Shared from the 7/12/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Pandemic likely will spark major retreat for meat eating

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Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg

Per-capita consumption is set to fall by almost 3 percent in 2020 to the lowest since 2011, according to data from the United Nations.

The coronavirus pandemic is poised to usher in the biggest retreat for global meat eating in decades.

Per-capita consumption is set to fall by almost 3 percent in 2020 to the lowest since 2011, according to data from the United Nations. Meanwhile, analysts across the globe are predicting declines not just per capita but for overall demand.

That’s a dramatic turnaround for an industry that’s come to rely on steady growth. The shift is happening in every major market, including in the U.S., where it’s predicted that per-capita meat consumption won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until at least after 2025.

There’s a swirl of factors contributing to the change. The coronavirus economic fallout means consumers are cutting down on grocery bills. Restaurant shutdowns have hurt demand (people eat more meat when they dine out). In China, which accounts for about a quarter of world consumption, there’s growing distrust over animal products after the government suggested a link between imported protein and an outbreak in Beijing. Disruptions to production, like the meat-plant outbreaks that sparked an industry crisis in the U.S., created supply problems that led to less meat eating.

Climate advocates for years have been calling for lower meat consumption. By some measures, agriculture accounts for more global greenhouse gas emissions than transport, thanks in part to livestock production. Meat and dairy are responsible for as much as 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans.

What remains to be seen is to what degree the pandemic shift lasts. If consumers get used to having less meat through pandemic conditions, could that bring in a new era for global diets?

There are hints of a structural change taking place, with millions eating more plant-based proteins because of environmental concerns. Meanwhile, the explosion of coronavirus infections at slaughterhouses and processing plants — from the U.S. to Brazil to Germany — have highlighted the industry’s toll on its employees who handle dangerous work for low pay and few benefits. It’s still too early to tell, though, whether the fresh public scrutiny over worker conditions will affect demand.

At the same time, now that consumers have gotten more used to cooking at home, that habit could stick, especially as the lock-down-hindered food-service industry is predicted to shrink. About 2.2 million restaurants worldwide could close, according to consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates. The loss of food service is a “major demand shock that will take a long time to recover from,” said Altin Kalo, analyst at Steiner Consulting Group.

Before the pandemic, 50 percent of U.S. meat was consumed outside the home, according to Boston Consulting Group.

“If restaurants structurally look different in the future, and the number of out-of-home eating occasions is permanently altered, then I think it’s fair to say there may be less meat consumption” going forward, said Boston Consulting Group’s agribusiness expert Decker Walker. “People are still going to consume the same amount of calories, but they will do it at home, where the meat percentage is lower.”

This year’s projected decline would come after a drop in per-capita global consumption in 2019, when the African swine fever disease killed millions of hogs in China, boosting retail pork prices and curbing demand. The losses over two straight years will mean close to a 5 percent slump in per-capita consumption since 2018, according to data from the U.N.’s Food & Agriculture Organization.

There’s still a chance that total world consumption could rise this year. That’s because population could be growing at a faster rate than meat production. Still, per-person reductions mark a turning point for the industry.

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