Movie Review: Cowspiracy

I published this review about a year ago on the old blog, but I’m reposting it here now because I see that Netflix has begun streaming the film. Also, pictured above is PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE that I know a pile of cow, um, poop when I see one.  -Garth

As I set out to write about the documentary Cowspiracy, two problems are obvious. The first is that, as someone who raises cows and sells their meat, I am not by any stretch objective. The second is that it’s called Cowspiracy, which makes me want to think of all the dumb cow-related puns I can (Cowspiracy is a moo-vie that makes beefy claims about a subject I have a steak in, etc.), and then to make a cup of tea while I think of more dumb cow-related puns (the film employs no hoof measures in its stampede to a reductive conclusion, and it repeatedly milks the same points in an effort to steer the conversation away from any topic that would actually encourage viewers to ruminate).

Like most people, I have a kneejerk conviction that things I believe are right for the simple reason that I believe them. When I look out my window and see the herd of cows I just moved grazing a fresh break of pasture after having someone announce over social media that my raising them is some sort of ecological catastrophe, I want to get mildly incensed, knock down a few straw men in my mind, and then dismiss it to go about my day with an extra lift in my step. But, I tell myself, it’s good to make an effort, however compromised, at critical examination of topics I have strong feelings on.

Also, other than the whole dismissal of raising any livestock thing, I agree with some critiques of the sort made in Cowspiracy. What people choose to eat does have an impact on what kind of farming is done, and some types of farming are worse for land and animals than others. All of the various organizations that advise people on how to use less water or emit less greenhouse gases or destroy less jungle are being silly or disingenuous – or cowspiratorial – if they don’t discuss the roles food choice and the resulting agricultural practices play in various environmental issues.

The difficulty in discussing these or any other topics raised by Cowspiracy is that, though it certainly takes strong stances on both, it is neither fish nor fowl. It’s at once an investigative documentary, a personal journey, and most of all an argument for a vegan lifestyle. While the film does try to make good on its title by suggesting (though not nearly proving) that prominent environmental organizations are beholden to the livestock industry, it also takes time to dismiss the possibility of responsibly harvesting any fish, to visit a backyard duck farm, to liberate a chicken, and to establish that vegan diets are healthy, all while following filmmaker/protagonist/narrator Kip Anderson’s not entirely convincing arc from concerned but uninformed citizen to empowered herbivore. Responding to a polemic that plays as fast and loose with facts as this film does could easily devolve into a line by line response, which would be even more boring to read than it would be to write. Instead, I’ll focus on a few of the main topics, beginning with how cows drink, burp, fart, and most of all poop, which – not to brag – I have some experience with.

The drought that has scorched California for going on three years now makes water use an understandable priority for Anderson, since it is where the film is set and presumably where he lives. So when he finds that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef, he is chagrined. Unfortunately, he does not explain how he arrives at this number either in the film or on the film’s website. It strikes me as a bit high, so let’s see if we can figure out where all that water goes. Assuming a steer drinks on average 1.5 gallons of water per hundred weight daily, and supposing the steer is born at 50 pounds and slaughtered at 950 after two years of steady growth to yield 350 pounds of saleable meat, his average weight would be a little more than 450 pounds over the course of his life. Putting all these numbers together gives us expected direct consumption of about 5000 gallons of water. This is at best an approximation, since growth rate is variable, water consumption depends both on the ambient temperature and the water content of forage consumed, and since cows are often harvested younger or older than 24 months. Also, for the sake of fairness, a share of the water the steer’s mother drinks during his first year should be considered in the cost of raising him. Even if we assume my numbers above are low on every count and double his lifetime consumption to 10,000 gallons, it’s safe to say some water needs to be accounted for if we’re going to get to the number quoted by Anderson, since 2,500 gallons per saleable pound would lead us to expect a lifetime consumption of 875,000 gallons, a mere 865,000 more than our high estimate. 

