Time to Eat the Dog?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | December 22, 2009 11:54 am

Today a link to this story hit my inbox:

..the revelation in the book “Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living” by New Zealanders Robert and Brenda Vale has angered pet owners who feel they are being singled out as troublemakers.


Combine the land required to generate its food and a “medium” sized dog has an annual footprint of 0.84 hectares (2.07 acres) — around twice the 0.41 hectares required by a 4×4 driving 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) a year, including energy to build the car.


While admittedly, I haven’t read the book, it appears the authors are just as hard on cats for killing wildlife, producing toxic waste, and eating Fancy Feast. In fact, no pet is innocent… not even goldfish. BUT there’s a big elephant in the room on this one (hopefully included in detail once readers get beyond the eye-catching title).

While the cumulative ‘eco-pawprint’ of our furry friends may be large, the trouble isn’t really about pets specifically. Rather, the point is that here on planet Earth, we (humans included) eat lots of protein. Food production (for dogs, cats, people, and more) has a gargantuan impact. Thus, the largest part of this equation–by far–has everything to do with the overwhelming carbon footprint of the meat industry.

The solution would be shifting average diet away from meat. Is it possible? Yes. Likely? That’s more complicated.


Comments (18)

  1. Gus Snarp

    I notice in the chart that 3 tonnes is carbon dioxide, the rest is methane and nitrous oxide. How much of this is cow respiration and cow farts? How much could be managed by better waste disposal practices in agriculture?

    I really need to see somebody without an axe to grind crunch the numbers on this for me. I’ve no doubt that cutting down forests and replacing them with cow pastures increases the net greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but I’m not so sold that cow farts are anything more than recycling. They may be greenhouse gases, but they are gases that likely would have been released to the atmosphere in a short time anyway. The issue with global warming is supposed to be the release of fossil carbon that had been in long term storage, or even of carbon stored long term in trees, but not of carbon stored in grasses that would die off and release much of their stored carbon every year.

    There are a lot of reasons to cut down our meat consumption, and I expect with the amount of forest being converted to pasture in South America that it matters to global warming, but I am not sure how much cows add to the atmospheric carbon load on a long term basis compared to cars.

    also, the little gray bar at the bottom says the average household’s total emissions are 60 tonnes, while transport and food only account for 4.4 and 8.1 tonnes respectively. Does that mean that home energy use is the biggest source? Surely something is bigger than food production, or the numbers don’t add up. Seems like somebody is trying to overstate the impact of meat.

  2. Sheril,
    It’s an intriguing concept, except that as omnivores, Humans are sort of evolved to get a certain amount of our energy from protein, and meat offers one source of easily bio-chemically accessible protein. True, soybeans offer another, but as I understand it the swap isn’t one for one, and the beans aren’t exactly carbon neutral in their production.

    rather then focusing on meat alone, might we be better off asking if the distribution of production impacts across all sectors of food is, in fact, equitable and low or no net carbon? Seems to me it’s a better approach then stamping “No Meat” across people’s foreheads.

  3. Jon

    Good one.

    At some point agriculture is going to have to look at some of this. We’ll need to start with something like LEED certified farms and an agricultural equivalent of the USGBC…

  4. Seems to me it’s a better approach then stamping “No Meat” across people’s foreheads.

    Not “No Meat,” just “less meat

  5. Gus Snarp

    @Sheril – hear hear on “less meat”. But isn’t that graphic a bit deceptive, with 60 tonnes of carbon hidden away in the gray bar? Those 60 tonnes that are basically written off of the graphic as “other” would dwarf the food production circle if they were drawn the same way.

  6. Brian D

    Sheril, the story behind this calculation was covered over at Michael Tobis’ ever-insightful Only In It For The Gold, here and with the links therein.

    That said, I agree 100%. I’ve cut my meat intake some 90% or so since I became aware of the EROEI of meat, and I’ve had some success with “meat-free monday” approaches with some friends (it’s easier to convince people to go meatless for one day than to go vegetarian, and the impact is still pretty substantial if enough people do it). Our campus vegan/vegetarian group has another challenge – no meat during daylight – that I find more interesting but also harder to convince people to try.

