Nicola Wordsworth says her pet Tibetan Terrier Bertie shares her diet.
“I’m a flexitarian — vegan and on-off vegetarian. I don’t eat dairy and rarely eat meat,” says the 54-year-old from Kent.
“Bertie is also vegan and vegetarian. And when he has meat in his food, I make sure it’s sustainable, low-mileage, and good quality, like me.”
A UK study earlier this year found that 61% of pet owners now want to know the environmental impact of the food they buy for their pet. Given the footprint of the pet food industry, this could be a good thing.
The global pet food sector emits more greenhouse gases than countries like Mozambique and the Philippines, according to a report.
The same paper also calculated that every year an area twice the size of the UK is used to produce dry dog and cat food, not to mention wet food.
Meanwhile, a separate US investigation said that dog and cat food is responsible for up to 30% of the environmental impact of meat production.
So is it time to take conventional meat off the menu for our pets and instead switch to more sustainable alternatives, like vegan foods, bugs, 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 coming years.
A joint venture between two biotech companies, Agronomics and Roslin Technologies, its research team is already growing lab-grown pork and chicken, and is now developing cultured beef and lamb as well.
The process of making lab-grown meat begins with stem cells, typically taken from an embryo, but also from adult animals, which are then grown in a lab. In a method similar to what takes place inside an animal’s body they are fed nutrients such as amino acids, glucose and vitamins.
The technique produces meat without livestock, without the need to raise and slaughter animals. And the Good Dog Food team says there’s no need to source any more stem cells because the stock “renews indefinitely.”
“Culturated meat offers the possibility of feeding dogs and cats animal-based diets without the ethical and environmental implications associated with feeding traditional meat,” says Prof. Jacqui Matthews, scientific director of Good Dog Food.
“[By contrast]vegan pet diets may have synthetic supplements added. [And] there is limited evidence to indicate that this is a safe long-term option.”
Owen Ensor, chief executive officer 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 like to have our own little ball of fur,” she 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 fix that.”
While lab-grown meat might make some of us feel a little uneasy, one such product, cultured chicken meat, has already gone on sale for human consumption in Singapore. And in the United States, the regulatory agency Food and Drug Administration last month gave approval to a start-up that produces similar lab-grown chicken for humans.
Dog nutritionist Alyssa Ralph says it’s not unusual for an owner to apply their food choices to their pet.
“Pet food diets often follow human dietary trends very closely,” says canine nutritionist, Alyssa Ralph. “A prominent example of this was seen when gluten-free diets became very trendy for people and shortly thereafter the grain-free pet industry suddenly exploded.
“More recently, we’ve seen this trend with vegan diets.”
A plant-based dog food brand, London-based Omni, says it has seen more than sixfold sales growth since September 2021 and has 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 animals meat that 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 ancestors would have eaten in the wild is a moot point.
“The overriding argument is that we should feed our pet dogs an ancestral diet, in line with what modern-day gray wolves consume,” 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 some ‘proto-dogs’ [the first dogs descended from wolves] potentially appearing up to 100,000 years ago.”
Meanwhile, a 2013 study found that domestic dogs have genetically evolved to adapt to a high-carb diet. Cats, on the other hand, are undeniably carnivores.
New Tech Economy is a series that explores how technological innovation is set to shape the emerging new economic landscape.
Nicole Paley, deputy chief executive officer of the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, points out that the pet food industry is renowned for reducing waste from the human food chain. For example, using a large part of the offal.
“However,” adds Paley, “as the squeeze on resources and food availability continues, we are committed to seeking further solutions.”
Paley describes recent innovations in protein sources, including algae, aquatic plant duckweed, black soldier fly, and lab-grown meat.
However, in Kent, Nicola Wordsworth says she would feel a little ‘picky’ eating cultured meat herself, or giving it to Bertie. But she says both will remain mostly vegan. “He likes her. He’s happy and healthy.”