Will COVID-19 change our food habits?

A macaque monkey holds a banana

On April 20, the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., shut its doors after 515 cases of COVID-19 were linked to the plant. It’s just one of the many meat-packing plants closing across Canada and the U.S. in response to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

These closures have sparked concerns over potential food shortages, although to date none have been reported. But there may be other side-effects to these developments — namely, a change in the way people eat and buy food, which may have knock-on environmental impacts.

Out of concern for the availability of food, for example, some people have turned to creating their own vegetable gardens. But it’s harder to raise a cow or pig in your backyard.

Chris Ratzlaff, a self-proclaimed meat-lover who lives in Airdrie, Alta., said the pandemic has made him rethink his meat consumption. “It’s very early days for me, but it’s definitely something on my radar,” he said. What worries him isn’t the carbon footprint of meat, which is significantly higher than that of plant-based proteins, but the connection between meat production and infectious diseases.

He said his bigger concern is that a lot of deadly viruses “seem to be connected to our heavy reliance on a mass-production meat industry.” For example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease, and the 2009 swine flu have been linked to large-scale farming.

A 2016 report by the UN Environment Program warned that “livestock often serve as an epidemiological bridge between wildlife and human infections,” adding “this is especially the case for intensively reared livestock.” Some argue that farming on a smaller scale does less damage to the environment, and in the wake of COVID-19, reduces the risk of disease outbreaks.

Ratzlaff, who has “taco night” once or twice a week, said he’s starting to research other options to get his protein, though he’s not counting out meat entirely. One of the changes he’s considering is buying meat locally.

Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said this line of thinking reflects a broader trend. “We are looking at food very differently,” he said.

A recent Angus Reid poll done in conjunction with Dalhousie found that as the pandemic wears on, 50 per cent of respondents intend to buy more local products once things are “back to normal.” The week before, that number was 42 per cent.

Not only that, but even the way we shop is different, particularly when it comes to meal-planning. “Five weeks ago, walking into a grocery store, we were looking for quick fixes,” Charlebois said. “The next day, we’re looking at ingredients for the next couple of weeks.”

While online grocery shopping — which can have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping — was something of a novelty before the pandemic, it may become normalized. As a result, local farmers are looking to get into the online food delivery business.

“Right now, my wife and I, we actually buy our fish and seafood from a [delivery] company that didn’t exist two months ago,” Charlebois said.

Buying local may alleviate some concerns over large-scale meat-production farms, but cost can be a holdback, regardless of the environmental benefits.

“People will want to buy local as long as it’s affordable,” Charlebois said. “Governments and politicians and business leaders will always encourage people to buy local. But at the end of the day, the price itself really matters a lot.”  SOURCE

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