By Joanie Blaxter, founder of Follow Your Gut
The Cowspiracy Farce
Don't worry! Just because your teenager (or friend or family member) has watched the movie Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and announced that s/he is now vegan is no reason to panic.
Because despite its sophisticated use of infographics, the movie's statistical assertions are not based on sound environmental science and Cowspiracy will be largely discredited by experts over time.
What is Cowspiracy?
A 2014 environmental film made by the vegan abolitionist organization, Animals United Movement (A.U.M.) which is making the rounds especially with the Millennials and ecologically conscious adults. The film describes animal agriculture, including fishing, but cows in particular, as singularly responsible for climate change and various kinds of environmental disasters.
What does Cowspiracy do well?
Technically very sophisticated, this movie manipulates a mountain of eye-catching, color-coded graphs, charts and cartoons in such a way that the viewer is left feeling overwhelmed by strobe-like data bits and wondering, ‘If there's so much of this information, it must be true, right?'
Wrong. Just having a lot of data, doesn't make it accurate or correct, especially if it's been carefully cherrypicked.
The reason Cowspiracy is NOT worth watching?
The problem is not cows. The problem is humans incorrectly managing cows.
Grazing livestock have been critical to the health of range lands since long before the appearance of homo sapiens. Think of gazelle on the savannah and bison on the prairie. What we now understand is that without the presence of natural grazers and their predators, the land will rapidly deteriorate and desertify.
Once we domesticate livestock or poultry, but particularly herbivores, humans must learn how to manage them in a manner that imitates this natural cycle in order to protect the health of the soil. Meat is just a byproduct of this environmental animal-soil cycle.
Animals are not the problem. ANIMALS are, in fact, THE SOLUTION. Where people get confused is…
It's not WHAT you eat. It's HOW it's grown or raised.
The reality is that the industrial model of food production – of either animals or plants – is damaging to the soil, toxic, unhealthy, inefficient, unprofitable to the farmer, environmentally dirty and basically disastrous at every level.
Holistic Management of livestock, however, is actually REGENERATIVE. It restores soil fertility, the springs return and communities begin to thrive again. The presence of properly managed, domestic animals on the land is critical to this equation.
The areas of land managed under (Savory's Holistic Management) 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.
(Source, emphasis mine: An Ethical Meat Eater's Response to the Film)
The obvious solution? Never eat feedlot beef, only 100% grassfed and preferably from a Holistic Management rancher.
Hard to believe? Just watch this 22-min TED Talk with Allan Savory: How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change.
After all, seeing is believing.
Or for something even shorter, but still demonstrably to the point, look at this YouTube clip (3min 40sec) showing how holistically managed livestock help the soil to retain water: Effective Rainfall Demo.
I really appreciate the passion of the Cowspiracy filmmakers, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, both of whom were already vegan, by the way, when they came up with the idea for this project (co-producer of the revised version, Leonardo DiCaprio, is also a vegetarian). After all, as a former 29-year vegetarian myself, it wasn't that long ago I would have enthusiastically applauded this film. I believe Andersen and Kuhn care deeply about both the planet and quality of life for all of us here on earth.
That said, I do disagree with their conclusion that one cannot be a true environmentalist without being vegan.
Eating vegan is an overly simplistic response to an incredibly complex situation, and reminds me of a comment made to me at a dinner party back in the late 80's when I was still eating a meatless diet. In response to my enthusiastic review of a just published, environmentally pro-vegan book, the person I was speaking with looked searchingly at me and said “Sounds like you think everyone should be vegetarian.” Feeling unexpectedly “outed,” I responded that, um, well, yes, I suppose I did think that. Long pause. Before walking away, he said…
“Try telling that to all the indigenous peoples of the world.”
Wow… hadn't really considered that. Would we in the industrialized world, who made this mess to begin with, now dictate to tribes everywhere that they could no longer eat their local, traditional foods or produce items if they involved animals?
Similarly, Cowspiracy's single pointed, abolitionist vegan position is the essence of black-or-white thinking and extremism. This does little to foster dialog, and two aspects of Cowspiracy in particular just plain offended my sensibilities of both fairness and credibility.
1. The filmmakers' treatment of Allan Savory
Since Savory's principles of Holistic Management concretely present probably the biggest challenge to Cowspiracy‘s environmental promotion of veganism, I was looking forward to how the movie would attempt to statistically “disprove” what is already being successfully done using Holistic Management methods on millions of acres in dozens of countries around the world.
