Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint 
  • Texas’s cold-induced power failures
  • A high-tech fix could help keep communities safe on melting ice roads

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

(Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

Meat has a big carbon footprint, with livestock responsible for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we’ve previously discussed in this newsletter. That’s prompted experts to recommend eating less meat for sustainability (and health) reasons.

But what about your pet? One study found that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by dog and cat food in the U.S. alone were equivalent to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the amount produced by 13.6 million cars. And it may be getting worse, with a trend toward feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That’s prompted some pet food makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — including insects.

Studies show that producing insect-based food requires far less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than meats such as beef, pork or chicken.

That’s one of the reasons more and more pet foods containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a brand owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of dog and cat food containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier started selling dog treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and dog food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to expand to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this year and cat food in 2022 because of “a ton of demand,” said company co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier originally worked with animal nutritionists on insect-based products to solve a different problem — namely, the founders’ canines had allergies to common meats used in dog foods. Poirier said now about half its customers seek out the product because of their pets’ allergies and about half for environmental reasons.

Cailin Heinze, a certified veterinary nutritionist based in the U.S. who has written about the environmental impact of pet foods, said we’re generally “not as concerned as we potentially should [be]” about the environmental footprint of pets.

On the other hand, she noted that the longer-term impact of newer diets, such as vegan foods and those containing insects, hasn’t been well tested compared to traditional pet foods.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Illinois who studies novel proteins for pet food (including insects, yeast and plant-based ingredients), said such ingredients are rigorously examined to determine their safety and nutrition before being added to pet food. 

“This is a very highly regulated industry,” she said, but admitted it’s also evolving.

When it comes to insects, she said positive data “shows promise towards using them more and more in pet food.” Insect-based proteins have also earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Association, which says some insect-based foods may be better for pets than prime steak.

But Godoy noted that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and pet owners should think about the needs of their own individual pet and research whether a particular diet would be suitable.

She said that aside from the type of protein, things like packaging and production methods can also make a difference. For example, using meat byproducts that would otherwise become waste doesn’t drive increased meat production the same way as using human-grade meat.

“There are a lot of different ways sustainability can be approached,” she said.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Emily Chung’s story on geoexchange systems in new condominium developments last week garnered quite a bit of reaction. But we want to start off by correcting one small fact in the piece: Stan Reitsma is the president of the Ontario Geothermal Association, not the Ontario Geoexchange Association, as stated in last week’s newsletter. 

OK, here are some responses. 

Robert Mancini, a self-described “mechanical engineer with nearly 37 years of commercial/institutional/residential geoexchange experience,” had this to say:

“In all the analyses we have done on these building types, the payback is generally 10 years and over. The fact is that these ground exchanger systems are leased to the condo corporation typically on a 30-year lease. If the condo corp. had owned the system, they would be paying for the 10 years and no more.”

Ian Fillingham: “I just read your article about how large condos are saving money and space by using geothermal heating systems. My first thought as I began reading was, why are they wasting all that money and effort? The better choice would be to use infrared heating panels. They use a small amount of electricity, require no special tools or technicians to install, require no servicing and can work for many years.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show!  For many northern communities, ice roads are essential for accessing things like food and fuel. But climate change is causing them to be less reliable and often unsafe. This week on What on Earth, we explore the impact and solutions. Listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: Power failures in Texas

Unprecedented cold weather (with temperatures as low as -22 C) descended on Texas this week, resulting in millions of Texans losing power. Many commentators inside and outside the Lone Star State seized on reports of frozen wind turbines as a contributing factor, with Twitter commentators, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal saying the blackouts demonstrated the weakness of renewable energy sources. As with most things, reality is more nuanced. While wind power can provide as much as 60 per cent of Texas’s power, it’s not typically the case in the winter months, when the state relies more on natural gas plants. The chilly temperatures predictably spurred people to turn up the heat, which in some cases led to supply shortages of natural gas, which heats about half the homes in Texas. Others have pointed out that Texas’s energy infrastructure is designed to resist extreme heat, not extreme cold, which explains why some of the state’s gas, coal and nuclear plants were frozen to the point of being inoperable. Finally, Texas is unique in that its grid is separated from the rest of the country — the result of its historical disdain for federal regulation and interference.

Pedestrians walk on an icy road on February 15, 2021 in East Austin, Texas. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather to Texas, causing traffic delays and power outages, and storms have swept across 26 states with a mix of freezing temperatures and precipitation. (Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • As part of a longer-term bid to completely remove plastic from its packaging, Coca-Cola will test new paper-based bottles that can be recycled. The company behind the concept is Danish-based Paboco (short for the Paper Bottle Company), which will be hosting a trial in Hungary this summer after more than seven years of development.

