Biotech Startups Pounce on Cultured Pet Food
Pet owners spend $32.7 billion every year feeding their animals, but exactly what are they feeding them, and at what true cost? Environmental damage, unsafe ingredients and horrific production practices are standard in the pet-food industry, which has many owners looking for different ways to feed their critters. Over the last several years, a handful of innovating entrepreneurs may have found just the ticket: cultured pet food.
Some might question the necessity of overhauling our pets’s diets, let alone investing in new technology to do so. But the arguments in favor for doing exactly that are more compelling than you might think. The fact that standard pet food relies on meat from factory farms, which inflict unspeakable brutality on other animals, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Assessing the Dangers
In 2018, several pet food companies issued recalls after their products were found to contain sodium pentobarbital, the drug animal shelters use to euthanize animals; that wasn’t the first time traditional pet food was pulled from the shelves for containing potentially lethal ingredients, and it wasn’t the last. If it seems like your dog prefers table scraps to their own food, there may be a good reason for that.
But disturbing and unsafe ingredients aren’t the only downsides to traditional pet food. As it’s currently structured, the pet food industry is catastrophically damaging to the environment. A 2017 study by UCLA professor Gregory Okin found that the production of meat for dogs and cats emits 64 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, which is equivalent to the yearly emissions of 13.6 million cars. In total, traditional pet food is responsible for 25-30 percent of the entire global environmental impact of the meat industry, Okin’s study found. That’s a startling number, given that the meat industry itself emits more greenhouse gases than air, plane, car and ship travel combined.
Given these concerns, the recent emergence of cultured, meatless alternatives to traditional pet food should come as no surprise. As brands like Memphis Meats, BlueNalu, and JUST are developing cultured food alternatives for humans, several new companies are doing the same for pets. And as they’re discovering, there are more than a few ways to do it.
Take Bond Pet Foods, which is in the process of creating a cultured, sustainable dog food. The Colorado-based company has found that, by feeding the DNA sequence of a chicken to a microbe and fermenting it with various vitamins and sugars, it’s possible to create the exact same animal proteins found in chicken meat, but with no chicken slaughter required. The process requires just a fraction of the resources needed to make traditional food, but nevertheless produces a meal with all of the nutrients dogs need.
Meanwhile, in Berkeley, California, Wild Earth Foods makes cultured dog food by feeding beet sugar to koji, a fungus traditionally used to make soy sauce and miso. This produces a protein that, in the words of CEO and co-founder Ryan Bethencourt, “tastes like a Cheez-It.” Wild Earth Foods has attracted some serious attention. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was among the company’s earliest investors, and Mark Cuban gave the company half a million after its founders pitched the technology on Cuban’s show Shark Tank. In total, Wild Earth Foods has raised $16 million in funding as of May 2019.
Cultured pet food isn’t only for dogs. The Philadelphia-based startup Because Animals, which currently sells vegan pet food supplements, announced in March that it had pioneered a new process for culturing mouse meat, which can then be used to make cat food. One notable thing about Because Animals’s proprietary technology is that it requires no animal products whatsoever to create. The company plans to begin selling cat treats in 2020 before moving on to full-fledged cat food.
Denying the Deniers
The argument against cultured pet food is what you might think: That it’s not what dogs or cats are “naturally” intended to eat. But of course, the ghoulish and often dangerous ingredients in traditional pet food are already worlds away from what any animal naturally would, or should, consume. As Shannon Falconer, the CEO of Because Animals, explained to Popular Science, what pets need are “specific nutrients, not specific ingredients.”
The methods of cultured pet food production vary, but they all have one thing in common: The ability to give pets all of the nutrients and sustenance they need without any of the environmental damage, animal suffering or stomach-churning ingredients of traditional pet food.