Cowspiracy And Beyond

» November 12th, 2014

The documentary Cowspiracy is enjoying a steady stream of well-deserved praise. Its core message—that leading environmental organizations ignore the detrimental impact of animal agriculture—is absolutely essential to exposing the hypocrisy within organizations whose financial foundation depends on membership donations. In highlighting this irresponsible gap in the mainstream environmental message, Cowspiracy brings to the fore a disturbing but unavoidable question: are we pursuing navel-gazing environmental reforms that only make us feel like we’re saving a dying planet?

Given that animal agriculture (in every form) emits at least 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses (including 62 percent of nitrous oxide emissions), that livestock are the world’s largest users of land resources, that a pound of beef requires nearly 2000 gallons of water, and that there are 70 billion farm animals on the planet, it’s nothing short of a bad joke that the advocacy of a diet devoid of domesticated animals is not an integral element of any environmental organization’s defining platform. But it’s not, and Cowspiracy makes this point and drives it home with powerful assurance. As a critic of animal agriculture, I’m proud to have that film on my side.

In fact, I think it should become a model. Indeed, what the directors—Keegan Kuhn and Kip Anderson—have done to expose the underlying hypocrisy of environmental organizations needs to be done with the “sustainable” food movement’s effort to reform agriculture. Much like leading environmental organizations, the leaders of the food movement deliver big manifestos illuminating pervasive problems, but they do so while ignoring the dominant cause of our agricultural predicament: animals. The entire project of reforming the global food system, in so far as it continues to support eating farmed animals, is marked by denial and cowardice. It’s a shame, really.

Instead of putting reality behind its rhetoric, the movement promotes the fiction that we can reform agriculture, and the food system, while continuing to perpetuate animal agriculture. The only difference, as they present it, is that animals need to be raised on pasture, outdoors, and without antibiotics and growth hormones. There’s no doubt that, in many ways, such a transition is better for animals and the humans who consume them. But to think that this change would in any way contribute to real ecological or ethical improvement is to indulge in a kind of fantastical thinking, the kind that evades pragmatic and achievable action—eliminating animals from agriculture—in exchange for an ersatz sense of ecological responsibility, one that seems to be most enthusiastically embraced by, um, ranchers.

It is often said that raising animals (especially cattle) on pasture can improve the land and increase the sequestration of carbon. This has been shown to happen on a small scale. But it’s extremely rare. There are several caveats to consider when thinking about scaling up.

The first is that a rarified and almost mystical form of knowledge is required to make rotational grazing work as advertised—even Joel Salatin, the guru, can’t do it without importing commercial feed into his venture. The second is that animals on pasture aren’t allowed to live their lives to natural completion. Instead, they’re “harvested” about 1/5th of the way through the deal, denying the land the benefits of their hoof action and manure production while requiring resource-intensive slaughter and breeding programs to keep the happy farm in play. Third, these animals are animals—they continue to require water and feed (grass is typically supplemented with alfalfa), and they generate more greenhouse gasses (per pound of beef) than their confined counterparts. Dozens of studies confirm these realities, as well as the fact that pasture-raised animals are not necessarily healthier for humans to consume.

How can a transition to this form of animal agriculture ever be considered a viable strategy of reform? I’d love to see a documentary explore that question, stressing the fact that pasture-based animal agriculture would continue to consume excessive resources, generate excessive greenhouse gasses, and deny us an agricultural future based on a realistic paradise: growing a wide diversity of plants for people to eat. How nuts is that?

9 Responses to Cowspiracy And Beyond

  1. Mary Finelli says:

    “there are 70 billion farm animals on the planet”

    This is a commonly stated figure but, sadly, it fails to include farmed fish and other farmed aquatic animals. An estimated 37-120 billion farmed fish were killed globally in 2010* and the number of farmed fish has only continued to rise since then.

    Cowspiracy has a very good section on fish.


    • Vegan Shift says:

      Thank you Mary for that important factiod. I’ve heard it was more in the trillions category – I prefer to be as accurate as possible.

      I understand that counting at a rate of 1 number per second it takes: 12 days to count to 1 million, 32 years to count to 1 billion and 300 years to count to 1 trillion.

      The colossal spectre of death humanity unnecessarily wages on our fellow earthlings in supposed modern, civilized times is stupefying and must end before it results in the end of all life as we know it on earth.

  2. Marc Bedner says:

    I will not agree to the claim by Savory, Salatin, McKibben, Pollan et. al. that putting cows on grasslands is better for animals than CAFOs. The largest cause of wildlife habitat destruction in the western US is livestock grazing. The livestock industry, which has a disproportionate influence in western politics, is a major obstacle to wildlife protection.

