Bugging Out: Anne Carlson of Jiminy’s + Chef Bun Lai

Do you have environmental food guilt? There’s no actual definition for that (because we just made it up), but many of us definitely know how it feels: that regretful pang we get, knowing that much of the food we either eat or feed our pets is doing harm to the environment. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to two people cultivating alternative food sources in order to help the planet. First, the founder and CEO of Jiminy’s, Anne Carlson, discusses how their company makes insect protein-based pet food. Then, we speak to acclaimed chef and sustainable food pioneer Bun Lai to learn about his vision for making both Mother Earth and her human inhabitants healthier by incorporating insects and invasive species into dining experiences.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:23 Bun Lai – Why not eat animals and plants that are abundant but underutilized and aim our destructive appetites at them rather than other species that were overfishing, for example.

00:38 Alex Wise – Do you have environmental food guilt? There’s no actual definition for that (because we just made it up), but many of us definitely know how it feels: that regretful pang we get, knowing that much of the food we either eat or feed our pets is doing harm to the environment. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to two people cultivating alternative food sources in order to help the planet. First, the founder and CEO of Jiminy’s, Anne Carlson, discusses how their company makes insect protein-based pet food. Then, we speak to acclaimed chef and sustainable food pioneer Bun Lai to learn about his vision for making both Mother Earth and her human inhabitants healthier by incorporating insects and invasive species into dining experiences.

01:48 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by the founder and CEO of Jiminy’s and Carlson and welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:56 Anne Carlson – Thank you for having me here.

01:57 Alex Wise – So explain for our listeners what Jiminy’s offers consumers and the problem you’re trying to address.

02:05 Anne Carlson – Jiminy’s is disrupting the pet industry. We’re fighting climate change as we feed our pets. And how are we doing that? We’re replacing traditional protein, so think cow or chicken with insect and plant protein, and so we’re delivering sustainable dog food that’s coupled with better nutrition. No compromises.

02:28 Alex Wise – And explain the process of sourcing insects. Where do you get your grubs and your crickets? How does that work?

02:37 Anne Carlson – Yeah, well they come from farms, so these are all farmed indoors and the great thing about farming insects is that it takes so much less land than any other type of protein source, and they’re naturally swarming species, so they like to live together so it’s extremely humane as well, and actually let me just give you an example. If you’ve got an acre of land and say you were to put cows on that acre of land at the end of a year, you’d have £192.00 of protein. If you put chickens on that land, you’d have £265. If you put crickets 65,000 pounds of protein, and if you put grubs, which is another type of insect we’re working with over 1,000,000 pounds of protein at the end of the year.

03:33 Alex Wise – And who do you see as being your main consumer? I would imagine the low-hanging fruit would be vegetarians and vegans who are also pet lovers who feel torn about giving their dogs and cats animal protein when they’re not buying it themselves.

03:47 Anne Carlson – Absolutely, that that’s definitely part of the demographic, but it’s also other families that are concerned about the environment, and they might be doing Meatless Mondays so they consider themselves, say, a flexitarian, but let’s always remember, though, that our end consumer is the dog. And so with the other, the other type of pet parent, that’s going to be buying the product. Is one that’s got a problem. Their dog, their dog’s, got a gut health issue, or their dog has an allergy and this is a fantastic solution for those types of dogs as well.

04:27 Alex Wise – Yes, I know a lot of I have vegetarian friends who will feed their dog. A vegetarian diet to go along with the people’s diet, and I can’t help but think that’s not what dogs want to eat. Usually they don’t want to eat just vegetables and rice, they want higher protein levels and so these insect solutions. Seem to be a good compromise for people who have those buying principles. Absolutely, and so dogs are omnivores, so you know they can eat a wider range of food than say, a cat could who’s truly a carnivore.

05:05 Anne Carlson – But they’re also athletes, and you know, if you watch your dog go and catch a Frisbee, you can see like they’re amazing, but they need a higher level of protein to maintain that kind of level of activity. And the great thing about the insects is that it is a complete protein for the dogs, and that means that it has all of the essential amino acids that they need and it does it in spades. And it’s a little hard to to get the right amino acids when you’re working with plants, so, so that’s one of the great advantages of working with the insect protein. But the insect protein, actually, it’s more complete than that it’s actually a super food. You’ve got your protein, yes, but you’ve also got vitamins, minerals, fiber, and the fiber is the thing that actually feeds the good bacteria in the dog’s gut. So it’s actually pretty biotic, and that’s really important. Healthy gut, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about healthy gut being important for humans. It’s the same for dogs.

06:12 Alex Wise – Sure, microbiome is still such an unexplored area of science for human gut, I can imagine that there hasn’t been a lot of peer reviewed studies of dog microbiomes, let’s say.

