Fresh Food, Sustainably

We already know that feeding our pets (and ourselves!) fresh, whole foods can have a profoundly positive impact on health, happiness, and longevity. There is a step beyond just the animal in front of you that can be taken, however: looking to the environment and the world as a whole, and choosing to use your energy and money to make choices that benefit not only your dog, but your community and ultimately the planet. While there is a push for humans to consume less meat due to the environmental impact and heavy carbon footprint that comes from commercial farming, we know that it’s inappropriate to apply that same expectation to our pets. Instead, we would ideally seek to blend sustainable shopping and feeding with species-appropriate considerations. This guide will offer some simple ways to do just that.

What is sustainable farming?

To quote the Union of Concerned Scientists, sustainable farming means “….good stewardship of the natural systems and resources that farms rely on. Among other things, this involves building and maintaining healthy soil; managing water wisely; minimizing air, water, and climate pollution; and promoting biodiversity”. There are often several key practices that go into sustainable agriculture: 

  • Rotating crops and utilizing crop diversity practices like intercropping
  • Planting cover crops during off-season to prevent soil erosion and replenish soil nutrients
  • Utililing no-till or reduce tillage methods to reduce soil erosion
  • Use integrated pest management, including mechanical and biological methods, to keep pests controlled
  • Crop selection as a tool for better waste management, planting crops that are correct for the zone of planting
  • Managing grazing by rotating livestock across different pastures, which helps preserve the soil and naturally fertilizes the land
  • Manual removal of weeds
  • Utilizing alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and/or water power

It starts at home.

For those of us with black thumbs, gardening can seem like a daunting task. But many favorite fruit and vegetable staples- blueberries, kale, spinach, chard, etc.- will easily grow even in small spaces, like on the balcony or porch of an apartment.

For items that require going to a market or store, buying vinyl or fabric shopping bags that be used over and over again is a good way to reduce your plastic waste. 

Similarly, if the space is available to you, utilizing glass or BPA-free plastic containers to store your prepped pet food will reduce the amount of plastic thrown out. 

  • Grow your own vegetables, herbs, and berry bushes; this can be done using a garden plot or containers on a porch!
  • Buy and utilize reusable bags
  • Use washable containers to store prepped pet food whenever possible
  • Buy from local farmers' markets, butcher shops, and fishmongers whenever possible
  • Buy from certified bee-friendly farms
  • Look for CSA subscriptions and connect with other families to split shares of meat

shop local.

By choosing to shop locally, you can opt to only spend your money on meat that has been humanely raised and processed, and on organic produce that has been sustainably grown and harvested. While current science says that GMOs are safe for consumption, the spraying of pesticides does harm insect populations, especially pollinators. 

Shopping local means that more of your money will stay within your community and that the food you buy is using less fuel for transport. Supporting your local farmers means that you can cultivate friendships that will come in handy in the next section we cover. 

CSAs, or “community supported agriculture”, is a great way to ensure that the produce that you’re feeding is fresh, in season, and locally harvested. Similarly, buying “shares” of cows and pigs ensures that you will receive fresh, quality meat from farmers that you trust.  

Additionally,  you are more likely to find pastured eggs and grass-fed or grass-fed-and-finished beef from local farms, which have their own slew of benefits!

Pastured eggs are higher in vitamins A, D,3, and E; and are higher in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids than conventially-farmed eggs. Similarly, grass fed meat is higher in vitamins A & E, CLA, and omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed meat (up to 5x as many omega-3s!). Look for meat that is either “100% grass fed”, or “100% grass fed and finished”. 

eat seasonally & organic.

When you “eat seasonally”, you buy fruits and vegetables when they are in season, perhaps choosing to freeze extras for seasons when they are not. Why? Because in order for out-of-season foods to show up in your local grocery store, that produce has to be either flown in from far away or grown in unnatural conditions. 

