COWSPIRACY: THE SUSTAINABILITY SECRET VIDEO HITS A HOME RUN
I recently had the pleasure of viewing new video of Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The basic question these two film makers ask is why the contribution of livestock to ecosystem degradation is missing from the world’s environmental agenda. To find the answer they set out to interview environmental leaders as well as others to see if they could find the answer. The video is well researched and illustrated. But more than that, it is also entertaining. You will enjoy this video.
The first lesson they learned is that no one wants to fund a video about why livestock degradation is ignored. That was a lesson itself about the cow conspiracy. The duo were not able to find any normal sources of funding, instead they had to rely upon contributions from strangers. But they persevered and produced what I think is one of the best environmental documentaries done in recent years. What they show and document in their video is the implicit or in many cases, the explicit omission of livestock production as a major source of global environmental degradation on many fronts including water pollution, deforestation, global warming, species extinction, ocean dead zones, and more.
So, for instance, the duo interview various well known authors and scientists like rancher Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy; Michael Pollen of Omnivore’s Dilemma; Will Tuttle, Environmental and Ethics author, Dr. Greg Lutis, and others who lay out the basic problem—no one wants to talk about the contribution of livestock to global environmental destruction.
This is illustrated over and over again throughout the video where spokespersons for various “green” groups are interviewed and either avoid livestock as a problem or deny/downplay its contribution to environmental woes.
For instance, Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, is interviewed about global climate change. Hamilton correctly identifies fossil fuel burning as one factor contributing to global warming, but when asked about livestock’s contribution to green house gas emissions—Hamilton says “what about it?” At this point, the video discusses many recent scientific papers that point to livestock production as the single largest contributor to Green House Gas production—even exceeding all transportation sectors, yet the Sierra Club, like many other groups, simply does not identify it as a problem.
The duo has similar responses from other organizations. For instance, when interviewing Rainforest Action Network about the causes of rainforest destruction, land clearing for livestock grazing and forage production is barely acknowledged.
Their goal is not to embarrass these individuals or organizations, but rather to illustrate how the contribution of livestock to environmental degradation is too often ignored or omitted from official recognition by nearly everyone.
The movie goes far beyond the obvious impacts of livestock production such as overgrazing of rangelands, and talks about everything from water pollution (from manure) to energy use in the production of meat to the mistreatment of meat-producing animals by humans. Overall it makes a very cogent and articulate argument against meat/dairy consumption.
They even take on Alan Savory, advocate of more livestock production as a means of reducing global warming, pointing out that methane production from domestic animals is one of the largest contributors to warming climate, and vastly exceeds any ability of grazed grassland ecosystems to absorb more carbon.
The video is full of facts illustrated with great graphs (like how many more gallons of water or the amount of land required in the production of a hamburger vs. a veggie burger) that will make it easy to understand why livestock are one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity and ecosystems.
So why is livestock production and its multitude of environmental impacts so ignored by even environmental groups? The conclusion that Andersen and Kuhn come to is that it’s just too risky to discuss. Many groups depend on contributions from major donors and foundations that do not want livestock production criticized. The rancher and dairy farmer are cultural icons in many parts of the country—you cannot challenge them without risk to your organization’s financial security.
There exists what I call a Bovine Curtain very similar to the Iron Curtain that once prevented outside news from penetrating the old Soviet Union. The Bovine Curtain comes in many forms. Land management agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management seldom critique livestock production as a source of ecosystem degradation because they must answer to western politicians who often are ranchers or otherwise associated with agriculture. Similarly, many universities researchers do not investigate the negative consequences of livestock production and are silenced because they rely upon funding from legislatures dominated by Ag producers. In some states it is even against the law to critique Ag interests—as TV host personality Oprah Winfrey learned in 1998 when she was sued by a Texas cattleman for allegedly making disparaging remarks about beef. Even though Winfrey ultimately won the suit, she no longer will even discuss the issue so in essence the threat of another law suit has silenced her.
My personal experience confirms Andersen and Kukn’s assertions that there is an unspoken and explicit desire not to discuss livestock as an environmental, ethical, and health issue. For instance, I once worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) in Montana. GYC expressly forbade me to discuss livestock production’s contribution to the issues that the organization was highlighting. The organization’s board of directors included many wealthy people who had purchased ranches in the ecosystem and raised cattle. And GYC, like many western based environmental groups wanted to avoid antagonizing regional politicians like county commissioners to governors and Congressional representatives who are frequently ranchers or otherwise connected to Agricultural interests.
For example, when I was asked to discuss the threats to the ecosystem at the organization’s annual board meeting, I was not allowed to mention livestock production even though many of the issues the group was fighting could be traced directly back to ranching as the ultimate source of the environmental problem. Whether it was dewatering of rivers for irrigation and its detrimental impacts on fisheries, to the spread of disease from domestic sheep to wild bighorn sheep, from the killing of bison that wandered from Yellowstone Park to opposition to wolf recovery to the continued policy of elk feedgrounds in Wyoming, the ultimate source of the problem was and is livestock. However, GYC was unwilling to frame the issue that way for fear of antagonizing its board and/or regional politicians.
The cow conspiracy is not only in the West. I lived for a time in Vermont where dairy farming is relegated to the status of a God. For instance though dairy farms are the chief source of pollution of Vermont’s rivers and one of the major contributors to the eutrophication of Lake Champlain, there is virtually no critique of dairy farming in the state. No environmental groups are actively pursuing reduction in dairies despite their well documented environmental impacts, not to mention the health risk associated with consumption of dairy products. Instead dairy products are lauded as “good” in Vermont and supported as “local” agriculture. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream,which was founded in Vermont, is often held up as a responsible corporation even though consumption of ice cream is extremely unhealthy to consume. And while a few groups discuss the negative consequences of sprawl on the landscape, they virtually ignore the far greater acreage in Vermont that is degraded by corn and/or hay production to feed livestock. Of course dairy farming contributes to many impacts from manure, fertilizer and pesticide run off into streams, GMO seeds, to the mono cropping that destroys native biodiversity. Even Bill McKibben’s 350.org, a group based in Vermont and dedicated to reducing global warming, fails to mention the contribution that livestock production makes to global climate change.
The truth is that there are very few environmental organizations that are willing to even discuss livestock production’s impact on biodiversity and ecosystem function, much less other related issues like human health and ethical treatment of animals.
Hopefully after viewing Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret you be will motivated to start questioning politicians, environmental organizations and others why they are ignoring what is ultimately one of the major contributors to global climate change and biodiversity losses.
You can find out more about the movie at this link– cowspiracy.com. Watch the trailer. Get a copy of the video and show it widely. Arrange for a showing at conferences, in your college classes, at your church, and any other forum. Better yet support Kip and Keegan’s efforts by making a contribution to them and joining one of the few organizations that are directly addressing livestock impacts on public lands like the Idaho based Western Watersheds Project. Other groups frequently challenging the livestock juggernaut include Predator Defense, Center for Biological Diverstiy, Wildearth Guardians, and the Alliance for Wild Rockies.
Author’s Bio: George Wuerthner is an ecologist, author of 37 books dealing with wildlands and environmental issues including Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. He is also a board member of Western Watershed Project.