  7. Gil

    I’d read on another blog some people assert that the impact of dogs on meat demand was negligible, as they end up eating waste meat trappings left from what is produced for humans. If that is true, then dogs are just keeping some undesirable meat out of the landfills, although that could change if you really did get people to reduce their consumption.

  8. EyeRon

    Chris Mooney,

    Do you plan to have a family and children? If you do it seems you will be contributing to the demise of the world. If you do not it appears the world will miss out on the intellect, vitality and innovation your children could provide.

    Seems you are stuck between a rock & a hard place.

    My suggestion is you find a real religion that offers hope rather than despair.


  9. TomInAK

    Has anyone figured out the average annual GHG emissions for a typical Copenhagen delegate?

  10. Thomas L

    Good luck convincing Americans to get rid of their pets (many use them as replacements for not having children…). Last I checked the Indians & Chinese are very happy to be eating more – as in both meat and more than once a day…

    Sorry, this is the kind of tripe that just gets ridiculous. Just how much regulation of people’s lives do you really think is going to fly here – or anywhere else? I honestly think it is such things as this where you all really start loosing people.

    As a farmer (actually we don’t do the farming, but we do own it…) I can already assure you that in regards to food supply, well – there are issues…

  11. I think one really important thing that is missing from discussions of the GHG footprints of food and farming is that the current amounts of energy required to grow and transport food can change. For example, Nitrogen-Use Efficiency traits put in crops can cut the amount of nitrogen fertilizer necessary to maintain yields, and fertilizer is a huge part of the energy costs of farming, and therefore already a big part of the GHG emissions, before you factor in the Nitrous Oxides. Cutting down tractor use, field burning, and encouraging the sequestration of carbon in the soil can all contribute to reducing these amounts.

  12. Merdeux

    People often act as though I’m swiping food from their plate whenever I make arguments for vegetarianism.

    @ Philip H.
    I would conject that meat has never been ‘easily’ accessible. Unless you mean easy to purchase off the shelf. It actually takes quite a bit more energy to produce the same amount of protein from a domesticated animal then it does to grow it. It takes even more to hunt an animal in the wild, so I find your claim that we are somehow ‘evolved’ to eat primarily animal protein baseless.

  13. Thomas L


    I don’t think anyone thinks you are swiping food from their plate, I have a few friends that have ventured into vegetarianism (some more successfully than others…).

    People have a problem when someone makes a choice in their life and then proceeds to think everyone else should make the same choice. It’s rather like the annoyance one gets when someone is constantly trying to “convert” them and you hit the point where you just want to turn around and say – “Hey, I’m glad it works for you, please leave me alone….”

  14. Jay Alt

    So you haven’t read it. That’s a lousy excuse unless you aim to eliminate fertilizer emissions with internet manure.

    Dogs worse for the planet than SUVs? That’s barking mad!

    (snip) Omitting his corrections of energy use calculations, mileage and SUV manufacture –

    So by the authors’ estimates it must take about 150 million acres of US farmland to feed our dogs. In all, there are 440 million acres of cropland in the US — suggesting that the equivalent of one-third of all US cropland is devoted to producing dog food.

    We use the equivalent of a third of all US cropland to feed dogs? That’s barking mad!

  15. Anonymous Coward

    I just want to point out how ahead of its time our School Cafeterias have been.


  16. Charles Transue

    So far, every comment I’ve seen here deals almost solely with the numbers. Granted, the article is from a science magazine. Perhaps that is the problem: Science, in is assumed wisdom about all that is supposed to be good for us and good for the planet, seldom if ever takes into account the enormous benefits pets give their owners. Pet owners are generally happier than non-pet owners. Happy people make different decisions than those who are not – usually, those decisions come from compassion and concern for others, so they’re far less likely to be damaging and destructive to the environment. I realize I’m spitballing here and have no all-mighty NUMBERS to back me up, but, come on! The last thing I’m going to do is euthanize my three adorable, lovable, four-legged people in the name of environmental stewardship.
    If the authors of the book in question really want to save the environment, why don’t they euthanize themselves? I think the rest of us (at least, those who don’t envision Fido lying on a huge plate with an apple in his mouth) would be happy to see them go. Oh, I know: The authors aren’t actually advocating the consumption of Rex or Fluffy, but they might as well be.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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