After simmering as a trend for decades, pet food sustainability may have emerged as a permanent aspect of the industry and its global supply chain. Ranging from pollution and labor conditions to corporate social responsibility, sustainability involves ensuring that future pet food professionals will have access to resources equivalent to or better than today’s and live dignified lives. Pet food companies have found innovative ways to meet that obligation to the future. However, challenges remain, especially when consumer demands contradict each other.
“I think that we can say that sustainability is more than a megatrend,” Marcel Blok, owner of pet business consultancy Change Stranamics, said. “For me it is structural change that will impact our lives for a very long time. Globally, a fast growing number of people seem to embrace that idea … I am glad to see that sustainability has evolved from what looked to be a hobby of the elitist few, to which others paid lip-service, into a serious and strategic issue discussed at board level. It has gone from a marketing ploy (‘let’s have a sustainable image’) to more conscious decisions about the future of companies and brands.”
“Pet food has followed the trends of human food so there has been a natural progression of a diminishing difference between pet and human food, and sustainability has fallen under this trend as well,” Laura Grinde, Healthy Food Ingredients sustainability coordinator, said.
Concern for the environment, human rights, long-term business profitability and other aspects of sustainability fluctuated during the past century. Politicians passed laws to protect the air, water and endangered species, but campaigns to save the rainforests or spotted owls often preached to the choir, and Captain Planet was eclipsed. Recently though, climate change has served as a single, global problem that pushed sustainability from trend to constant factor in pet food business. At the same time, new technologies empowered consumers to research the ecological and social repercussions of their purchases.
“They like the idea of recycling and sustainability, but they don’t want to feel like they’re feeding their pets recycled ingredients they wouldn’t eat themselves," Barber said.
“With the development of the internet, society’s ability to communicate and share information rapidly caused a new level of transparency from the bottom up,” Lawrence Blitz, president of Green Source Organics, said. “Now, manufacturers are seeking to meet the sustainability demands of the consumer, or risk social scorn, to create more environmentally friendly, healthy and nutritious products for animals and not only focus on their bottom lines. I believe manufacturers are more open to methods that either upcycle or use newer energy efficient ways to reduce costs.”
Pet food industry sustainability conflicts with pet owner demands
As the consequences of climate change become increasingly destructive and increasingly unlikely to reverse in our lifetimes, more people recognize that environmental degradation affects everyone and demand that corporations acknowledge the universal risk of business as usual. Some in the pet food industry have made changes to reduce their contribution to the ecological problems facing humanity.
“The pet food industry as a whole needs to do a better job sharing all the ways we work harmoniously with the human food industry,” Elizabeth Barber, F.L. Emmert Company, vice president of corporate development, said. F.L. Emmert’s products derive from brewer’s yeast, a co-product of the brewing industry. Besides Australian Vegemite, supplements and the last swig of a hefeweizen, few human foods use the brewer’s yeast directly. Yeast doesn’t compete for human food while providing minerals, vitamins and other nutrients in pet foods along with gut health benefits. However, people increasingly demand pet foods made from the same ingredients as human food, while co-products have become anathema among some consumers, as humanization influences pet dietary choices. That attitude can have environmental consequences.
“They like the idea of recycling and sustainability, but they don’t want to feel like they’re feeding their pets recycled ingredients they wouldn’t eat themselves,” Barber said. “That presents a unique challenge to pet food manufacturers that do their best to minimize food waste by using leftovers from human food production … We play a critical, positive role in the efficient use of raw materials that benefits the environment by reducing waste and providing valuable nutrition to animals. Without this sustainability cycle between food manufacturers and pet food companies, animal health would decrease and environmental costs would increase. The pet food industry in general practices a high degree of ecological awareness. The efficient, innovative use of high-quality available food resources is one of its greatest strengths and ways it contributes to a sustainable food system.”
Conservation and environmental aspects haven’t always been a major motivating principle in the use of co-products, though. Using every available ingredient produced by the human food system makes economic sense. It also honors the lives of the animals, plants and fungi by not wasting their sacrifice. Along with the rejection of co-products, which may increase wastage of protein and other nutrient sources, pet owners increasingly demand prime muscle tissue in their animals’ foods. This competes for human food in a world where millions are malnourished. Likewise, it increases the relative amount of pollution an resource use associated with the production of high-meat pet food versus conventional formulations.
