Animal Agriculture And COVID-19
As many animal advocates know, the coronavirus crisis has affected the animal agriculture industry in many ways. One key way has been the high rate of infection in slaughterhouses, which has once again exposed the harsh working conditions in that industry. It’s also exposed the weaknesses of an animal-based food system.
This research commentary paper outlined the main developments so far. Driven by consumer demand, the industry was in a position to produce record volumes of animal-based food at the start of 2020. However, restrictions caused by the pandemic led to workforce shortages, which in turn slowed down the efficiency of animal processing activities. The week ending May 2 saw decreases in output of 41% and 36% for cow-based and pig-based meat products respectively, compared with figures for the same week in 2019.
There was also a shift in demand as restaurants and other food services (which make up around 54% of consumer food expenditure) closed and people relied more heavily on food bought in retail stores. This revealed different choices in types of animal products bought between retail stores and restaurants. For example, there was a decrease in demand for marine animal-based foods, which are primarily consumed in restaurants. Perhaps because of increased grocery store spending and cooking at home, consumers also became more interested in shopping locally.
The shift towards eating at home caused a supply chain problem when it came to animal products meant for food services rather than stores. The two destinations have different processes related to packaging and transport which has made it difficult to redirect products from one chain to the other. For example, sales to institutional buyers such as public schools have dropped. Changes like these have led to 3.7 million gallons of milk and more than 107,000 eggs being dumped or destroyed daily.
What do these impacts mean for advocates? For one, news articles have started to raise awareness of the plight of surplus animals. Due to the shifting demands for animal products, some farm animals are being slaughtered sooner than they would be otherwise. People may be more likely to empathize with their situation. Here, advocates might pose the question of whether the use of animals for food is necessary in normal times, given the ever-increasing availability of plant-based alternatives.
The pandemic has also shown the vulnerabilities of an industry which relies heavily on manual labor (often done by migrant workers and other disadvantaged groups) and which threatens the health of its workforce. Around 500,000 people are employed in meatpacking plants, representing about 30% of all people working in food and beverage manufacturing in the United States. The rate of infection in some of these settings has led to labor shortages, with very few workers available in reserve. Advocates might draw attention to the poor working conditions of people who are employed in slaughterhouses.
The paper also highlights the relationship between environmental damage and pandemic risk. The destruction of wild habitats encourages the spread of animal-borne illness, as infected animal populations are more likely to come into contact with humans. This increased contact allows viruses to mutate and potentially infect humans. While more research on specific risk factors is needed, advocates are already seizing on this moment to point out the links between animal agriculture and the amounts of land being deforested for pasture or to grow feed for farm animals.
We don’t yet know what the full impact of the pandemic on our food system will be. The paper warns against disregarding scientific developments in food and medical technology, referring to how new techniques such as gene editing could lead to rapid cures for future infectious disease. However, advocates might point out how advancements in plant-based foods or ‘clean meat’ can play a more effective role, by preventing the spread of zoonotic disease in the first instance.
As agricultural industries find new ways to deal with the uncertainty COVID-19 has presented, advocates can join the calls for longterm change by bringing the relationship between animal health and human health into public awareness. The paper cited here offers many fruitful starting points.