Per-capita consumption of meat this year is set to fall to the lowest in nine years. The 3% drop from last year represents the biggest decline since at least 2000, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The UN agency reports that a combination of COVID-19-related economic hardships, logistical bottlenecks such as restrictions on transports, and a steep decline in demand from the restaurant sector has led to a global drop in demand. Another key factor is the labor shortage in the meatpacking industry, which quickly became one of the most serious hotspots for the spread of the virus in several countries. Cases of African swine fever in Asia also contributed to the drop, which led to one-quarter of the pigs in the world dying from the disease or being slaughtered.
Paving the way for a new diet
While meat consumption is falling, in some countries such as the United States, the demand for plant-based products has increased by up to 53%.
"Besides logistical reasons, the pandemic is also leading many people to rethink their eating habits. Reports from the United Nations strongly suggest that new pandemics similar to this one, or even more serious, could happen again if we don't transform our food system," explains Carolina Galvani, CEO of Sinergia Animal.
Even though the origins of COVID-19 are not totally known, it is suspected that it spread directly from wild animals to humans. But in terms of the risks of new pandemics, animals kept in large industrial farms are also considered major risks.
According to the UN, 75% of pathogens that emerged in the last decade originated in animals and dams; irrigation and factory farms are linked to 25% of infectious diseases in humans. The organization highlights the link between viruses and meat consumption. According to their Environmental Program, animals like cows, pigs, and chickens can help spread diseases because they are now often bred "in less than ideal conditions" for higher production levels and are genetically very similar, so they are also more vulnerable to infection than genetically diverse populations. To make it worse, most farmed animals are now in factory farms, industrial facilities that house thousands of animals together and do not allow physical distancing between the animals.
The intensification of animal agriculture is leading to deforestation, climate change, and biodiversity loss and is making animals—and the diseases they carry—closer than ever to humans. All of these are drivers to the spread of new diseases and could lead to future pandemics.
At the same time, the outbreak of coronavirus infections in slaughterhouses and processing plants—from the US to Brazil and Germany—has put the intense contamination of workers in the meatpacking industry under the spotlight.
"In this context, consensus grows towards the idea that our societies have to become less dependent on animal products for us to have a safer future," comments Carolina. "With meat demand slowing down while the plant-based market goes up, it seems that we are paving the way for a real change in our food system," she adds.