  • Loop, a new online store with the mission of reducing packaging waste, launched in Ontario on Feb. 1. The global reuse platform sells groceries and household items from Loblaws in refillable packaging. Products are delivered to customers’ homes by courier and picked up by Loop for cleaning and refilling. The store offers products like milk, toothpaste and pet food from some of the country’s most recognized brands.

  • The world’s first zero-emission tanker is set to launch in Tokyo Bay next year. Ship manufacturers and cargo owners are increasingly moving toward battery-powered ships as the industry works to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. Electric tankers are breaking ground in the shipping industry by drastically reducing their environmental impact.


A high-tech fix could help keep communities safe on melting ice roads

Kylik Kisoun Taylor, an Inuit guide and owner of Tundra North Tours, lives in a remote camp outside Inuvik, N.W.T., and each winter, when the lake and river ice surrounding him finally freezes over, he goes out on his snowmobile to test if it’s safe to travel on. (Tundra North Tours)

When it comes to challenging commutes, few can compete with Kylik Kisoun Taylor.

The Inuit guide and owner of Tundra North Tours lives in a remote camp outside Inuvik, N.W.T., and each winter, when the lake and river ice surrounding him finally freezes over, he goes out on his snowmobile to test if it’s safe to travel on.

“As soon as I feel the ice is frozen long enough, I go along the whole trail to Inuvik, and every 500 feet I drill a little hole — and as long as there’s over a foot of ice, I start driving on it,” said Kisoun Taylor (see photo above). “I take my time and I map it out.”

Kisoun Taylor may be among the first to test the ice at the start of the winter road season — which normally runs January to April — but he’s not alone. For thousands of Indigenous people living in remote Northern communities across Canada, winter roads provide the only practical opportunity to leave their communities and stock up on critical supplies, food and fuel for the rest of the year. 

(Typically, “winter road” is the term used for routes that pass over land and water; “ice road” is used for routes that run over frozen water alone.)

As a result of climate change, however, the winter roads are often freezing later, thawing earlier and are generally less predictable — and more dangerous — throughout the season. But a new monitoring system from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., could be a game-changer for people living in remote Northern locales.

A team led by Homa Kheyrollah Pour, assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier, uses satellite data to track the surface temperature of the ice at various locations.

But surface temperatures alone aren’t enough to predict the thickness of the ice, so the researchers have developed a computer model that considers other factors — humidity, precipitation, air pressure, cloud cover and wind speed — to predict how safe the ice is for travel.

“Then the model says, based on this temperature, wind speed, humidity and cloud cover that we have around the station today, the ice will be this thick,” said Kheyrollah Pour, who has been reviewing data dating back to 1998. “And we’re creating a daily map of that ice thickness.”

The system is still in the testing phase, but the model is up and running in the Northwest Territories, both on Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. 

Before COVID-19, the researchers had planned to return to the area and use a radar sensor to test the ice thickness against their computer-generated results. Instead, they shipped the sensor — which gets pulled behind a vehicle and measures the depth of the ice as it goes — to locals, who are going to test the ice for them.

Those measurements will not only be used to validate their model, Kheyrollah Pour said, but will also help community members track what’s happening on the ice roads in real time.

“Every time they create the data, they can send it to us and we’ll create a map on Google Earth, which they can put on their Facebook [page] or any website so people know how thick the ice is.”

The next step, said Kheyrollah Pour, is to work with Environment Canada to make the system operational across the country, and to have local Indigenous communities lead in the monitoring and share updated maps to area websites.

“They are very, very knowledgeable about the ice — I was talking to some local people about ice and it was like university for me,” said Kheyrollah Pour, who added the system will help keep everyone safer as climate change makes traditional practices less reliable. “So we should really transfer this knowledge to them.”

Kisoun Taylor has noticed the later openings and earlier closures of the ice in recent years.

“There’s a place right in front of my cabin where the ice road goes by, and a few years ago there was open water in a place that normally has two feet of ice by that time of year,” he said. The risk is that even people who know the area inside out can end up going through the ice on their snowmobiles.

“A lot of people who are hunting and out in the land [are] having to be a lot more cautious, instead of trusting [the ice]. They’re having to be more flexible and more aware of what’s happening so that they don’t get in trouble.”

Jennifer Van Evra

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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