Gregory Okin is quick to point out that he does not hate dogs and cats. Although he shares his home withneither he is allergic, so his pets are fish he thinks it is fine if you do.But if you do, he would like you to consider what their meat-heavy kibble and canned foodare doing to the planet.
Okin, a geographer at UCLA, recently did that, and the numbers he crunched led to some astonishing conclusions. Americas180 million or so Rovers and Fluffies gulpdownabout25 percent of all the animal-derived calories consumed in the United States each year, according to Okins calculations. If these pets established a sovereign nation, it wouldrank fifth in global meat consumption.
Needless to say, producingthat meat which requires more land, water and energy and pollutes more than plant-based food creates alot of greenhouse gases: as many as 64 million tons annually, or about the equivalent ofdriving more than 12 million cars around for a year. That doesnt mean pet-keeping must be eschewed for the sake of the planet, but neither is it an unalloyed good, Okin wrote in a study published this week in PLOS One.
If you are worried about the environment, then in the same way you might consider what kind of car you buy this is something that might be on your radar, Okin said in an interview. But its not necessarily something you want to feel terrible about.
This research was a departure for Okin, who typically travels the globe to studydeserts things such aswind erosion, dust production and plant-soil interactions. But he said thebackyard chicken trend in Los Angeles got him thinking about how cool it is that pet chickens make protein, while dogs and cats eat protein. And he discovered that even as interest growsin the environmental impact ofour own meat consumption, therehas been almost no effort to quantify the part our most common pets play.
To do that, Okin turned todog and catpopulation estimates from the pet industry, average animal weights, and ingredient lists in popular pet foods. Thecountrysdogs and cats, he determined, consume about 19 percent as many calories as the human population, or about as much as 62 million American people. But because their diets are higher in protein, the pets total animal-derived calorie intake amounts to about 33 percent ofthat ofhumans.
Okins numbers are estimates, but they do a good job of giving us some numbers that we can talk about, said Cailin Heinze, a veterinary nutritionist at Tufts Universitys Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine who has written about the environmental impact of pet food. They bring up a really interesting discussion.
Okin warns that thesituation isnt likely to improveany time soon. Pet ownership is on the rise in developing countries such asChina, which means the demand for meaty pet food is, too. And in the United States, the growing idea of pets as furry childrenhas led to an expandingmarket of expensive, gourmet foods that sound like Blue Apron meals. That means not just kale and sweet potato in the ingredient list, but grain-free and human-grade concoctions that emphasizetheiruse of high-quality meat rather than the leftoverbyproducts that have traditionally made up much of our pets food.
The trend is that people will be looking for more good cuts of meat for their animals and more high-protein foods for their animals, Okin said.
What to do about this? Thats the hard part.Heinze said one place to start is by passing on the high-protein or human-grade foods. Dogs and cats do need protein and cats, which are obligate carnivores, really do need meat, she said. But the idea that they should dine onthe equivalent of prime rib and lots of it comes from what she calls the pet food fake news machine. Theres no need to be turned off by some plant-based proteins in a foods ingredients, she said, and dog owners in particular can look for foods with lower percentages of protein.
Human-grade, Heinze said, doesnt even have a regulatory definition, but it does suggest that a product might be using protein that humans wouldeat. Meat byproducts all the organs and other animal parts that dont end up at the supermarket are perfectly fine, she said.
Dogs and cats happily eat organ meat, Heinze said. Americans do not.
Okin has some thoughts about that. Theargument that pet foods use of byproducts is an efficiency in meat production is based on the premise thatoffal and organs are gross, he says. (Look no further than the collective gag over a finely textured beef product known as pink slime.) But if wewould reconsider that, his study found, about one-quarter of all the animal-derived calories in pet foodwould be sufficient for all the people of Colorado.
Ive traveled around the world and Im cognizant that what is considered human edible is culture-specific, he said. Maybe we need to have a conversation about what we will eat.
In the meantime, Okin suggests that people thinking about getting a dog might consider a smaller one a terrier rather than a Great Dane, say. Or, if you think a hamster might fulfill your pet desires, go that route.
Heinze, for her part, sometimesoffers the same counsel to vegetarian or vegan clients who want their pets to go meat-free. Theyare typically motivated by animal welfare concerns, not environmental ones, she said, but such diets are not always best for dogs, and they never are for cats.
There have been a few times in my career where Ive honestly said to my clients, We need to find a new home for your pet,' she said, and you need to get a rabbit or a guinea pig or something like that.
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