TV has an amazing ability to influence our diets. For instance, in an episode of Futurama, the crew come across activists called Mankind for Ethical Animal Treatment (MEAT). "We taught a lion to eat tofu," they claim, before we see an unbelievably sick-looking lion. It was at this point that I became convinced that, for all the pros of a plant-based diet, some things just need meat.
I mention this because of some dramatic news coming out of the pet food industry. Having apparently failed to dedicate the hours that I did to cartoons at five o’clock on Sky One, there is a growing movement among eco-conscious pet owners to make some serious changes to their furry friends’ food. To put it simply, there are some people seemingly intent on turning their cats and dogs vegan.
Pet food is big business. In 2017, the market was worth a whopping $94bn, and reports suggest that that number is only going to grow. As emerging economies such as China and India begin to invest in pets, some estimates predict that the industry will grow by an additional 100 per cent this year. In the UK alone, it’s believed that the number of pets at least equals, if not exceeds the number of people living in the country. As if it wasn’t already obvious, the world loves animals.
Of course, all these animals need feeding. In recent years, we have become more obsessed than ever with the quality of what our pets eat, forcing the industry to reinvent itself. The result has had a serious impact on global food. As much as 25 per cent of all the environmental and ecological damage caused by meat production is as a direct result of demand for pet food, according to research from the University of Sydney. This includes the impact of fossil fuels, pesticides and use of natural resources.
Given the scale of the problem, it’s small wonder that people are looking for solutions. For instance, Microbiologist Dr Holly Ganz has dedicated her career to reducing the carbon “pawprint” of pet ownership. This includes everything from studying responsibly sourced pet foods to studying animal droppings to examine the health of vital microorganisms. Beyond this reasonable and essential work, however, is a growing resolve from some within the industry to find vegetarian and vegan replacements for ordinary pet food.
The newfound determination to defy animal diet logic is typified by plant-based pet food startup, Wild Earth. Currently creating alternative dog treats from an “ancient Japanese fungi” known as koji, they are convinced that it’s perfectly possible to move the pet food industry away from environmentally disastrous meat-heavy pet foods. CEO Ryan Bethencourt believes that koji can be the first stepping stone on the journey to a vegan pet food industry, before technology allows for the wide-scale production of lab-grown meat. Bethencourt and his team are currently working to prove that their new koji alternative is not only feasible, but healthy.
Unsurprisingly, there are some natural roadblocks in the way of an all-vegan approach to pet ownership. Cats, for instance, are obligate carnivores, meaning that almost all of the nutrients that they need come from meat. This includes the chemicals taurine and carnitine - crucial for vision and heart health. Futurama’s tofu lion is a fine example of what happens if you only feed them mushrooms.
Dogs, meanwhile, have evolved as scavengers and are far more effectively adapted to a varied diet. Their stomachs contain small amounts of the enzyme amylase, meaning that they can break down starch molecules more effectively than their feline foes. According to Dr Ganz, this means that dogs could technically be fed a vegetarian diet - good news for the likes of Wild Earth.
Unfortunately, that’s just about where the good news stops. Though it may be theoretically possible for a dog to survive on a diet of koji mushrooms, experts have made it clear that it is extremely difficult to prepare an effective food plan, and almost impossible without professional assistance. Speaking to The Guardian, president of the British Veterinary Association Gudrun Ravetz stated, “Theoretically, you can feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but it’s not something you do lightly and you definitely need to do it with a nutritionist. A lot of what cats need is found in animal protein. It may well be in this fungi, but I’d want to see evidence that these are in the fungi and they’re available to the animal.”
Clearly, there are a number of environmental issues with pet ownership. The solution, however, is far more complex than turning natural carnivores into veggies. Whichever way you spin it, there’s something fundamentally problematic with trying to fight nature so that we can continue to keep things that amuse us. Do we really want to own anaemic, critically ill cats because we’ve decided that the way they’ve evolved is “too environmentally damaging”?
Instead of swelling the numbers of pets already being produced and trying to feed them with food that they are not naturally able to digest, maybe we should try and face the harsh reality that we are the problem. Were it not for our insatiable appetite for animal ownership, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess. If the situation really is as serious as companies like Wild Earth claim, the answer is surely not to experiment with animal food, but stop owning pets altogether. After all, if I were a cat and you offered me a life of mushroom-based misery, I’m not sure the idea of being a family pet would be quite so appealing.