Think outside the bowl. That’s the message from the new breed of upscale bug-protein pet food brands.

The trailblazers tapping the $50 billion canine nutrition market say that “ento” insect snacks have a smaller carbon footprint than old-school kibble and canned fare. Ento is short for entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, particularly by humans.

“The biggest factor here is addressing climate change,” Raavee Shanker, director of Singapore-based sustainable protein firm Asia Insect Farm Solutions, told Karma. Traditional pet food meat is carbon-intensive, accounting for a quarter of the impact of meat production, he said.

Besides cutting carbon emissions, ento reduces land and water use, Shanker said. 

“The use of insects in pet food represents an effective way to provide the desired nutrition to our furry friends in an environmentally sustainable way,” Shanker says.

Sustainable pet foods offer a growing investment opportunity. In 2018, venture capitalists sank $4.55 million into the space, according to PitchBook. This year they’ve already invested about $13.6 million — a 300% increase.

According to the market research group Euromonitor, global pet food sales increased about 6% annually from 2013 to 2018 and totaled over $91 million last year. The growth has dovetailed with a big jump in pet ownership

Shanker expects sales growth to continue as consumers buy more sustainable products. “As new markets open up, especially in Asia, these figures will definitely represent a mouthwatering opportunity for investors to get onboard,” he said.

Most dry dog foods have about 20% protein content, while the average bagged cat food is about 30% protein (canned cat foods are higher). That follows guidelines set by The Association of American Feed Control Officials, which sets nutritional standards for pet foods. 

However, spurred by climate and health concerns, more pet owners are opting for flexitarian diets. These are largely but not exclusively vegetarian diets. Alt-meat products, some based on plant proteins, have meanwhile become more popular. 

Bug Protein on the Rise

Now a growing number of entrepreneurs are jumping into the bug protein pet food space. The most-used ingredient is a species said to taste like popcorn or nuts: the cricket, marketed by the Stamford, Conn.-based gourmet player Chloe’s Treats, Montreal’s Wilder Harrier, Scotland’s Bugbakes and the drolly named Bay Area startup Jiminy’s, run by self-styled change agent Anne Carlson.

Carlson wanted to concoct a food product with less environmental impact and settled on crickets, a protein source seen as more sustainable than cows. But Carlson didn’t think that people were ready to introduce bugs into their diets on a large scale. So she decided to try out her idea on pets, and named her firm after Pinocchio’s six-legged conscience. 

A Grub at a Time

Crickets aren’t the only special ingredient for pets. 

The British brand Yora is committed to changing the world a grub at a time via its black soldier fly larvae-based recipes. Paris-based Entoma also dishes up this species in its gourmet dog treats. The black soldier fly is a common house fly found throughout Europe and other parts of the world. 

Mick Thornett, the director of the Insect Protein Association of Australia, said that Entoma-style goods have big potential because the fly is easy and inexpensive to breed. 

Thornett said that cricket and mealworm farmers struggle to break even when they sell their bugs to companies at $30 per kilogram. Black soldier larvae in meal form prices at around $1.20 per kilogram. 

“Unfortunately, the cost of growing all insects is quite a bit higher than people realize,” Thornett said. “Solider fly hits the mark nicely.” 

The industry has already seen one ambitious failure — the defunct San Diego-based venture catchily called EntoBento. The startup deftly positioned its cricket powder treats as delicious, nutritious and sustainable.

After its 2015 launch, EntoBento attracted 255 Kickstarter backers who pledged $16,000. Still, the startup lasted just three years. 

John Perry chief executive officer of the venture capital firm Increasing Returns, who has worked in the marine bug-feed sector, said feed made from land bugs could work.

“I don’t see that it’s a huge stretch to think that a land bug couldn’t be as nutritious, because essentially what fish live on is bugs at the bottom end of the food chain,” Perry said.

“I mean, theoretically, it’ll be well worth looking at, because the dog market is just gigantic. But how you grow enough of those bugs,” Perry said, “I don’t know.”