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The Meat Business, a Big Contributor to Climate Change

Author: Brad Plumer


Category: Environmental Protection


America’s meat industry is facing a major upheaval as the coronavirus outbreak deepens.

The farmers and ranchers who supply the nation with hamburgers, pork chops, T-bone steaks and chicken fingers now confront several crises at once: Large processing plants are shutting down as workers fall ill, many producers were already strained by the trade war with China, and the sudden rise of plant-based “fake” meat alternatives had been starting to capture Americans’ imaginations.

On top of that, the meat business had been attracting growing scrutiny for its climate change consequences in recent years, with scientists and environmentalists urging Americans to eat less meat, particularly beef.

Cattle have an outsized environmental impact largely because they belch up methane, a potent planet-warming gas. Studies have found that beef production creates roughly four to eight times the emissions from pork, chicken or egg production, per gram of protein, and all have a larger climate-change footprint than plant-based proteins like soy or beans.

The Covid-19 pandemic could intensify these stresses on the industry, and although it’s still early, here’s how the pressures are playing out:

No shortages yet, thanks to the deep freeze

The biggest short-term disruption is the fact that a growing number of meat processing plants — where workers slaughter livestock and package food products — are shutting down as employees get sick from the coronavirus.

On April 12, Smithfield Foods said it was closing its Sioux Falls, S.D., plant indefinitely after 230 workers became infected. The facility processes roughly 5 percent of the nation’s pork. In Greeley, Colo., where at least four meatpacking workers have died, one of the nation’s largest beef-processing plants has shut down. Other plants in Iowa and Pennsylvania have also closed temporarily.

Plants like these are at the heart of a $140 billion meat industry that processes some 9 billion chickens, 32 million cattle and 121 million hogs each year. On the whole, agriculture accounts for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock responsible for roughly two-fifths of that, much of it because of methane from burping cows and decomposing animal manure.

Site Owner Comment

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