- Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret
- Directed and Produced by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn
“The film that environmental organizations don’t want you to see!”
Okay, before you start thinking this is just another PETA horror flick that’s designed to make you feel like heartless monsters for eating even a fleck of animal-based anything, know that yes, it will make you think that–but not for all the usual reasons you’re probably expecting!
Let’s try to give the film Cowspiracy a chance as it approaches the topic of meat consumption from a totally different perspective, one you’ve likely heard little if anything on ever before, and that is..
How what we eat heavily pertains to the destruction of earth’s environment and the future of the planet we live on and are supported by.
With livestock production being responsible for more than 18% (and perhaps up to 51%) of all greenhouse gas emissions, what this global population of more than seven billion human beings consumes has a huge sway on how much we are contributing to climate change.
Filmmaker Kip Andersen saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. From there he became what he terms as an OCE or “Obsessive Compulsive Environmentalist.”
Thinking he was making a difference by taking ultra quick showers, recycling obsessively, bike-commuting and turning off the lights when leaving the room, Andersen worked hard to reduce his carbon footprint. But, he thought, “with all the continuing ecological crises facing the planet, even if every single one of us adopted these conservation habits, was this really going to be enough to save the world?”
Then he saw a friend’s post: a United Nation’s report stating that raising livestock produces more greenhouse gasses than the entire transportation sector. He realized how the impact of his OCE lifestyle changes were dwarfed by the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions that comes from a diet fed by animal agriculture.
In this film, Andersen pairs with fellow filmmaker Keegan Kuhn to take us along on his sometimes frustrating, sometimes amusing investigative journey as he explores how what we eat reflects how land, water and other natural resources are exploited, contributing to climate change and an unhealthy future for humans, biodiversity and the environment.
Through powerful statistics and creative animated infographics peppered along this feature-length, hour and 31 minute environmental documentary, the constant focus of the film is on animal agriculture as “the primary industry that is destroying our planet more than any other.”
“Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean ‘dead zones,’ and virtually every other environmental ill. Yet it goes on, almost entirely unchallenged.” –Cowspiracy
Throughout the film we are taken face to face with environmental organizations, including one I wrote for in 2014 that I’m very familiar with and hold a big place in my heart for: Sierra Club. In a striking interview with deputy executive director of Sierra Club, Bruce Hamilton, it quickly becomes clear that when it comes to the leading cause of climate change, animal agriculture isn’t even remotely on many environmental organizations’ radars.
What is also neatly sidestepped by environmental organizations is the fact that, while changing our habits to reduce carbon emissions seems great, cows regularly produce a much more volatile contributor to climate change: the greenhouse gas known as methane, through their digestive and respiratory processes. Methane is a twenty five to one hundred times more destructive fossil fuel in its contribution to climate change than carbon dioxide.
“If you reduce [CO2] emissions to the atmosphere, you don’t really see a signal in the atmosphere for about 100 years or so. If you reduce the amount of methane emissions, the level in the atmosphere goes down fairly quickly, within decades.” -Kirk R. Smith, PhD, Professor of Environmental Health, UC Berkeley
But greenhouse gas emissions from livestock is only just one contributing factor out of many to the global ecological destruction that animal agriculture wreaks on the planet. Massive amounts of water go into livestock production, up to 2,500 gallons to produce a mere single pound of beef. Drought and water scarcity is a serious and threatening issue that is affecting human populations around the world, yet how many humans have ever heard that that single quarter pound hamburger in their hands takes up to 660 gallons of water to produce?
“The average Californian uses about 1500 gallons per person per day,” says Heather Cooley, Water Program Co-Director at Pacific Institute, “About half of that is related to the consumption of meat and dairy products.”
Yet in an interview with Californian government’s Department of Water Resources, Andersen was only given the same solution spiel of low flow shower heads, water efficient appliances and checking for leaky faucet heads in keeping with the recommendations on the state’s Save our Water campaign. But when confronted by the filmmakers about how animal agriculture acts as a major water hog that dwarfs these other efforts, they faltered: “That’s not my area.” Yet when pushed, Kamyar Guivetchi admitted, “I think that the water footprint of animal husbandry is greater than other industries, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.” Yet when Andersen spoke up and said hey, why not encourage whoever runs the website campaign to start encouraging people to eat less meat now that these studies are coming out. “I don’t think that’ll happen.” Why? “Because of the way government is set up.”