This raises the idea of embedded water – that a cow somehow uses all the water required to raise its feed. If I do more boring math I can actually get in the neighborhood of the larger number by counting all the water that falls in the growing season on the grass that the steer eats. An acre inch of rain is about 27,000 gallons, and we generally get a decent amount. But pretending that a cow munching away on perennial pasture somehow disrupts the natural water cycle such that we need to call this a cost of production is self-evidently absurd. No water is destroyed in the making of a cow, and rain falls and grass grows whether there’s a herd there to eat it or not. However, this measure becomes meaningful in a place like California, where huge amounts of forage are grown for beef and dairy on irrigated land. I am still skeptical of the 2,500 gallons per pound number, but I agree that raising alfalfa in an irrigated desert is horrifically short-sighted. Anderson interviews Manucher Alemi and Kamyar Guivetchi at the California Department of Water Resources, and when they uncomfortably dance around why they don’t recommend reducing meat consumption, he sees a conspiracy of silence; I see state employees who don’t want to be caught on film telling Californians that they can help the drought by buying meat and cheese produced in less arid parts of the country or by finding California producers who rely on precipitation rather than irrigation to grow forage. (Since I wrote this the movie’s website has been expanded substantially, and it now cites a number of studies, though the full text for the article it gets the 2500 gallons/pound is not available. One paper defending that number says it refers to California beef, which I don’t doubt. But I hope anyone who has spent any time thinking about farming would realize that California’s climate ≠ the rest of the world’s climate. For the best in depth examination I know of both water use and other livestock related environmental issues, I recommend the book Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie.)

Methane is a more vexed question, since cows indisputably belch and fart. In the film Anderson implies that cows are the main source of methane and that reducing their numbers is the fastest way to reverse global warming. After too much time poking around in search of definitive numbers on methane emissions, I decided to use those provided on a NASA website, even though a number of reputable sources arrive at different conclusions, particularly concerning the amount of methane released by wetlands, listed at 22% in the NASA data set. By these numbers, ruminant livestock directly account for 16% of global methane emissions, and the (mis)management of all livestock manure accounts for another 5%. Human sewage treatment is 5%, biomass burning is 8%, fossil fuels production is 19%, and, surprisingly, rice cultivation is 12%. Various other manmade and natural sources fill out the remainder. While 21% of total methane is certainly significant, the idea that the elimination of livestock would clearly lead to a reversal of global warming trends is both an overstatement and an oversimplification, without even getting into matters of methane’s half-life relative to carbon’s or the possibility that managed grazing can sequester carbon.Here’s another way to look at it. There are about 88 million beef cows in America and just over 9 million dairy cows. In 1800 there were 60 million buffalo, and though the film claims that grassfed beef is more damaging than feedlot beef, I’m confident those buffalo weren’t routinely wandering into CAFOs in an effort to reduce their methane emissions. But I doubt Anderson would accept a target of 60 million grassfed cows as ecologically sustainable, even though keeping them on pasture, besides making them healthier and happier, would mostly eliminate the 5% of methane emission that are a result of manure fermenting in lagoons and piles.

The film fails to address, misrepresents, or glosses over any number of interesting points. At the backyard duck farm Anderson does some math and decides that it has a 100 to 1 feed to meat ratio, which is so obviously impossible that it suggests he simply doesn’t consider the roughly 500 eggs the duck likely produced during its life to be food. He says that 45% of the earth’s land is used for livestock production, even though the best information I can find puts the global total at about 40% for all agriculture. He dismisses any discussion of Allan Savory’s claims about managed grazing both improving degraded land and sequestering carbon by getting off a pithy line about the silliness of using livestock to reverse damage caused by livestock and an expression of horror at the range management practices Savory endorsed in the 1950’s. He doesn’t acknowledge that Savory himself is outspoken about the mistakes he made as a younger man and that, in part due to them, he now advises land managers to constantly evaluate every practice against its eventual goal. He’s outraged that the BLM rounds up wild horses and burros to make way for cattle, despite the fact that all three are European imports. He blames livestock production for the continued existence of hunger but doesn’t discuss the surplus of calories already produced or the systemic factors that prevent food from going where it is most needed.

