In the quest for a carbon-neutral lifestyle, it can be difficult to sort out which activities have the greatest negative impact on our climate, from driving a car to eating animal products. The documentary Cowspiracy, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, contends that animal agriculture is the number one source of climate killing pollution, and environmental non-profits are colluding to keep this information from the American public.
In 2006, the idea of livestock majorly contributing to global warming gained a foothold through a report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” According to Niman Ranch’s Nicolette Hahn Niman, the report “basically said all livestock together contributed about 18 percent of total global warming gases globally.” Niman argues that plenty of indirectly activities, such as deforestation in the Amazon, drove up the number and unfairly condemned the raising of livestock.
From a different perspective, that number could still be too low. Kip Andersen, director of Cowspiracy, cites a WorldWatch study that pegs agriculture’s contribution to global greenhouse gases at 51 percent. “It’s the only study that’s been done that was calculated using the greenhouse gas protocol… which is the standard recognized all around the world by people who have now ventured into specific industries; where it takes everything in consideration.”
The film claims that while environmental groups heavily focus on natural gas and oil production as contributors to water contamination, there is a conspiracy to keep animal agriculture off the public’s radar. The National Resources Defense Council’s Jonathan Kaplan disagrees. “In fact, NRDC and probably lots of the other groups discussed in the film have done a huge amount of work over the years, challenging the livestock industry… [Their] confined feedlots are basically huge cities worth of manure that are completely untreated and are despoiling rivers and creeks and really destroying communities where they’re located.”
Andersen thinks there’s something more insidious at work when it comes to environmental nonprofits’ reporting on livestock practices. Instead of being on the front pages of these organizations’ websites, the information is buried. “The definition of a conspiracy is a group of people gathering together of doing something harmful.” In a clip from the movie, academic and author Michael Pollen says, “I think they focus-grouped it, and it’s a political loser.” Kaplan, unhappy with that suggestion, instead says that the NRDC’s power is rooted in its 1.3 million members. While conveying that food choices are quite impactful, the NRDC doesn’t “think it’s necessarily a good strategy to be out there with a message telling people that they are the problem.”
When it comes to sustainable, grass-fed beef, there is a discussion around the feasibility of feeding the world’s population considering the required acreage. Based on calculations from a grass-fed farm on the Monterey Peninsula, in order to feed the U.S. population “you’d have to destroy every single square inch up in the Canada all the way through Central America into South America to feed just the US consumption,” claims Andersen. Niman points to this as the false foundation of Cowspiracy. “That’s what so absurd about the film, is it takes one idea and then it extracts it over the world.”
One of Andersen’s favorite comparisons for the animal industry is big tobacco. He argues that the truth about tobacco was covered up for decades and finally the country had a sea change moment where people stopped smoking cigarettes. In his view, mass veganism would be the absolute answer to environmental issues. “It’s like… let’s ask Marlboro to not put chemicals in their cigarettes. Why not just say, 'hey let’s stop smoking cigarettes?'”
Although Kaplan and Niman agree with Andersen about the harmful effects of factory farming and unsustainable meat production, they’re not on board with the bigger accusations made by Cowspiracy. Niman is passionate about the opportunities presented by sustainable livestock. “The whole problem with the premise of the film and… the discussion that’s been had already is that livestock is inherently problematic when in fact that’s absolutely not true at all. Because it’s really about how it’s done.” Meanwhile, Kaplan points out that corporate groups have the resources to “bring in all the lobby firms they want, and it sure doesn’t help to get arrows in the back from our friends and allies.”
Written by: Ellen Cohan
Photography by: Rikki Ward