Cowspiracy is a mock documentary film by A.U.M. (Animals United Movement) Films & Media. The film is a docu-drama, American style affair, or ‘mock-doc’ about climate change and intends to ‘wake up the world’ and shock you into action.
There are hundreds of examples of how easy it is to spin figures to back up a political agenda. Cowspiracy uses ‘facts’ conveyed in bold infographics, interspaced with cleverly cut interviews, and lots of passionate ‘talking heads’ to hide the real political agenda of the film under the pretense it cares about climate change and feeding the world.
Over the last few weeks and months I have had this film mentioned many times in response to my articles about grazing management techniques designed to build carbon and to help climate change. Now I am all for ‘waking up the world’ however I am also increasingly suspicious of amplified statements about cattle ending our existence on earth, so I was compelled to dig a bit deeper.
The opening scene of Cowspiracy introduces the character of the film, Kip, and explains how he was inspired by Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ to ‘wake up’ to the threat of climate change. Kip embraced this new paradigm, he tried everything; cycled everywhere, sorted his trash, turned off light switches but sadly it didn’t work – he did not stop climate change! Then, in a life changing moment Kip read an e-mail from a friend and it was suddenly all clear.
He realised that the massive changes in climate were not down to cars and oil after all, but was in fact caused by cows! The e-mail in question was a reference to the ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization.1 It stated that cows generated more CO2, 18% more, than the transport system.
Now in itself this is pretty big news and the report did indeed get huge coverage because its figures were so different from previous estimates. The report provided perfect fuel for activist animal welfare campaigners – who love all living beings with the exception of meat-eating humans! The report was also great for the motor industry who suddenly had a perfect ‘scape cow’ for continuing to create gas guzzling monsters which contribute nothing to our food security!
The report received worldwide attention and the 18% became the new undisputed ‘fact’ that was used by any organisation with an agenda. But, a more credible organisation; the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) – a Nobel Prize-winning body of scientists who’s opinions are considered indisputable on facts relating to global warming – released a report the following year stating that the WHOLE of agriculture only attributes 10-12% of GHG emissions2 and enteric methane represents only a portion of overall agricultural emissions. The World Resources Institute’s global warming flow chart (using IPCC figures) allocates just 5.1% of emissions to ‘livestock and manure’.3
But by now the horse was long gone and the door firmly bolted – a pile of manure left steaming in the stable! And by the way, horses – although not ruminants – produce similar amounts of methane to cows and don’t even give us food, so perhaps we should get rid of them too?
So what is going on here? Whose figures can we believe?
Well, it is all down to what is included in the figures.
For instance take the transport sector. A Canadian study shows that if you look at the figures for CO2 produced from burning fuel in vehicles was 31% – if you added in the CO2 created during the manufacture process, oil refining, and road building it was a whopping 51%. In the first example, the other elements of the emissions figure were attributed to a different industry.
There are hundreds of examples of how easy it is to spin figures to back up a political agenda. Cowspiracy uses ‘facts’ conveyed in bold infographics, interspaced with cleverly cut interviews, and lots of passionate ‘talking heads’ to hide the real political agenda of the film under the pretense it cares about climate change and feeding the world. The real agenda of the film is to promote an absolutist argument that a vegan diet is the only answer to climate change and feeding the world, and that ANYONE who eats meat CANNOT call themselves an environmentalist!
In my opinion this strand of veganism is fundamentalist, and allows for only one outcome – to get rid of ALL livestock. To help achieve this goal apparently this abolitionist vegan movement will turn to oversimplifying complex issues, cherry picking worst case statistics, carefully cutting interviews, or showing footage out of its original context in order to promote their propaganda. The real shame here is that the ‘all or nothing’ approach closes down sensible and productive dialogue that may just help us save the planet and feed the world! It is totally at odds with what most vegans and vegetarians want, which is a sensible answer to climate change that helps promote treating animals well.
In Cowspiracy there are just too many ‘spun’ figures and ridiculous oversimplifications to tackle in one lifetime’s work, however here are a few points that may provide a bit of balance to the completely unbalanced documentary. One such point that is very close to my heart is that of the idea that 100% grass-fed cattle are also unsustainable due to the methane they emit over their lifetime and also the amount of land they require (as a conversion ratio) to produce food.
