As thousands of workers became infected with the coronavirus and meat packing plants began to shut down last month, President Donald Trump felt compelled to order plants to stay open to avert a shortage of meat products in grocery stores.
Yet, given how much harm the meat industry causes, perhaps we should ask whether animal agriculture is worth holding onto.
Of the major food groups, we’ve seen widespread disruptions only in meat production. But that isn’t surprising — animal-based agriculture has been highly inefficient and vulnerable to disruption for decades.
So inefficient, in fact, that it causes lasting environmental damage and subjects workers to horrible conditions. Factory farms expose workers to toxic chemicals, bring high rates of serious injury, and silence workers who speak up about being “treated like modern-day slaves.”
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Consider what it takes for an animal-based meal to arrive on your plate. Animals must be fed and watered for months as they mature. It takes more than six pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef and 1,800 gallons of water per pound of beef. Consider, too, the amount of land that must be cleared to grow all of that animal feed.
This inefficient use of resources, combined with high methane emissions and toxic runoff, makes animal agriculture one of the leading causes of ecological destruction and climate change.
Large-scale animal agriculture operations have to make up for resource inefficiency by becoming hyper-efficient in other areas. Factory farms are designed to kill up to five animals per minute, and the operation needs to take place in a congested, space-efficient kill floor.
Before the current crisis, this often resulted in crowded and unsanitary working conditions. No wonder nearly 5,000 meat plant workers have become sick with the coronavirus. It’s not feasible for workers to socially distance on the job and their factories are breeding grounds for contagious disease.
Fortunately, recent innovations in plant-based meat have brought us to the cusp of being able to consume meat without the inefficiency of killing animals.
Plant-based meat is efficient
Unlike animal-based meat, plant-based meat is time efficient. A stack of burgers that would take years to produce with animal-based methods can take mere days to roll out using plants.
The months-long lag time between breeding animals and selling their meat leads to massive food waste when demand unexpectedly drops. In recent weeks, farmers have had to kill and dispose of millions of animals because of backlogs at processing plants.
The much shorter lag time between production and distribution of plant-based meat makes it far better equipped than animal-based agriculture to handle sudden economic shifts.
Plant-based meat also is more resource efficient. Rather than growing thousands of pounds of crops to feed animals, the raw ingredients grown for plant-based food funnel directly to the product itself.
This means that the supply chain necessary to produce plant-based meat does not require densely packing working together as is common in industrial animal-meat production. Plant-based meat production is capable of accommodating social distancing measures and less likely to result in outbreaks than its animal-based counterpart.
The president's executive order did nothing to solve any of the animal agriculture industry's underlying problems. As a short-term solution to unemployment, rather than forcing people to go to dangerous workplaces, governments should consider better options such as suspending unnecessary occupational licensing laws.
Innovation provides opportunities
In the long run, we may see a future without animal-based meat. As technology improves, plant-based and cell-grown meat alternatives could replace conventional meat. Just as previous technological shifts created new jobs for workers employed in old industries, we can expect many of those no longer employed in animal agriculture to be hired in plant-based agriculture. For many farmers, this process is already happening.
By exposing animal agriculture’s fundamental weaknesses, the current pandemic might accelerate the shift earlier than expected. Rather than panic about the meat market collapsing, we should see this as an opportunity to claim a vastly more efficient and safe way of putting food on our plates.
Yusuf Mahmood is an animal rights activist, a Young Voices contributor and an associate at a political nonprofit in Washington D.C.