“We haven’t realized until now just how significant a contribution to climate change pet food and pet food production is,” Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and co-author of The Clean Pet Food Revolution said. (Courtesy photo)

Reducing the environmental impact of pet food

Pet owners, including myself, rarely consider the environmental paw-prints of our furry companions

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It’s easier to lower your environmental footprint in San Francisco than many other cities. Our relatively high density makes neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable. Community forums, such as BuyNothing (SF Families) and Craigslist, make it easy to share goods and reduce consumption. We have access to public renewable energy, a municipal composting system and numerous restaurants with locally-sourced, organic vegetarian and vegan options.

But we may be missing one — possibly high — environmental impact: our pets.

“We haven’t realized until now just how significant a contribution to climate change pet food and pet food production is,” Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and co-author of The Clean Pet Food Revolution, told me. “We’re feeding our pets a lot of animals.”

This realization led Dr. Ward to co-found Wild Earth, a Berkeley-based startup that uses a cultured fungi-based protein (koji) to make meatless dog food and treats. Other companies, Because Animals and Bond Pet Foods, are also developing proteins that don’t come from raised and slaughtered animals. It’s a mission similar to other Bay Area startups that provide meatless “meat” for human consumption, such as Impossible Foods and Finless Foods.

Of course, I can’t attest to the taste of these pet food products and treats. But the environmental benefits are important to highlight. Pet owners, including myself, rarely consider the environmental paw-prints of our furry companions and whether the amount of meat we feed them is really necessary.

In 2017, Gregory Okin at the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability published a study on the environmental impact of dogs’ and cats’ meat consumption in the United States. He calculated and compared how much meat our pets eat compared to American humans. Okin found that cats and dogs are responsible for about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide per year — the equivalent of driving 13.6 million cars.

“I like dogs and cats, and I’m definitely not recommending that people get rid of their pets or put them on a vegetarian diet, which would be unhealthy,” Okin said. “But I do think we should consider all the impacts that pets have so we can have an honest conversation about them.”

An honest conversation includes asking a question: do our pets need all the meat we feed them? Dogs were domesticated from wolves as long as 33,000 years ago. As they ate our food scraps over the millennia, dogs evolved a superior ability to metabolize carbohydrates and subsist on a diet lower in protein. Now, scientists consider canines omnivores. Exclusively feeding them meat is as healthy for dogs as it would be for us.

Cats, on the other hand, are strict carnivores. But the types of meat we feed our felines can also be unhealthy for them and problematic for the environment. Fish, for example, wasn’t a common prey species for their desert-dwelling ancestors. Cats have not evolved the mechanisms to excrete modern pollutants, such as mercury and PCBs, which can accumulate at hazardous levels in their tissue.

In addition, feeding cats fish takes these food staples away from other wildlife. Collapses in sardine and salmon populations, for example, have led to mass brown pelican die-offs, thousands of abandoned sea lion pups and significant drops in whale populations. The environment simply can’t afford unnecessary fish consumption.

To lower our pets’ environmental paw prints, Dr. Ward encourages San Franciscans to think about nutrients rather than ingredients.

“It’s going to require a colossal mind shift,” he told me. “In the Bay Area, we’re challenging the definition of meat.”

While San Franciscans who are concerned about the environment and animal rights have expanded vegetarian and vegan options in The City, startups are making it possible to eat meat without the guilt. Now, products like the Impossible Burger are even available at Burger King. We should give the dogs and cats we love the same opportunities to challenge culinary traditions, combat climate change and protect fellow animals.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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