy that because conclusions seem strange, we shouldn't engage with them. To me, it's much more unacceptable to think that something could be unacceptable just because we don't like the conclusion. We should pursue truth, and act according to what our best model of the world is.
    • Practical ideas have already emerged from this work, and been implemented. As with many animal welfare issues (e.g. insect welfare, wild animal welfare, etc), what people perceive as absurd isn't due to taking the animals' interest seriously, it's due to utilitarianism being a particularly demanding moral philosophy. The idea of capturing a spider in a cup to take it outside being a good thing to do instead of killing it is a widely held belief.
    • The absurdity you sense all comes from the demandingness of specific ethical systems, so if you're concerned about weird outcomes, I'd probably look there instead. If your moral philosophy is demanding you only care about nematodes and you find that to be a problem, I'd contend that's an issue with your moral philosophy, not an issue with thinking about nematodes.
    • I don't think EA would ever demand working on only one cause, or if it did, that seems like a bad formulation of EA.
  • Taking some insects and some other arthropods seriously does not imply taking nemotodes or demodex mites seriously as moral patients (or even consider those as remotely similar animals, though the mites are more complicated). An adult black soldier fly has ~1000x the neurons of a nemotode, and ~1/1000th the neurons of a dog (though neurons shouldn't really be used this way). My understanding is that our last common ancestor with insects is something like 200 million years after our last common ancestor with nemotodes.  
    • I'm pretty sure I've taken this issue as seriously as anyone else in the EA world has for longer than almost anyone else, and I've never believed that anyone should think about nematode welfare ~at all. I think that roughly 0 EA resources should go to nematode welfare. I don't know anyone who thinks that the only causes that matter are nematode welfare or even insect welfare. This is not due to concerns about nematode being rejected out of hand. It's because the evidence for their subjective experience is much weaker.
    • Even if demodex mites can suffer, say, it might be really hard to do anything about that. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything about insect farming or other places where we can have impact.
  • I think the evidence for insect sentience is incredibly disheartening — I would like to live in a world in which I had a high degree of confidence that insects don't experience suffering. Instead, I live in one where it seems like a reasonable possibility.
    • It is the case that if insects suffer to a reasonable degree, and we take their suffering seriously, it probably implies incredibly significant things about what our relationship to the world ought to be like. I'm unhappy about that, but it seems like something we should face head on, if the evidence suggests it is worth doing.

How do you envision useful, practical ideas emerging from further insect/arthropod welfare work, rather than just a lot of absurd conclusions?

  • The insect farming industry takes this issue seriously, so seems perfectly reasonable for people concerned about animal welfare to do so too (e.g. the industry lobbying group in Europe had animal welfare guidelines well before anyone remotely connected to EA had engaged on this issue seriously).
    • Animal welfare based commitments based on insect welfare have been in place at retailers for years (e.g. Asos), and insect welfare is a discussion item at industry conferences, etc.
    • I think likely the single most impactful animal welfare campaign by number of animals impacted was insect-focused: this 2012 Starbucks cochineal campaign.
  • I'll also note that this fund exclusively exists to fund scientific research, especially research targeting practical applications. I don't think philosophy, except work like the moral weight project that has direct relevance to developing and evaluating interventions, has much use for animal welfare work at all, and wouldn't personally be in favor of funding it.

Some useful practical ideas that could emerge:

  • Inform what welfare requiremens ought to be put into law when farming insects
  • Inform and lobby the insect farming industry to protect these welfare requirements (eg corporate campaigns); do this in a similar way to how decapod welfare research has informed the work of the Shrimp Welfare Project
  • Understand the impacts of pesticides on insect welfare, and use this to lobby for pesticide substitutes
  • Improve the evidence base of insect sentience such that they can be incorporated into law (although I think the evidence is probably at least as strong as decapods which are already seen as sentient under UK Law).

Insect suffering is here now and real, and there is a lot of practical things we could do about it; dismissing it as 'head in the cloud philosophers' seems misguided to me

Inform what welfare requiremens ought to be put into law when farming insects

 

Assumes confidence intervals narrower than we'll ever obtain, I think.