06:25 Anne Carlson – Well, there are now, and we actually did those studies when we first started. There were a lot of questions even though it looked good on paper. A lot of questions about whether the dogs could digest it, whether it actually was prebiotic for them. So we partnered with universities and actually a company called Animal Biome, who all they do is microbiomes. And we were able to prove it out.

06:50 Alex Wise – So can you give us a summary of how you got into this? The history Jiminy’s if you will.

06:56 Anne Carlson – Sure, I, I’ve been working in the consumer packaged goods industry for my whole career, and I’ve I’ve been working with pet for the last 12 years, so I was at one of the big pet companies and we got acquired. They’re getting acquired all the time. The company that acquired us, though, was far away in the middle of the country, and I live in California and I really didn’t want to move, so I opted to stay here and I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. And as I was thinking through all the different things that I could potentially do. I was talking to my daughter who was kind of thinking about her future as well. And we got onto the topic of whether or not she might want to have kids? And she told me “no,” she was worried about what the world would be like by the time they grew up and for me that was a call to action. I decided that no matter what I did, I was going to fight climate change and at about that same time I got approached to lead a pet food company. And what they were proposing is that it was sustainable. But it was grass fed beef and I loved the idea of sustainability and pets. A lot of people don’t realize this, but 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the US is attributed to our dogs and cats.

08:22 Alex Wise – Wow, that’s a stunningly huge number.

08:25 Anne Carlson – Yeah, but you know grass fed beef. It’s still a cow. It’s never going to be the answer. So what I did with them is started to think about, well, what protein sources could work and would actually be sustainable. And that was about the time I saw a UN study that said insects could be the answer to world hunger and so I was like insects, so I actually ordered some dry roasted crickets online. You can actually do that.

08:55 Alex Wise – Yeah, we have them in my closet still. My wife bought them a few years ago. They we’ve put him in a few smoothies but they’re being eaten very slowly here.

09:04 Anne Carlson – OK, well I gave them to my dogs and they got eaten really quickly. The dogs, the drool started right away. You know the dogs just don’t overthink it if it tastes good. They’re gonna eat it.

09:17 Alex Wise – Yeah, they’re not over thinking a lot.

09:19 Anne Carlson – Oh my dogs went nuts for it, and that’s basically got us started down the path.

(Music Break)

10:30 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change radial and I’m speaking to Ann Carlson. She is the founder and CEO of Jiminy’s pet food, so you mentioned how when you first got these crickets dry roasted in the mail, you fed them to your dogs and they loved him. But now explain the product that Germany is offering that has combined grains and vegetables with the insect protein. How did you formulate it and walk us through the range of product?

11:00 Anne Carlson – Oh yeah, well, well at this point we’ve got a broad range of products and the way I like to think about it is we’re putting together products. That work for every part of your day with your dog. So we started out with treats when we were getting our feet underneath us and doing all the studies. We’ve got crunchy biscuits that were great when you want to reward. Our dog for doing something that he should be doing like sitting back when you open the door. We’ve got a fantastic range of training treats which are designed specifically for training. We worked with an animal behavior expert in order to design those treats under 3 calories. They can break into pieces. They’re super enticing. When we palatability test our products we’re trying to get above 95 on all of our products and we have which is really exciting. Training treats score 100 which means every single dog that has tried in has loved. The few more products puffs which are really fun. They’re like Cheetos for dogs. They’re human grade, so you can eat them with your dog, but one of the cool functional things about them is that they actually float, so we work with the Canine Rehabilitation Institute and they’re using it in a water treadmill. So when they’re trying to rehab a dog. In that water treadmill, they drop the puffs in, they float, and the dog walks to him to eat him.

12:26 Alex Wise – That’s a great idea.

12:28 Anne Carlson – Yeah I love that one and then we also of course have a food, so we’ve got a baked kibble and what I love about our baked kibble is, well in terrific ingredients using the insect protein as it’s the only protein source, but it’s baked. It takes it to a much lower temperature so less process. Dust and then our newest product is a wet food. We call it an entree and it’s really cool. It comes in a Tetra pack which is a really sustainable packaging and it can be used as a Topper with food or as a standalone meal.

13:08 Alex Wise – So can you paint a picture of the farming process of grubs and and crickets? I mean it sounds a little creepy to be honest, but when they arrive to a warehouse or factory, what kind of state are we talking about?

13:26 Anne Carlson – Not scary at all. It arrives to us as a protein powder, so it’s already they’ve been roasted and ground, so we’re working with a powder. It’s almost like what you would put in your smoothies think of it that way.

13:40 Alex Wise – The cooties are pre-removed before they get to the Jiminy’s factory?