This point completely overlooks the recent soil science findings that have emerged, and continue to emerge, which confirm a healthy pasture has the capacity to lock down most of the methane produced by the grazing animals through the action of methanotrophs. It also neglects to mention that in healthy pasture carbon is sequestered – taking carbon out of the air and locking it safely underground. This process of building soil organic matter through effective grazing has shown to have the potential to tackle rising GHG emissions very effectively not to mention the fact that it creates its own natural fertility reducing the need for fossil fuels – another really big GHG issue! I talk about this topic in much more detail here.4 The way they portrayed the cattle farmers in the film was frankly a disgrace and taken entirely out of context in order to make them look ignorant. But what they said was true – 100% grass-fed cattle have been shown to have NO carbon footprint at and in some studies show a net gain!5
Some plant foods have a high conversion ratio too, and you need a very wide range of plant foods to get the nutrients you need to maintain a healthy human, you can’t live off just efficient grains. Grass-fed meat is highly nutritious food that contains a HUGE range of nutrients in a digestible form with no anti-nutrient side effects…
The point was made that there is simply not enough land to feed us all on grass-fed meat and illustrates this using a calculation based on what the average American eats. Firstly what an average American eats is not a true reflection of what the rest of the world eats. I don’t think it is a productive argument using protein requirements from a country where 38% of Adults are obese!6 And 30% of food is chucked in the bin! I don’t think anyone really thinks the whole world could or should eat this way.
Secondly most of the land used as pasture for grazing cattle is not land that is suitable for growing food for humans anyway. Pasture land tends to be inaccessible, exposed, mountainous, too wet or too dry etc. Contrary to common belief pasture a.k.a. ‘ranch land’ in the USA can be managed in harmony with nature and cattle are an essential part of the eco-system. The idea that land has to be either for nature or for food production is absurd – it can and has to be both. The great plains of America was an incredibly rich habitat and supported millions of wild ruminants which today could be replaced with domestic ruminants to the same overall effect but producing food for us at the same time. We should be focusing on doing this better not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water!
And thirdly you can’t oversimplify grazing land and producing food like this. Grazing land can be highly effective at building fertility without the need for fossil fuelled fertilisers as part of a rotational system which ALSO produces vegetables and grains. Some plant foods have a high conversion ratio too, and you need a very wide range of plant foods to get the nutrients you need to maintain a healthy human, you can’t live off just efficient grains. Grass-fed meat is highly nutritious food that contains a HUGE range of nutrients in a digestible form with no anti-nutrient side effects unlike many of its more efficient plant alternatives.
The IPCC estimates that plant crops produce 17% of current man-made methane emissions and although I completely agree feeding these plants to animals is simply ridiculous, these emissions don’t disappear when we eat the plants. The plant food we feed to animals isn’t like pouring out a packet of corn flakes into a feed trough! Human plant food has to be highly refined for us to be able to eat it, this all requires energy, water, and chemicals. Animals are very effective at eating much of the ‘waste’ food rejected for human consumption – where would this go in a system with no animals?
We need the world’s pastures to be restored in order to ‘bank’ and help offset this methane – we may as well grow some meat on it! Without beef, sheep, or dairy protein we would need an additional 25% plant food to compensate for the loss of vital nutrients. More land would have to be ploughed, releasing more methane and carbon into the atmosphere and the loss of pasture would reduce the planet’s ability to offset GHG even further. When you compare different crops with their CO2 footprint the picture becomes even more complex. 1kg of rice produces approximately 100g of methane, whereas 1kg of milk produces about 13-26g of methane so there would not be much gain from eliminating milk to instead eat rice.7
In each part of the world we eat different diets with a range of different plant and animal foods all of which have different GHG impacts depending on the unique system from which they are grown. Climate, soil quality, fertiliser and pesticide use, irrigation requirements, route to market, and so much more all have an impact on the overall GHG produced per kilogram of food. Summing this all up with a simple graph is so ridiculous it is almost funny.