  3. Sailesh Rao says:

    Raising livestock uses land and impacts the water cycle of the planet as well as the carbon cycle. Allan Savory’s holistic approach essentially trades off increased land use and water use in order to lower the impact on the carbon cycle, to the point of reaching carbon neutrality or even positivity. If anyone has found a way to lower land use, lower water use AND lower the impact on the carbon cycle, simultaneously, you can bet that the livestock industry would be adopting that method en masse. At the moment, the livestock industry is not flocking to Allan Savory’s methods because carbon is still free, while water and land are not and therefore, his tradeoffs don’t make economic sense.

    Also, Joel Salatin needs to import nutrients into his closed ecosystem, because his customers are eating the nutrients from his land (in the form of beef, chicken, etc.) in far off places and then not returning their poop and carcasses back to him to replenish his land. In Nature, all nutrients get cycled back to keep things sustainable for ever.

  4. Mark Phipps says:

    I found this movie captivating. As a newer vegan the various fronts on which the war on animal abuse are sometimes new to me. However, this film tied together some loose ends and got my full attention. No more by standing.

    The numbers, do you feel they are understated or otherwise? I have shared this film with my family and friends and anticipate continued momentum in the fight for animals.

  5. Barb Lomow says:

    Cowspiracy is an incredibly well done documentary that, of vital importance, is being viewed by mainstream audiences. The fact that it exposes “the hypocrisy within [environmental] organizations whose financial foundation depends on membership donations” is so welcome and long overdue. What everyone should also be aware of is that many of the national ‘animal protection’ organizations are equally guilty of this exact same hypocrisy and “irresponsible gap” in their messaging.

    HSUS is up to its bloody neck (literally) in promoting and “celebrating” animal consumption:
    [ ]

    The hypocrisy of HSUS’ involvement with and Wayne Pacelle’s seat on the GAP Board is nothing short of mind boggling:
    [ ] yet so many within “the movement” turn a blind eye to this as if it’s not actually happening, or that it is somehow ethically okay that it’s happening. Accountability is sorely lacking.

    Sharing in HSUS’ guilt are many other ‘animal protection’ organizations who, just like the environmental organizations outed in Cowspiracy, send out a steady stream of weak/evasive/mixed messages. As you put it so well, James, “it’s nothing short of a bad joke that the advocacy of a diet devoid of domesticated animals is not an integral element of any organization’s defining platform.” A good indicator of which groups share HSUS’ warped platform to varying degrees can be found on the speakers’ list at the recent TAFA conference:
    [ ]

    These organizations for the most part focus heavily on demonizing factory farming, rather than *all* animal farming. They speak out of all sides of their mouths, and while some haven’t totally banned the “V” word from their vocabulary, they tend to avoid, as much as possible, making animal consumption the vitally important moral issue that it is. Some focus almost exclusively on going “meat-free”, as if egg and dairy production are somehow ethically different and therefore acceptable. This false differentiation is of course done in a very calculated fashion so as to alienate as few donors as possible. The victims of the egg and dairy industries — and in some cases, meat, too — are deliberately ignored in their messaging for the sake of financial gain for the organizations who churn out a steady stream of donation requests, some with five-to-six donation buttons conveniently found within each request.

    You summed things up so well, James, by stating that “The entire project of reforming the global food system, in so far as it continues to support eating farmed animals, is marked by denial and cowardice” and “Instead of putting reality behind its rhetoric, the movement promotes the fiction that we can reform agriculture, and the food system, while continuing to perpetuate animal agriculture.” You of course were referring to the environmental movement, but these statements apply equally — if not more so — to the “animal protection” movement, given that it *should* be obvious that groups professing to advocate for animals cannot be complicit in promoting their consumption … EVER, directly or indirectly.

    It’s long past time that both environmental and animal groups be held accountable for what and who it is that they are actually endorsing. Donors hold a lot of power, and they need to be diligent and selective as to what messages they are supporting.

    • Vegan Shift says:

      Barb Lomow, you have just articulated exactly why exists. The ethic of vegan is no longer going to be avoided; it is front, center, unapologetic and unequivocal.

  6. JanWindsong says:

    I’d love to wach your film for additional prospective, but the price is a bit steep. Sorry, I will wait til it comes to some cheaper form.

  7. Theodore Micceri says:

    I have known most of the “facts” regarding animal agriculture for over 20 years, and have been nearly vegan for about 40 years, however,

    THIS FILM drives the point home so effectively of how damaging to the Earth Mother, our Corporate World has become that my son and I are becoming totally Vegan (get B-12 from Nutritional Yeast).

    A friend and I bought 25 copies (quite a discount) and are distributing them, and I pre-ordered their book: “Beyond Cowspiracy.”

    It is More than Worth the money if you care at all about carbon-based life on this planet.

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