Is the pet food industry sustainable?

Spike's World

A comment on Twitter got me thinking about sustainability and how trends in pet food may be impacting the sustainability of the industry.

Sustainability can be thought of on either a global or local scale but in essence it describes the use of an ecosystem in such a way that it provides resources today without compromising its ability to provide resources for future generations.  In my view, the two forms of resources need not be the same for example; a sustainable meat industry must produce meat without harming biodiversity.  Considering biodiversity as a resource may seem strange, but many wild plants and animals provide ‘ecosystem services’ that improve the lives of many people.

Traditionally the pet food industry has been a repository for the waste products of the human food industry and many cheaper pet foods contain meat meals or ‘meat and animal derivatives’. While little research has been conducted into the impact of these ingredients, it might be considered that in using a product that may have been otherwise been wasted, the pet food industry may have been helping to limit the negative impact of the human food industry.  Quantifying this impact is not an easy task, however, a recent trend toward avoiding such ‘by products’ in favour of ‘human grade’ ingredients means that in many cases the pet food industry now competes directly with the human food industry for its raw ingredients.

The production of livestock for meat has been criticized for its inefficient production of protein – in essence with every step up the food chain 90% of the energy put in is lost (known as the 10% law); so it takes a huge amount more energy to produce a kilo of beef than it does a kilo of wheat.   If sustainability was our only consideration then a vegan diet for ourselves and our pets would certainly be the most sustainable, but while our pets may technically be able to survive on such a diet (aside from the fact that cats need the amino acid taurine) they may not thrive on such a species inappropriate diet.

The 10% law says that as we move up the food chain (known as trophic level) only 10% of the energy is transferred.

A move toward using more energy efficient animals as food for our own pets may provide a more sustainable option for conscious pet parents, and the growth of aquaculture may hold the key. Fish are inherently more efficient at converting food in to flesh than birds or mammals. As cold blooded creatures they do not waste energy producing heat and they do not have to grow a big skeleton either.

While aquaculture has the potential for some environmental damage through the leaching of waste products into the environment, this is strictly regulated in the UK and schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council serve to ensure production is as sustainable as possible.  However, there is thought that moving forward the any waste products of aquaculture may be used to fertilise the growth of aquatic plant products that may in turn be used to feed back to the fish themselves or for human consumption.  Should the plants be used to feed back to the fish, only the very minimum about of nutrients will need to be added to the system, producing a highly efficient and sustainable system.

Sustainability is a concern that is bound to continually arise in the pet food industry, and unless we are all prepared to forgo dog and cat ownership in favour of keeping vegetarian animals such as rabbits, we must all be prepared consider the environmental impact of our choice of pet and the food we feed it.