But, at least to my mind, he shows the least nuance when discussing poop. He tells us that 16,000 pounds of manure are produced every second in the U.S., enough to cover a number of major cities as well as several states, a statistic that I would find more interesting if he mentioned the depth of the coating. Later he says livestock produce 130 times the excrement of humans, without the benefit of waste treatment. He implies that his revulsion at this is natural and correct, which makes me feel a little weird, since one of my goals is to have an even layer of poop spread over my pasture land every grazing season. Historically, animal manure has been recognized as the very best fertilizer, and many of the early efforts to improve rather than degrade land both in America and England revolved around managing it. Manure only becomes a problem rather than something to celebrate when it piles up unused outside of factory pig and chicken operations or stews in anaerobic lagoons. When an appropriate number of animals are kept on an appropriate amount of land and managed with attention to both, their activities – there feet and hooves, their grazing, pecking, scratching and rooting, and most of all their manure – sustain, renew and even improve the ground that feeds them.

The great weakness of Cowspiracy, other than its title, is its single minded determination to prove that veganism is the only reasonable approach to feeding people, a proof it pursues without regard for facts or nuance. That’s not to say it’s worthless, for there are ideas for several good films within it. I would love to watch a truly investigative examination of any links between the industrial agriculture sector and large environmental non-profits, rather than one that infers connections from the vague responses of uncomfortable PR people. A devastating documentary could be made about the insanity of beef and dairy production in California, and I am all for consumers voting against them and other parts of the industrial food system with their dietary choices. I even think a fair examination of the ways small farms are not inherently better for land and livestock would be wonderful. Instead of any of these there is a failed effort to prove that one lifestyle choice can solve every environmental and agricultural problem.

This failure is not just a result of misleading and erroneous data, but even more so of superficiality. Though I watched carefully and took copious notes, I do not have a clear idea what Anderson’s vegan world would look like. Would excess land be converted to wilderness? Should the hills and fields of my farm return to forest and scrub like so much of the nearby land that used to be grass? Why is a monoculture of wheat preferable to a polyculture of pasture? Should we humans be connected to and reliant on the land around us and should these connections take different forms in response to local conditions? Yesterday, while out hunting turkey, I came across the remains of a deer, one of ten or so my brother and I have found this year. All of them starved or froze to death in the clutches of last winter. Now they are piles of mossy bones marking where living things curled up and never stood again. Why is this state of affairs morally superior to the way I raise cows, particularly when there’s room here for both?

I am willing to say that true wilderness and unmanaged land have intrinsic value. I think of the sense of awe a still forest raises in me or the way a rough-legged hawk hanging in the air on a stark, white morning pushes all thought from my mind, and I know that the trees and birds and animals going about their lives have value even when I am in no way the beneficiary of them. I recognize that this claim is metaphysical rather than utilitarian, and it is critical to how I understand my role in the world, because I think farmed land shares this inherent worth. To borrow a thought from Wendell Berry, the land stretching out from the Adirondacks is deserving of the same reverence as the mountains themselves. The destructiveness of so many modern agricultural practices rests on a view of livestock as exclusively means to an end, rather than as beings in a world, intricate beyond our comprehension, to which we also belong.

I have a difficult time articulating this view, and I doubt I could make a good documentary about it, particularly since even made up statistics don’t have much to say about such matters. But to be meaningful, any discussion of agriculture and eating needs to engage with questions of our values and the specific forms those values should take. Cowspiracy provides a facile solution, dressed up with shoddy numbers, and in its effort to push a predetermined agenda it doesn’t begin to answer the questions a person should ask when deciding what to eat.

Garth BrownMovie Review: Cowspiracy

Comments 37

  1. Kristina Boyesen

    After eating a bowl of stew, with your beef I streamed Cowspiracy (sigh n’wink) … think the only sector of this film you miss in this article is the former cattle rancher whom apeared on Oprah and wrote Mad Cowboy…perhaps we ought to form an informal little book club investigating that title!

