While watching the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, I kept thinking of George Bernard Shaw’s quote “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Kip Andersen narrates the 90-minute documentary, which focuses mainly on the animal-agriculture industries in the U.S. and the world. He faces many challenges while interviewing a wide variety of people throughout the U.S., from animal-rights activists to representatives of the animal-agriculture industry.
The film paints an uncomplimentary picture of animal ag here and abroad, though that industry is not the only culprit, according to Cowspiracy. It also paints a bleak picture of what — unless people worldwide change their lifestyles (read: diets) drastically — lies ahead for Earth’s inhabitants.
Case in point: Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, says “We are facing the next major extinction of species on the Earth that we haven’t seen since the time of the dinosaurs disappearing.” He’s talking about humans.
Hamilton also predicts more armed conflicts: People who live in areas suffering from sea-level rise or drought caused by climate change will need to move — and, in the worst-case scenario, to invade another country.
Disturbing, even gruesome, images
Cowspiracy provides plenty of graphic images. For example, Andersen’s dire predictions about global warming — “monster storms, raging wildfires, record droughts, ice caps melting, acidification of the oceans, entire countries going under water” — are accompanied by video clips of the appropriate devastation.
Other footage includes cows, chickens and other animals in factory farms. The most graphic — some might say “gruesome” — segment in the film comes at the 70-minute point (more on that later).
Keegan Kuhn co-directed the documentary with Andersen. Their premise: The animal-agriculture industry is harming the environment around the world — far more so than even the transportation industry.
Cowspiracy uses statistics for support
Andersen calls himself an “OCE — an ‘obsessive-compulsive environmentalist.'” He felt pretty good about recycling, changing light bulbs, taking shorter showers, and riding his bike rather than driving.
Then Andersen, who lives in California, read “Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns,” published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006. According to the article, the world’s entire transportation sector — cars, trucks, ships, railroads and planes — generates 13 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Cattle produce 18 percent, partly due to their methane emissions during digestion.
Wanting to know more about this seemingly counter-intuitive statistic, Andersen searched the internet but found virtually no information about cattles’ role in global warming. Environmentally oriented organizations instead focused their attention on emissions caused by, for example, oil production and damage caused by fracking.
But he did discover some startling statistics, such as this: One hamburger requires 660 gallons of water to produce. He realized that his shorter showers weren’t going to help the water situation.
Environmental damage has many sources
Animal agriculture is responsible for a variety of ills plaguing humankind, according to the film: “deforestation, land use, water scarcity, the destabilization of communities, world hunger — the list doesn’t stop. It’s an environmental disaster,” says Demosthenes Maratos, communications director of Molloy College’s Sustainability Institute.
Leila Salazar Lopez, program director for Amazon Watch, notes, “There are many, many ‘drivers’ of deforestation … The ones that cause the most damage … are ‘megaprojects’ such as oil and gas pipelines … mining projects … mega-dam projects.” But, she concludes, “In terms of amount of land that is destroyed … what is causing the most trees to fall … I think it would definitely be agriculture.”
However, the film also presents defenders of the animal-ag industry. For example, Emily Meredith, vice president of communications and membership for the pro-livestock lobby group Animal Agriculture Alliance, says, “We’ve used technology to make advancements in how we raise crops and raise animals. We’re not going to feed the world by going back to how it was 100 years ago, when animals were pasture-fed.”
That’s true, and co-director/narrator Andersen addresses the reason for the huge expansion of animal agriculture: human overpopulation. Earth had an estimated 1 billion people in 1812, 1.5 billion in 1912 and 7 billion in 2012. Today’s farm-animal population being raised to feed those 7 billion people: 70 billion.
(Editor’s note: According to the United Nations’ website, “The world’s population is projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050 and exceed 11 billion in 2100.”)
Grim statistics, disturbing images
Of the more than 7 billion people alive today, about 1 billion are starving, explains Richard Oppenlander, an environmental researcher and author of the books Comfortably Unaware and Food Choice and Sustainability.
Oppenlander says ironically, “82 percent of the world’s starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals … that are then killed, and eaten by more-well-off individuals.”
Farm animals consume 50 percent of the grain eaten daily. They have big appetites. John Taylor, co-owner of Bivalve Dairy, says a cow typically “will eat 140 to 150 pounds of feed a day” and will drink 30 to 40 gallons of water. Taylor says his Marin County, Calif., dairy uses “about 20 tons of grain per week” for his 250 milking cows.
Warning: Graphic images are part of the story — in particular, 70 minutes into the film, the close-up decapitation of a 2-year-old duck and its aftermath. Bill Phillips, identified only as “a backyard farmer,” uses a small hatchet to hack off the head of one of his 42 ducks.
“That’s gonna be a little gruesome,” he says as he holds the body upside down above a bucket, the duck’s legs still kicking, to “bleed” it. At the bottom of the bucket, the animal’s head is still moving slightly, its bill opening and closing almost imperceptibly.
What is in our future?
Overall, Cowspiracy paints a pessimistic picture of the future. Michael Pollan, author of The Ominvore’s Dilemma and other books, predicts a decline in meat-eating because the practice is unsustainable. “Americans consume 9 ounces of meat each day,” he says. “If the Chinese alone decide they want to eat that much — and they have decided they want to eat that much — we don’t have enough world to produce the grain to generate that much meat. … A plant-based diet is the most sustainable.”
What if we reduce meat consumption? “What about meatless Mondays?” Andersen asks Oppenlander. He replies, “When you go meatless on Mondays … you’re essentially contributing to climate change, pollution, depletion of our planet’s resources and your own health … on only six days a week instead of seven. It’s a false sense of justification.”
Despite the adversity and stonewalling Andersen faces while traveling, gathering information and conducting interviews, he soldiers on — some might say unreasonably. At one point in Cowspiracy, he admits that he is seriously considering abandoning the project. Then he decides “You either live for something or die for nothing.”
At the end of the film, co-director/narrator Andersen concludes, “The only way to sustainably and ethically live on this planet with 7 billion other people is to live an entirely plant-based vegan diet. I decided to say, ‘Instead of eating others, I’ll eat for others.’ You can change the world. You must change the world.”
If you’re interested in watching the film, Cowspiracy, you can order it online.