Yes torturing insects is bad if we could just as easily not. Don't need a 20-page report to justify that.

The part where we try to quantify suffering is hampered by the massive confidence intervals that are inherent to any discussion of insect suffering, and which I don't see being narrowed by further pondering.

Hi Henry. I think you're running together the Moral Weight Project, where your criticism about wide confidence intervals is fair, and the kind of empirical work that welfare scientists do, where that criticism isn't fair. 

Here's a concrete example of what welfare science can do. We might have thought that the most humane way to kill insects is by grinding them, as that's likely to lead to instaneous death. However, we now know that grinding often does not kill instantaneously. So, insofar as insects matter, it's important to specify the exact conditions where grinding does and doesn't leave animals mangled but still alive. Likewise, it's important that advocates don't start pushing for practices that are intuitively better for animals but aren't actually better. Welfare science can prevent people from making mistaken recommendations. It can also help identify the best recommendations.

(Not speaking for this group.)

I’ve never been able to understand how any serious consideration of insect welfare doesn’t immediately lead to the unacceptable conclusion that any cause other than the welfare of demodex mites or nematodes is almost meaningless.

Adding to what others have said already, you could also have moral/normative uncertainty about decision theory and aim to do well across multiple attitudes to risk and uncertainty/ambiguity, and some attitudes will prioritize animals that seem less likely to be conscious more or less than others, some possibly severely discounting invertebrates. You can also be morally uncertain about moral aggregation (by addition in particular, say), and then helping humans might look better on non-aggregative (or only partially aggregative) views.

You can also be morally uncertain about the moral weights of animals in other ways, although I've recently argued against it being very important here, so for me, it's mostly attitudes towards risk and uncertainty/ambiguity and aggregation, and, of course, the particular probabilities and other numbers involved.

I'm personally inclined to focus on arthropods using a decent share of my altruistic budget, but not most of it. I'm fairly concerned about mites, but not specifically demodex mites. I don't care much about nematodes (which are not arthropods, and seem particularly unlikely to matter much to me).

I agree that the field is full of uncertainty.

The breadth of the confidence intervals in any animal suffering research, particularly once it moves away from vertebrates, makes me feel like this work won't ever lead to any actionable conclusions beyond "torturing things is bad, avoid if possible", which we sort of knew from the start.

Just to clarify: the problem is that we don't know what is and isn't torture. Is freezing insects the humane way to kill them---or is it a slow and painful way for them to die? The default view among entomologists is the former, but there are lots of physiological considerations that point in the other direction. I think you're assuming that we know a lot more than we do about how to improve the lives of insects on farms given the options available.

“Slow” and “painful” very different. “Slow” yes, you could study how long it takes for freezing to kill them or stop their neurons firing, though this doesn’t seem like very useful information. “Painful” is the key and the problem: I don’t see any way toward quantifying how subjectively “painful” something is for an insect and how much we should spend to avoid that pain, hence there will always be a stalemate when it comes to implementation.

Is this separate from Insect Institute? The title of the post made me think that Insect Institute was rebranding to Arthropoda Foundation.

Thanks for the question! This is a fully separate and unaffiliated group that only works on scientific research on insect welfare. 

The Insect Institute, to my knowledge, doesn't do any scientific research, nor fund it.

Together with The Insect Institue, we have recently written several critical reviews of insect farming in terms of economic, environmental, consumer acceptability and waste recycling aspects.

Although we are not providing new data with these articles, we are compiling data from both the academic and industrial worlds to provide a critical view, which is still fairly rare. TII have 6 papers under review or accepted with minor or major revision.

All six preprints are now up and publicly available.
 

Should this comment be a top-level Forum post?

I think we'll wait until we've had at least one or two papers published before making the big announcement, which shouldn't be too long. I'll discuss it with the people at TII who will make the decision (I contributed to 5 of those 6 papers, but I'm not affiliated to TII).

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