(California News Service) Cats and dogs eat a lot of meat. In the U.S., they gobble up about a quarter of the calories derived from livestock. If they were counted as a country, America's pets would rank fifth in global meat consumption. Producing all that food generates about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, not to mention the land, water, and other resources required to farm animals.
As pet ownership rises, Americans increasingly see their critters as family members. An ensuing trend toward premium and "human-grade" diets has further stressed the carbon-intensive livestock industry. But it also represents a pattern that may bode well for the planet -- pet food generally tends to mirror shifts in consumer preferences for people, with a growing emphasis on things like health, quality, and sustainability. As eco-friendly alternatives (particularly alternative proteins) establish themselves in our grocery aisles, the pet aisle may not be far behind. One particular ingredient is emerging as a promising option for our furry friends: insects.
Insects have gotten a lot of attention in the past decade or so as a mega-efficient, protein-rich superfood of the future. A number of cuisines, particularly in Asia, Africa, and South America, have included insects for thousands of years, but many people remain squeamish about the idea of eating bugs. Dogs don't have the same hangups.
Anne Carlson, the founder and CEO of Jiminy's, discovered this when she began experimenting with bringing insect protein to the pet food industry. She started with cricket treats -- which dogs went crazy for -- then worked with scientists and veterinarians to determine if crickets and "grubs," or black soldier fly larvae, could provide complete nutrition for dogs. Studies showed that they could, and that the bugs also offered an array of compelling health benefits. (Her team is pursuing similar research for cats.) But Carlson was always looking at it from the angle of curbing emissions. For her, it was a personal matter.
In 2016, after a stint working for a big pet food company, Carlson was pondering her next move. A conversation with her then-college-aged daughter gave Carlson a new outlook on her career when her daughter said she didn't want to have kids. "Her reason was she was worried about what the world was going to be like by the time they grew up," Carlson says. "And she was talking about climate change."
Carlson felt a pressing sense of responsibility to be part of creating a world in which her daughter would want to raise children. "I actually decided right then that no matter what I did, it was going to be fighting climate change," she recalls. She founded Jiminy's later that year. Today, the company offers dry and wet dog food and treats made of insects; its products are available in around 1,400 pet stores nationwide and online through popular retailers like Chewy. Although several other companies now offer insect protein treats, Jiminy's remains the only company in the U.S. selling bug-based dog food.
We talked to Carlson about her journey to bring a more sustainable form of protein to the pet market, and what she sees as the future of the industry. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Tell me about the Jiminy's origin story. How did you get the idea to launch an alt-protein company for pets?
A. A little bit after that conversation [with my daughter], I got approached to lead a pet food company. They were framing it as a sustainable alternative for pets. It was grass-fed beef. I absolutely fell in love with this idea of sustainability and pets, but I was like, "You know what? Cows are never gonna be the answer." I started thinking, "What could be a protein source that would be sustainable for pets? And could it be humane as well?" Because that would be awesome. When you look at traditional protein, it's pretty terrible from a lot of different perspectives.
I started throwing different types of protein sources onto a page. I actually put an insect on the page. I don't know why. I don't know what inspired me to do it, but I kept coming back to it. Then I saw that the U.N. had done a study saying that insects could be the answer to world hunger.
I ordered roasted crickets online. When I got them, I fed them to my dogs to see what they would do. And the drool started right away. I knew I had something that was gonna work. When you think about a dog -- I don't know, do you have a dog?
Q. I do!
A. You know if the drool starts, they're really loving something. And it was flowing freely. Of course, I had to try it, too. I tried the crickets -- and they tasted good! It was a little scary the first time I put it in my mouth, but once you get past that, you're like, "Oh, it tastes like a sunflower seed." It's nutty, it's earthy. We were kind of off to the races at that point.
Q. So you were inspired by the U.N. study about insects as a solution for human diets, and you translated that to pet food. How did that work?
A. We started with the crickets, because they are the easiest to wrap your head around. We like to call them the gateway bug -- but when you look at it, you can see it is a fantastic protein source. It has all of the amino acids that you need to be a complete protein. When you're working with dogs, you're looking for 10 essential amino acids, and this delivers it in the quantities that you need. So I knew it was a good protein source, but then you start digging into it and you're like, "Oh, but it also has minerals and vitamins and fiber." All of these other things make it into even more than just a protein source. It really is a superfood.
And what I loved about working with the dogs is that I felt like I could have a huge impact quickly, if I was able to make a food that was complete and balanced that they could eat every day. Because if you think about it, if I were to make something for people -- like, say I make a breakfast bar. Best-case scenario, even if you ate it every single day, I'd only be impacting about 7 percent of your eating occasions. But if I make a food for dogs, I can impact 80 to 90 percent of their eating occasions with one product.
