Covid-19 Could Dramatically Change Food Practices
It might be a trite meme that the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of two characters, “danger” and “opportunity,” but it’s still true sometimes. It certainly seems to be the case with Covid-19 and its disruption to the production, distribution, and consumption of food.
We have already seen the impact the virus is having on meat packing plants, which employ almost 150,000 workers. The federal government has declared the meat industry essential, thus forcing these vulnerable, low-paid workers to either quit or return to work in plants which are now “hot spots” of infection. Will they be provided with adequate protective gear? Will the plants be properly deep-cleaned? Will there be adequate space between workers? Even with precautions, infection rates could remain high, endangering the workers and the larger community.
Industrial meat production also represents a real threat to natural systems. Factory farms require the crowding of thousands of animals inches from each other “in gruesome conditions that are almost designed to incubate viruses and encourage them to spread.” In addition, enormous quantities of antibiotics and steroids, used to optimize feed-to-meat ratios, make their way into waterways. Biowaste from hog farms, chicken houses, and dairy farms are perfect culture plates for animal and human diseases, and they’ve caused repeated outbreaks of salmonella and e-coli. In addition, they emit over 150 gases, formed in the process of breaking down the waste, including hazardous chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. People living near the farms are placed at risk, and they've reported respiratory problems, nausea, and other problems. Water contaminated by animal manure can cause gastroenteritis and other diseases, including kidney failure. Feeding animals with large doses of antibiotics has also contribuuted to the rise of bacteria resistant antibiotics.
Meanwhile, plummeting demand from restaurants, hotels, and schools has forced farmers to leave fruit and vegetables rotting in the field, and corn is getting ploughed under instead of harvested. We are now seeing disruptions in the long-distance supply chain, and prices may very well go up, with the disruptions likely to continue in the months ahead. This makes it an excellent time to think more about "community supported agriculture" and to support regional food farms. What might have seemed a craze not long ago to “buy local” is now a smart economic plan. Fortunately, California's abundant agriculture, we are uniquely situated to develop a more regional and resilient food system.
Agriculture makes up 15-20% of total world greenhouse gas emissions by some estimates, so significant changes in our agri-food systems would help reduce global heating. However, given that beef production uses up almost 60% of the world’s total agricultural land, reductions are not likely to be adequate unless beef consumption drops considerably. (The average American ate 57 pounds of beef in 2017.)
Climate change is an existential crisis, yet despite repeated warnings from scientists we are not anywhere near to keeping global heating to 1.5°C. The Trump administration, of course, refuses to even acknowledge the crisis. Still, there is so much that can be done right now to address the climate crisis. Covid-19 has put us at a crossroads in many aspects of our lives. We should work for changes to how we produce food in America, and we should try to consume less meat. Hard as it might be, it would benefit not only industry workers and ourselves, but also the planet.
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Meat is not essential. Why are we killing for it?