Aside from, perhaps, GMOs, few topics in the sustainable business arena are as emotional as pets. When my friend Erik Assadourian wrote a well-researched story for the Guardian last year asking whether pets are bad for the environment, he was assailed in the comments as a a “dumbass,” an “animal hater” and “an overpaid media commentator.” (The last allegation, I can assure you, is false.) It goes without saying that people love their pets. “My dogs are my family,” one commenter said. And we certainly can’t blame pets for the world’s pollution problems. As Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, a pet owner and a defender of all four-legged creatures, once said, dogs and cats “aren’t driving to work.”
True enough. But dogs and cats have environmental impacts. They make waste. They’re eat, and many are overfed. They consume resources, including plastic toys and costly health care. And while, yes, they provide companionship, improve health and get us to spend more time outdoors meeting people, as Erik noted, couldn’t all those things be provided just as well by, er, people? Do we really need dogs to get us to talk a walk around the neighborhood.
When I recently revisited the topic for the Guardian, focusing this time on the impact of pet food, an editor told me that my story wasn’t good enough to run. I learned long ago not to argue with editors–they’re powerful and, occasionally, right–so I took the story to the Worldwatch Institute, where Erik works, and it then made its way to GreenBiz.
The story is anything but an assault on pets. Instead, it’s an effort to show how the giant food company Mars, which makes more pet food than candy bars, is trying to reduce its environmental impact, focusing on cat food, seafood and the oceans. Here’s how the story begins:
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.
The story goes on to say that Mars has
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.
That’s a step in the right direction. Other pet food companies, including Nestle and J.M. Smucker, have yet to follow. You can read the rest of my story here.
There was more bad news this week for pet owners. Did you happen to see the massive New York Times series about slavery at sea? The headline reads Sea Slaves: The Human Misery that Feeds Pets and Livestock. In four long stories, The Times reports on harsh, inhumane, just plain awful way that people are treated in the Thai fishing industry, which is being driven by “an insatiable global demand for seafood even as fishing stocks are depleted.”
Here’s where pets come in:
The United States is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand, more than doubling since 2009 and last year totaling more than $190 million. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.
Though there is growing pressure from Americans and other Western consumers for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains to ensure against illegal fishing and contaminated or counterfeit fish, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people eat, much less the fish that is fed to animals.
“How fast do their pets eat what’s put in front of them, and are there whole meat chunks in that meal?” asked Giovanni M. Turchini, an environmental professor at Deakin University in Australia who studies the global fish markets. “These are the factors that pet owners most focus on.”
So should you give up your cats and dogs? Not necessarily. But small pets are better than big ones. And if you feed them fish and meat, you might want to go vegetarian more often, to offset their impact.