“Proteins, as I see it, have been a huge area of change in feed applications,” said Blitz. “As pet parents seek to feed their fur kids human-like diets, the demand for quality animal proteins has increased to what I believe should be a point of concern due to their environmental cost and impact. However on a positive note, over the past few years, I have witnessed a shift toward plant-based alternatives derived from legumes and more eco-aware animal proteins like crickets and mealworms.”
Ecological stewardship by pet food brands and ingredient suppliers
Blitz singled out green lipped mussels as a prime example of sustainability in Green Source Organic’s portfolio of products. Their mussels grow in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sound under the supervision of sustainable aquaculture programs.
“Green lipped mussels are cultured from baby sprat and hung in a long mesh net, and seaweed, blue mussels, anemone and other aquatic species grown on the same line which attract fish to the habitat,” he said. “Mussels are also filter feeders that dramatically improve water quality in their surroundings. Our companies are also developing methods to utilize the seaweeds that grow harmoniously with the mussels to further reduce and reuse valuable marine resources in animal nutrition.”
Other pet food companies and ingredient suppliers have taken a similar strategy of stewardship for the ecosystems that support their businesses.
“Healthy Food Ingredients is part of the Carbon Disclosure Project in which we continually monitor and annually report water and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and transportation of ingredients from our facilities,” Laura Grinde, Healthy Food Ingredients sustainability coordinator said. “All HFI-owned facilities have completed a (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit) SMETA ethical audit.” She pointed to her company’s trademarked Suntava Purple Corn as a sustainable, transparent, clean label pet food ingredient, providing a rich source of antioxidants as well.
There may even be ways to produce human-grade foods for pets while conserving resources for future generations and respecting the well-being of livestock. For 20 years, Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Virginia, USA, has produced organic and certified humane livestock products and other items for human consumption, while offering agrotourism to urbanites from nearby Washington, D.C. The farm launched Gentle Harvest MeatMe raw frozen food and dehydrated treats for dogs and cats.
“Now we're making pet food alongside the human food in the same plan,” Laura Clark, vice president of product development with Gentle Harvest, said. “It's also certified humane and certified organic. Our company is vertically integrated, so that we not only have control of the animal when it's alive, we also have our own farm and processing plant, we have our own abattoir, so we have total transparency from birth to bowl. What this means for us and for our customers is that we know exactly what's happening to that animal at every stage of its life.”
This conscientious view of agriculture’s effects on the livestock and land involved reflects a growing awareness of the ancient truth that humans and our pets are parts of larger ecosystems on a single planet, subject to the same biological principles of carrying capacity. Sustainability attempts to find that balance, where people use resources at a slower rate than those resources are replenished naturally. Likewise, sustainability entails ensuring people live healthy, dignified lives in perpetuity. Globally though, extinctions, pollution, slavery, land theft and numerous other problems show that overall humanity has not reached a point of equilibrium with the planet or each other. While changes are occurring in the pet food industry, Blok thinks there are opportunities for companies to take leadership positions in sustainability.
“I see the ecological awareness of the pet food industry as growing, but awareness does not means action,” Blok said. “Ecology is still seen as a cost. We take action when regulations tell us to do so. We wait for others to take the initiative … Initiatives have been taken for and with the human food industry and we jump on the bandwagon because we are compelled to do so … As a mature industry we must start to take our responsibility and not only follow trends set by others, but also set a few ones ourselves.”
"Some companies already have a strong focus on the environment and improving their ecological footprint," Sigve Nordrum, executive vice president of animal health and nutrition with Aker BioMarine. "Many brands are also very aware that sourcing sustainably certified ingredients, for example, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified marine based ingredients, is a must. To that end, I think the pet food industry is moving in the right direction and as more and more companies continue to embrace the best practices possible, we can provide our pets with the best products on the market while ensuring a thriving and healthy ecosystem."
Ultimately, business decisions made now will determine if our descendants keep dogs and cats as pampered pets, or if this epoch in human history is the high water mark for our standards of living and our pets. Climate refugees probably won’t be a big market for superpremium pet foods. Then again, Mad Max did enjoy eating cans of Dinki-Di brand dog food.