Q. That makes sense. Speaking of the impact, could you give me a quick rundown of some of the benefits of farming insects instead of livestock?
A. You bet. It's kind of fun, actually. Let me just give you sort of an analogy here: If you had an acre of land and you put cows on it, at the end of a year, you're gonna get 192 pounds of protein. If you had chickens, you get 265 pounds of protein. But if you had crickets? Sixty-five thousand pounds of protein at the end of the year. And grubs, over a million pounds of protein. [Statistics come from a lifecycle assessment by insect producer EnviroFlight.] And there's a lot of reasons why. They have a shorter lifespan. For crickets, it's approximately six weeks. They also reproduce at a super-high rate. So if you think about a cow, it's having one to two babies at a time and it takes nearly a year to gestate, but grubs are laying 500 eggs at a time.
[Read more: Scientists are "milking" microbes to create cow-free dairy products.]
The other thing that's really cool is that there's no waste. You're using the entire animal. They're roasted and ground and the entire animal is used. Even their bedding [and excrement] is used. That's what they call frass, which is this amazing fertilizer.
Q. Jiminy's is a pioneer and remains the only U.S. company offering complete-diet dog food made from insect protein. What were some of the challenges getting started?
A. The biggest challenge was proving that it was safe for the dogs. You could look at the nutritional analysis on it, but there was still a question as to whether or not the dogs could actually digest it. We worked with Iowa State and AnimalBiome to do a bunch of studies, and they were all published and peer reviewed. And all of that went into proving that it was safe to use in a food.
When we started, we focused on treats. In order to do the food, we had to do all those studies -- we knew it was really important to be able to prove that it was truly digestible and it had utility. And the great news is, what we found is that it is as digestible for dogs as chicken or beef. The other thing we were able to prove is that, because it's got that fiber that comes from the exoskeleton, that feeds the good bacteria in the dog's gut. It's also hypoallergenic -- for dogs that have food allergies, oftentimes this is a great solve for them.
Q. What has been the reaction from pet owners in the five years that Jiminy's products have been on the market?
A. It's kind of funny, it's really shifted. At the beginning, when we would say we're making dog treats with cricket protein, almost always, it was like, "Wait, what?" You'd have to explain that cricket protein is a thing. Now, people are like, "Oh, cool, I've heard of that!" And sometimes they'll ask us, "Oh, were you on Shark Tank?" Because there were a couple of companies making [insect-based] products for people on Shark Tank -- and we're like, "No, that's not us! But yeah, it's like that!"
The other thing that's really shifted is, during the pandemic, more people adopted pets. And the people who adopted pets had more time to research what they were going to give to their pets - what kind of food. And one of the other things that's been happening is pet ownership is starting to shift younger and younger, which is great for us. Millennials and Gen Z are closing in on 50 percent of the pet ownership in the U.S. -- and they just get it. When we say we're working with insect protein, they're like, "That's so cool!" And when we talk about the sustainability, they're like, "Yes, that's important to me." When we say we're reducing the carbon pawprint, it just makes sense. They know what we're talking about.
Q. What's your vision for where the pet industry could be in 10, 20, or 30 years?
A. It needs to change so much. There needs to be sustainability across the board. I do see some great things that are happening in certain areas. Petco now has this [refill option] for cat litter; you can actually bring your own container and scoop the litter into your own container and take it away, rather than getting another plastic container. I think that's a great example of innovation in another category within pets. But I'd love to see rethinking of the materials that are used for leashes and collars. I mean, think about going into one of those superstores and how many different types of products there are, and then think about how much plastic there is. We need to get away from these materials that can't be reused or recycled. And I'd like to see other proteins being used that are sustainable as well -- getting away from the cow and the chicken that is just so problematic.
Q. What about your daughter? Has she shared her thoughts on the company, and how your vision has impacted her?
A. She hasn't said absolutely that she wants to have kids, but she's more open to the idea than she was before. I think there's more hope. She sees what we're doing, she sees what others are doing. And we're trying to [approach sustainability] not just from the products that we make, but we're trying to make sure that everything we do is moving in the right direction. We're moving our packaging to sustainable packaging. We're offsetting [our shipping] by planting trees. We planted over 65,000 trees already. Everything that we do, we try to put it through the lens of, is this the best solution? Is this the best answer, when we think about climate change?
Claire Elise Thompson wrote this article for Grist.