  2. Virginia Elings

    In case my previous comment did not reach you—repeat !
    FINALLY an honest, FACTUAL explanation of the world of BEEF, agriculture and our “planet”. I only wish my husband Jim Elings-Animal scientist–BEEF specialist- could have read your article. He could have written it also. What has happened to common sense and moderation !! I think most of the destructive “methane| gas is caused by the human “belching & farting” while expounding on a subject of which they know NOTHING.
    Thanks again and we can only hope that some of those who WON’T maybe WILL read your awesome article.


    1. Ms. Honest

      well, Virginia, i think you should do some research before posting a comment as angry as this, i think you will find that cattle produce a substantial amount more methane gas than humans do. You seem quite angry an harsh with this, especially when saying that people should do some research when you clearly haven’t. So, Virginia, please take your own advice and look into a subject before creating what is clearly an uninformed opinion.

  3. Joshua Wark

    There was so many problems with this “documentary”. I could write a book on it. My main two issues are 2. This is primarily a movie to promote veganism under the guise of environmentalism. 2: The movie starts out by citing the 2006 NOAA shadow report which is extremely outdated and NOAA has made many updates to it. The numbers he’s cherry picking from it aren’t even accurate and the report itself is some of the STRONGEST PROOF THERE IS TO SHOW IT CAN BE SUSTAINABLE. The people singing the praises of this movie haven’t even read it! The entire intent of that report was to show where improvements can (and have already been) made.

    You don’t even have to go look for sources to provide a counter-argument. You can simply use the source the entire premise of the movie is based on. The stupidity of this is overwhelming.

    1. Post
      Garth Brown

      I thought the first point was particularly frustrating because it eliminated any possibility of nuance; there are so many real problems with agriculture that it should be easy to make an interesting critical documentary about it while adhering to reality.

      1. axt113

        Sorry, but he cites all of his data, he backs up his claims with facts, which is more than I see from you, you just don’t like his conclusions

        This has nothing to do with his research, this is entirely your bias

        1. A. Cole

          Thank you for putting in a little reality and sanity. This guy is simply trying to tear apart a documentary which points out all of the destruction which is caused by his livelihood. He needs to get another. I know that “Cowspiracy” is aimed at environmental issues, but what about compassion for other living beings???

          1. Post
            Garth Brown

            I’ve approved this comment, but I won’t approve ones that are simply insults without substance, FYI.

            I feel that in many ways my farm is more compassionate than unmanaged nature; the animals in my care don’t go hungry, they have plenty of room, and the deaths they meet at the slaughterhouse are swifter and more painless than those met by their wild counterparts. One point I’ve been trying to make is that all human decisions about land use have implications for what a given ecosystem looks like, and one weakness of the movie was its failure to describe an alternative agricultural paradigm. What, specifically, would you suggest I do with my farm in upstate New York? What would you suggest my farming neighbors do with theirs?

  4. Mark Edwards

    Thanks for taking the time to write such an extensive and reasoned piece about this movie and meat production in general.
    I have not seen the movie but did read the list of key points on the website. Many of them were inconsistent, mutually exclusive or appeared either improbable or impossible to be correct.
    Here in Australia we have a predominantly grass fed beef industry… and I love my meat.
    I know global warming is real but my studies indicate coal is the main culprit not beef and agriculture.
    Cowspiracy does not change that.
    Thanks mate.

    1. Post
  5. axt113

    Actually they give the facts on where they obtain their numbers on their website. The 2,500 comes from a paper by Dr. George Borgstrom.

    He gives citations to back up all of his data, so clearly his information is neither misleading nor erroneous.

    Sounds more like you just don’t like their conclusions and are jumping to oppose it.

    Oh BTW, there would not need to be a monoculture of just wheat, there could be tons of food grown for humans in the land currently being used to hold livestock or grow their feed.

    Stop letting your bias cloud your reason

    1. Post
      Garth Brown

      Thanks for commenting.

      If you read what I wrote, you will see that I’m willing to believe that it takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 2500 gallons to raise a pound of California beef if the steer is fed exclusively irrigated forage. Again, I couldn’t find the full text to Borgstrom’s paper – please link if you have it! – but I believe it specifically concerns California beef.

