I have to admit that my personal interest in environmental issue has always been rather modest. I cared about basic things, such as recycling, save energy and water at home, carry my own bag to do shopping, and all those little things we are told to do. But I never really did any research on the matter or made an effort to pursue any information besides the ones that appear in the news.
Then, just recently, I came across this impressive documentary, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The movie follows the story of Kip Andersen, the filmmaker, in the discovering of a perhaps more ‘inconvenient truth’ than the one described by Al Gore in his documentary back in 2006. The movie starts with Andersen doing all those little things we are told to do to help the environment, including having short showers and cycling instead of using the car. Then one day he comes across a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s long shadow. Environmental issues and options, which stated that livestock was responsible for more that 18% of all greenhouse gases (a figure considered even higher by other sources, which put the number at 51%) in contrast to 13% from transportation exhaust. Shocked by the news, Andersen is further puzzled by the fact that virtually all big environmental NGOs were not talking about this. The documentary follows his frustrating journey to try to contact NGOs as famous as Greenpeace, Sierra Club and Oceana, and finding that most of them would simply not address the issue or refuse to comment.
I am no expert about environmental issues, and critics may contest some of the data and conclusions presented in the documentary. Among some of the many key facts available on the movie’s website, besides the data on greenhouse gases, are the following:
- Animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually. (Pimentel, David, et al. “Water Resources: Agricultural And Environmental Issues.” BioScience 54, no. 10 (2004): 909-18. , Barber, N.L., “Summary of estimated water use in the United States in 2005: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2009–3098.”)
- Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US. (Jacobson, Michael F. “More and Cleaner Water.” In Six Arguments for a Greener Diet: How a More Plant-based Diet Could save Your Health and the Environment. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2006.)
- 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef. (Oxford Journals. “Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues” , The World’s Water. “Water Content of Things” , “Water Footprint Assessment.” University of Twente, the Netherlands.)
- 477 gallons of water are required to produce 1lb. of eggs; almost 900 gallons of water are needed for 1lb. of cheese (“Meateater’s Guide to Climate Change & Health.” Environmental Working Group.)
- Animal Agriculture is responsible for 20%-33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today. (“Freshwater Abuse and Loss: Where Is It All Going?” Forks Over Knives.)
- Livestock or livestock feed occupies 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land. ( “Livestock a major threat to environment”)
- Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. (see many references on the website for this)
- A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. (“Risk Assessment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Office of Research and Development. 2004.)
- Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction. (World Bank. “Causes of Deforestation of theBrazilian Amazon”, Margulis, Sergio. Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Rainforest, Washington: World Bank Publications, 2003.)
If these facts may be contested, the documentary still has the merit of making this debate public and open. It is certainly uncomfortable to talk about it, especially in a context where meat consumption has been on the rise in the last decades. In fact, this perspective makes an interesting twist in the way we approach climate change: suddenly, this huge environmental problem is not only due to industry, but also to our eating habits which create demand for meat! How ‘inconvenient’ is this?
But the aspect of ‘inconvenience’ has other facets, which touch on power and conflict of interests. The fact that important and famous civil society organisations simply refrained from commenting such a big topic, even though it was central to their own agendas was disappointing to say the least. For long now NGOs have been nearly equated with ‘civil society’ and perceived as the sector that may actually represent non-state interests and contest whichever policies are perceived as damaging to the agenda they pursue. Yet, by the end of the movie we are left with the unanswered question as to who funds these organizations… Could it be farmers? Or people engaged in the meat lobby? Or are NGOs simply fearful of loosing funds because of the implications of this agenda? How are these institution’s agendas constituted anyway? These are crucial questions to be answered. Also, is it only about ‘funding’? Or perhaps fear of other forms of retaliation…? After all, many environmental activists have been killed just to for speaking out on these matters, most notably in Brazil (see Global Witness).
In fact, this documentary made me wonder also about non-environmental issues where power seems to be so strong that makes us blind, as we are unable to grasp the extent of its dynamics. I wonder if one day there will be a ‘pharmacospiracy’, discussing similar issues in the drugs industry… Until then, I vividly recommend everyone to watch Cowspiracy (now on Netflix) and think about all the huge amount of information it provides.
Watch the trailer: