This article was originally posted in Worldwatch’s Is Sustainability Still Possible? blog.
The United States is home to 85.8 million cats and 77.8 million dogs. They all have to eat. And that’s a problem–particularly when owners decide to feed their pets as if they were people.
The environmental impact of pet food is big, although no one knows just how big. Like the rest of us, dogs and cats consume meat, fish, corn and wheat, thus creating pressures on the global food system, along with carbon emissions as the food is manufactured and transported.
What we do know is that pet food is big business, generating about $22 billion in sales a year, industry groups estimate.
Much could be done to “green” pet foods—dogs and cats are getting more meat and fish than they need, for starters—but the industry is just starting to grapple with its sustainability issues.
Privately-held Mars is leading the way, at least when compared to its big rivals. Better known for chocolate bars and M&Ms, Mars is the world’s biggest pet food company: Mars Pet Care has revenues estimated at $17 billion, employs 39,000 people, operates about 70 factories and owns the Pedigree, Whiskas, Nutro, Sheba, Cesar, Royal Canin and Iams brands. Nestlé Purina is the No. 1 US pet care company in sales, volume and market share; its brands include Friskies, Fancy Feast, Mighty Dog and Alpo. Meantime, J.M. Smucker last year closed on a $6bn cash and stock transaction to acquire Big Heart, America’s biggest seller of pet snacks, including Milk-Bone and Meow Mix, and said pet food would become a bigger part of Smuckers than its trademark jellies and jams.
Last month, Isabelle Alvoet, the global sustainability director for Mars Pet Care, who is based in Brussels, spoke at a food-and-sustainability event organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she told reporters Mars is doing its part to use seafood sustainably.
In 2010, in an industry first, Mars promised to buy fish only from fisheries or fish farms that are certified as sustainable by third parties. Importantly, Mars also said it would replace all wild catch whole fish and fish fillet with either by-products or farmed fish—so that demand for pet food does not compete directly with food that could be served to people.
This is a challenge for the company, she explained, because it runs counter to the desires of customers: Pet owners increasingly want to buy food for their pets that resembles what they eat. So-called premium pet foods carrying labels like Pedigree Choice Cuts in Gravy and Whiskas Savory Pate Salmon Dinner in Sauce are the fastest growing part of the market, part of a trend known as “pet humanization.” Blue Buffalo, a privately-held company that has battled with big pet food companies over claims that its food contains no byproducts, tells customers: “Love them like family. Feed them like family.”
“We are going to have to educate our consumers,” Alvoet said. “It’s not easy.”
Of course, some pet owners want to feed their pets higher quality foods because they worry about health and safety issues. A 2007 scandal claimed the lives of thousands of dogs and cats has been followed by a spate of illnesses linked to jerky-style pet treats, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The US Food and Drug Administration is currently developing new standards for pet food safety, according to HSUS.
If the FDA does its job, efforts to limit the environmental impact of pet food need not raise safety issues, according to KC Theisen, director of pet care issues for the HSUS. “They are going to elevate the standards for pet food manufacturing and processing, so they are much closer to human food standards,” she said.
Mars is making progress towards it sustainability goals. In the US, the company has replaced 100% of its wild caught fish supply with sources approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Globally, by the end of 2014 it had sourced 30% of its wild caught fish-based ingredients from suppliers who are certified as sustainable by third parties (such as the Marine Stewardship Council) or recommended by Seafood Watch.
For its part, Nestlé Purina has published a 20-page Nestlé Purina in Society Report that talks about “creating shared value” for consumers, society and the business. The company says it is reducing its energy and water use at selected plants, but it is vague about sourcing.
By email, Bill Salzman, director of corporate communications, told me that “responsible ingredient sourcing is a key focus area” for the company:
We also have developed comprehensive Responsible Sourcing Guidelines to ensure that all wild-caught and farmed seafood supplied to Nestlé Purina comes from responsible sources that are committed to a process of continuous improvement toward environmental, economic and social sustainability over time.
Nestlé Purina also says it has “a traceability program … (that)…focuses on issues such as deforestation, overfishing, human rights, child labor, water scarcity and animal welfare,” but it has not reported on its impact, or set goals or timetables aimed at reducing that impact.
JM Smucker, meantime, says it has just begun to integrate the Big Heart pet-food business. Maribeth Burns, vice president of corporate communications, said by email: “While we continually review our sustainability initiatives throughout the Company, we have not yet formalized our focus on the pet food industry at this time.”
One relatively easy task for pet food firms would be to reduce the meat and fish in their products. In a 2013 paper on the Nutritional Sustainability of Pet Foods, Kelly Scott Swanson, a professor in the department of animal science at the University of Illinois, wrote:
Often based on consumer demand rather than nutritional requirements, many commercial pet foods are formulated to provide nutrients in excess of current minimum recommendations, use ingredients that compete directly with the human food system, or are overconsumed by pets, resulting in food wastage and obesity.
By email, Swanson said that the big pet food companies have “already adopted some ‘green’ practices as it relates to their production, factories, shipping, etc.” but “not as many have thought of it for ingredients.” That’s changing, he says. Mars says it has “a team dedicated to finding alternative sources of protein across our entire portfolio.”
So, should you give up your dogs and cats? Not necessarily. But David MacKay, a British energy expert and scientist, has advised people to choose pets like cars – the smaller and fewer, the better.