      I don’t like the conclusions of the film for a number of reasons, which I have done my best to explain. On this topic in particular, as I tried to articulate in my review, I am positive that the numbers he gives have no meaningful relationship to the cows I raise on my farm, or those raised in many part of the world that are not a desert.

      I am well aware that any reasonable vegan agricultural system would not consist of a wheat monoculture. The point I was making is that land exists, and within remarkably broad parameters human choices determine what the land looks like. This could be as fundamental a decision as managing vs. not managing. What would his vision of agriculture look like? Would wild spaces exist? Would they be managed to limit the suffering of the animals living in them? Why would a wheat field, or an apple orchard, or a return to a forest of hemlock and ash be better than a pasture on which cows and pigs graze? In other words, what is the better way to use the 210 acres of this farm, and why is it better?

  6. Nick

    Thank you for framing the issues surrounding this contentious issues in a calm, respectful manner. I have no idea what the true system-wide environmental impact of cattle raising is–unbiased, scholarly research would be nice. But common sense tells me that the impact is likely hugely variable on the basis of climate, feeding practices, etc. As you point out, perhaps California is not an appropriate place for large-scale cattle farming. I, however, live in PA Dutch country where water and grass are plentiful, and farms are well run. It seems like an ideal place to raise cattle. At any rate, I’m a committed omnivore and have no intention of giving up my meat and dairy without very compelling reasons to do so. I didn’t find them in Cowspiracy.

    1. Post
      Garth Brown

      Thanks, Nick. One of the difficulties in talking about agriculture is how location specific it is. For example, there has been a lot of criticism of the almond crop in CA. While I think there are serious issues with almond production on such a massive scale, California’s climate is singularly suited to growing them. There’s no easy way to move that crop to another part of the country. In other words, if we’re going to have irrigated farming in California, almonds are one crop it might make sense to grow with proper practices. But the region specific, and even farm specific nature of what constitutes good agriculture makes it exceedingly difficult to discuss in any nuanced way; I don’t know if I would be able to describe exactly what I think the agriculture in my area should look like, let alone what farming practices should be like across the whole country. I found the simplistic way the movie engaged with what farming actually involves quite annoying.

  7. David

    Thanks for this review. Although you are obviously not impartial, I think sustainable food production is one of the largest issues of our generation. Not because we are such bad people who destroy everything, but just because there are too many of us. And since the traditionally poor countries are now joining us in the “Western” lifestyle we need ways to reduce consumption or produce more efficiently. I feel that at least reducing meat consumption will have a positive effect on the environment, even if it is less dramatic than the documentary suggests.

    Don’t worry about losing your business. Demand for meat will grow due to population growth more than anything. And awareness about environmental impact could actually help promote grass fed local beef over rain forest fed Brazillian beef.

  8. Sue

    Thanks for a counter-balance! Your critique is reasoned – and thoughtful. I had just watched Cowspiracy and was left with my mind blown and searching for some sort of balance to the universe. Yours was it. While the movie has made me much more thoughtful about being responsible, after reading your critique, I feel slightly less paralyzed than I did just following the movie. As I was watching the movie, I was confused as to how this vegan world would play out – it seemed too overwhelming. As in most things, it seems as if moderation and being a good steward of the earth — in all things — is the answer. I will endeavor to add some vegan recipes into my daily mix, but treasure also the local, free range meat produce.

