The Meat Industry, a Major Climate Change Contributor, Faces Serious Challenges
The coronavirus is closing meatpacking plants, adding to financial strains from the China trade war and the rise of “fake” meat alternatives.
The coronavirus outbreak is having a significant impact on the US meat industry.
The farmers and ranchers who produce the hamburgers, pork chops, T-bone steaks, and chicken fingers that feed the nation are currently dealing with a number of crises at once: Large processing facilities are closing as employees get sick, many producers are already under pressure from the trade conflict with China, and Americans’ interest in plant-based “fake” meat alternatives has suddenly increased.
Additionally, scientists and environmentalists have been urging Americans to consume less meat, particularly beef, as a result of the meat industry’s effects on climate change.
Because they belch up methane, a potent gas that warms the planet, cattle have a disproportionately large negative environmental impact. According to studies, the production of beef generates four to eight times as many emissions per gram of protein as the production of pork, chicken, or eggs, and it also has a greater impact on the environment than plant-based proteins like soy or beans.
Although it’s still early, the following pressures are already present in the industry, which could be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic:
Despite the deep freeze, there are currently no shortages.
The biggest immediate disruption is the increasing closure of meat processing facilities, where employees slaughter livestock and package food items, as more and more workers fall ill with the coronavirus.
Smithfield Foods announced on April 12 that it was permanently closing its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility after 230 employees contracted the illness. Approximately 5% of the country’s pork is processed at this facility. One of the biggest beef processing plants in the country has closed in Greeley, Colorado, where at least four meatpacking workers have passed away. Other plants in Pennsylvania and Iowa have also temporarily shut down.
These kinds of facilities are the backbone of the $140 billion meat industry, which annually processes 121 million hogs, 32 million cattle, and 9 billion chickens. A total of 9% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to agriculture, with livestock producing about two-fifths of that amount, primarily methane from burping cows and decomposing animal manure.
According to analysts, there is currently no threat of a significant meat shortage in supermarkets. That’s because producers are no longer selling to closed restaurants and schools, and there are still hundreds of millions of pounds of beef, chicken, and pork piled up in cold storage. Additionally, active processing facilities are capable of filling in the gaps.
However, there are weak points. Nearly 60% of the pigs in the country are butchered every day in just 15 facilities, most of which are in the Midwest. “If we get to the point where we don’t have enough pork in storage, and multiple plants are no longer in operation then we could have problems,” said Dermot Hayes, an economist at Iowa State University, at a news conference on Tuesday.
Farmers and ranchers must keep their cows, pigs, and chickens on feedlots or ranches for longer as processing plants close. However, doing so costs them money because they are forced to pay for more feed rather than profitably selling their animals.
Additionally, a lot of these producers are being negatively impacted by the unexpected decline in demand from one of their main clients, restaurants.
The attack occurs at a risky moment. Pork producers were already struggling because the trade conflict with China had shut down a significant international market. The National Pork Producers Council highlighted a study on Wednesday that predicted the industry could lose $5 billion this year and issued a dire warning that many farmers might go out of business in the absence of additional federal assistance.
Even though it’s still early, one potential impact is that many farmers and ranchers may reduce their investment in grazing livestock in the future. If that occurs and herd sizes end up decreasing, the country might experience an increase in meat prices at the grocery store in about two years. (Over time, higher prices would probably encourage more investment once more, but these problems can take some time to resolve.)
Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, stated that everyone is currently in “preservation mode” and delaying making additional investments. He continued, however, that before making long-term choices, many ranchers are waiting to see how the summer grilling season develops.
It’s difficult to predict how changes in animal population will affect the climate.
There is a tendency for fewer animals to result in fewer emissions, especially methane from cattle. But thanks to improvements in animal breeding, veterinary care, feed quality, and grazing systems over the past fifty years, American ranchers have actually been able to produce more beef with roughly a third fewer cattle. Experts claim that long-term market fluctuations are rarely as significant for reducing the climate impact of livestock as those efficiency gains.
During recessions, people avoid eating meat.
The pandemic is already causing a severe economic slowdown in the United States. Additionally, historically speaking, recessions have occasionally resulted in a temporary decrease in meat consumption.
According to Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, meat tends to be relatively more expensive than other protein sources, so if incomes decline or meat prices increase, people make fewer purchases.
Americans reduced their consumption of meat after the 2008 financial crisis in favor of eggs, nuts, and legumes. The average person went from eating more than 200 pounds of meat per year down to around 185 pounds by 2012. Significant declines in beef and pork consumption were replaced by cheaper chicken.
Though beef never fully recovered, meat consumption eventually returned to pre-recession levels by 2018.
According to estimates by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the production of food for American diets resulted in a roughly 10% decrease in emissions between 2005 and 2014, primarily as a result of people consuming less beef. However, as incomes rise and meat consumption rises, ranchers have been steadily exporting more beef to nations like Mexico and China.
Not everyone would necessarily be affected equally by a decrease in meat consumption: According to a recent study, because they consume an excessive amount of beef and dairy, about 20% of Americans are responsible for 41% of the emissions related to food production.