In a nutshell, Cowspiracy deals with the reality of grazing cows measurably reversing climate change by… NOT addressing this hot button topic at all!
(Huh. Could this be both the real conspiracy concerning cows as well as more accurate interpretation of the filmmakers' invented word Cowspiracy?)
Instead, the film spends exactly 2 minutes, from 51:00 to 53:00, engaging in shameless, unfounded character assassination.
Allan Savory confesses in his now very famous TED talk… that as part of the ‘conventional’ thinking about overgrazing, he authorised the shooting of thousands of elephants to try to reverse desertification on National Parks in South Africa.
As an animal lover this was a tragic moment in his life, made worse by the fact that the desertification process actually got worse following the removal of the grazing animals.
Savory admits this was the biggest mistake of his life and has entirely dedicated his life to finding a solution.
Did you carefully read that last sentence?
Savory has spent his entire life since, openly atoning for the destruction of those elephants.
Furthermore, he was not alone in the decision to remove the animals.
His recommendation, before a single elephant was even shot, was analyzed first by a team of government appointed, environmental wildlife experts who ultimately approved the go-ahead. Nevertheless, Savory describes this experience as “The saddest and greatest blunder of my life. And I will carry that to my grave.”
However, it was out of the horror of that turning point moment that Savory eventually came to believe that the conventional university wisdom of the time, that grazers destroy rangeland, was fundamentally wrong. As a result, he began to develop the principles of Holistic Management which stand in direct opposition to conventional environmental thinking by stressing the absolute necessity of grazers, including elephants, on the land for healthy maintenance of the soil.
This is public knowledge and clearly addressed in Savory's now world famous TED Talk with more than 3.3 million views.
And what is Cowspiracy's version of that?
Allan Savory is graphically presented as nothing more than a violent, heartless elephant killer.
The two-minute segment ends with Andersen saying, “This is not someone I would ever take ecological advice from.”
If viewers can be manipulated by the filmmakers into believing that Savory is an untrustworthy person, then they will never educate themselves about his environmental successes.
The flip side of this tactic is that it would seem that Andersen and Kuhn must have found Savory's work to be incontrovertible. Why else would they not dare address it intellectually in their movie in any way?
When Cowspiracy had its official opening, Allan Savory surprised everyone and stood up in the audience to publicly question their characterization of him in their film. He also met with Andersen and Kuhn later in private in an attempt to emphasize their common ground as environmentalists.
Unfortunately, despite re-editing their film a year later, Andersen and Kuhn failed to amend Cowspiracy to present a more accurate picture of Savory and the teachings of the Savory Institute.
In direct contrast, Savory, even when pressed in public, will not say a single negative word about Andersen and Kuhn except that he believes their film is factually inaccurate. He still, to this day, hopes to create a bridge with the filmmakers through their common desire for a better world.
That kind of behavior is why Allan Savory is one of my heroes.
Knowing this background has boomeranged filmmaker Andersen's own words into an entirely new light for me, although they do NOT apply to Savory:
“This is not someone I would ever take ecological advice from.”
2. The movie's assertion of a conspiracy against not just the filmmakers, but the entire vegan movement
It's important to understand that this movie is not actually a documentary, but, in fact, what's known in the industry as a mock documentary or docu-drama.
It has a pretend plot line designed to funnel the viewer into a particular conclusion.
Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with using the ‘mock-doc' form to get across a specific agenda. I do, however, have a problem with using a film to fabricate conspiracies, including the idea of threats against the lives of Andersen and Kuhn.
For example, about an hour into the movie, the ‘star,' Andersen, plays back an answering machine message from an unidentified person saying that “due to the growing controversial subject matter” a major funder has decided to withdraw financial support from the production of the film.
From this point on, the mock-doc moves into pure fantasy presented disingenuously as something real.
Andersen's explanation of why his film was perceived as “too controversial” is not, of course, because his data was possibly skewed, but he says it's because he's actually being targeted for telling the truth. He talks about being frightened that he may be killed and, of course, considers stopping production on the film, until… (silent drum roll) the HERO realizes he must “live for something, or die for nothing!”