  9. Paul Fair

    As a purebred Holstein farmer for 23 years and cash crop farmer for another 14, I too feel I have some experience in this discussion. Dairy cows drink 20- 40gallons of water a day when producing 80 -100 lbs. of milk per day. I used to explain to school groups how many tons of actual feed it took too, and found I was just as amazed (as they were) at the volume it took when you sat down and figured it out. Cattle producing milk just to feed their young most likely do not need the the same amount of feed and water? I have seen the algae bloom on man made lakes in Ontario, surrounded by farms, and could not at the time, help but wonder if I was part of the problem due to runoff? There are certainly strong feelings on both sides of the issue, but what I liked best about the movie is, what it has succeeded in doing. It has started a discussion.I don’t think there is any absolute right, or wrong, we all need food. On both sides, numbers, studies, etc., can be used to try and prove that one, or the other is right ? Should it be about being right, or, what is best for all shareholders on this earth? Maybe a balanced look at all farming practices, where the world might get the best bang for their future long term existence, is worth taking a hard look at? I have, and will continue to eat meat (most likely a bit less). I believe everything in moderation basically. I appreciate anybody making an effort to understand where and how we can stop our world from warming further, and agriculture should not be exempt. If anything, that is what this film achieved. It is not just some things that cause global warming, and pollution. It is all the things humans do, and how they do it, including agricultural practices…..time to bring into the open?
    For me, the film asked a question that is rarely asked….and maybe, it is time to include it in the global warming discussion? Farmers try to do the best job they can do, and given the incentive and tools, will and can, adjust to the earths needs, just as other industries will have to.
    Funny enough, I did not get the feeling watching the film, that it was trying to make me a vegan.

    1. Willow

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for this comment. I agree with you about this film starting a discussion, and it opened up some really interesting points. Of course, as Garth eloquently outlined, there are a lot of generalizations made that should be taken with a grain of salt. I watched the film and was actually quite moved – yet I found it a bit sensational, so began looking for more opinions and found this article. I feel grateful reading your humble and honest analysis of the film, and thoughts on what kind of world we really could be building. This film has inspired me to try to better understand the complexity of this issue and how it interacts with the world a little more.

      all the best,

  10. Daniel Zajic

    Great review. It confirms what I already assumed the movie would be like. Now I don’t have to watch it and be disappointed. Thanks for taking the time, and that first paragraph made me laugh out loud. Just brilliant.

  11. Tyler Morrison

    Wonderful review. It’s refreshing to read someone who can create a clear and concise rebuttal to this film. I was most shocked by how much Kip inserted himself into this narrative.

    Often, I judge a documentary filmmaker’s ability by how well they can use their subjects to craft the story, rather than their own narration. “Cowspiracy” takes this narrative crutch one step further with the first-person plot line that frames everything else. The fact that Greenpeace showed no interest in being interviewed may have been due to several reasons – lack of time, Kip’s inexperience or lack of filmmaking credentials (this was his first directing venture after all), or a general fear of exposing some relationship they have with the agriculture lobby. Sadly, we’ll never know because he simply insinuates a conspiracy and moves on without any supporting evidence.

    Honestly, I had a tough time finishing the film because each scene was motivated by his own bias, so I had a tough time believing he even attempted to interview any experts with dissenting opinions.

  12. LadyLocust

    This was a very well put review. We watched this as people who are trying to decrease the garbage we produce (down to 5-6 bags per year,) people who want to be naturally healthy (and are so far,) who care about future generations and what kind of earth they will live on, and who have done considerable research on the various subjects it entails. There were so many half truths, generalizations, and what seemed to be CAFO derived numbers that it was difficult to take it seriously. And about the poop, my first thought was, “I’ll take it.” That was immediately followed with, “Wait, CAFO poop. He can keep it.” He (as well as the doctor he spoke with) are siting only antibiotic/hormone laden information. We have sourced local grass-fed meats. We have taken the time and put forth the effort to gain knowledge not only from an environmental view point, but health and economical aspects as well. Most people would rather go through the drive-thru, and because watching this doc. is easier than doing specific research call it good enough. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but our food was not responsible for any rain-forest harvesting, is to a great extent responsible for our good health, costs considerably less than what most people spend, and helps support our local economy. Before believing anything from this one documentary which was in every way biased & had an obvious specific agenda, I would encourage others to research, dig, and ask more questions. Here’s one, “Why are grains being promoted as healthy animal and human fodder when so many are chemically treated, soil raping, GMO, and government subsidized?” That’s just one question. I could ask so many more.
    PS Thank you for the book recommendation.

