Go meatless for the pandemic, and after it

COVID-19 puts a huge strain on meat production, but it’s also an opportunity to reform the system

June 3, 2020
Pigs packed in an animal farm.
The coronavirus has stalled the meatpacking industry, preventing farms across the U.S. from selling their hogs — farmers are turning to euthanasia. [Credit: Farm Watch/Flickr | CC BY 2.0]

My mom tells me that it’s hard to find meat these days.

Going to Costco amid maskless crowds is frightening enough, she says, without having to also fight other shoppers for the last set of chicken breasts.

I don’t have any advice for her except “try going meatless?” She thinks I’m trying to be funny and is not amused — in her Korean mind, that’s a non-option. Soon, though, she may not have a choice. Grocery stores are facing meat shortages, and some are now imposing purchase limits on certain meat products. My local grocery store in Brooklyn is limiting steak purchases to two per household — even questioning shoppers they suspect of trying to cheat the rationing. 

While there is a self-fulfilling element to the shortages — fear of scarcity leads some shoppers to buy up everything they can, leaving the rest of us to face empty shelves — the meat deficit is a real and looming phenomenon. 

Almost 24,000 low-wage workers in the meatpacking industry have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 85 have died, according to The Food & Environment Reporting Network. Fear of contagion has rightfully shuttered some of America’s largest meatpacking plants and forced others to operate with skeleton staff. But with so many high-volume plants closed, beef and cattle slaughter is down about 14% from last year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. 

Meat production is an enormous machine that relies on inertia. Livestock farmers consistently raise huge populations of animals, trusting that demand will follow established trends. But with much of the industry closing shop and the food supply chain faltering, many farmers have backlogs of thousands of animals ready for slaughter. To ease the overcrowding, some have begun culling, or euthanizing, their pigs and chickens. The Minnesota Pork Producers Association has even started employing wood chippers to help slaughterhouses expedite the breakdown of euthanized hogs.

But maybe the news is not entirely bad. The sudden, severe curtailment of meat production gives us a rare opportunity to reconsider our meat-centric diets and the too-often-abused workers who make it possible.

Industrial agriculture workers are notoriously poorly protected. Human Rights Watch has frequently flagged the American meat industry for workers’ rights violations. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problems that arise when hundreds of humans and thousands of carcasses are jammed into close quarters.

Worried about supply shortages, the Trump administration recently declared meat-processing plants “critical infrastructure” and urged them to keep producing. The White House also announced a $19 billion relief fund for the industry. Meanwhile, workers are feeling exploited, having worked in unsafe conditions without necessary protective gear in the crucial early weeks of the outbreak.

The wasteful slaughter of hundreds of thousands of uneaten animals is a national scandal, as are the COVID-19 outbreaks among slaughterhouse workers. Both demonstrate how out of control factory farming really is. Our current grim reality is the right time to start reforming the way we farm and the way we eat. 

Even before COVID-19 struck factory farming’s massive burden on our planet was obvious. It takes 92 times more land to produce 1000 kilocalories of beef than the equivalent of tofu. Producing 100 grams of beef, meanwhile, generates 90 times more carbon dioxide than producing the same amount of protein from peas. 

There is no doubt that eating less meat — and preferably none — is good for our health and Earth’s. Industrialized animal farming is a sure way to enable the emergence of additional infectious diseases, both new and old, according to Michael Greger, the author of “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.” “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms,” Greger said in a recent interview with Vox. 

Because of the pandemic, “we’ve got the eyes of the nation on the slaughterhouses,” says Leah Garcés, a supply-chain expert and president of Mercy for Animals, an international non-profit animal protection organization. 

Garcés believes that now is a unique and pivotal time for action, especially with the government handing out relief funds to so many companies and industries. “There are trillions of dollars that are being handed out,” she says, “and if we could get a fraction of that going to transitioning and rebuilding [the meat industry] instead of continuing to prop up a bad system, that’s an opportunity we’re not going to get again.”

Today, we have an opportunity to transform the industry, says Garcés, which means transitioning current infrastructure to meat alternatives. “I am 100% behind getting big meat to transition to plant-based,” she says, “because it would be the fastest way to transition our protein economy. For me, the objective is not to beat down the enemy, but to get them on the path with us.” If “Big Meat” sees there is a demand for meat alternatives, and profit to be made in those areas, then they are the ones who can most drastically instigate a shift, she says. “They have the machinery, they own the distribution channels.”

Overhauling animal factory farming will require huge systemic changes, but it’s not impossible. Back in December, when he was still in the presidential race, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker unveiled bills that would phase out large factory farms by 2040. The New Jersey Democrat’s legislation, the Farm System Reform Act of 2019, is now being co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and would also hold meat producers responsible for their pollution while protecting smaller livestock and poultry farmers. 

Mercy for Animals is part of a coalition that is urging Sen. Booker to include a halt on high-speed animal slaughter as part of the HEROES Act, which is currently being negotiated. Garcés feels strongly that individual action should extend to politics. “Call your senators and tell them ‘don’t prop up Big Meat,’” says Garcés. “You can vote with your dollar and you can vote with your vote.”

Personally, I’ve been vegan for more than four years now, a “lifestyle” that is popularly mocked in every medium and platform. “A vegan is a person who won’t eat anything made by or with flavor,” the comedian Louis Katz has said. “A good vegan meal is like a good Christian rock band: Even when it’s kind of good, it still really sucks.” Veganism is comedy fodder. Still, I maintain the diet, because current animal farming procedures are unsafe and unsustainable. Not everyone has to be so absolute in their diets — even just swapping all beef with chicken for one year can reduce your annual carbon footprint by 882 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents.  

I tell my mother that sparsely stocked meat aisles at the store should spur her to get more creative with her meal plans. Who knows? She may find that meat isn’t as crucial a part of our family’s diet as she thought. Plus, she’ll be healthier. After all, no novel human-infecting virus has ever been known to come out of a vegetable. 

About the Author

Hannah Seo

Hannah Seo is a science journalist based in New York City and the editor-in-chief of Scienceline. She loves writing about the intersections of science, tech and culture. As an ethnically Korean Canadian raised in Qatar, she also considers herself an international nomad.


1 Comment

Susheel Daswani says:

Excellent thoughts, thanks for sharing. We need to continue the drumbeat that animal agriculture has severe negative consequences to the climate, our health (causing / amplifying pandemics), and to societal justice.

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