An interview with the authors of a riveting new book about pet food consumption.
Did you know that a quarter of all the meat consumed in the United States is eaten by our pets? That’s the equivalent to the amount devoured by 26 million Americans, and it makes U.S. cats and dogs equal to the fifth largest country in terms of animal protein consumption.
Months ago I read a draft of a forthcoming book written by specialists in veterinary science, animal welfare, and biotech—Ernie Ward, Alice Oven, and Ryan Bethencourt—called The Clean Pet Food Revolution: How Better Pet Food Will Change the World.1 I was very impressed with the breadth, depth, and scientific basis of this fact-filled book and even more taken with its numerous important messages now that I’ve reread it. Here is what the authors had to say about their forward-looking work.
Why did you write The Clean Pet Food Revolution and what did each of you bring to the table or bowl?
Two huge reasons were to improve the health of our companion animals and to enhance the welfare of those other domesticated animals that suffer and die to feed our pets. A third, immediate motivator was the frightening impact that conventional meat-based pet food is having on the future of our planet. Research published in 2017 by UCLA professor Gregory Okin showed that a quarter of all meat-derived calories in the U.S. are fed to pets, meaning that modern high animal-protein pet diets are now a major contributor to human-induced climate change.
According to Okin’s research, if U.S. dogs and cats were their own country, it would rank fifth in terms of global animal meat consumption. Because more pet parents are demanding human-grade animal meats for their dogs and cats, animals are being purpose-bred to become pet food: about 30 percent of intensively farmed animals in the U.S. are slaughtered solely to feed our dogs and cats. Science tells us that unless we take the meat out of both human and pet foods, we’re not going to achieve the IPCC recommended 60 to 70 percent reduction in food-based GHG emissions needed to stop or slow climate change.
Ernie’s veterinary passion has always been in pet obesity, nutrition, and extending longevity in dogs and cats. During the past decade, he’s become concerned that there are too few food choices for pet owners concerned about the environment and climate change, animal welfare, and the contamination risks of meat-based dog foods.
Ernie wrote this book to educate pet parents as to the benefits of an animal-meat-free diet for pets, increasing consumer demand and encouraging other pet food producers to invest in alternative proteins. He explains the science behind plant-based feeding and delves into the challenges for feeding cats meat-free diets. Ernie is also passionate about saving the “hidden victims” of the pet food industry: dogs confined in “kennel farms” for use in pet food feeding trials. In the final chapter, he advocates for more ethical “in-home” testing, explaining why this can produce more useful science.
An animal ethicist, Alice is fascinated by the differing ways that humans treat dogs and cats versus the pigs, cows, and chickens we raise for food. She wants to help pet owners expand their circles of compassion: to remove the barriers that stand in the way of thinking too much about the animals in the food as well as the animals eating that food. As obsessive dog guardians, nobody understands the bond we share with our pets better than us. But surely this should be a starting point for broader empathy with all animals? So long as we rely on animal meat to feed our dogs and cats, we’re only reinforcing these categories of “food” versus “friend.”
Finally, we wanted to show not just problems but solutions, and this is where Ryan Bethencourt stepped in. Ryan’s expertise helped us write the section of the book which discusses the biotech innovations that are revolutionizing pet food. We explain why cell-based, cultured or “clean” meat has enormous potential to offer a more environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and ethical way to feed carnivorous cats. Cell-based protein is identical to animal meat in terms of nutritional composition, taste, and smell but not a single animal has to be harmed to make it. That’s the truly revolutionary part.
How does your book differ from others on the same or similar topics?
We wanted to write this book because we were seeing increasing interest in feeding alternative proteins to pets, but no one source of comprehensive, scientifically-sound information that they could refer to. There’s a lot of misinformation out there: For example, that dogs are carnivores, that removing meat from your cat’s diet is “abuse,” that raw meat is the healthiest diet for your dog, and that pets are just using up byproducts of meat meant for human consumption. We wanted to pull together the facts about pet nutrition and the real impact conventional meat pet food is having on the planet and on farmed animal suffering. The book is fully referenced without being “dry”―it was hugely important to us that we cited as many reputable scientific sources as possible.
