The meat industry is buckling under the coronavirus. In early April, Smithfield Foods in South Dakota — one of the nation’s largest pork-processing plants — shut down after becoming the country’s largest coronavirus cluster, with more than 700 workers infected. Many other factories followed suit, sparking concern that a meat shortage is on the near horizon. In fact, it reached such a crisis point that, earlier this week, Donald Trump signed an executive order classifying meat-processing plants as critical infrastructure, forcing them to reopen their doors. Meanwhile, some companies are facing “backlogs” of animals that were bred for meat and are resorting to mass slaughter.
But what if, instead of fighting to keep this gargantuan industry afloat, we took this opportunity to reevaluate our relationship with eating meat? The list of reasons to cut back on meat consumption is varied and long and, once you look at it, difficult to ignore. If cutting meat completely out of your diet sounds daunting, why not rethink its role — perhaps treat it less as a staple and more as a treat? Below, a few compelling arguments to make you reconsider your meat consumption.
Animals are smart!
We’re all familiar with this argument: Think about the cute cow that had to die for your hamburger. But have you really meditated on how smart some of these animals are? Pigs, for example, may be sensitive to emotional contagion, which is believed to be the basis for empathy. Cows have best friends. Chickens have been shown to possess self-control. Sure, animals may not possess as many cognitive abilities as humans, but they have inner lives.
Most of our meat comes from factory farms, which are rife with animal cruelty.
While the U.S. has started to shift away from factory farming, industrialized facilities still supply around 99 percent of our meat. (Globally, it’s around 90 percent.) Conditions in these factories are known to be abusive: miserable animals crammed together in tiny, unsanitary cages, where they suffer until they’re slaughtered. In Teen Vogue, a former investigative reporter describes a horrifying scene at a factory farm in Iowa, where she witnessed baby pigs get their tails and testicles chopped off without any anesthetic.
Eating meat contributes to climate change.
In August 2019, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report, compiled by 100 scientists from 52 countries, on how to mitigate our global climate catastrophe. One of the most effective ways to fight climate change, the report says, is to reduce meat consumption. Consider beef, which has one of the highest negative impacts on the environment. (The higher the demand for beef, the more forests get converted into agricultural lands for grazing; when trees in these areas are chopped down, they release a significant amount of carbon dioxide.) Producing beef emits 20 times the emissions as growing beans or lentils, according to a 2016 paper published by the World Resources Institute. Chicken and pork are more resource efficient than beef, but, per the report, they still emit three times more greenhouse gas than beans.
The meat industry is notorious for horrific treatment of workers.
It isn’t just the animals. Workers employed by the U.S. meat and poultry industry — who are largely nonwhite, and many of whom are immigrants — are also subjected to hazardous conditions. According to the Human Rights Watch, the meat industry reports more severe injuries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) than industries like the sawmills sector and gas-well drilling. Per the OSHA data, approximately every other day between 2015 and 2018, a worker in the meat and poultry industry was either sent to the hospital or lost a body part. Additionally, the HRW reports that workers are often forced to work long hours without breaks and denied adequate access to sanitation. On average, these undervalued workers earn less than $15 an hour.
Mistreatment extends beyond the walls of factory farms. Many major agribusinesses also trap farmers they’ve contracted to raise animals in an endless cycle of debt; per the The Atlantic, nearly three-quarters of contract growers live below the poverty line as a result.
Also, cooking meat is a pain!
If nothing else will sway you, at least think about all the effort that goes into preparing meat. If you froze your raw meat, you have to remember hours ahead of time to defrost it. When you’re preparing meat, you have to wash your hands and cutting board a million times while you’re switching between chopping vegetables and seasoning steaks. When it’s cooking, you have to make sure that it reaches the minimum safe internal temperature — which, by the way, varies between meats. Then, once you remove the meat from your oven or grill, you have to let it rest for a certain amount of time to allow the juices to redistribute. And, at this point, you might not even know yet that you overcooked it! Now, take a moment to consider the humble bean, or even a nice lentil curry.