Being "green" has become quite trendy in recent years and it seems like every industry is jumping on the bandwagon. For pets, I've seen biodegradable waste bags, organic toys, and beds made of recycled plastic bottles. But beyond the novelty products, some scientists believe that pet food is where we can make the biggest difference in terms of the impact we have on the earth.
When University of Illinois professor Kelly Swanson was approached by the Nutro company to look at sustainability in the pet food industry, he thought it would be a good opportunity to collaborate with their scientists on an interesting emerging topic (they define sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future).
"If you just change the diet a little," explains Kelly, "the financial and environmental costs associated with it are quite different."
Kelly says that people think that their dogs need high levels of meat protein and human-grade ingredients, leading to a direct competition with the human food system (one that will have to feed 9 billion people by 2050). He argues that dogs and cats require specific nutrients, not specific ingredients, which can be achieved using a wide variety of sources that does not rely on meat.
For example, animal protein can be replaced by plant protein, which requires significantly less water and energy to produce. Producing soy based proteins, a common pet food ingredient, is estimated to be 6 to 20 times more efficient in terms of fossil fuel requirements than an animal protein.
On the positive side, pet food manufacturers already make use of secondary products from the human food chain, ingredients that would otherwise be wasted.
Pet food is a $55 billion industry, so adopting sustainable practices could have a significant global impact. The effects will only increase as pet ownership continues to become more popular in Eastern Europe, areas of Latin America, and the China-Pacific region.
The ingredient issue isn't easily tackled by the average pet family, but you can help lower the impact of food production by simply not overfeeding your pups. This not only prevents obesity, but wastes less food.
Kelly is hoping to eventually develop a model that would estimate the environmental impact of pet foods and serve as a basis for increasing sustainability in the future.
This model could be used in response to those who believe we should not keep pets at all, like a controversial study published in 2009 that equated the environmental cost of keeping a mid-sized dog with driving an SUV 12,500 miles a year.
Eating less meat is one personal goal of mine for both health reasons and, as Kelly pointed out, because meat production is so taxing on the environment. However, there has been much information about the potential dangers of soy protein in canine diets, so I think there's still much research to do in this area. But Kelly's study is a good starting point in thinking about how we minimize environmental impact while making sure we have the healthiest diet for our dogs.