CHURCHVILLE, Va.- We lost our Chessy-Lab retriever over the Christmas holidays. He was 12 years old and suffering from a cruel cancer, but it was hard to see him go. Fletcher was the most loyal, loving and grateful member of the household.
Of course, that's how most people feel about their pets-and why the world will have to be prepared to feed billions of additional pets in the 21st century.
The planet's human population is now projected to peak at 8.5 billion people about the year 2035. This means we'll have only about a 50 percent increase from today's 5.85 billion.
We will have a much bigger increase, however, in the numbers of cats, dogs, songbirds and other companion creatures.
Americans currently keep almost 60 million cats, more than 52 million dogs, 12 million birds and 4 million riding horses. Those totals are all up from a decade ago, when the U.S. had 38 million dogs, 30 million cats, 6 million birds and 3 million horses.
They all eat food. Some of them eat a lot of food. Many of them eat resource-expensive foods, such as fish and meat byproducts.
Brazil is not yet rich, but it has 15 million dogs and 7 million cats, and its pet food manufacturers are building new factories because the country's personal incomes are rising. If Brazil reaches the current American pet density (one pet for every two people), in 2020 there will be about 115 million Brazilian cats and dogs.
Brazil's cats and dogs already eat 450,000 tons of manufactured pet food per year in addition to untold tons of table scraps, milk and other traditional pet standbys.
Sales of manufactured pet foods rose 18 percent in 1996, reaching $126 million. (In 1990, they totaled only $27 million.)
China can be expected to have nearly 600 million cats and dogs within a few decades. If the Chinese government continues to have a policy of one child per family, pets will be the major available outlet for people's parental instincts.
Historically, China was famous for eating cats and dogs (along with monkeys, snakes and virtually anything else that breathes). But China's rising affluence is producing a new attitude toward pets. I recently met a Chinese businessman whose sister in Beijing has a cat. Nothing is too good for her cat. Even though meat is a luxury item, she buys it a fresh pork kidney every day.
In the southern Chinese city of Guilin, proud owners walk their little dogs through the city parks with as much pride and concern as any New Yorker.
Chinese pet stores are just beginning to get beyond the traditional caged crickets and songbirds to the occasional kitten and small dog.
Don't make the mistake of believing that these pets can be shortchanged on either the quantity or quality of their food. Hell hath no fury like a pet owner whose loved ones have been scorned. That's why we must be able to meet the demand for pet food as well as people food.
In poop countries, animals are treated badly. My wife lived in Ethiopia for several years; poverty-stricken Ethiopians displayed rampant cruelty to their animals.
Donkeys went about their work with festering sores-but so did the people. Tiny puppies were abandoned in the streets-but so were children. Cats were allowed to starve. Affluent Ethiopians (there were only a few) treated their pets well.
As people become more affluent, they take better care of themselves, their kids and their pets.
The minimal approach to farming (low inputs, low yields) can't assure that we'll be able to feed the people and pets from the world's current croplands and pastures.
Thanks to high-yield farming, the world hasn't had to expand its farmlands since the end of WWII, despite a redoubled population. It would be a shame if the 21st century had to sacrifice wildlands to feed its pets-or vice versa.
The best insurance for both is to continue the thrust of modern high-yield farming, with improved seeds, fertilizers, pesticides-and now biotechnology.
The world's next big gains in crop yield are likely to come from two surprising sources. One will be genes from wild relatives of our crop plants. But we can't use those genes without genetic-engineering techniques.
The other yield-booster will be the "fertilizer" of higher carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere. (Carbon dioxide is to plants what oxygen is to a long-distance runner.) Thank goodness! Old Fletcher loved our hikes in the woods-but he also loved his dinner dish.
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