Cowspiracy: TheSustainability Secret is a 2014 documentary that was made with great skill by Keegan Kuhn and Kip Andersen, despite their tight budget. While Kuhn operates the camera, Andersen demonstrates in an engaging and sometimes humorous way just how bad animal agriculture is for our planet. Though Cowspiracy also touches on the cruelty involved in intensive meat production, the filmmakers spend much more of their time trying to fathom why environmental groups like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and Rainforest Action Network won’t talk about the damage caused by humans’ burgeoning appetite for animal products.
As the film unfolds, Andersen carefully examines the facts as though he too is learning about them, and he makes a convincing argument that eating meat, dairy, and seafood doesn’t make for a sustainable world. You can go to the film’s website to find the studies and statistics cited, but here are just a few of the environmental problems he mentions:
- Climate Change: According to reports from the United Nations and the EPA, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, whereas transportation contributes only 13%. In 2009 another source, Worldwatch, attributed 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to livestock and their byproducts.
- Depletion of Fresh Water: While fracking (hydraulic fracturing) uses from 70-140 billion gallons of water annually, animal agriculture uses between 34 and 76 trillion gallons of water annually. The meat and dairy industries use 29% of the world’s fresh water.
- Deforestation: Animal agriculture has been responsible for 91% of Amazon destruction, and 136 million acres of rainforest have been cleared in order to produce meat.
- Threats to Ocean Ecosystems: Each year human beings take 90 million tons of fish from the world’s oceans. For every pound of fish caught for human consumption, 5 pounds of marine organisms are unintended by-kill and are discarded.
These are serious numbers that will impress anyone concerned about the fate of our planet. As a result Cowspiracy, though it is likely to entertain and engage all viewers, speaks most directly to environmental activists. (After all, if you don’t believe that the earth is in peril, that climate change is a real threat caused by human activity, and that endangered species should be protected from extinction, you are not likely to be influenced by the studies and statistics cited.) And as the filmmakers carefully make their fact-based argument about the negative effects of animal agriculture, they also ask why so many environmental groups have a persistent blind spot when it comes to recognizing these negative effects. In an attempt to answer this question they arrange (or try to arrange) a series of interviews with staff members of some of the nation’s largest environmental groups. Though Andersen doesn’t flinch from asking tough questions, he often receives answers that are unsatisfactory, which leads to a further set of questions:
1) Could environmental groups have been bought off? Andersen tries to set up an interview with Greenpeace staffers to talk with them about the effects of animal agriculture on the environment, and Greenpeace staffers politely refuse – twice. Then Andersen goes to the Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA, “an industry-united, nonprofit organization that helps bridge the communication gap between farm and fork”) to ask if AAA gives money to environmental groups like Greenpeace. The AAA rep refuses to answer this question, and the interview is then terminated. Shortly afterward, the film’s financial backer calls to say that, “due to growing controversial subject matter,” they will have to pull out. The mysteries of the film’s loss of funding and why Greenpeace would not speak about animal agriculture on-camera are never solved.
2) Could environmental activists be afraid for their lives? Andersen speaks with the Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network, who says it’s hard to determine the single largest cause of rainforest destruction. But Leila Salazar Lopez at Amazon Watch says that animal agriculture (i.e., clearing land to graze animals and to grow genetically modified corn and soy as feed) is the major driver of rainforest destruction. Then she cites the number of activists who have died in Brazil for saying so. Perhaps fear and concern over physical survival keeps some activists from speaking out about animal agriculture, and Andersen says he had to pause and consider his own safety before deciding to continue making the film.
3) Could environmental groups be afraid of legal consequences? Andersen interviews Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher who was sued by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for talking about “mad cow” disease on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Lyman reminds Andersen that animal activists and environmentalists are at the top of the FBI’s domestic terrorist list, and he said it took five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to extricate himself from suits filed by the cattle industry. The possibility of being embroiled in a lawsuit or being labeled a domestic terrorist is daunting, and the filmmakers again consider dropping their project, but Andersen decides that “either you live for something or die for nothing” and goes on.
4) Could environmental groups be afraid to alienate their membership base? Michael Pollan tells Andersen that the big environmental groups are membership organizations and can’t challenge that which is dear to people. Dr. Will Tuttle compares the avoidance of this issue by Greenpeace and other groups to the dynamics at work in a dysfunctional family – the real problem is the one thing no one wants to talk about.
Cowspiracy shines a very unflattering light on some of the biggest and most important environmental groups in the country, but the film isn’t just about environmental groups and individual activists who don’t want to look at uncomfortable truths. Andersen also interviews committed environmentalists who agree with the film’s premise. These include Dr. Richard Oppenlander, Michael Pollan, and Dr. Will Tuttle. And the film’s website links to other groups that acknowledge the environmental impact of eating meat:
- Friends of the River encourages people to use less water by eating less meat.
- Newly released recommendations from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee include the call for reduced meat consumption, in part because of the negative environmental impact of animal agriculture.
- And Worldwatch Institute has advocated a plant-based diet since at least 2004.
Cowspiracy makes a convincing argument thoughtfully and engagingly. The filmmakers conclude that, in a world with a burgeoning human population, worsening climate change, significant species extinction, and huge inequalities and disparities of wealth, a meat-based diet is a selfish luxury. That’s one of the best arguments I’ve heard for adopting a plant-based diet.