13:44 Anne Carlson – Totally, and actually they’re not scary at all, you know, and by the time we get it, no antennas, no legs.

13:51 Alex Wise – So I know it’s apples to oranges a little bit, but give us an idea of how Jiminy’s compares to a standard dog food in terms of its carbon footprint, Anne.

14:00 Anne Carlson – Well, our protein itself is exponentially less resource intensive. The insect protein uses less land, almost no greenhouse gases, but then beyond that we’re all based in the US. We source from the US and Canada so everything is North American sourced and that’s a big deal because we’re not having to ship things these crazy distances and if you look at a lot of the other companies, they’re sourcing from China, they’re sourcing from Australia. It’s traveling immense distances to be made into an extruded kibble. For your dog, it’s terrible for the environment that the protein is bad. The shipping is bad. There’s a lot of issues.

14:48 Alex Wise – She’s the founder and CEO of Jiminy’s and Carlson and thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

14:54 Anne Carlson – Thank you, Alex.

15:11 Alex Wise – I’m joined now by my friend Bun Lai. He is a chef and a leader in the sustainable food movement. Bun, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

15:19 Bun Lai – Great to see you again, Alex. It’s been a while.

15:23 Alex Wise – It has been a while, Sir. I think your mom’s restaurant was perhaps the 1st place that I tasted sushi Miya’s in New Haven. Why don’t you tell us a little bit of the journey that you had growing up in a restaurant, family and moving into the latest post pandemic iteration of your culinary pursuits

15:43 Bun Lai – So when you and I were in middle school before I turned 10 years old. David Friedman and I went to the space that would eventually become my mother restaurant Mia’s, and she had us do a little bit of painting and so we screwed up about a 10 by 4 length of wall and that was my introduction into the the restaurant business. My mom’s restaurant was the first sushi restaurant in Connecticut. So in the New Haven community, it was the introduction to generations of people to traditional sushi between the restaurant and playing outdoors all the time and going to school and hanging out. My dad’s laboratory at Yale Medical School. I spent a lot of time thinking about, experiencing food and also thinking about science and really academics was a huge part of my life too. So much of what I do today has roots in in really those three places.

16:51 Alex Wise – And then when did the confluence of sustainability enter the picture for you beyond just pure taste?

16:57 Bun Lai – So we were you and I were really lucky because we went to schools that emphasized sustainability even before sustainability was a word, so we spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities as part of our education. We read a lot a whole bunch of different books on human beings in nature. For example, my movie, “Blind Sushi,” which was a finalist for the James Beard Award, was inspired by a book that I read in the 5th grade called “The K.” And so, so much of the work that I do today is deeply rooted in my experiences from when I was little and as far as sustainability. Well, my dad was a researcher so he was in science. He was in medical science in order to make a positive impact on humanity. And my mom had a restaurant but she was very, very cognizant about the impact that she was having on the community.

18:01 Alex Wise – So then explain me as sushi evolution and why it’s why you decided to shut it down recently and embark on this new venture boom.

18:11 Bun Lai – Serendipitously, I got into me is because my mom needed help. It’s not something that I wanted to do with my life and never imagined myself being a chef for sure and definitely working in the restaurant business for more than a a little bit of time to help my mom out. What I always knew that I was an artist since I was really little and then after I left for college I stopped doing any sort of art. Kind of got disillusioned with it and then found my artistry again through my work in food, so I originally went to help my mom out and it was just as simple as that. And then it became a passion. And that’s when the sustainability came in, it wasn’t enough to make food that tasted good, that was beautiful. It had to be food that also made a difference in the world, and that became the biggest challenge to me throughout my career. And that’s ongoing.

19:04 Alex Wise – Watching “Blind Sushi,” I can’t imagine that being served to everybody in a in a commercial setting. This is definitely a niche and people have to have an open mind to it. Explain your thinking in terms of flavor profiles, how they’ve evolved.

19:19 Bun Lai – As a chef, I’m not trying to make food that is easily mentally digestible by you. I want to create food that will have you question your likes and dislikes and understand that your likes and dislikes are socially constructed. And that’s not only in taste. But in everything else.

19:48 (Music Break)

20:22 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to chef and sustainable food leader Bun Lai. So boom, why don’t you tell us about your approach to using invasive species in your cuisine?

20:35 Bun Lai – So we pioneered sustainable seafood, in particular in the space of sustainable seafood. It would be lionfish, for example.

20:44 Alex Wise – Oh right, yeah, we did a piece on them in Bermuda. How they’re just like taking over there.

20:49 Bun Lai – Yeah, or carp. Or, around here, invasive Asian shore crabs and we had a very big menu that was focused on invasive species. But we also explained to people like in the menu. The reason we’re eating invasive species is a because they’re potentially a healthier type of food than anything that will be factory-farmed, for example. And why not eat animals and plants that are abundant but underutilized, and aim our destructive appetites at them rather than other species that were overfishing, for example.

