Pet food is heating the planet. We review three ways the industry is going green: through food waste, insects, and plants.
The US spent $95.7 billion on the pet industry in 2019, with pet food and treats making up the largest sales segment (38%). In 2020, the European pet food industry has a turnover of €21.8 billion.
This huge sector takes a massive environmental toll. According to the FEDIAF, a year’s supply of wet dog food for one pet in the European Union has a footprint of 464 kg of carbon dioxide and 139 kg for dry dog food. Equivalent figures for cat wet food is 141 kg carbon dioxide equivalent. Now multiply these figures by the estimated 89 million pet dogs and 110 million pet cats in Europe. These estimates may not even reveal the true extent of industry harm. Pet food ingredients usually come from multiple countries with uneven environmental standards, making accurate sustainability evaluation difficult.
The climate impact of pet food owes much to their protein content, which is more resource-intensive to cultivate than grains. The Association of American Feed Control Officials minimums for food protein content is 18% for adult dogs and 26% for adult cats on a dry matter (DM) basis.
As consumers become alive to the environmental damage wrought by the pet food industry, they are demanding alternatives. An industry report from Pet Food in the US stated that sustainability and corporate responsibility were among the nine top opportunities for pet food companies in 2018.
Although the market remains dominated by a few large companies that have historically not prioritised environmental targets, this is changing. Royal Canin, a leading science-based pet food company and the largest brand owned by Mars, Incorporated, recently announced it has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. The company aims to have its first product range certified carbon neutral by 2022.
There are three strategies for producing greener pet food. We start with the simplest and easiest to implement: turning human food waste into pet food.
Food waste as pet food
Turning commercial and residential human food waste into pet food is the most economically and technically feasible way to make pet food sustainable. Despite there being no legal barriers to this in the EU, it remains an underexploited niche with no European companies currently operating on this model.
In the US, a pilot scheme called the Sustainable Alternative Feed Enterprises demonstrated how a waste-to-feed business could work. A daily average of 50 tons of commercial and residential waste was collected using a special transport vehicle that protects the biomass from contamination. At the processing facility, the waste is mashed and then treated for oversized or inorganic material like plastic, glass, and magnetic metals. Once dried, the mash is turned into pellets. A 2018 study found that the pet food produced by the Sustainable Alternative Feed Enterprise passed EU animal feed health guidelines. Nitrates, mycotoxin, dangerous bacteria, and heavy metals were well below permitted levels. Pesticides were absent. The mineral content was diverse, reflecting the variety of food waste collected.
The only European scheme along these lines is the Food 4 Feed project in Crete. It is working on the development of a pilot unit that can produce 40 to 50 tonnes of agricultural and pet feed per annum from service sector waste food.
Insect-based pet food
Insect-based pet feed could drastically cut environmental impacts, particularly if the insects are reared on agricultural byproducts that cannot be eaten by humans. The largest market for insect-based pet foods, both in terms of production and demand, is Europe followed by North America. In Europe, the sector was bolstered by the 2017 European Commission decision to allow seven insect species to be used for fish feed and pet foods.
Insect pet feed is still a niche product, often sold as hypoallergenic alternatives to conventional feed. Insect farming is still not at the capacity required to substitute for farmed animal protein to a significant degree However, this is set to change quickly. According to the Dutch financial services company Rabobank, the biggest market for insect producers is currently pet food. Since the profitability of insect farms depend on making a range of products to different industries tend, it is likely that growth in insect production capacity will automatically lead to more insect-based pet foods coming onto the market.
The technical challenges of scaling insect farming relate to optimising insect health. Although insects require much fewer inputs than traditional livestock, rearing conditions are still crucial in ensuring healthy stock and a nutritional end product. Insects are subject to similar health risks as other livestock animals. They accumulate heavy metals, pesticides, and drug residues through their diet. Bacterial pathogens can spread easily in crowded rearing conditions. As in mammals, microbiota is crucial for insect health. Optimal rearing practices for insect cultivation need much more research.
Considered a farmed animal under EU law, insect farmers must ensure the same health standards as for other livestock subject to health and biosecurity regulations set out under ‘EU Animal Health Law’ Regulation no 2016/429 on transmissible animal disease. Unlike other livestock, however, they are not subject to animal welfare standards.
Ultimately, the growth of insect-based pet food offerings depends on the growth of insect farming more broadly. Europe has been advancing insect production scaling: 600 million euros in 2019 investment. Helping the industry along is the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed IPIFF, an EU non-profit representing the interests of the insect production sector within EU institutions.
The largest companies offering cat and dog food with insect protein are Mars and Nestle’s pet food divisions. Smaller companies delivering insect-based pet foods are growing. In 2019, the pet food brand Yora Pet Foods launched a dog food where 40% of the protein comes from black soldier fly larvae. Another company Entoma Pet food launched a 100 percent insect protein dog treats range and kibbles. French company Reglo offers kibble that replaces meat with insect proteins from the black soldier fly larvae.
The largest insect producer in Africa is AgriProtein. It uses black soldier fly larvae to produce pet feed as well as other products such as insect-based soil conditioners.
Plant-based pet food
Vegan proteins can be obtained from pulses such as soy, pea, potato, fava bean, and yeast as well as from by-products like corn gluten meal, peanut flour, soybean meal, and soy flakes.
The main technical challenge of producing sustainable vegan pet food is ensuring plant-based mixes can provide all the nutritional benefits of farmed animal protein. A 2019 survey study found that a large proportion of consumers interested in switching to plant-based feed were put off by concerns about nutritional adequacy.
Scientific studies into the nutritional value of plant proteins for dogs and cats are only beginning. As a result, sample sizes are limited and general conclusions about the capacity of plant-based feeds to deliver complete nutrients in an economically viable manner are uncertain. What is clear is that, unsurprisingly, the nutritional value of vegan pet food varies between regions and brands. A 2020 study of vegan pet food on the Brazilian market found that some of the foods offered sufficient macronutrient content – fat, protein, and carbohydrates. However, they tended to be deficient in one or more micronutrients: calcium, potassium, sodium, methionine, arginine. None contained arachidonic acid usually contained inside linoleic acid, one of the omega-6 essential fatty acids. Arachidonic acid is essential for cats.
There are no studies on the nutritional content of plant-based pet feed for European or North American vegan pet foods. To gain a market edge, companies must subject their plant-based food to rigorous laboratory testing, particularly to demonstrate adequate levels of essential micronutrients. It must be remembered that conventional pet food products can also be nutritionally inadequate and incorrectly labelled. Vegan pet foods that are proven to offer complete nutrition through sustainable protein sources would be set to capture unprecedented market shares.
Evolution Diet Pet Food is a stand-out player in the US vegan pet foods market. All its cat and dog food are 100 percent vegan, making it a market rarity. Their protein is obtained from non-GMO oats, maize meal, and soybean meal. The nutritional claims are promising – the companies state that they contain all amino acids needed by the animal. The feed contains a high protein content of thirty percent. Cost per pound is competitive compared to other vegan pet food offerings at $2.23.
In Europe, the all-vegan pet food brand to watch is the German Vegdog. It launched in 2016 and markets itself as the go-to plant-based option for allergy-prone dogs. Tessa Zaune-Figlar, the founder, describes how she set up her brand after realising that no vegan dog food on the market had a complete nutritional profile. She developed her recipes with the help of veterinarians.
Yarrah, a B-Corp pet food company in the Netherlands focused on organic pet food, pioneered the first vegetarian dry food for dogs in 1995. The company claims their vegetarian option offers a complete nutritional recipe with ‘all the proteins, vitamins, minerals and amino acids’ the animal requires.