While organic fruits and vegetables are typically more expensive, there is a yearly list of “dirty dozen” foods that should be bought as the organic version whenever possible. Each of the twelve foods on the Dirty Dozen list “…tested positive for a number of different pesticide residues and contained higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce”

While some of these items won’t ever show up in your dog’s bowl (grapes!), spinach, strawberries, kale, and celery are commonly found in veggie puree recipes- including my own!

  • Use Facebook groups & pages to find local farmers & hunters
  • Look for culls, stillborns, & unwanted livestock while being upfront about your intentions
  • Connect with hunters to take their scraps from legally obtained wildlife
  • Call game processors to ask if you can pick up scraps or recently skinned furbearer carcasses

 While biosecurity issues may prevent you from being able to see a farm, it can’t hurt to ask. Unfortunately, not everyone keeps their animals in clean conditions. If you receive animals to dispatch or have been given frozen animals, be sure to check for external parasites or other signs of illness- discharge from the eyes, distended stomachs (worms), dull coat, etc. 

Please be aware that you cannot “buy” wild game meat in some areas. The meat must be in the form of a donation. 

connect with FARMERS & hunters.

New feeders are often encouraged to utilize Craigslist and Facebook marketplace (and similar avenues) to get “freezer cleanouts”- and this is great!- but other excellent resources are often neglected. 

Join groups on Facebook for general community farmers and backyard livestock keepers. These may be split into specific species: chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, cows, pigs, etc. Being respectful, friendly, and offering fair compensation for “culls”- that is, unwanted animals- can result in excellent sources for whole prey. Be aware that you may be required to transport and dispatch the animal off site. Roosters are often unwanted and “problem” animals that are aggressive or otherwise pose a nuisance are generally inexpensive or free. I suggest that you are transparent with your intentions- that is, be upfront that you plan to dispatch the animal. 

It is important to ask if the livestock has recently been treated with antibiotics, deworming medication, or if the animal is ill. If the answer is “yes” to any of these, pass on it unless you know that the illness will not harm your pet. “Downed” livestock can still be safe; it is situation-dependent. 

Backyard rabbit farmers will sometimes be willing to keep and sell (or give away) stillborn and/or failure to thrive kits, as well as unwanted bucks, does who are unfit mothers, etc. 

If the farm dispatches animals on the property for food, you may inquire if you can pick up the heads and heads of the animals (rabbits, ducks, chickens, etc.). 

Similarly to farmers, there are great groups and pages where you can connect with local hunters and wild game processors. While you should expect to do the work yourself, you can often find hunters willing to let you pick up the “scraps”, which can mean different things for different animals. While deer and elk usually yield a decent amount of muscle meat and raw meaty bones without too much extra processing, wild fowl and gamebirds can be very time consuming and won’t yield as much. Furbearers (beaver, muskrat) will often come to you skinned but whole, requiring you to dress the animal yourself. 

You can also get in contact with local police departments and game wardens to be put on a list for roadkill game. 

Buy certified sustainable seafood & fish oil.

Many species of fish are drastically overfished and populations are at all-time lows- at the same time that seafood seems to be seeing a rise in popularity in fresh food bowls, including many species of fish as well as oysters, shrimp, and mussels. 

According to MarineBio.org, “~32% of the world’s fisheries are overexploited, depleted, or recovering”. While on-package claims of the contents being “responsibly” or “sustainably” caught seem appealing, it’s much better to buy products that display the Marine Stewardship Council’s “Blue Fish” checkmark seal of approval. 

Common raw feeder staples like wild mackerel and wild salmon from the North-East Atlantic are no longer able to sustain their populations with current quotas and would ideally be avoided.

When purchasing a fish oil, be sure to purchase from a company that is transparent and ethical about their fishing practices; I like Nordic Naturals and Bonnie & Clyde. 

Whole or canned fish can be a bit more difficult in this regard, there are excellent sources for determining which fish are “best” to eat. They are generally categorized by abundance as well as fish higher in mercury, or PCBs. I recommend that you utilize the following resources if this interests you:

  • Purchase products with a Blue Fish MSC label
  • Keep aware of which fish are currently considered sustainable
  • Source fish oil from companies that utilize ethical aquaculture