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Movie Review: Cowspiracy

Garth Brown |

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 have a strong impulse 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, 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 dioxide’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.


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