The film’s water statistics are equally crazy. It is correct that intensive farming indeed uses vast quantities of water, right from the irrigated crops through to the washing down of a slaughter-house at the end of the process. But especially in the case of pastured animals, at least some of this water returns to the land immediately – it is not ‘locked up’ in the animal! If a cow grazes it drinks very little anyway, but even what it drinks from a stream or trough will be passed directly back onto the pasture within a few hours!
Much of the world’s, and even most US beef is already at least partially grazed on pasture. So the figures that Kip uses to calculate the amount of land required to eat grass-fed beef are just plain wrong. This is not a huge surprise considering the statistics ‘advisor’ for this film (as listed in the closing credits) is the dentist Dr. Oppenlander, who like so many of the other vegan extremists in this film is anything but an expert on sustainability, ranching, the environment, or any other issue tackled in this film.
Allan Savory is in many real sustainability expert’s view, one of the most significant visionaries in climate change and specifically the issue of reversing desertification, his work is thought to potentially hold the answer to reversing climate change.8 In a bizarre scene in the film, Allan Savory was written off by Kip without any real explanation. Allan Savory confesses in his now very famous TED talk (see below), with 3.3 million views, that as part of the ‘conventional’ thinking about overgrazing, he authorised the shooting of thousands of elephants to try to reverse desertification on National Parks in South Africa. As an animal lover this was a tragic moment in his life, made worse by the fact that the desertification process actually got worse following the removal of the grazing animals. Savory admits this was the biggest mistake of his life and has entirely dedicated his life to finding a solution. Kip declares a man capable of such a mistake should not be trusted. If we are only to listen to experts who have never made any mistakes in life, we may be limiting our field somewhat!
6.5 million hectares of grassland (probably more by now) is managed under Allan Savory’s holistic planned grazing. The areas of land managed under his methods are turning from arid, degraded land (which can no longer support the communities living from it) back to productive grasslands that have flowing watercourses (drinking water) and healthy regenerative grasslands (food and fertility) – all through careful controlled grazing management. We don’t actually need scientific data here – it just works, go and see for yourself!9, 10
The other main ‘plot’ of the film was to create a conspiracy theory around the idea that environmental agencies are too scared to talk about the impact of agriculture upon the environment. Once again this was backed up with ridiculous edited interviews, out of context comments, and poor ‘scientific facts’. I have followed the world’s most influential environmental organisations for years and can assure you that this idea is codswallop! Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the WWF, among many other environmental organisations, campaign extensively to reduce the amount of factory farmed meat we eat. Most work hard to raise awareness of the devastating effects of tearing down rain forest to grow cereal crops – whether fed to animals or for use by humans directly as in the case of soya oil, land speculation, mining, timber, ethanol production, and paper!
Take a look at some of these hard-working influential campaigns in action:
- Greenpeace’s Ecological Farming and Food campaign
- Friends of the Earth Food and Technology campaigns
- Worldwide Wildlife Fund’s Sustainable Agriculture campaign
So the basis of this film is that agriculture is responsible for more GHG emission as the transport sector is in the US, and that there is a huge cover-up by the environmental organisations because they are scared of the agriculture industry. But, unfortunately, these ‘facts’ are both wrong:
- One of the most recent conflicting data is from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which puts all agricultural emissions at 10%, well below the energy and transportation sectors of 32% and 28% respectively. And can I also point out that the transport sector doesn’t contribute to feeding us in any way! The EPA’s numbers for the US are similar to those numbers for greenhouse gases noted in the 2014 UN Climate Change Committee’s report where the entire agricultural sector in the US (farming and livestock) accounts for slightly over 8% of the total and, so when calculated out, enteric methane from cattle is only 2.17% of the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted.11
- The environmental agencies are as keen as any of us to reduce the amount of factory farmed meat we eat and encourages to look for more sustainable ways to produce food such as organic farming and rearing cattle on land that cannot produce human food crops.
This ‘all or nothing’ abolitionist approach is not helping anyone move forward with this incredibly important debate.