  13. Dave Koch (not that one)

    Thanks for the review. A friend suggested all should watch Cowspiracy but before entering that abyss I wanted a review. As a small cattle producer I have always had issues with the extreme enviromentalists, the PETA, crowd and the save the world vegans and vegitarians. For God’s sake, we’re omnivors, just look at our teeth! On the other hand I am reasonably progressive on all theses issues. One suggestion on your wild animal count, you may have left out 10 million or more native sheep, goats, deer, elk and antelope.

  14. Matt

    I urge you to listen to Joe Rogans podcast episode with the two film makers. As someone that works with 40 head of grass fed beef cows they came across as very naive about the multitude of farming practices and the complexity of the ecosystem of a well managed pasture based farm.

  15. Robert Davies

    Interesting to get your viewpoint – thanks.

    I felt the movie was a little unfair on those who farm like you – with respect for the environment and for animals. I can understand why this made you a little angry and defensive. I also understand the view that this movie was trying to push a vegan agenda. There is nothing wrong with eating meat afterall – we have always done it.

    Take these emotions out though – and we are still left with the quandry that what we are doing now is not sustainable – given 7 billion people and rising (and the potential for rapid growth in meat consumption in the developing world – what will happen when everyone eats like an American). “Sustainable” farming isn’t a solution to this, sorry – we don’t have enough space for a start. We can quibble about the details and the %s and kid ourselves to make ourselves feel better – but the reality is until something radically changes mankind needs to consume less meat, fish and dairy or we run the risk of leaving little of this beautiful earth to our children – the road we are on is pretty clear. But maybe thats just someone elses problem?

    I’ve given up meat (despite loving a nice bacon sandwich) but i think most will not be pursuaded by the environmental argument. Meat should be priced at a “real” rate (including externalities such as environmental cost) and certainly not subsidised. This would probably help farmers like you – as the real villians are at the mass end of the market. Won’t happen of course as the industry is too powerful.

    Quite a quandry sadly.

  16. Sean

    Dear Garth,
    Wow you put those wacko’s in their place, especially the story about the dead deer while you were hunting turkey and your point about the buffallo’s in the 1800’s nailed it. And I liked how you pointed out that methane is between 25 times to 100 times more damaging than CO2 to the environment.
    Keep up the excellent work

  17. Nimai Hedemark


    As a life long lacto vegetarian, I have to say I strongly agree with you. I was recommended to watch this film by some friends and after not so long , came to many of the conclusions you did. I was pretty much outraged when he glossed over Alan Savoury and what he has accomplished in Africa. It was disgraceful. Next for me was as you said, the issue with waste. Anyone who has spent any time in the country or with plants knows well composted cow manure is absolute GOLD. I enjoyed reading your review and thought it was very on point.
    All the best to you

  18. Meat Eater

    I love eating meat so much that when the World Health Organisation, who have no hidden agenda, released the report that processed meat can cause cancer, I told myself that we all have to die of something, why not bacon.

    However, I am an active environmentalist within the mining industry. Yes, I work for the mining industry and care about the environment. This can be achieved by promoting optimisation techniques to reduce the impact on the environment.

    Watching Cowspiracy made me question how we have overlooked the impact of Animal Agriculture. There is no doubt that it is the number 1 cause of emissions.

    Questions of the facts in Cowspiracy are answered in this review ‘Cowspiracy is Bull’

    Please keep in mind that this problem is bigger than just the USA. There are over a billion people in China who can now afford to eat meat. This problem is only going to get worse.

  19. Peter

    I try to be vegan most of the time. I have radically cut down my consumption of meat , cheese and dairy products for health and environmental reasons that I believe can stand up to scrutiny. Having said that, I celebrate this blog and books like Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie. Farlie dismisses with scholarly finesse the quick conclusions made by ideological-driven environmentalists and vegans. He argues with dense but well-researched arguments how animals have an important role to play on our planet and in our lives. Reading betwee the lines, you will meet a man who has tried to live by sustainable farming practices much of his life. Great blog; great book.