21:31 Alex Wise – And what about insects? This is something that you slowly incorporated into Mia’s menu. Or is this something that you’ve been offering more in in this new iteration of your personalized local flora and fauna menu?

21:47 Bun Lai – No, that all started around the same time so early 2000s is when I started dabbling in it.

21:53 Alex Wise – Why don’t you explain some of the tastier insects and some of the challenges you have in sourcing them?

22:01 Bun Lai – So I live on a farm so I’ve got plenty of insects and then until recently I had certified shell fishing grounds and boats as well. So I was able to source for the restaurant in ways that most other restaurants were not able to experiment with the kind of plants and animals that other restaurants weren’t able to as well. I was really interested as far as terrestrially to work with agrarian pests because we use millions and millions of pounds of pesticides every year in order to get rid of these past, many of which are not only healthy to eat, but delicious as well. So if we’re going to be eating escargot, then why not eat slugs as well? The idea of eating a slug is really disgusting and may just discuss someone who eats escargot. But they’re closely related.

22:58 Alex Wise – If somebody hasn’t seen your film, maybe kind of explain the artistic presentation that you use with incorporating insects into traditional sushi.

23:08 Bun Lai – Yeah, a much of what it did was in the construction of my recipes was to create something that looks like an ecosystem that the food comes from which is not different than what many other chefs do. But I did sushi and what I would do is I would change up the essential ingredients so we wouldn’t be using tuna or eel or hamachi. Instead, we’d be using ingredients that we can find that anyone else can find that people often wouldn’t consider to be food.

23:40 Alex Wise – Staying away from apex predators, for example in the in marine life, right? Like that’s why you stay away from tuna because of the heavy metals or for other reasons?

23:51 Bun Lai – For multiple reasons, I wouldn’t serve people tuna because it’s not healthy food anymore. You know anything that’s an apex predator is going. To have all sorts of different contaminants that we don’t want to eat that better harmful. So from a nutritional standpoint, we shouldn’t be eating apex predators from an ecological standpoint, many of these apex predators are overfished or overhunted, so we shouldn’t be eating them as well. From an ethical standpoint, should we be eating so many animals that have feelings and that are intelligent. You know, the vertebrates. And so when I think of that, from an ethical standpoint, I would much rather eat an invertebrate. I’d much rather eat an insect that is not capable of feeling pain. For example, in the way that vertebrates will do. And I’d rather go and focus on shellfish, for example that don’t have brains, but there are high in omega-3 fatty acids low on the food chain, so they don’t have the contaminants of the fish that we like to eat, like to a swordfish, for example, which in the farming of them helps the ecosystem out by cleaning the water, for example, and sequestering nitrogen and not requiring feed or fresh water. You know where freshwater is a diminishing resource and doesn’t require fertilizers as well.

25:23 Alex Wise – So Bun, why don’t you walk us through some of how you envision these culinary principles that you build upon, how you think they could be scalable and how you hope that this could eventually have more mass appeal so that we can get away from the current, unsustainable path that we’re on in terms of food consumption and production.

25:49 Bun Lai – One of the biggest things that we can do is become educated in the issue. Issues and that’s why it’s so incredibly important, though the work that you’re doing and the conversations that that you’re having, and that’s why I love your show so much.

26:04 Alex Wise – Oh, thank you.

26:05 Bun Lai – So education is a really, really important part of of seeing change happen and that’s why it was so important for me when I made the menu into a book. My designer who illustrated and designed the entire book also made the menu into a coloring book so it’s about getting adults would color it as well. It’s about getting people engaged and it’s about also making it interesting fun and something they want to be a part of. You know, when I think of all the problems that we’re having today. The biggest problems in the world that we’re facing today, they’re all problems caused by human beings. There’s not a human being alive who doesn’t care for the health of their loved ones and. When you’re able to connect what we do to destroy the Earth and how that directly is related to the diseases that we’re having, we’re suffering from today. You know, the crowded chronic disease pandemic. Because most people don’t know that you know there’s a huge disconnect between the breakdown of diversity of biodiversity and, say the breakdown in the diversity of our microbiome, but they actually do go hand in hand and there’s a lot of strong associations that you. You make and you can teach like a 10 year old, for example. But studies on how price increases dissuade people from eating junk food are pretty inconclusive at this point, and I always think that is better to not force people to do something, rather to educate and inspire.

27:58 Alex Wise – Bun Lai, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:02 Bun Lai – Thank you, Alex.

28:16 Narrator –  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Mexicali Brass, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman and Bluesiana Triangle. Check out our website at Sea ChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast, visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.