Prompted by climate and health concerns an increasing number of us humans are opting to eat less meat or else adopt plant-based diets altogether. But what about our pets?
Although there are fewer domesticated cats and dogs than people in the world, pets consume around a fifth of the world’s meat and fish. This is driving up land and water use, burning of fossil fuels and the use of highly toxic pesticides that can runoff from farms into the natural environment.
Meat analogues for humans are already big business. Now, the pet food market – which is worth more than £2.9 billion a year in the UK alone – is getting an environmentally-friendly and ethical makeover. Startups, backed by high-profile investors, are racing to reinvent food for those seeking to reduce their pets’ carbon “pawprint”. But how healthy are these meat-free alternatives for the animals?
Wild Earth – a startup bankrolled by Mars Petcare, the company behind the brands Pedigree and Whiskas, and Paypal founder Peter Thiel – is launching its dog food made from yeast, potato and pea protein in the US next month. Domesticated dogs have more copies of the gene that codes for the starch-digesting enzyme amylase than their wild ancestors, wolves, so they’re fairly well suited for omnivorous diets. And as scavengers, dogs are perfectly happy gobbling up anything their mouths can find.
But animal feed is not just about getting the right amount of protein. It’s also important to consider which amino acids – the small molecules proteins are built from – those proteins are made of out of says Wanda McCormick, a lecturer in nutritional biochemistry at the University of Northampton who specialises in animal welfare. For companies looking to develop pet foods with protein from alternative sources, she says: “It’s important that they don’t just look at the protein content but at the amino acid profile to make sure that all the amino acids that are essential for dogs are included.” Dogs have very specific nutritional needs based on their breed, age, size and sex. They are different to what other pet animals – or humans – require.
To achieve the right balance of nutrients, pet food manufacturers blend mixtures of ingredients including vegetables, cereals, vitamins and minerals. In the EU, for products to be sold as “complete” with all the nutrients required for a healthy dog, they need to follow guidelines set by the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF). They can only contain additives from an approved list of ingredients. “Any nutritionally ‘complete’ diet will need to contain the correct nutrients in the correct proportions,” says Nicole Paley, deputy chief executive of the UK’s Pet Food Manufacturers Association. It is possible to avoid animal-based proteins, she says, but diets will need to be formulated carefully. While research into and development of alternative protein sources is underway, she says, it is essential that there is no compromise on nutritional quality and palatability. “We are still in a bit of a testing period.”
While dogs can theoretically survive on a well-balanced vegetarian or even vegan diet (with synthetic supplements), cats are true carnivores; an adult feline eats around 230 grams of wet food each day, or 84kg a year – and a lot of it needs to include meat. In fact, in the UK, turning cats vegetarian or vegan could result in criminal charges under the Animal Welfare Act, which requires pet owners to make sure all their pets’ needs are being met.
To satisfy cats’ appetite for meat while offering owners a way out of their environmental and ethical guilt, some startups are developing slaughter-free meat. US-based Because Animals, for instance, is growing animal tissue in the lab without the controversial fetal bovine serum (FBS) that is traditionally used in the cultured meat industry. FBS is controversial because it involves drawing blood from pregnant cows during slaughter. “Because beef and chicken are the major by-products of the human food industry, these ingredients also serve as the predominant sources of protein found in pet food,” says CEO Shannon Falconer. Instead, the company is opting to grown in a lab to the same source of protein that cats in the wild would naturally eat: mice flesh.
But until firms like Because Animals can scale-up production without using animal blood, cruelty-free pet meat will only appeal to a small group of people who are willing to pay extra and have strong beliefs about the protein sourcing, says McCormick. She explains that traditional pet food generally contains more than just muscle meat – namely liver, kidney, skin and various other animal-derivatives. “The pet industry is actually quite an important step in reducing wastage and keeping the economic viability of meat production,” she says. “Every time an animal is slaughtered for human consumption, there’s a whole lot of pieces of it that humans are not prepared to eat.” If companies are producing lab-grown pet food without any animal products, they will have to make sure they covered all the essential nutrients, she says.
In a 2019 survey of more than 3,600 dog and cat owners from around the world, researchers of the University of Guelph’s veterinary college found that one in three are considering putting their pets on a vegan diet, while 27 per cent of respondents who follow a plant-based diet themselves have already done so.
But the British Veterinary Association (BVA) says that plant ingredients lack the taurine and preformed vitamin A that cats require. “While on paper a diet may include supplements or alternatives to animal-based protein, there is no guarantee that these would be bioavailable to the cat,” says the BVA’s junior vice president Daniella Dos Santos. Supplements might also interfere with other nutrients. While the meat-free pet food industry is evolving, she says, more robust, peer-reviewed research is needed to ensure that these products meet the dietary requirements.
Ultimately, the success of alternative animal feed will depend on how strongly pet owners feel about the environmental impact, or ethics, of animal meat. A recent University of Oxford study suggested that, in the long run, production of lab-grown meat could generate more carbon dioxide than meat from cattle. Many cultured meat companies are based in the US. “If all the lab-grown meat that is produced in the States is flown over, then the airmiles alone aren’t making it very carbon neutral,” says McCormick.
Although not vegetarian or vegan, the larvae of black soldier flies – which are increasingly used as feed for farmed fish and poultry – could offer a low-carbon solution. They are typically reared on human food waste that would otherwise go to landfill and are able to bulk up 45 per cent protein in just two weeks. “We are not suggesting insect-based protein should necessarily replace feeding cats and dogs meat altogether, but it provides another option in the formulation of pet food,” says Dos Santos.
British company Yora has been selling dog kibble made of grubs since January 2019 – while the insects are farmed in the Netherlands, the product is mixed with locally grown oats and potato and fortified with vitamins and minerals. But at £13.99 for a 1.5 kg bag, it isn’t cheap. “Currently the technology for farming insects is still young and costly to design,” says a company spokesperson. “Over time this should go down and production volumes will increase.” Yora is rolling out additional products for dogs and its first cat food in the coming months.
But ultimately, McCormick says, the moral glow that owners might feel from feeding their animals a vegan diet can’t come before the need to provide nutritionally balanced food. “We have to bear in mind that what we’re doing is in the best interest of the animal, not just the moral viewpoint of the owner.”
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