All filmmakers know that emotional drama is necessary to keep an audience from getting bored, which I'm certain is why Andersen and Kuhn edited in (invented) that entire sequence. Except the part about his funder withdrawing from the project. I'm sure that part actually happened.
Viewers, of course, will never know for sure why his financial source pulled out. My guess? The funder learned that:
Cowspiracy's real agenda is to promote abolitionist veganism… This strand of veganism is pretty much fundamentalist veganism meaning it allows for no alternatives or compromises.
The real goal of Abolitionist vegans is to get rid of all livestock. They oppose any form of livestock management. To achieve this goal, such advocates pretty much use any means necessary to reach their goal including:
- gross oversimplification of complex issues,
- finding “scape cows,”
- cherry picking the worse statistics,
- spinning those statistics, and in some cases
- downright lying to further their cause.
… absolutism is counterproductive, and doesn't lead to real meaningful debate or solutions. Absolutism stifles dialogue.
(Source, emphasis mine: LA Chefs movie review – Cowspiracy: truth or propaganda?)
In other words, the funder suspected the project to be overly simplistic, based on an impractical and unrealistic political agenda, not fact, and one that would ultimately be discredited by experts in the environmental field.
Furthermore, there is no conspiracy amongst environmental organizations to deny the effects of animal agriculture on the environment.
Animal ag is one element in an extremely complex cycle of interlocking consequences. Despite what the film states, in fact, 100% grass-fed cattle have been shown to have NO carbon footprint and some studies have even demonstrated that grazing cows can cause a decrease in greenhouse gases.
You can't simply replace meat with plant foods and expect to produce a reduced carbon footprint, particularly not if that vegan food grows in giant, industrial, monoculture fields.
Besides, does anyone ever munch on uncooked wheat kernels or lentils? “High-protein” plant foods all require some degree of processing – think of the energy, water and chemicals needed to produce soy “hot dogs”. The more processing required to make something edible, the higher the carbon footprint.
Maybe the reason Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and Food & Water Watch aren’t looking solely to animal agriculture is that they are trying to look at the whole system.
Ask yourself this the next time someone offers you a tofu burger or fake egg made of yellow peas:
Does this food enhance soil health? Is it beneficial to the carbon cycle? How was it produced? Am I supporting what I want for the planet when I buy it?
If it’s not, you may want to re-consider. It’s not the type of food one eats that will determine the future, it’s how it was produced.
(Source, emphasis mine: What Is Soil Health Food?)
Cowspiracy: how accurate is it?
The entire section on sustainable ranching is flat out wrong because the statistical projections used, among other errors and omissions, do not include the fact that even conventionally produced cattle spend the majority of their lives on grass before being brought into the feedlot.
In an almost comical moment during the film… Kip fails to realize or mention that over 3/4 of cattle in the US are already on grass, and majority of the world's cattle are also already on grass…
There is obviously no reference to the Union of Concerned Scientists 2011 report that states: “Climate-friendly beef production practices reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions while increasing carbon sequestration…
(Similarly,) Kip's contrived land requirement number is meaningless as well as grossly inaccurate…
This math comes from Oppenlander's book (which) makes the absurd assertion that there are a billion “cows” in CAFO's and feedlots. One would have to assume that neither (Kip nor Oppenlander) has ever been to a cow-calf operation where 66 mill head of US inventory including bulls, cows, calves and replacement heifers are on GRASS.
Though it's no surprise that Kip is so utterly clueless because his “statistics advisor” … like most of the other abolitionist vegan talking heads in this film is anything but an expert on sustainability, ranching, the environment or pretty much any other issue raised in this film.
In reality (city dweller) Kip is clueless.
(Source, emphasis mine: LA Chefs movie review – Cowspiracy: truth or propaganda?)
Another major omission from the film is that globally most pasture land is too mountainous, too wet or too dry, too exposed or inaccessible, etc. to be plowed up for agriculture. This same land, however, is ideal for grazing livestock.
In fact, the movie fails to address many environmental realities that changing to a vegan diet can either NEVER resolve, or will make worse, as Julie Finigan Morris describes:
The film’s water statistics are equally crazy… 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 onto the pasture within a few hours!
