Meat Consumption Has the Biggest Drop in Nine Years Due to Diet Shift During the Pandemic

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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 have led to a global drop in demand. Another key factor are labor shortages in the meatpacking industry, which quickly became some of the most serious hotspots for the spread of the virus in several countries of the world. Cases of African Swine Fever in Asia also contributed to the drop, which led to one-quarter of the pigs of the world dying or being slaughtered due to the disease.

In Thailand, the demand for animal products is shrinking, following the global trend. A USDA report stated that the outbreak of COVID-19 led to a decline in domestic demand for chicken meat, pork, ready-to-drink milk, and fishery products due to a disappearing number of in-bound tourists, a closedown of hotels and other hospitality businesses, and the government’s imposition of stringent measures on social distancing.

But even before the pandemic, the demand for animal protein and feed was predicted to contract in Southeast Asia, according to estimates from Rabobank, due to new consumption patterns. The institution’s forecast is that beef consumption will be impacted by 9-13%, pork will decline by 4-17%, fish by 6-11%. In Thailand alone, poultry demand will drop by 1% to 4%.

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 increased by up to 53%.

To support consumers who are willing to switch to a more sustainable, compassionate, and healthier diet, the NGO Sinergia Animal offers a free program called “Thai Challenge 22,” in which applicants are invited to try new eating habits for 21 days. During this period, they receive recipes, nutritional support and tips on how to follow a plant-based diet.

“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 Mickey Klomklao, manager of the Thai Challenge 22.

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 a major risk.

According to the UN, 75% of pathogens that emerged in the last decade originated in animals. 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 hold thousands of animals together and do not allow physical distancing between the animals.

The intensification of animal agriculture is leading to deforestation, climate change, 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 or 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 Klomklao. “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,” Klomklao adds.

The NGO also urges the Thai government to stop deforestation, the irresponsible use of antibiotics, the expansion of factory farming, the exports of live animals for consumption, and to advocate for a healthier food system. A petition was released in May and can be signed at change.org.