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Cowspiracy: A Misleading Moo-vie

Vegetarianism seems to be on the rise. While data on this is frustratingly scarce, a new market study reports that being vegan is now six times more common in the U.S. than it was in 2014, a recent Nielsen survey found that 22 percent of Americans want to start eating less meat, and anecdotally, I’ve noticed an increasing number of books, articles, and documentaries urging people to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption.

One such documentary, Food, Inc., was one of the main factors that led me to stop eating meat six or seven years ago, so I recognize just how effectively these outlets can spread a message. While I don’t believe everyone needs to make that same choice, I do appreciate the recent attention that the media has been bringing to the environmental impacts of meat consumption – with one exception. The documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, first released in 2014 and re-released on Netflix a year later, does highlight an issue I care deeply about – the climate impact of animal agriculture – but does so in an inaccurate and irresponsible manner.

Largely drawing from a 2009 report by the Worldwatch Institute, which claims that livestock are responsible for more than half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, the documentary follows the director, Kip Anderson, as he tries to figure out why more people aren’t talking about this startling fact. After a series of interviews with representatives from a wide range of environmental organizations, Anderson concludes that he has uncovered a global “cowspiracy”: due to concerns about upsetting their largely omnivorous membership bases and the powerful meat industry, mainstream environmental groups deliberately avoid discussing meat production and instead focus on the supposedly less important issue of fossil fuel consumption.

This is a shocking claim. But that doesn’t make it true. One reason that many environmental organizations don’t talk about animal agriculture as the single largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions is because the science isn’t cut-and-dried. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, states that the plurality of global emissions comes from electricity and heat production, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations finds that animal agriculture is responsible for less than 15 percent of human contribution to climate change worldwide.

There are understandable reasons why reputable sources like Worldwatch Institute, the IPCC and the UN disagree about which economic sector is contributing to global warming the most. Specifically, these reports choose to weight the warming power of methane differently relative to carbon dioxide. Over a 20-year period, methane has more than 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide. However, because carbon dioxide continues to warm our climate hundreds of years after being emitted, methane has just 28 to 36 times more warming power than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time frame. The Worldwatch Institute report looks at the impact that current greenhouse gas emissions will have over a 20-year period, while the IPCC primarily looks at 100-year warming. Neither choice is more correct than the other, but they do give very different estimates of greenhouse gas emissions, which is why it makes no sense for Cowspiracy to criticize anyone who refuses to acknowledge that livestock farming is responsible for the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond being nonsensical, Cowspiracy’s insistence that animal agriculture is the only climate problem that merits concern is irresponsible. One thing that all environmental advocates can agree on is that human activity has been warming our planet, and that people now need to take drastic steps to reduce our emissions in the near future. This will likely require reducing our meat consumption, which is why many environmental groups, including a couple that were criticized in the documentary, work on this issue. However, this will also require transitioning our transportation system and energy use away from fossil fuels. It’s ridiculous for Cowspiracy to spend time slamming fellow advocates for mis-prioritizing things, when every bit of global warming-inducing pollution released into the atmosphere is important.

The homepage of the Cowspiracy website describes the documentary as “the film that environmental organizations don’t want you to see!” This claim, at least, is inarguable. Many environmental organizations are frustrated with this movie – not because the directors have uncovered a secret conspiracy, but because Cowspiracy’s decision to manufacture conspiracies and cast doubt on the importance of reducing fossil fuel consumption does more harm than good.

Photo: Keith Weller, USDA