  20. Jody

    Hmmmmmm…… A cow guy, defending cows……..I think he referenced this in the film. So less cows wouldn’t use less water? Less cows wouldn’t create less methane and waste? Cow waste flowing into rivers and waters isn’t harmful huh? Ok guy keep eating your nasty beef and drinking that disgusting milk!
    Check out plant pure Mr. Cow farmer. You could get rid of those cows and build green houses on your land and triple your yields/acher on vegetables. I don’t need to tell you though, u clearly know it all. Lastly, I don’t know any vegetables that require 30 gallons of water/day/individual plant. Just sayin.
    Keep the cover up going you worthless cow farmer!!

    1. Post
      Garth Brown

      Thanks for commenting. Do you think cows are significantly worse from an environmental perspective than buffalo or deer? What makes you think the waste from my cows is flowing into rivers?

      As far as water use goes, I’d guess ab irrigated nut tree takes at least 30 gallons a day, and I’m positive that any vegetable grown in an irrigated desert is having more of a negative impact on the local water cycle than my entire herd of cows.

    2. Edmund Brown


      FYI, as a rhetorical device insulting and belittling other people almost never brings them around to your point of view.

      As Garth asks, we’re very curious what your alternative vision for our farm would be. We only have a little bit of land that is level enough for effective greenhouse production. Most of our land is much better suited to ‘extensive’ livestock production (as opposed to ‘intensive’ which houses the animals in barns most or all of the time) than it is to arable crops. Our topsoil would rapidly end up in the Chesapeake Bay if we ran a plow around on our hills. Another option would be to abandon it from an agricultural perspective and let it revert to forest over the coming centuries. Is that a better vision for this piece of land? I guess it depends on what one wants and how it’s valued.

  21. Jen Erickson

    Hi Garth,

    What a brilliant review — so pointed but careful, smart, progressive, dignified, and balanced despite your disclaimed bias. Thank you for caring about your work and the world enough to put so much energy into trying to get the record straight.

    I watched Cowspiracy last night with my daughter and felt pretty traumatized. The duck slaughter stopped my mind and shattered my heart… The documentary, if nothing else, is a powerful, wakeful piece of work that achieves making people want to DO something, START or STOP something, CHANGE something…

    Here’s what I wish would happen now: You and Kip Anderson meet, collaborate, and make a documentary together.

    I’m serious.

    As a few other commenters have said, there are numbers on either side of any argument to justify each side and, well, that manner of “discourse” doesn’t really ever land people anywhere but one or another side.

    The hard work is less in the numbers research and more in humans with vastly different experiences coming together not to conquer but to navigate and negotiate those different experiences with curiosity and respect.

    So can you two people with opposing views come together? Demonstrate literally and symbolically for a riled up food-eating climate-concerned population what it is to put serious energy into some kind of discussion and solution, some kind of workable middle ground that has applicable practical applications and real benefit?

    Call me a pansy for suggesting that everybody talk this thing out — I am a psychotherapist after all — but I say it takes courage for any and all warring oppositions to meet, to entertain and respect one another, to work for a greater good together than the two of them alone can. What can come from that kind of communication is real understanding and change, of the planet-saving scale.


  22. Raj

    Thank you for your critical analysis of the film. I think it’s important to hear both sides of any argument.

    Anderson (like yourself) is clearly biased in his portrayal as he sympathizes with a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons and, as you point out, certainly streches the truth at times.

    Despite this, however, his core thesis is correct: conversion to a vegan diet would significantly improve the overall environmental state of our planet.

    This is abundantly clear and is supported by overwhelming data not only in the film but throughout the published literature.

    That being said, I can definitely sympathize with your situation and understand where you’re coming from. Change doesn’t happen today or tomorrow but maybe acknowledging the truth is an important first step. All the best.

  23. Andrea

    Everyone is making valid points however he I correct about how we over graze and overfish the environment even our predecessors implemented methods to avoid such things. Human greed and our desire to consume what we want and when we want is a real problem. There are slot of people who refuse to acknowledge and see the negative impact we are having on the environment. I understand the need to do so to meet consumer demand and the fact that farming is a livelihood for many but we do need change . Our resources are on the brink of collapse. Everyone should see that. We all act as if we have this never ending abundance of resources and we don’t

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