There’s no denying that our most common furbabies or furriends (cats and dogs) are inherently carnivorous and therefore we give them meat. I mean, what else do we feed them, right?
The thing is, pets don’t count as consumers in terms of overall meat consumption even though it’s their diet. According to a 2017 study, cats and dogs would rank fifth in terms of meat consumption should they made up their own dedicated country. That’s roughly 64 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
We know that there’s been countless efforts, innovations, and products that try to minimize this negative carbon impact. I mean, I’ve talked about sustainable dog treats like insect-based kibbles before. But sometimes, for animals like cats, changing their diet completely to insects just won’t do.
Unlike dogs which are a bit more flexible or us humans who can actually change to be bug eaters, cats need real meat to survive, and we can’t entirely remove it from their food. And here is when technology and science take over: cell-cultured meat. Some startups are trying to reduce or cut animal agriculture this way.
Growing shift to eco-conscious food
Before the rising awareness of lab-grown meat, we know that many companies have replicated meat for human consumption with plant-based materials like soy or pea protein. That doesn’t disappoint, many positive reviews state that the texture and taste are so on point and that meat eaters don’t mind the faux meat now.
CEO of Bond Pet Foods (one of the startups developing cell-cultured meat for pets) Rich Kelleman said, “Companies like Impossible [Foods] and Beyond [Meat] laid the foundation for what a burger could look like and what nutrition could be.
“The success of those companies opened the floodgates to investment, which coincides with a growing segment of the population that is starting to value different dimensions of what quality food and responsible food looks like.”
This change of preference is beginning to be evident to pets. According to the pet food industry, pet treats with sustainable claims saw about 70% sales growth from 2015 through 2019, compared to about 30% of growth for the usual, conventional treats.
Because Animals CEO Shannon Falconer said, “Pet food follows human food. Many people think of their pets as family members. [More people are following] a diet that’s sustainable and mindful and want to do the same for pets.
“We have very few options when it comes to feeding dogs and cats. here’s a strong misconception that pet food is made from byproducts of human food. I began to learn how untrue that really is.”
Making lab-grown meat for pets
Just like Kelleman, Falconer wanted to create cell-cultured meat that we can give safely to pets. Falconer said that the process involves taking a small collection of cells from live animals and that’s it—they’re not going back to the animal again.
Trying to copy cats and dogs’ diet in the wild, Because Animals started by sourcing cells from mice and rabbits. Then, they grow the cells in nutrient-rich environment outside the animal.
Falconer and her team feed the cells a mixture of protein, vitamins and other necessary nutrients and put them into a device called a bioreactor, is basically like a womb.
The cells then grow, divide and eventually form into tissue, which is effectively cultured meat. It has the same nutritional value and composition as animal-based meat, but without the need to raise or slaughter animals.
On the other hand, Bond Pet Foods has a slightly different process. They use DNA extracted from a blood sample taken from a live, healthy chicken. Kelleman said, “The challenge wasn’t to create a chicken breast or a steak or a pork chop for consumption. It was more about creating protein.”
Bond Pet Foods team uses a process called microbial fermentation. First, they isolate the part of the chicken DNA that expresses skeletal muscle protein. Then, they combine the meat protein with yeast and put into a fermentation tank, where it’s fed sugars, vitamins and minerals.
Once it reaches a certain density and composition, the cell-cultured protein is dried into a powder that can then be used to make anything from treats to freeze-dried pet food.
Pet food in the future
For now, there’s no pet food made from lab grown meat that we can easily find on shelves. Bond Pet Foods has only made its first batch of cell-cultured chicken protein last August and they plan to launch the full product by 2023. Meanwhile, Because Animals wants to release a limited batch of pet food made with cultured mouse meat in 2022.
What’s going to happen to meat industry and farmers? We don’t know. Maybe some consumers still want to give real meat to their pets, maybe the rest completely want to give up meat and so the industry has to adapt in the future.
According to these startups, though, pet food needs to evolve. Falconer said, “More than a quarter of the environmental effects of animal growing is due to the pet food industry. What this [cell-cultured] food would provide is the first environmentally sustainable, ethical meat for people to feed their pets.”
What about insect-based pet food?
Since, according to researchers at the University of California, dogs and cats account for up to 30% of the environmental impact of U.S. meat consumption, and there’s no available lab-grown meat for now, can we depend on insects while waiting?
Annually, Americans spend more than $40 billion on conventional, meat-based pet food and treats. Can that change to insect-based products? Will it be okay for our furbabies or furriends?
Again, we don’t have the answer to that yet, but there are signs of towards the shift.
Many pet food companies, including big names like Mars and Nestlé, are developing insect-based alternatives for dogs and cats. According to a Petco survey, 55% of customers like the idea of using sustainable alternative protein ingredients in pet food
The rest of the survey respondents may not like the idea because of the price. Insect-based pet food is relatively new, so it has higher price. For example, Petco sells a 1.5-kilos bag of Jiminy’s Cricket Crave for $21.95. That’s almost three times more than Purina’s chicken and rice dry food.
Although, if there’s more demand in the future, if the market grows, the price can drop and insect-based pet food may compete with the traditional kind.
Insect vs meat
According to an animal nutritional scientist Kelly Swanson, crickets and fly larvae are similarly digestible to traditional meat. Not only that, they provide comparable protein, plus vital amino acids and other minerals. Therefore, insect-based food can lead to what pet owners usually like: solid, healthy poop.
Moreover, the size we need to cultivate insect is way less than livestock farms. An acre of land can produce about 87 kg of beef annually, or 120 kg of poultry. The same space yields 29.5 tons of cricket or 59 tons of black soldier fly larvae.
Another good thing about insect-based pet food is that flies are raised in a circular economy. They’re fed with byproducts from local bourbon distilleries and bakeries, and the waste from larvae then goes toward animal feed.