Nicolette Hahn Niman, following her excellent book ‘Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production’ calls for a ‘third way’. Maybe instead of arguing back and forth for and against eating meat, we could look at a mixture of solutions:
- 1/3rd of the world’s surface is grassland and 70% of those are degraded. If we work on finding ways of restoring these grasslands we can capture enough carbon to reverse climate change and return communities back to their lands to grow food for themselves.12
- Organic farming has the potential to produce as much food as ‘chemical’ farming without the heavy environmental impact of being reliant on fertilisers, machines, and pesticides. If we put expertise and effort into developing organic farming methods, improving crops, and farming techniques instead of just working on GMO just think what we could achieve.13
- We have, and will always have, vast quantities of land unsuitable for ploughing and cultivating. Most of this land as well-managed pasture can produce a wealth of healthy foods from nutritious meat through to milk, cheese, and butter. Some of this land will be woodland and sensitive habitat but even the most delicate ecosystem can produce what can be called ‘default’ livestock. Conservation grazing animals (used to maintain moorlands, limestone pasture’s etc), wild game, and certain prolific wild plants can be a major sustainable contribution to our food.
- Any food system – particularly a plant-based one – will have an element of food waste, by-products, and failed crops. We can waste this or we can feed this to omnivore animals like chickens and pigs to make more food.
One of the best researched and comprehensive books on the subject I have read is Simon Fairlie’s ‘Meat – A benign Extravagance’. In his book he outlines how it could be possible to feed a hungry world by halving the amount of meat we eat and incorporating the above ideas. I agree with him, and feel strongly that the simple argument ‘eating meat is bad for the environment’ is grossly oversimplified and avoids meaningful discussion around one of the biggest potential solutions.
So what is an ethical meat eater’s response to the film ‘Cowspiracy’? Simple – grazing animals.
I would love to hear your views on the film so please do leave a comment using the comments box below.
- Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., de Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options. In FAO Corporate Document Repository. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm
- Metz, B., Davidson, O., Bosch, P., Dave, R., Meyer, L. (2007). Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change. In Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), (8)63. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4_wg3_full_report.pdf
- Herzog, T., Pershing, J., Baumert, K.A. (2005). Navigating the numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Change Policy. In World Resources Institute. Retrieved from wri.org/publication/navigating-the-numbers
- Watson, C. (2015). The Super-food That Nobody is Talking About… Yet!. In Primal Eye Magazine. Retrieved from http://primaleye.uk/the-super-food-that-nobody-is-talking-about-yet/
- Wang, T. Teague, W.R., Park, S. C., Bevers, S. (2015). GHG Mitigation Potential of Different Grazing Strategies in the United States Southern Great Plains. In Regeneration International. Retrieved from http://www.regenerationinternational.org/blog-five/2015/10/5/ghg-mitigation-potential-of-different-grazing-strategies-in-the-united-states-southern-great-plains
- Rettner, R. (2015). Here’s How Many Americans Are Now Obese. In Yahoo! News. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/many-americans-now-obese-064426938.html
- Fairlie, S. (2010). Meat: A benign extravagance. Hampshire, UK: Permanent Publications. Pp. 171.
- Lovins, L.H. (2014). Why George Monbiot is wrong: grazing livestock can save the world. In The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/aug/19/grazing-livestock-climate-change-george-monbiot-allan-savory
- Schwartz. J. (2013). Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth. Vermont, USA: Chelsea Green Publishing. Pp. 60–66.
- Niman, N. H. (2014). Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production. USA: Chelsea Green Publishing. Pp. 34–44.
- (Anonymous). (2014). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2012. In United States Environmental Protection Agency Online. Retrieved from http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/Downloads/ghgemissions/US-GHG-Inventory-2014-Chapter-6-Agriculture.pdf
- (Anonymous). (2007). $90/Tonne for Carbon. In The Land. Retrieved from http://www.theland.com.au/news/agriculture/agribusiness/general-news/90tonne-for-carbon/54723.aspx
- Halweil, B. (2006). Can Organic Farming Feed Us All? In WorldWatch Institute. Retrieved from http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4060