Consumer concerns about health and the environment are driving the emergence of a new meatless category: pet food.
Amid the growing number of pet owners fueled by the pandemic, pet owners want to apply their own eating habits and values to their pets and are willing to pay more to do so. This has led to the launch of products ranging from plant-based dog foods to insect-based pet treats, according to executives and analysts.
“The modern consumer and animal owner want to feed their pets the same way they feed themselves,” said Michael Lavin, founder of agribusiness venture capital firm Germin8, which specializes in animal nutrition and health. “They apply the same principles about food when making decisions for their pets.”
The factors behind these products – the link between meat consumption and environmental damage, and health problems associated with processed foods – mirror those that are driving the rise of ‘flexitarianism’ among the United States. man, where consumers follow a largely plant-based diet with occasional consumption of meat and dairy products.
Judy Nadel, co-founder of vegan pet food start-up The Pack, predicts the rise of ‘flexi-dogians’, or dogs who eat mostly vegetarian and vegan foods with the occasional meat-based treats . “We are going through a climate crisis. It will be unacceptable for dogs to eat meat at every meal in the future, ”she argued.
The environmental impact of producing pet food is significant, with researchers at the University of Edinburgh calculating that farmland twice the size of the UK is used each year to produce dry food for pets for cats and dogs.
They found that about half of all dry foods are crops, including corn and rice, with the rest being animal or fish products. Combining the results with data on the environmental effects of ingredient production, they found that the annual CO2 emissions from dry foods were 106 million tonnes, which, in terms of countries, would be the 60th highest emitter. highest in the world, the researchers said.
When it comes to animal health, some owners are concerned about processed meat in dog food. “In the human diet, it is well recognized that processed meat is linked to increased levels of cancer and obesity, but it is 2021 and we continue to feed it as a main component of the diet. of our dogs, ”said Guy Sandelowsky, veterinarian and co-founder of the vegan pet food start-up Omni.
The big brands are also betting on alternative proteins.
Mars, which owns leading brands such as Pedigree, Royal Canin and Whiskas, this year launched Karma, a ‘plant-first’ food with 60% non-GMO plants, mixed with animal ingredients in the United States. -United. In the UK, she launched Lovebug, a brand made from insect protein for cats.
The company is also an investor in Wild Earth, a leading U.S. plant-based pet food start-up that’s also branching out into pet foods made from lab-grown meats. .
The emerging market is still small, but Tracey Massey, global president of the Mars Pet Nutrition Unit, expects alternative protein pet foods to increase by 30% by 2025.
Nestlé’s brand Purina last year launched dog food made with ingredients such as insect protein and beans, as well as meat. In 2020, he bought the natural pet food brand Lily’s Kitchen, also offers vegan dog treats and dog food with ingredients like millet and lentils as well as zucchini and carrots.
But there is debate over the nutritional merits of plant-based dog foods. As obligate carnivores, cats should not be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet, according to the British Veterinary Association. The body did not recommend feeding a dog a vegetarian diet, although it is theoretically possible, according to Justine Shotton, president of BVA.
“At the moment, there isn’t a lot of factual research on vegan pet foods that meet the nutritional needs of dogs,” said Shotton, who added that pet owners interested in vegetarian or vegetarian diets vegans for their pets should talk to their veterinarian first. She said all owners have a duty of care to their pets to ensure they are meeting their animal welfare needs.
Although not vegan, insect protein offers a nutritional alternative to meat while avoiding animal welfare issues. Still, it remains an expensive option, and some pet owners are reluctant to feed their pets insects, analysts say.
Nadel said The Pack has worked with animal nutritionists and scientists to produce dog foods made with protein from peas, papaya, kale and seaweed. “We can achieve the same nutritional values as meat with plant-based foods,” she said.
Massey at Mars said that while dogs can survive on a meatless diet “you have to make sure you supplement with other things,” adding: “It’s not as simple as saying ‘I’m vegan, I want my pet to be a vegan. ‘ It’s hard. We have spent years developing these products.
Shiv Sivakumar, co-founder of Omni, cautioned consumers against making their own vegan dog food. But growing up in a vegan family in Southeast Asia, with his companion dogs essentially eating what humans ate and living for ages 14 to 16, gave him confidence that dogs could thrive on a meatless diet.
Nadel is optimistic about vegan dog food and expects 50% of all dogs in the UK will follow the human flexitarian trend by 2030. She acknowledges that some customers want to offer variety to their dogs. dogs and consider vegan food as a complementary option.
For established pet food companies, it’s all about providing choice for consumers.
The internet allows pet owners to try new products “and see what works,” Massey said, adding, “Some of these trends are going to come and go – no one really knows which ones are going to stick. I would say, watch this space.