Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Fake meat might feed pets and fight climate change

By Larissa Zimberoff

Pua, right, a five-month-old French bulldog, inspects McKenzie, an eight-week-old golden retriever, at a news conference at the American Kennel Club headquarters in New York City on Wendesday last week.

Photo: AP

In the US’ food-obsessed landscape, the quickest route to a new idea is to look for something already being done — and then make it vegan. Wild Earth Inc, a start-up based in Berkeley, California, is doing that to pet food with lab-created proteins. Translated, that means fake meat for Fido.

The stakes are far from small potatoes. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own four-legged friends, 184 million dogs and cats to be precise. To feed this mass of tail-wagging companions, they spend almost US$30 billion annually. Pet food — predominantly animal-meat products — represents as much as 30 percent of all meat consumption in the US.

If US pets were to establish a sovereign nation, it would rank fifth in global meat consumption, according to a study by UCLA professor Gregory Okin.

This nation of pooches and kitties consumes about 19 percent as many calories as humans, but because their diets are higher in protein, their total animal-derived calorie intake amounts to about 33 percent that of humans.

“If you’re feeding your large dog the same as you, your dog is eating more meat than you are,” said Cailin Heinze, a Tufts faculty member and board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

Food consumption by dogs and cats is responsible for releasing up to 58 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. Developing fake meat for pets might help put a dent in that, as well as the use of water and land needed to breed all that livestock. In doing so, the industry might pave the way toward replacing all the real meat in your fridge, too.

As global human population approaches 8 billion, “the opportunity here is to create something that is safe and sustainable, ” Wild Earth co-founder Ron Shigeta said.

First, they are starting with your pets. With US$4 million in seed money, Wild Earth hopes to be the first pet food brand based on cellular agriculture. In 2013, Shigeta and co-founder Ryan Bethencourt started Berkeley Biolabs, followed by Indie Bio — a Bay Area synthetic biology accelerator — before getting into pet food, which, like products for human consumption, has tilted ever-more toward higher nutritional value.

The initial product Wild Earth plans to sell from its direct-to-consumer Web site is a koji-based dog treat.

That is a lucrative choice, apparently, as the American Pet Products Association said dogs are given more treats than any other pet species.

Market research firm Kerry Inc reported that 34 percent of new product development for pet food last year was in treats.

Bethencourt compared his company’s production of “clean” protein to that of sake, right down to using the same ingredient to fuel its protein growth.

Koji, a fungus, is the Japanese version of baker’s yeast. It grows rapidly inside tanks, along with sugar and nutrients, at the right balmy temperature.

The result is a plant-based protein with a close match to eggs or animal-based meat. Because koji is widely consumed by humans, it already has a “generally recognized as safe” designation. Wild Earth’s supply chain is simple — it uses only a handful of ingredients — and easily traceable.

“Now that millennials have officially taken the reins as the primary demographic of pet owners, they stand to further develop the humanization-of-pets trend,” association president Bob Vetere said in its annual pet survey.

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