More than 63 percent of households in the US live with cats and dogs, and according to market research company Packaged Facts, people are paying more attention to the health and well-being of your pets during COVID-19. They are especially concerned about what their pets eat, and rightly so. Today, the US pet food industry is worth about $30 billion and grows annually, but most commercial pet foods are largely meat-based. What many pet parents don’t know, as they stand in the grocery store aisle trying to decide which kibble to buy for Max or Bella, is that the pet food industry is deeply tied to environmentally exploitative and unsustainable practices of industrial animals. farming.
Thanks to visionary companies like Wild land, a plant-based dog food company, pet food no longer has to rely on the destructive practices of animal agriculture. Driven by concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of pet food, Ryan Bethencourt and Abril Estrada co-founded Wild Earth in 2017 to create more humane and healthier options for pets. Sentient Media recently sat down with Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Wild Earth, to talk about how his company is revolutionizing the pet food industry.
Ingrid L. Taylor: Thank you so much for being here today, Ryan. What are some of the problems he saw in the pet food industry that led him to found Wild Earth? Was there a particular moment that really impacted you?
Ryan Bethencourt: Actually there were two things. one was a Article published in 2017 by a scientist that showed that 25-30 percent of the meat we eat in the US goes to our pets. So 90 percent of those meat products are made into these little brown balls of protein and fed to our pets. And I was shocked that 25-30 percent of the animal agriculture industry—the factory farms, the pollution, let alone how the animals are treated—is used to feed our pets protein. This is something we can do without using factory farms.
And the other problem is that the meat that the pets get is of poor quality and sometimes mixed with other undesirable ingredients. And if you care about the health of your animals, there are much better sources of protein to feed them. At the time, I was working on a future food accelerator biotech in San Francisco and we financed a bunch of human food companies, like Memphis Meats (now Upside Foods). I realized that if I started a plant-based pet food company, that could have a huge impact. It was a really little discussed topic. There were a few plant-based pet food companies back then, but none of them were of any real scale. I was struck by the idea of targeting mass market pet food and reducing meat consumption.
OXYGEN: Once you had the idea for Wild Earth, how difficult was it to get financing?
RB: I talked to a lot of venture capitalists I knew and almost all of them said, ‘We’ll fund you to do anything else, but not this because nobody cares about pets.’ I was convinced that this was not true at all because anyone who has a pet cares deeply about it. So I found three amazing investors who were all women, who understood how important healthy, safe, cruelty-free food is for our pets and made the connection that many male investors weren’t making.
OXYGEN: Wild Earth currently makes a plant-based food for dogs. When you and April were developing this food, how important was it that not only the ingredients, but also the development process, be cruelty-free?
RB: One thing that struck me was that the standard with almost all pet food companies, with one or two exceptions, is that they lab test the digestion of their food using beagles. And these are just horrible tests that are common for digestion studies. In an experiment testing digestibility, dogs are fed kibble in small pouches, like tea bags. They shove them down dogs’ throats and then at certain times pull them out of dogs’ stomachs. It’s a horrible test that no one in the pet food industry talks about. We refuse to do these tests and anything that might be cruel to animals. Instead, we did cruelty-free testing on a mixed group of dogs volunteered by pet parents. It takes longer and the data is a bit more mixed, but it is more representative of many of our clients. We’d like to inspire more pet food companies to commit to cruelty-free testing as an industry-wide standard.
OXYGEN: Many of what are considered byproducts of slaughter, such as bones, internal organs, feathers, and blood, end up in pet food. How do you see alternative protein and plant-based pet foods intersect with food system reform?
RB: I think we would make the price of meat more expensive: there would be no place to put the additional by-products and there would be no demand because we would be removing it. What that would mean is that raising an animal would be more expensive because those products would no longer be used in the pet food industry. We can scale our pet foods and outperform low-end meat products.
OXYGEN: What are some of the benefits for dogs that you have seen with Wild Earth’s plant-based foods?
RB: We have seen many improvements in animals, whether it be reductions in allergies and skin problems or reductions in digestive problems. Plant-based foods are high in anti-inflammatory compounds, and we think that’s what helps dogs. If you remove spoiled meat with potentially toxic ingredients and add anti-inflammatory plant and yeast compounds, then you should reduce systemic inflammation.
One of the things that surprised us was that many of the pet owners reported that they no longer needed to give their dogs steroids for their allergies. We surveyed 3,000 of our customers and 86% reported some positive health outcome for their pets. Honestly, these results were surprising when we started, but it makes sense. Let food be your medicine.
OXYGEN: What are the future directions of Wild Earth?
RB: We are looking to develop some more cost-effective, higher-end dog foods and are developing a plant-based cat food. This needs to be supplemented because cats are obligate carnivores so there are a couple of supplements that will make it nutritionally complete for them. And then we’re also working on cell-based meat. We know that 27 percent of the population is open to a plant-based diet for their pets. That leaves most who want meat in their product. And we’re here for pet owners and all animals. So to deal with that majority, we’re going to make cell-based meat as an option.
We’re also investigating how we can help cats and dogs live longer, healthier lives that go beyond food. So Wild Earth is really focused right now on cleaner, healthier, more sustainable, cruelty-free food, but our vision is really expansive in terms of embracing science as well.
OXYGEN: Thank you so much for your time today, Ryan. It was a pleasure talking to you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.