Would you feed your dog insect-based pet food?

Whether your favorite four-legged friend is a yellow lab, a pug, or a tuxedo tabby cat, you’ve probably seen them chasing, and then devouring — with relish — the occasional butterfly or cricket. This, says Haley Russell, founder of Chippin, a startup that makes dog food from planet-friendly proteins like insects, silver carp, and algae, makes insect-based pet food an easy sell to pet owners.

“People are wanting to give it a try because they’ve seen their dog out in the yard chasing crickets,” she says. “There isn’t that psychological barrier for a pet.”

A number of insect-based pet food startups are promising to feed dogs and cats in a more sustainable way. In the US, pet food is estimated to be responsible for 25% to 30% of the environmental impact of meat production when it comes to the use of land, water, fossil fuels, phosphate, and biocides, according to a 2017 study. Increasing numbers of pets and pet food with higher protein content are both contributing to higher meat consumption in the US, the study found. Americans own an estimated 163 million pets — furry friends abide in 60% of all households — and pet ownership is increasing in countries like China, as well.

Earlier this month, Petgood, a Swedish company founded in 2020, announced that it had raised $2.1 million from investors to expand its international presence. Big pet food companies are getting in on the action, too. The French biotech company InnovaFeed recently announced a partnership with food processing giant Archer-Daniels-Midland to produce dog food made from  black soldier flies. In 2020, Purina launched a line of food for dogs and cats made from insect protein and fava beans, as well as chicken, in the European market. Last April, Mars Petcare rolled out a completely insect-based cat food formula in the UK.

That comes as regulations over which insects can be incorporated into food for humans as well as animals have loosened. In the EU, house crickets and yellow mealworms have been approved for human consumption, and there are new regulations in place for insect farming. Available frozen, dried, or powdered, most farmed crickets and mealworms will make their way into snacks and drinks as supplementary protein, rather than a crunchy — or squishy — bite of buggy goodness. Or they’ll end up in kibble.

Global sales of insect-based pet food were projected to reach $7 billion in 2021, according to data from Future Market Insights, a market research firm. For comparison, the total global pet food market hit $110 billion in 2021, up 39% from 2016, according to data from Euromonitor, a research firm.

How to convince pet owners to feed their furry babies bugs

Insect-based pet food companies are quick to say that the benefits outweigh the ick factor. Insects are high in protein and they are relatively efficient at converting their feed into that protein. Many species of insect require much less water and land than conventional livestock like cows, chickens, and pigs, and produce fewer greenhouse gases.

Still, not everyone is enthusiastic about eating bugs, or feeding them to Rover or Mittens.

Making treats that appeal to humans is as important as crafting food that is delicious to pets, says Russell. Chippin’s treats are designed so that the bugs are not visible and are made to smell like something a human wouldn’t mind snacking on.

Founded in 2019, the Arlington, VA-based company, landed partnerships with Petco and Grove Collaborative last year. The company declined to disclose funding amount but said it has raised money from investors including Azure Capital Partners and Rough Draft Ventures by General Catalyst.

Meanwhile, Wesley Cooper, co-founder of Neo Bites, an Austin-based startup that sells cricket-protein nutritional supplements for dogs that launched at the end of 2021, says that he hooks potential customers by promoting the protein benefits of insects. The company has raised half a million in funding to date.

Both Cooper and Russell say that a dog or cat’s diet can consist entirely of insects, though neither of them feed their pets a wholly bug-based diet.

Pets deserve trendy diets, too

Affluent millennials and pet owners who “put a lot of care into making their dogs’ meal an experience rather than just a scoop and run,” are the main customers for Neo Bites, says Cooper. And whether it’s insect protein or just more expensive brands, high-end pet food is a growing trend.

Between 2015 and 2020, the price of premium pet food increased 7.5%, faster than economy or mid-level pet food prices, according to Euromonitor data. Although there’s no hard and fast Food and Drug Administration definition of “premium,” in the industry it is generally taken to mean food that is free of dyes and artificial flavors, made from higher quality protein.

Consumers will pay more for pet food that they perceive as healthier. They also place a premium on food that matches their own eating habits, and that reflects their values — like being aware of the climate impact of a specific product. At the same time, today’s very engaged pet owners are aware that both cats and dogs tend to need more protein in their diets than humans. Insects, says Russell, from Chippin, are seen as middle ground. They’re protein but with a lower climate impact than beef or chicken. So people may feel comfortable buying cricket chow than switching their pet to a completely vegan diet.

Still, the uptake in insect-based food for both humans and their best friends remains limited. Insect-based pet food accounts for less than 2% of all US sales Phillip Cooper, a pet industry expert based in California, told CNBC. Some 2 billion people — or more than a quarter of the world’s population — eat bugs as part of their diet, according to the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization. There’s been a steady stream of articles and activists advocating for Westerners, the main group that doesn’t usually include insects in their diets, to embrace insect eating. But even the trendiest cricket dishes have not moved the needle in terms of making insect protein consumption mainstream.

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