Cowspiracy: The Film

by Daren Williams, Senior Executive Director, Communications, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

Summary

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is a full-length feature film that alleges that animal agriculture is the number one contributor to climate change generating about 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That statistic comes from a single, non-peer-reviewed “analysis” by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group.  A number of peer-reviewed and published studies fail to support their conclusion.

Background

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) published a study entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” which stated in the executive summary that global livestock production is “responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions” … “a higher share than transport.” This statement led to media headlines claiming cows generate more greenhouse gases than cars. Soon, animal advocacy groups and efforts such as Meatless Monday seized on this statement as proof that meat is bad for the environment, bolstering their longstanding argument that meat is bad for our health.

Hearing about Livestock’s Long Shadow was apparently the sentinel moment for filmmaker Kip Andersen that led him to question why Al Gore never mentioned cows in “An Inconvenient Truth,” the book that awakened Andersen to his personal environmental responsibility. “Cowspiracy” chronicles Andersen’s investigation into why Gore and environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network don’t do more to blame animal agriculture for environmental destruction. Ultimately, he concludes that animal agriculture and the environmental movement are engaged in a grand conspiracy to cover up the fact that cows, and other livestock, are destroying the planet. Hence, the title “Cowspiracy.”

The movie was originally released in 2014, and released on Netflix in 2015 with actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio lending his name as executive producer. The Netflix release captured the attention of a broader audience, including many within the beef community, prompting questions about the film.

Discussion

Beyond the widely discredited1  Worldwatch article, “Cowspiracy” uses the UNFAO comparison of livestock to transportation as a primary proof point in their argument that animal agriculture is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, Andersen is apparently unaware that the comparison was later recanted2 by one of the report’s authors, Pierre Gerber, after Dr. Frank Mithloehner, a world-renowned air quality specialist at the University of California-Davis, pointed out that the comparison included every possible source of GHG emissions from livestock while only counting emissions from tailpipes for transportation (not drilling for and refining oil, smelting steel, building the vehicles, etc.). Here is an excerpt from the article, Don’t Blame Cows for Climate Change” in which Gerber backtracks on the comparison:

But Frank Mitloehner, an air quality specialist from the University of California at Davis (UCD), said the U.N. reached its conclusions for the livestock sector by adding up emissions from farm to table, including the gases produced by growing animal feed; animals' digestive emissions; and processing meat and milk into foods.

But its figures for transport did not add up emissions from well to wheel; instead, it considered only emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving.

"This lopsided 'analysis' is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue," Mitloehner said on the university's Web site.

Mitloehner also pointed to the fact that leading authorities agree raising animals for food accounts for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent.

One of the report's authors, Pierre Gerber, told CNN he accepted the comparison with transport data was inaccurate.

Beyond the fact that the comparison is inherently flawed, of the 18 percent GHG emissions attributed to livestock in the UNFAO report, a full one-third of that (6 percent) is due to deforestation in the Amazon to make room for land to graze cattle or raise crops for livestock feed. This is not happening in the U.S., where forest acreage has remained stable since 1900. The reason is that the primary U.S. system – raising cattle on grass and finishing them on grain in a feedyard – utilizes less land (and produces less methane). The UNFAO updated the 2006 report in 2013 which reported that GHG emissions from global livestock production had dropped to 14 percent (still much larger than the U.S. at 3 percent but improving nonetheless).3 The 2013 report concluded that further reductions by as much as 30 percent could be achieved through improvements in animal health and feed efficiency -- two areas in which U.S. producers excel. Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not bother to use the more recent UNFAO report or acknowledge that the carbon footprint of cattle in the U.S. is far less than the rest of the world.

Another claim in the movie, that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, is another grossly exaggerated number. The actual number in the U.S. is between 300-800 gallons (as stated in the Beef Sustainability Fact Sheet located under Additional Resources), which sounds like a lot, but this includes water the animals drink as well as water used to irrigate pastures and crops for cattle feed. Of course, this water returns to the environment, either excreted by the animal, aspirated by plants or filtered by the soil into groundwater. It is not “used up.” The question should not be how much water is used, but rather how that water is returned to the environment. 

Finally, the producers of “Cowspiracy” completely ignore the environmental benefits of raising and grazing cattle. Farms and ranches in the U.S. provide habitat for 75 percent of the nation’s wildlife, help prevent wildfires, reduce soil erosion and runoff and help keep open space open. Keegan and Kuhn also  fail to mention that beef is a great tasting food that provides more than 10 percent of 10 essential nutrients (including zinc, iron, protein and B vitamins) for less than 10 percent of your daily calories (per 3 oz. serving based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet). The nutritional value of the food we produce is often overlooked in discussions about sustainability and carbon footprint comparisons of plant vs. animal proteins or the footprint of various species. 

Conclusions

“Cowspiracy” appears to provide misinformation about the impact of beef production on the environment and potentially, misleads viewers. However, the film’s message, which also denounces vegetarians as part of the problem -- has very little mass appeal.

Additional Resources

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Issues Updates, Spring 2016

March 23, 2016