As Andersen contacts one environmental organization after another, hoping to tackle the issue of why animal agriculture is such a taboo issue in the environmental sect, he is repeatedly given evasive answers to questions and denied interviews.
Meanwhile, we are continually thrown statistics with accompanying animation to help depict the kinds of devastation animal agriculture wreaks on our environment, from livestock excrement amounting to 116 thousand pounds produced every second in the US alone to the hundreds of nitrogen flooded dead zones, areas devoid of life. “Any meaningful discussion about our oceans has to always begin by frank discussions about land-based animal agriculture,” says Oppenlander, “which is not what is at the apex of our conservation group’s discussions,”
Our filmmakers quickly realize how these groups dedicated solely to saving the environment avoid any mention of animal agriculture and certainly don’t promote a more plant-based diet because, being that they are membership organizations that rely heavily on financial donors, they don’t want to alienate their members by telling them to change their lifestyle in a much more significant, highly personal way than the obligatory switching off the lights when you leave the room.
“If they get identified as being anti-meat or challenging people on their everyday habits, something that’s so dear to people, it will hurt with their fundraising.” Michael Pollan, environmental author, says of environmental organizations that avoid the topic of animal agriculture. These organizations are, in the end, businesses and, without a reliable source of funding, they’re not going to be able to continue to operate.
Yet many of these organizations are supposedly dedicated to protecting rainforests and oceans, yet don’t admit how livestock production and grazing impacts the very places they’re trying to save. The Amazon rainforest, the lungs of our planet, is a prime example.
Throughout the film, we continue to feel like we’re pulling teeth with organizations about admitting the livestock industry and our very diet has anything to do with their environmental initiatives. And Andersen felt like he was walking in circles in a Cowspiracy twilight zone trying to get even rainforest protection-specific agencies to give the most obvious answer to what the main cause of deforestation is.
But then Amazon Watch’s Program Director Leila Salazar Lopez laid it out. What was happening to the people who were standing up in opposition to special interest groups like the cattle industry and agribusiness? People were putting themselves out there in Brazil, saying that cattle ranching was specifically responsible for destroying the Amazon and they were being silenced. “A lot of the people who were speaking up got killed,” says Salazar Lopez. “A lot of people keep their mouths shut because they don’t want to be the next one with a bullet to their head.”
Essentially, what conducts this neat sweeping under the rug of such a major issue is something deeper and more all-encompassing: The legislative power of the U.S. livestock industry and how heavily meat-eating is incorporated into our lifestyles. The livestock industry is protected by massive amounts of money and lobbying power. “Once they become so large and wealthy,” says Wenonah Halter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, “then they can dictate the federal policies around producing food, because they have so much political power.”
In the last third of the film, we hear a recorded voicemail message, it’s Andersen and Kuhn’s film backer apologizing for having to pull funding and support for the very film we’re watching, due to its controversial theme.
Career cattle farmer Howard Lyman was sued by cattle industry for speaking the truth against animal agriculture on the Oprah Winfrey show. “If you cause a disruption in the profits of the animal industry, you’re guilty under the Patriot Act.” When Andersen asks if he should be concerned about making a documentary like this one? Lyman laughs and says, “Of course! If you don’t realize right now that you’re putting your neck on the chopping block, you better take that camera and throw it away.”
With his funding being dropped and learning that American journalists and activists speaking out against animal agriculture and factory farms were being targeted as terrorists by the FBI, Andersen considered doing just that, throwing it away. But then, he realized “this issue was way bigger than any personal concern I could have for myself, this was about all life on earth hanging in the balance of our actions.” The Cowspiracy crew was not giving up.
Overall, the film covers an enormous topic that involves a great deal of heavy information thrown at you for ninety minutes straight. But I think that we need to better understand not just where our food is coming from, but the impact it has on our earth, our environment, wildlife, our grandchildren, our future. I don’t think you need to come away from this film thinking you are awful if you consume meat or dairy, but rather thinking about it at all and how it connects to environmental degradation, climate change and a healthy future for all life.
Earth cannot support our meat and dairy habit, that is the takeaway message here. But by even taking the smallest steps to reducing your consumption of animal products can help move us toward a more sustainable future. Consider it!
Learn more and watch the film here: http://www.cowspiracy.com/
Tags: animal agriculture, cattle, cattle industry, climate change, environment, environmentalist, eyes on conservation, farming, greenhouse gases, livestock, livestock industry, vegan, veganism