The newest casualty of the Covid crisis: meat-eating

Consumers are turning away from meat as a result of the coronavirus outbreak

Hundreds of chickens and a worker inside a factory farm

For all the tragedy and turmoil of the coronavirus, there is a silver lining for animals, the planet and our diets. The pandemic has made people rethink their relationship with meat more than ever before.

Meat-eating is set to fall to its lowest level in almost a decade this year, with demand expected to sink still further across the world, in every major market, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s most recent Food Outlook report. The average consumption per person is forecast to fall by 3 per cent compared with last year, the biggest decline in 20 years.

In Europe, the pandemic hit at a time when more people had been turning away from meat anyway. Several of the continents’ cities have already joined MFM – the latest is Nijmegen in the Netherlands; campaigns such as Veganuary and No Meat May are increasingly popular, and schools and hospitals in the UK have pledged to reduce their meat consumption by a fifth.

The findings are borne out by a survey conducted for the Vegan Society that has found a fifth of Britons have cut back on their meat-eating during the pandemic, and 15 per cent have cut their dairy intake. Of the 3,682 adults Britons surveyed, 43 per cent said they were choosing to eat less meat out of concern for the environment, their health or because of animal welfare concerns, while 41 per cent said it was because their preferred product was not available.

There are many reasons for the decline in meat-eating as reported by the UN. As well as fears about the environmental impact of industrial livestock farming, months of lockdown have obliged people to tighten their belts and do more home cooking – and as a result they have been rustling up more nutritious and inexpensive plant-based grub.

But it is also being driven by fresh post-pandemic concern about where our food comes from and the way animals enter the food chain, following the reported origin of the virus at a wet market in Wuhan, China, and a succession of Covid-19 outbreaks in abattoirs and meat-processing plants around the world. Nearly 30,000 staff in meat plants in Europe and America have contracted the coronavirus, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network (Fern), and more than 100 have died.

Peter Schmidt, the head of international affairs at NGG, a German food workers union, suggested abattoirs and meat processing plants were reaping the rewards of having workers crammed in closely together, working at high speed, to keep up with demand and keep costs down. He added: “The entire sector is in a disastrous race to the bottom, driven by the market and by consumer demand for cheap meat.”