The Pet Food Manufacturers Association runs a pet-related seminar every year, often covering novel topics that are interesting to anyone with any connection with the pet world. This year, the topic was “sustainability” – both of the production of pet food, but interestingly, also the production of pets, including the complex issue of dog breeding. This is the first of two blogs from the seminar: the second one will discuss the “sustainable dog production” issue.

bugThe first question is: what does “sustainability” mean? Most of us think about this in terms of our environment – the issue of declining resources, such as clean air, fresh water, fertile soil, forests, oceans and the wider issue of global warming. But for every human endeavour, there is a broader definition of sustainability which includes the ability of the organisation to thrive for coming decades. As well as the resources issue, there are three other important aspects:

1. Full transparency. Our information-rich, internet-driven world means that people expect to know everything possible about an organisation or company. Who is in charge, who is working for a company, what are their job conditions, where do they source ingredients, how do they make their products, where do their waste products go? If an organisation is not transparent, people tend to be suspicious, and are less likely to be supportive.

2. Increasing expectations. People expect more than just transparency: they are looking for the highest possible corporate or organisational standards. This includes environmental responsibility as well as making a fair contribution to society: it’s no longer good enough just to make token donations to good causes.

3. Technological interconnection. For any business today, it’s impossible to attempt to be sustainable without engaging fully with the internet. There are smart sensors everywhere, from agriculture to cities, in transport and in our financial transactions, running our homes and monitoring our health. If any organisation does not engage with this level of technology, it’s difficult to see how they’ll adapt to the future.

This lesson about sustainability carries messages that can usefully be adapted to any business, including veterinary clinics. At the PFMA seminar, one pet food company representative spoke about how the pet food industry is tackling sustainablity.

Traditionally, pet food production was a perfect model of recycling, using by-products from human food production to create useful nutrition for pets. This brilliantly sustainable system has come under pressure in recent times, for two reasons.

First, there is a trend for owners to examine the ingredients label carefully, looking for a higher quality of food for their pets: a specific meat “chicken” or “lamb”, rather than the generic “meat and animal derivatives”, regardless of the facts about nutritional values.

Second, the EU may insist that meat by-products can no longer be called “meat”.

These two facts may force pet food manufacturers to stop being such efficient recyclers, moving into direct competition with the human food market for ingredients.

Innovation is needed in the pet food industry to stay ahead of this trend, and one interesting idea was discussed at the seminar: the use of insects as a way of providing protein. Beetles and flies – or their larvae – can be incorporated directly into pet food, or perhaps more likely, can be used as a protein supplement for farm animals that are then used for pet food production. Surveys show that pet owners are reasonably open to this concept. After all, insects are a natural part of the diet of poultry and pigs: when you think about it, this is an excellent example of sustainability in a part of our daily lives.

The next stage, one day, may be insects for direct human consumption. But let’s take this one sustainable step at a time…