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.
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 organisation.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 little 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 emissions. 2 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 manufacturing 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. 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!
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 much 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 effect.
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! Surely nobody 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 plant food for humans anyway. Pasture land tends to be inaccessible, exposed, mountainous, too wet or too dry.
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 ecosystem. 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 bathwater!
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.
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 approximately 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 films 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 to the pasture within a few hours!
Much of the worlds, and even most US beef is already at least partially grazed on pasture so the figures 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 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 who in many (real sustainability) experts view, could be one of the most significant visionaries in climate change and specifically the issue of reversing desertification, and whose work could potentially hold the answer to reversing climate change was written off without any real explanation. In the film, Kip takes the confession from Savory himself – out of context – that killing thousands of Elephants in the name of conservation was the biggest most tragic mistake of his life and the reason he has pursued an answer to desertification relentlessly ever since and uses it as the reason not to trust him! (8)
If we are only to listen to experts who have never made any mistakes in life, we may be limiting our field somewhat!
40 Million acres of grassland (probably more by now) are managed under Alan 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 scared to talk about the impact of agriculture on the Environment. Once again this was backed up with ridiculously 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 this idea is codswallop!
Greenpeace, Friends of the earth, and the WWF among many others campaign extensively to reduce the amount of factory farmed meat we eat and 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.
So, the basis of this film is that agriculture is responsible for more GHG emissions than the transport sector in the US, and that there is a huge cover-up by the environmental organisations because they are scared of the industry.
But unfortunately, these ‘facts’ are both wrong:
1) The more recent conflicting Environmental Protection Agency 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! 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)
2) 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’ 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 could possibly 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 techniques instead of 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 in 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 eco-system 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 Fairies’ ‘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 ‘eating meat is bad for the environment’ argument is grossly oversimplified and avoids discussion around one of the biggest potential solutions.
I would love to hear your views on the film so please comment and feel free to share this article on social media or link to it from your own site.
Caroline Grindrod – Regenerative farming and wilderculture consultant.
1. Steinfeld, H. (2006) Livestock long shadow: In Food and Agriculture Organisations of the United Nations Corporate Document Repository. Retrieved from
2. Metz, B et al (eds) (2007) Climate Change2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group to the Fourth Assesment Reportof the IPCC, IIPCC, Cambridge University Presss.
3. Baument, K et al (2005) Navigating the numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Change Policy, World resources Institute, 2005, Retreived from www.wri.org/publication/navigating-the-numbers
4. The superfood that could feed the world
7. Fairlie, S. Meat a benign extravagance. Page 171
9. Judith D. Schwartz (2013). Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth. Chelsea Green Publishing. pp. 60–66. ISBN 978-1-60358-432-6
10. Nicolette Hahn Niman (2014). Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production. Chelsea Green Publishing. pp. 34–44. ISBN 978-1-60358-536-1.