Pets have a huge impact on the environment. According to a UCLA study, pets in the United States are responsible for 25-30% of the environmental impact of the country’s meat consumption, and if all of the United States’ pets banded together and formed a country, it would rank fifth in the world of top meat-eating nations.
However, unlike most humans, it would be unhealthy for pets to go vegetarian. That’s why several companies are working on more sustainable solutions to meet pets’ protein needs while also meeting, if not exceeding, their health requirements.
A growing leader in the space is Jiminy’s, a company co-founded by Anne Carlson, which makes dog treats and wet food primarily using crickets, which have significantly less land and water use, compared to traditional proteins, while also having almost no greenhouse gas emissions.
And Jiminy’s isn’t alone. Several other companies are diving into the alternative pet food protein space, including Umami Bioworks and CULT Food Science which recently teamed up to develop the world’s first cultivated fish cat food brand, with plans to go to market by 2024.
In 2017, a study came out of the University of California, Los Angeles that inspired headlines like “Your pet is ruining the planet, says UCLA study” and “This is how terrible your pet is for the world”. As you can imagine, the results of the study — which measured the impact of, at the time, 163 million cats and dogs in the United States — were staggering.
The researchers found that our pets are responsible for 25-30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the country, eating as much meat as the people of France. In fact, if all the pets in the U.S. banded together to annex themselves and form an empire ruled by meows and barks, they would rank fifth in the world of countries that eat the most meat, second only to Russia, Brazil, the U.S., and China.
“It’s a huge number,” Anne Carlson the CEO and founder of a company called Jiminy’s said. “They’re eating a ton of protein,” she said, and that’s why, “it really was a good place to start.”
The UCLA study pointed out all the negative environmental impacts of pets, from the land use associated with meat consumption to the water use to the landfilled trash, to greenhouse gases. But the researchers also pointed out how pet owners can help reduce their impacts. Pets have positive effects on human health, they pointed out. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be positive for the planet too.
“I'm definitely not recommending that people get rid of their pets or put them on a vegetarian diet, which would be unhealthy," Gregory Okin, a geography professor at UCLA said at the time. "But I do think we should consider all the impacts that pets have so we can have an honest conversation about them.”
That’s what Carlson decided to do.
With two pets at home, a Great Dane named Derby and a lab/border collie mix named Tuco, Carlson spent her entire career working in consumer brands with a passion for the pet category, and when she was at a crossroads in 2016, after the company she was working for was acquired, she had a conversation with her daughter, who like her, was at a crossroads. The reason was the climate crisis.
“During that conversation, she told me that she didn’t want to have kids,” Carlson told FootPrint Coalition. “She was worried about what the world was going to be like by the time they grew up; she was talking about climate change. As we were talking, I realized that I just couldn’t do a normal job after that. Building a better future for her was everything, so I started to think about what could I do that would have an impact.”
Carlson knew she wanted to delve into sustainable food options, but she quickly realized that she could have more impact with dogs than humans.
“When you think about people, we eat so many different things every single day,” she said. “Even if I got you to eat the same breakfast thing every day, it would only be about 7% of your eating occasions.” But Carlson had an epiphany: “Our dogs eat the same thing every day.”
This epiphany led to Carlson’s startup: Jiminy’s, a dog treat and wet food company. But instead of chicken, beef, pork, or fish — which all have their fair share of environmental and climate impact — Jiminy’s makes its treats with powdered crickets, which Carlson calls “the gateway bug.”
When she first had the idea after coming across a United Nations agency showing how eating bugs like beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets could help tackle food insecurity, she bought dry-roasted crickets for her dogs.
“They started drooling immediately and following me around. I was like, okay! We can work with this,” she told FootPrint Coalition.
Crickets are important because generally, it’s easiest for people to wrap their heads around. Since then, Jiminy’s has added dental chews to its repertoire, as well as “good grub” aka black soldier fly larvae. According to the company, the larvae replaces 54% of crude protein, enabling a complete replacement of livestock pet food products, on top of the existing health and environmental benefits of Jiminy’s crickets.
“It really is different,” Carlson said, emphasizing how by using insects the company manages to use significantly less land, less water, and “almost no greenhouse gases,” the catalysts of climate change.
“In fact, if you got an acre of land and you put chickens on it, which is a pretty small animal, I think by a year, you’ll have 265 pounds of protein,” she said. “But if you put crickets on that land, by the end of the year, you’ll have 65,000 pounds of protein.”
Beyond the amount of land, water, and emissions saved by the crickets, Carlson calls the “topper” the nutrition. “[Crickets have] complete protein, all the essential amino acids, everything that the dog needs, and then it actually goes beyond. It can help with dogs with allergies and gut health issues,” she said.
Jiminy’s may be the first company in the United States to put cricket powder in dog treats (and now ant larvae) but it's not the only one attempting to lower the environmental pawprint of pet food and make having a four-legged friend less strenuous on the planet.
A handful, or rather a pawful, of startups are descending on the pet niche in the cultivated meat space.
Just last month, CULT Food Science and Umami Bioworks unveiled the world’s first cultivated fish cat food brand. Umami is a leader in the cultivated seafood space, previously turning heads with its 3D-printed grouper. Meanwhile, CULT Food Science is a food tech pioneer with 18 companies in its investment portfolio, including plant-based giant, Eat Just and Umami.
As Mihir Pershad, CEO of Umami Bioworks, explained in a Medium post announcing the partnership, a lot of people assume pet food is made from byproducts of chicken or beef, thus averting some environmental impact, but that’s not the case for fish.
“90% of fish caught for animal feed is considered human grade,” he writes. “This means that we compete with our pets and livestock for our supply of seafood. The bottom line is that we could feed 1 billion more people with fish we currently feed to animals.”
That's why CULT and Umami teamed up to create Marina Cat, the “fish without fishing,” the packaging reads — a “first-of-its-kind” cell-cultured treat that the company describes as “high-protein,” and “low-calorie.”
Aside from the environmental benefits of growing the fish in a lab rather than harvesting it in farms or fishing in the wild, Marina also claims the cell-cultured treats provide “benefits to a cat’s cognitive function, based on its high levels of omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acid chains.”
Marina aims to begin production of the treat, which is a cultivated version of ocean snapper, later this year and have widespread availability by 2024.
"My vision for the future is that we no longer have to slaughter other animals to feed our cats," Joshua Errett, the vice president of products at CULT said in a statement. "This brand brings me one very great step closer to making that a reality."
CULT, Umami, and Jiminy’s aren’t the only ones experimenting with alternative protein pet foods.
Others include Biocraft Pet Nutrition, a female-founded company that recently accomplished the feat of developing a chicken stem cell line for its pet cultured meat; Czech company, Bene Meat Technologies which dreams of culturing steak for humans, but is betting on pet food first; and even global leaders in the industry like Hill’s Pet Nutrition, which in July launched its Alaskan Pollock and insect protein as a more sustainable option to its traditional food, while also allowing an option for sensitive pets.
According to Carlson, who also serves on the board of directors for the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture, cultivated meat is well-suited for pet food. “For people, they’re having a hard time getting the texture right, but for dogs, you’re — generally speaking – going to grind it up and put it into a recipe. So the texture doesn’t really matter.”
Nevertheless, only a few years ago, products with insect protein or cultivated meat would induce lots of questions, and at times, make for a hard time gaining customers. For Carlson, she says it’s “funny” because people would come to pet food shows years before, pass Jiminy’s booth, and say “Not yet, not yet.”
Now “there are so many people who are interested and excited about what we’re doing,” Carlson said. “This year they came and said, now I’m ready.”