During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of us are struggling to eat and others are binging on junk food during moments of stress. But in one way or another, food is something that we all have to think about every day.
As we face the uncomfortable realities of the pandemic, we have the chance to reevaluate the systems that produce our food. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that three out of four emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they arise as a product of our relationship with animals. While we might picture farmers interacting with cows and pigs in green pastures like those often pictured on meat packaging, the reality is that 99% of farmed animals in the U.S. live in factory farms. We need to stop the next pandemic before it closes more small businesses and pushes even more Americans out of their jobs, and we can do it by changing our food system.
Slaughterhouses across the country are COVID-19 hotspots, second only to prisons and nursing homes when it comes to the spread of illness. Slaughterhouse workers are packed shoulder to shoulder with no time to attend to basic hygiene and bodily needs. The result of these cramped and unsafe conditions has been rampant sickness and expensive shutdowns. Farmers and breeders have been forced to cull millions of animals that they cannot sell because of these disruptions in the supply chain. The government has spent billions of our taxpayer dollars bailing out this broken industry. Most concerning of all, factory farms provide optimal conditions for viruses to spread among animals, mutate and jump the species barrier to humans.
COVID-19 has shown how our current system of industrial animal agriculture is a threat to our health in myriad ways, but there is a way forward: we must take animals out of our food system.
This doesn’t mean grabbing the crispy bacon from your plate and replacing it with spongy blocks of tofu or taking jobs away from American farmers. This means producing the foods we know and love in modern, safe and sustainable ways.
This means not wasting calories feeding animals and investing in nutritionally efficient alternatives instead. This means eliminating the gruesome, hazardous work environment of slaughterhouses and replacing them with new jobs in the growing alternative meat industry. This means creating a food system that does not contribute to antibiotic resistance and the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
This means building a food system that makes meat directly from plants and cultivates meat directly from animal cells.
While this vision might seem distant, it’s already becoming a reality. Sales of plant-based meat have soared during the pandemic, and big-name companies like Hormel and Kellogg’s are getting in the game. Food companies should and, in many cases already do, invest in alternative meat production. And just as the U.S. has invested in research and development for emerging technologies like the internet and touchscreens, our government should invest in open-access research for meat created from plants and cells.
One day, when we’re talking about the COVID-19 pandemic with our grandkids, they might ask us what it was like to live in a time when we were still engaged in the grisly and inefficient process of raising and slaughtering animals for food. Hopefully, we can tell them how we rebuilt our food system to be secure, healthy and just. We can start today and invest in the future of better meat production, knowing that we’ll be creating safe jobs in a resilient and sustainable industry. And it just might prevent the next pandemic.
Dara Homer, a Tulsan, works for The Good Food Institute, an international nonprofit that is accelerating the transition of the global food system to alternative proteins.