COVID-19 Coverage Shines A Spotlight On Animal Agriculture Issues
At the end of a year shaped by the global spread of COVID-19, the relationship between humans and farmed animals is under renewed scrutiny. We can no longer ignore the fact that the health and safety of agricultural workers, members of nearby communities, and the public are linked to the welfare of farmed animals. Fast line speeds at slaughterhouses harm animals and workers, contributing to prolonged and painful deaths for the animals and exposing workers to greater risk of injury. Overcrowded animals in industrial sheds generate large amounts of noxious gases and waste, which the animals must live in and which contribute to lung and eye disease among workers, besides polluting nearby communities. The overuse of antibiotics and the overcrowding rampant in the industry give rise to zoonotic disease and compromised food safety.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals teamed up with researchers at Lake Research Partners to examine how people have been affected by stories about the pandemic’s relationship with industrial animal agriculture. A survey was administered to 1,000 American adults drawn from a national sample of internet users. The results were weighted to give a more accurate demographic representation of the population as a whole.
The silver lining of the disastrous confluence of events that has landed us here is that it has elevated the profile of our complex relationship with nonhuman animals, and the costs we incur when we carelessly exploit that relationship. Respondents who had been exposed to coverage of COVID-19’s interplay with industrial agriculture were more likely than others to be concerned about the connection between industrial animal agriculture and animal, worker, and public health and safety. And while these shifts in awareness were seen across all ages, ethnicities, political affiliations, and other demographics represented in the sample, the group that most consistently recognized that industrial animal agriculture contributes to these problems were agricultural workers and their families. The reason that farmers and their families more readily recognize this connection is outside the scope of the study, but it’s worth noting that this is the segment of the population most familiar with actual conditions in the industry and their direct impacts.
As is less often the case than one might hope, these shifting beliefs, along with pandemic-induced market changes, have moved people to action. A majority of respondents reported that since the pandemic began, they have sought to consume animal products that were higher welfare or locally sourced, or have consumed less animal products than before. Various factors influenced this shift, such as higher product cost, lower household income, and unavailability of the products. Still, concerns about the safety, animal welfare impacts, and environmental impacts of these products were prominent among reasons cited by respondents for their changes in consumption. And, the proportion of people making these consumption shifts is even higher among those who had been exposed to stories about industrial animal agriculture during the last year, so we can conclude that elevated awareness of COVID-adjacent animal agriculture issues is at least partly responsible for these consumption shifts.
Respondents across the board expressed support for policy reforms, with greater support found among those exposed to news stories about these issues and the greatest support of all found among those with farming experience. A majority of respondents believed that farms employing more humane practices towards animals and workers should be prioritized for government funding. A full ⅔ of respondents believed institutions should receive government funds to purchase Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) food — food which has met GFPP’s standards of fair labor, animal welfare, sustainability, nutrition, and local sourcing. 82% of respondents expressed support for mandating slower slaughter speeds for the protection of workers and the reduction of animal suffering. A ban on all new industrial animal agriculture facilities was supported by 47% of the general sample, 56% of those who had been exposed to relevant news stories, and 85% of those with farming experience.
There is broadening consensus that industrial animal farming cannot continue its current practices without imposing serious costs on humans and nonhuman animals. Though we would never wish for a wake-up call in the form of a global pandemic, we should do all we can to harness the elevated concern and willingness to change that it has brought about. Advocates should seize this chance to mobilize support for measures that promote animal welfare and worker safety, such as slower slaughter speeds and better living conditions for animals. We should strive to maintain the momentum of a society that has begun to shift their consumption away from industrially produced animal products by supporting the development of cruelty-free alternatives and continuing to raise consumer awareness of the real costs of their animal product purchases. We should lobby for legal reforms to reallocate federal funding to more humane and safe methods of food production. We should honor the animals who lost their lives to COVID-19-induced depopulation and those who suffer under inhumane conditions as a matter of course by learning our lesson this time so none of us has to repeat it.