Nicola Wordsworth says her pet, Tibetan Terrier Bertie, shares her diet.
“I’m a flexitarian – vegan and occasional vegetarian. I don’t do dairy and rarely do meat,” says the 54-year-old from Kent.
“Bertie is also a vegan and occasional vegetarian. And when he has meat in his food, I make sure it’s sustainable, low mileage, and good quality, like it is for me.”
A UK study conducted earlier this year found that 61% of pet owners now want to know the environmental impact of the food they buy for their pet. Considering the footprint of the pet food industry, that might just be a good thing.
According to a report, the global pet food industry emits more greenhouse gases than countries like Mozambique and the Philippines.
The same article also calculated that each year twice the area of the UK is used to produce dry cat and dog food, not to mention wet food.
Meanwhile, a separate US survey found that cat and dog food is responsible for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat production.
So is it time to take conventional meat off our pets’ menu and instead switch to more sustainable alternatives, such as vegan foods, insects, and even lab-grown meat?
The latter is also known as cultured meat, and Edinburgh-based Good Dog Food hopes to bring it to market in the next few years.
A joint venture between two biotech companies, Agronomics and Roslin Technologies, its research team already grows lab-grown pork and chicken, and is also developing cultured beef and lamb.
The process of making lab-grown meat begins with stem cells, usually taken from an embryo but also from adult animals, which are then grown in the lab. In a method similar to what happens inside an animal’s body, they are fed with nutrients such as amino acids, glucose and vitamins.
The technique produces meat without the livestock, without the need to raise and slaughter animals. And the Good Dog Food team say there’s no need to stock up on extra stem cells as the stock “replenishes endlessly”.
“Cultured meat offers the possibility of feeding cats and dogs animal-based diets without the ethical and environmental implications associated with feeding them traditional meat,” says Professor Jacqui Matthews, Scientific Director of Good Dog. Food.
“[By contrast]vegan diets for pets may contain synthetic supplements. [And] there is little evidence to indicate that this is a safe, long-term option.”
Owen Ensor, managing director of Good Dog Food, says lab-grown meat uses far less land, water and electricity, and reduces agriculture-related pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss. It is also expected that the production will not require the use of any antibiotics.
“My partner and I would love to have a little furball of our own,” he adds. “But being vegans, we’ve struggled to align owning a pet with the environmental and moral cost of owning one. Hopefully Good Dog Food can solve that problem.”
Although lab-grown meat may make some of us uncomfortable, one such product, cultured chicken meat, has already been released for human consumption in Singapore. And in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory agency last month gave approval to a start-up making similar lab-grown chicken for humans.
Canine nutritionist Alyssa Ralph says it’s not unusual for an owner to apply their own dietary choices to their pet.
“Pet diets often follow human dietary trends very closely,” says canine nutritionist Alyssa Ralph. “A major example of this was seen when gluten-free diets became very fashionable for people, and shortly after the sudden explosion of the grain-free pet industry.
“More recently, we’ve seen this trend with vegan diets.”
A London-based plant-based dog food brand, Omni, claims to have seen sales more than sixfold since September 2021 and sold more than 90,000 vegan dog meals to date.
Its co-founder, Guy Sandelowsky, is also a small animal veterinarian. He says trying to feed the animals the meat their wild ancestors would have eaten is “not appropriate”.
“We know they need protein, but it’s possible to provide dogs with all the protein they need from plant-based foods.”
Whether or not we should feed our dogs what their predecessors would have eaten in the wild is a controversial topic.
“The overriding argument is that we should be feeding our pet dogs an ancestral diet, consistent with what gray wolves consume today,” says Ms Ralph.
“However, while our dogs and gray wolves share a common ancestor, we began domesticating dogs between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, with ‘proto-dogs’. [the first dogs descended from wolves] potentially appearing as early as 100,000 years ago.”
Meanwhile, a 2013 study found that domestic dogs have evolved genetically to adapt to a high carbohydrate diet. Cats, on the other hand, are undeniably carnivorous.
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Nicole Paley, assistant general manager of the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, points out that the pet food industry is known for reducing waste in the human food chain. For example, using a large portion of offal.
“However,” adds Ms Paley, “as pressure on resources and food availability continues, we are committed to seeking alternative solutions.”
Ms. Paley describes recent innovations in protein sources, including seaweed, aquatic plant duckweed, black soldier fly and lab-grown meat.
However, back in Kent, Nicola Wordsworth says she would feel a bit “grossed” about eating cultured meat herself or giving it to Bertie. Instead, she says the two will remain mostly vegan. “He likes it. He’s happy and healthy.”