Finally, while there are a few excellent books out there on plant-based pet food, this is the first book to explore novel proteins such as cultured fungi-based and yeast-based dog food and cell-based cat food. We speak with the top experts in each area, including the CEOs and scientists of cell-based meat start-ups for both pet and human food and disseminate their unique insights and perspectives on this exploding field.
What are some of your major themes and messages? I know many readers will really want to know if dogs or cats can “go vegetarian or vegan.”
One of the things we want to stress is that this book is not about turning your pet “vegan.” Veganism is a social movement, not a diet: your dog might be fed a plant-based diet but he/she is never going to lie awake at night worrying about farmed animal suffering or the ethics of wearing a leather collar. Actually, a plant-based diet is just one of the many ethical, environmentally, and scientifically sound alternatives to conventional animal meat pet food: there is now a wide range of meat-free pet food options, from plant-based diets, yeast and fungal proteins, insects (and yes, we debate the ethics of feeding insects, as well as discussing the environmental benefits!) and, very soon, cultured or “clean” meats.
Do you hope people will change the ways in which they decide who and what to feed to their companion animals?
Absolutely. Last year, a research team at the University of Guelph surveyed 3,673 pet parents and found that 78 percent of vegan owners indicated that they would feed a meat-free diet to their pet if one were easily available and proven to be nutritionally complete and safe. Our book aims to show that healthy alternatives to animal meats in pet foods are available, options that are better for the planet and reduce animal suffering.
What are some of your current projects?
Ernie is continuing his crusade for plant-based pet foods as co-founder and Chief Veterinary Officer of Wild Earth while overseeing research into the health benefits of meat-free pet foods and exploring exciting new alternative proteins.
Alice is currently working on her MSc thesis exploring pet owner attitudes to feeding cell-based meat and other alternative proteins, as well as developing a One Health One Welfare book series. She continues to blog regularly on animal ethics.
Ryan is actively working to ensure Wild Earth pet foods are available to more pet parents as CEO and tirelessly campaigns for pet food that’s better for pets, the planet, and all animals.
Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?
One of our greatest concerns is that pets will become too expensive to feed over the next 20 years due to exploding global populations and the increasing scarcity of resources. We believe that the Clean Pet Food Revolution will be won by introducing less expensive choices than traditional animal meats. We can only make meat cheaper by unethically increasing the number of animals raised and adding hormones and antibiotics. With yeast and cellular proteins, we can infinitely enhance the foods we produce at a lower cost, ethically creating foods specific to an individual pet’s nutritional needs. Our book discusses this emerging food revolution, the new language of nutrition, and how every human and animal can participate. Viva la revolution.
Thank you for such an informative and important interview. Many people, including animal lovers, really don’t know about “the impact pet food has on the environment and climate change, how healthy or necessary it is for our animal companions, or how it impacts the welfare of the farmed animals who become that food.” But they should and must.
1) Biographical information about the authors:
Ernie Ward, DVM is an internationally recognized veterinarian and the author of three books, including Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter. He writes “The Vet Is In” monthly column for Dogster Magazine.
Alice Oven is a freelance writer on animal ethics and welfare, and senior acquisitions editor for life science and veterinary books at Taylor & Francis Publishing. She is currently researching pet owner attitudes to feeding cell-based meat as part of her MSc Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law at the University of Winchester, UK.
Ryan Bethencourt is the co-founder of Wild Earth, a dog food company, and founder and former program director of the biotech incubator Indie Bio, having funded and built dozens of companies powering the future of food like Memphis Meats, Finless Foods, Geltor, Clara Foods, New Wave Foods and many more. You can read more about his work here.