Feline Carbon Pawprint - Hard truths
about your cat's
by Paul Greenberg
New York Time
MY cat Coco died recently. Actually we euthanized him to alleviate his
suffering from cancer. And while this was a sad moment, it was made less
sad because Coco’s death also alleviated ever so slightly the suffering
of the sea.
Coco, like most American cats, ate fish. And a great deal of them — more
in a year than the average African human, according to Jason Clay at
the World Wildlife Fund. And unlike the chicken or beef Coco also gobbled
up, all those fish were wild animals, scooped out of the sea and flown
thousands of carbon-belching miles to reach his little blue bowl.
The use of wild fish in animal feed is a serious problem for the world’s
food systems. Around a third of all wild fish caught are “reduced” into
fish meal and fish oil. And yet most of the outrage about this is focused
not on land-based animals like Coco but on other fish — namely
This is understandable. Ever since the Stanford economist Rosamond Naylor
concluded in a 2000 paper in the journal Nature that it took three pounds
of wild fish to provide enough food to grow one pound of farmed salmon,
environmentalists have been apoplectic. They argue that the removal of
wild “forage” fish threatens to starve whales, seals and
other predators; that anchovies, mackerel and other “pelagic forage
fish” should be used to feed humans; and that feed made from wild
fish can give farm-raised fish higher levels of contaminants. As a result
of all these issues, ocean preservationists have focused their ire on
salmon farming. But in doing so they diverted attention from another
problem of equal importance: the role played by those land-based creatures
that also put their muzzles in the fish meal trough.
The pet food industry now uses about 10 percent of the global supply
of forage fish. The swine industry consumes 24 percent of fish meal and
oil — fish oil being considered the best way to wean piglets. Poultry
meanwhile takes as much as 22 percent, which means that even when Coco
ate chicken, indirectly he was still eating fish. (It’s worth pointing
out, too, that the PCBs that concentrate in farmed salmon similarly concentrate
in pigs and chickens. A PCB is the same persistent carcinogen no matter
what form of flesh delivers it to the human digestive tract.)
Meanwhile, the aquaculture industry has taken the criticisms levied against
it seriously. Through a combination of selective breeding of more efficient
animals, the use of fish meal substitutes from soy, and greater efforts
to retrieve uneaten pellets of fish meal at fish farms, the ratio of
pounds of wild fish required for a pound of farmed salmon has dropped
considerably since 2004. Yes, the overall number of salmon being farmed
and the subsequent demand for wild fish meal from salmon farmers are
rising, but they are clearly striving toward some kind of smaller footprint
at least on an impact-per-animal basis.
I am not advocating the salmon industry be given a free pass. It still
has work to do, particularly with limiting the escape of those efficient,
selectively bred farmed fish into the wild. But salmon naturally eat
other fish, while terrestrial livestock and pets eat them because humans
have deemed it commercially expedient.
If we are serious about curtailing our impact on the oceans, we should
insist that land-based farm animals stick to land-grown feed. Some moves
in this direction have already taken place. The United States’ national
organics standards now require producers to keep fish meal use to a minimum.
But limiting terrestrial use of fish meal in our country is not enough.
Fish meal and oil are now a booming international commodity. The rising
demand, particularly from Asia, is fueling a perilous trend to “reduce” bigger
and more valuable wild fish into pig, chicken and fish feed.
If we are to stop this devastating practice, we must step up our research
to find alternatives. Indeed, the Obama administration, in search of “shovel
ready” projects for the forthcoming stimulus package, would be
well advised to consider programs like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration’s research initiative to develop fish meal and oil
substitutes from algae, agricultural byproducts and other nonfish sources.
No doubt the swine and poultry industries will claim that fish substitutes
are too far off and that cutting out fish meal and fish oil is not economically
feasible. But similar arguments were once made by the agricultural interests
that relied on whales for fertilizer.
As for pets like Coco, alternatives already exist. Several companies
now make vegan cat food, though owners of vegan cats find they must supplement
their pets’ diets with Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, niacin and other
nutrients. But those who feel a vegan cat goes against nature (so says
the A.S.P.C.A.) might rethink a pet’s potential footprint before
A carnivore, be it a cat, a dog or a salmon, is a heavy burden for the
environment and should not be brought under human care lightly. In my
family, this has become a topic of debate as we consider our next animal.
Coco was an interesting and unique creature, and I argue that he cannot
be replaced. To me, a vegetarian substitute is seeming more and more
appealing. Lately, I’ve had my eye on a guinea pig.”