Imperial College London

Exploring the environmental footprint of meat- versus insect-based pet food

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Rachel Dunne (back right) with Tomojo’s staff

Rachel Dunne (back right) with Tomojo’s staff

A switch to insect-based food could benefit your pet and reduce its environmental footprint compared to premium meat-based products.

My thesis experience has left a lasting awareness of the need to always take into account the whole life cycle of a process or product, not just the part of its life where it is useful or visible to us. Rachel Dunne MSc Environmental Technology, Centre for Environmental Policy

As part of her MSc thesis project at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP), Rachel Dunne analysed the environmental footprint of insect-based pet food in comparison to premium meat-based sources.

While studying Physics and Philosophy at the University of Oxford, Rachel served as College Environment Officer. This experience helped her realise that she really wanted to focus her research efforts on addressing environmental issues. After completing her undergraduate studies, Rachel enrolled on Imperial's Environmental Technology MSc Programme. During her research project, she worked with Tomojo, a French start-up, to analyse the environmental impacts of their products.

Rachel spoke with the Imperial Life Cycle Network about this enriching experience.

How did you become interested in applying Life Cycle Assessment in your MSc thesis project?

Life cycle assessment (LCA) immediately appealed to me as a mathematically-minded environmentalist. I have long felt that if we could quantify the environmental impact of our activities and consumption then we could reduce the fight against climate disaster and other catastrophic human environmental damage to a simple optimisation problem. While this is unlikely to ever be realised, or to provide the whole solution, I still see LCA as an important component of building a sustainable future. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to spend the thesis term of my MSc in Environmental Technology undertaking an LCA, I jumped at the chance.

Tell us more about your research topic. How and where did you carry it out?

The project was with Tomojo, a Paris-based French start-up that produces insect-based pet food. They were keen to understand the environmental impacts of their products and how these compare to meat-based incumbents. I threw myself into my French lessons with renewed motivation, and in June 2019 headed to Paris to spend two months working for Tomojo and writing my thesis. This was an amazing experience, featuring dog-sitting the co-founder’s un-housetrained puppy on my first evening in the city (she peed on my landlady’s carpet) and interviewing a pet nutrition expert in French about the impact of insect-based food on pet faeces production. I also had the opportunity to learn how to use the SimaPro LCA software, get to grips with several LCA databases and learn about functional units, allocation methods and other relevant technical terms.

How did you analyse the environmental performance of insect-based pet food?

I investigated the water use, land use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of insect-based pet food and of modelled meat-based alternatives. To give a broad representation of meat-based pet food products in my work, I looked at a modelled standard product and modelled chicken and beef premium products.

And what were your findings?

I found that insect-based pet food products have a much lower environmental impact than modelled beef-based premium products and a lower or equivalent impact compared to modelled chicken-based premium products. Interestingly, I found that standard meat-based products have a lower environmental impact than Tomojo’s products, which can roughly be attributed to the fact that they contain low-quality meat meal as a protein source rather than the carcass meat and offal found in premium meat-based products.

What were the implications of your results in general and specifically for Tomojo's sustainable business model?

It was interesting to look at these findings in the context of my literature review. Many sources note a recent trend in pet food demand towards perceived higher quality products rather than standard kibble made from meat meal and grains. This is extremely relevant to my findings, as if this move is towards premium meat-based product, it will lead to a considerable increase in the environmental impact of pet nutrition. If, however, this transition is towards insect-based products such as Tomojo’s - which offers similar improvements to premium meat-based products such as being grain-free - this will keep the environmental impacts of pet nutrition lower while retaining the potential health benefits to the animals.

Other relevant trends include a reduction in human consumption of meat in some countries reducing the availability of meat by-products for meat meal in standard pet food products, again suggesting that transition to more insect-based products would be the most sustainable way forward.

A final notable finding was that most literature values for the environmental impacts of insect meal are based on pilot production plants. This suggests that as production scales up there could be substantial reductions in its impact thanks to more efficient processes and a better understanding of how to optimise output. The insect meal was the main contributor to the environmental impact of Tomojo’s products therefore they can expect reductions in this impact as insect meal production scales up in Europe.

Are you still working with LCA?

After my MSc at Imperial, I joined the Civil Service through the Operational Research Fast Stream. Put simply, this means I solve analytical problems for the Government. While I do not directly use LCAs in my work, my thesis experience has left a lasting awareness of the need to always take into account the whole life cycle of a process or product, not just the part of its life where it is useful or visible to us. I am also keen to come back to the world of LCA in the future, as understanding environmental impact is the first step towards its improvement.

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Reporters

Ms. Juliana Segura Salazar

Ms. Juliana Segura Salazar
Department of Earth Science & Engineering

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Email: j.segura-salazar@imperial.ac.uk

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Rachel Dunne

Rachel Dunne
Centre for Environmental Policy

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Email: press.office@imperial.ac.uk
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Daniel Greenblatt

Daniel Greenblatt
Department of Mechanical Engineering

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Email: daniel.greenblatt14@imperial.ac.uk

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