Pandemic is perfect moment to reexamine our food system — less meat, more plants

A customer shops at a farmers market. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

More than two million euthanized chickens in Maryland, Delaware, and Minnesota recently joined the growing list of COVID-19 victims. Decreased demand for fresh food and workforce shortages caused by the pandemic are sending industrial food waste skyrocketing. Every day across the nation, farmers are dumping millions of gallons of cows’ milk and smashing hundreds of thousands of unhatched eggs.

The spike in food waste has devastating consequences for farmers and their animals. The economic and emotional costs of euthanized livestock and dumped product are taking a heavy toll on many farm owners and food workers across the country. Farm animals are suffering, too. The miserable lives of millions of birds were cut uncommonly short. Dumped milk represents countless mothers pointlessly separated from their babies at birth. When this separation and commodification is entirely in vain, it becomes even more heartbreaking. Behind the headlines, the increased food waste is causing immense suffering for humans and other animals alike.

Stockpiles of wasted animal products are nothing new in the agribusiness sector, however. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 1.39 billion pounds of cheese and 2.5 billion pounds of red meat and poultry were wasted. Despite market trends that indicate a rising demand for plant-based foods, government subsidies and bailouts embolden the meat and dairy industries to expand operations, even if there are too few consumers on the other end.

Government subsidies for animal products allow producers to keep the costs of meat and dairy artificially low. These low prices fail to reflect the resource-intensive nature of the industry; animal agriculture uses high quantities of grain crops for animal feed, fresh water, fossil fuel-based transportation and other valuable inputs. Championed by Congress, costly bailouts continue to prop up this unsustainable industry. Politicians persist in wastefully spending on subsidies and bailouts while ignoring rising consumer demand for plant-based alternatives.

Responding to increased demand for plant-based foods, a growing number of farmers are choosing to transition from raising animals to growing crops. Elmhurst Milked, a New York dairy farm founded in the early 1900s, transitioned its business in 2017 from producing cows’ milk to making nut milks instead. The consumer response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” according to the farm’s owner, Henry Schwartz. In 2019, the owner of California’s oldest dairy farm, Giacomazzi Dairy, transitioned to growing almonds, stating that plant-based products “provide a higher return than milking cows.” Elmhurst Milked and Giacomazzi Dairy represent a growing movement of farmers responding to consumer demand by switching from raising animals to growing crops.

Environmental and animal advocacy groups are stepping up to help those farmers choosing to transition to plant-based agriculture. Last year, the international animal advocacy organization Mercy for Animals (MFA) launched the Transfarmation Project, which helps animal farmers switch to growing peas, mushrooms, oats and other crops commonly used as inputs for meat and dairy alternatives. MFA connects farmers with businesses that need increasing quantities of crops to keep up with the rising demand for plant-based foods. The MFA website notes that “[a]ddressing many of society’s greatest problems—from hunger and pollution to deforestation and the chronic disease epidemic—requires changing the way our world eats. We believe farmers can and should be part of the change.” Other organizations, such as the Agricultural Fairness Alliance and Lobbyists 4 Good, are championing similar initiatives to assist farmers.

Like much of the rest of the nation, Minnesotans are increasingly making more ethical food choices. In 2019, 10,000 Minnesotans attended Twin Cities Veg Fest, a celebration of plant-based eating. The festival’s attendance has quadrupled since 2015, when plant-based food businesses were still virtually non-existent in Minnesota. Today, dozens of vegan vendors contribute to a thriving plant-based food scene. Nationwide, the plant-based food industry is expected to be worth $85 billion by 2030, with projected growth rates of nearly 30 percent per year.

A pandemic-related spike in animal food waste and rising demand for plant-based alternatives brings more farmers to a critical crossroads: continue to raise animals, or grow crops instead. The millions of lost lives and countless pounds of dumped food exacerbate the existing problems of an already wasteful industry. Current food production and government subsidy structures fail to adequately acknowledge or address shifts in consumer demand toward plant-based foods. To protect farmed animals and the planet, nonprofit organizations are doing important work as they help struggling animal farmers take advantage of changing market conditions by transitioning to growing crops. The current moment is ideal for more farmers to join the plant-based movement and reap the many economic and emotional rewards.