Veganism will not eliminate dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact much of those are the result of nitrogen fertilizers flowing from soybean (read: tofu, fake meat) and corn monocrops covering the Midwest. Corn and soy crops reported record production levels in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nor does veganism solve the problems of deforestation or desertification, also symptoms of poor land management. Palm oil farming takes out rain forests too. Soybean fields blanketing the Midwest and the bare soil – soil loss – associated with large-scale vegetable monocultures have their own massive environmental consequences.
(Source: What Is Soil Health Food?)
Earlier this year in response to my request for her thoughts on the accuracy of Cowspiracy, former environmental attorney, now expert on the failure of the industrial farm animal production model and author of Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman said to me heatedly, “Oh, don't get me going about that film!!!”
Niman said there are so many factual errors in Cowspiracy that she didn't even know where to begin talking about them all.
I've been after her ever since to write a critique about the movie. As a result, she recently sent me an email saying that while she's been too busy to write her own article describing the statistical distortions in Cowspiracy, “…this EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT critique has just been published. Please read and share widely: An Ethical Meat Eater's Response to the Film by Caroline Watson.”
An interesting aside about Niman is that, as a lifelong vegetarian married to a rancher, her writings clearly discriminate between the evils of factory farming while recognizing that animal management is key to reversing desertification and increasing soil fertility. I also highly recommend her first book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, for a refreshingly balanced, yet incisive look at the inherent weaknesses of the industrial model of food production.
One of the many points Watson makes in her article is that much of the data presented by Cowspiracy is built directly upon the 2006 ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization.
This report, cited at the very beginning of Cowspiracy, forms the basis for much of the film's statistical projections. Nevertheless, only a year after Livestock's Long Shadow‘s publication, it was clearly discredited by:
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.
Furthermore, Cowspiracy also fails to even refer to the 2013 revisions subsequently incorporated into Livestock's Long Shadow:
… that lower the prior report's livestock emission numbers from 18% down to 14.5%… (and) also states that agricultural emissions can be cut an additional 30% with better “intensified” management practices.
Remember how I said the film leaves the viewer feeling overwhelmed by a mountain of data?
Particularly given Cowspiracy‘s treatment of Savory, once I understood that much of that “mountain” consists of cherrypicked information from discredited, outdated and questionable sources, it left me wondering…
Exactly how MUCH of Cowspiracy's statistical assertions are based on skewed, limited, or false data?
You know those famous words? “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Encourage those you love to educate themselves about the distortions in this film. While this sensational and technically savvy movie is making a splash now, I do believe that the filmmakers' deliberate use of contemptible, baseless character assassination; fictionalized conspiracy dramas; and questionable statistics will become apparent over time as farming, ranching and environmental experts increasingly respond to this distorted dramatization.
I must confess to my personal disappointment in Leonardo. *Sigh* But, after all, even (especially?) movie stars make mistakes. Probably it makes the most sense for viewers to rely on them for what it is they are best known which is to… star in movies.
For more information on the environmentally questionable “statistics” used in Cowspiracy, see these three excellent articles:
- An Ethical Meat Eater's Response to the Film by Caroline Watson,
- LA Chefs movie review – Cowspiracy: truth or propaganda? by Stephen Zwick, and
- What Is Soil Health Food? by Julie Finnegan Morris.
The Savory Institute is doing just that working with ranchers and farmers all over the globe…
Check out their indiegogo page and consider them in your year-end giving: CLICK HERE.
Also, see Allan Savory's insightful words in the comment section below!
More Resources on True Sustainable Farming
- Click here for a safe, healthy source for pastured meats if you don't have a good local source.
- Nicolette's book, The Righteous Porkchop
- The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith
- Cows Save the Planet by Judith Schwartz
- How to Stop the Drought in California… And Everywhere? by Joanie Blaxter
- Are Vegetarians Moral Heros? by Joanie Blaxter
- What You Never Even Knew You Should Ask About Grass Fed Beef by Joanie Blaxter
- Are Meat Eaters Ruining the Earth? by Kelly
- Why We Eat Humane by Kimberly Hartke
- What Is a CAFO and Safe Alternatives by Kelly
- Why Eat Local Organic Sustainable Foods by Kelly
This was a post by my sweet friend, Joanie Blaxter, now a regular writer around here!
Joanie is the founder of Follow Your Gut and a health coach who has been in sales and education in the natural foods and products industry since the early 70’s, with her most recent six years spent as a vitamin specialist in a natural foods store.