Your thoughts on animal agriculture?


While not a perfect film, Cowspiracy does show us something fascinating: a plethora of Non-Governmental Organizations that claim to champion environmental causes when they are in fact either under-informed in regards to or have simply chosen not to focus on the connection between widespread meat consumption and deforestation.

The film starts with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It plays a bit abstract without the context that follows, but what the filmmakers are referring to is what they frame as an abundance of misinformed and somewhat impotent NGOs and activist organizations. These, one can infer, are our silent friends.

In the opening sequence, the deputy executive director of the Sierra Club lists off an abundance of numbers and statistics proving our headlong plunge into an increasingly unsustainable future, but when asked about the role of livestock, he appears flummoxed, merely asking, “uh, well…. what about it? I mean….”

The film reacts to the disturbing statistic that “livestock and their byproducts” (such as environmental degradation resulting from feed production) are responsible for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture alone is responsible for 18% of emissions, while the oft-maligned transportation sector can be held accountable for 13%.

After making us painfully aware of what these numbers look like through the liberal use of bar graphs, Cowspiracy goes on to point fingers at such famous environmental hard-hitters as Greenpeace, the NRDC, Amazon Watch, the Climate Reality Project, Oceana,, Surfrider Foundation, the Rainforest Action Network, the WWF, and the Sierra Club. Greenpeace appears in a particularly unfortunate light, although the organization offers little provocation other than a request not to be filmed and an email declining further involvement in the project.

Nevertheless, the narrator uses context to make less than savory implications about why Greenpeace does not wish to speak with him. I certainly do not envy the spokespeople featured, who, for the most part, seemed embarrassingly ill-informed. If the majority of NGO employees really are so ignorant, that’s the deepest offense perpetrated. I’ll explain.

NGOs often find themselves between a rock and a hard place in trying to defend the environment, while simultaneously procuring enough money to do just that. They form relationships with corporations, an arguably necessary move in a globalized world, through which they 1. procure funding, and 2. gain the opportunity to influence, or at least be heard, in the formation of corporate practices and strategies.

While the makers of Cowspiracy may not like to believe that NGOs have long been sullied by the realities of a complex global economy, they have. Multinational corporations have lots of money and far-reaching influence, and those are two things that NGOs have to really fight for. In comparison, NGOs have limited financial resources and a business model that is by definition, without procuring funding, unsustainable. Challenges arise when NGOs work with corporations, but opportunities arise as well.

The effectiveness of an NGO/corporate partnership in supporting the environment often comes down to the individual people involved, how good they are at their jobs, and how well they understand the complex playing field of stakeholders and challenges. And one of the most disturbing realities this film reveals is that the people we’ve hired don’t have a full picture of what challenges we’re facing or how they’re interlinked. But then again, if we consider the failure of Cowspiracy’s makers to contextualize the tensions NGO employees face, they don’t get it either.

Of course, maybe NGOs are in fact conspiring to look the other way when it comes to animal agriculture, as the title suggests.

While I personally found the narrator’s failure to remove his hat in interview settings to be obnoxious, the film showcases a fascinating degree of confusion, avoidance, or yes – maybe even conspiracy – when it comes to the drivers of environmental degradation. It’s very much worth an hour and a half of your time. Perhaps with wider awareness of how deeply the impact of unsustainable (unmaintainable) meat consumption is felt, consumers will start considering their consumption habits in a bigger global framework. Maybe we’ll even develop enough collective awareness to push environmental NGOs into putting their energy where it’s needed – defending the environment and society in the face of increasingly powerful meat and soy industries.


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One thought on “Your thoughts on animal agriculture?

  1. Posted for Dr Deidre Wicks
    Council Member – Voiceless
    Research Associate Newcastle University

    This sounds like an excellent and important film. I wonder if it’s time has come? The facts it presents have been widely known for many years but carefully ignored by majority populations, NGO’s and many activist organizations – the animal rights/protection groups being the notable exceptions.

    Meat production, is the ‘elephant in a the room’ in discussions around policy formation, including government subsidies and tax policy, and law making around climate change. It is, sadly, an excellent illustration of what Zerubavel calls ‘Silence and Denial in Everyday Life’ (2006). It is also, I suggest, an example of what Margaret Heffernan writes about in her book: ‘Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril’ (2011). Mainly, I think people don’t want to know about the real cost of grazing or feed lot feeding millions of animals (in the same way they don’t want to know about animal suffering in intensive farms) because they want to keep eating meat. Add this apathy and silence to the huge profits made by meat and dairy industries with all their lobbying power and you have a situation where the greatest contributor to greenhouse gasses is rarely mentioned or included in the data!

    I don’t want to repeat the facts presented by the film, which provides vivid statistics on the water use, land clearing and land degradation involved in meat production. Readers, however, may be interested in some Australian data (thanks to Talia Raphaely and Dora Marinova from Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute). Here, over 50 ‘football fields’ of native trees, wild flowers and wildlife habitat are destroyed every hour. In Queensland, 3,000 – 7,000 sq. km. of native woodland is cleared every year, mainly for cattle pasture. Many of the cows, and much of the meat is exported. The livestock sector is THE leading player in biodiversity reduction.

    In response to the power and influence of the meat and livestock industries, there is no tax on fertilizers, no encouragement for low carbon agriculture, no air and water controls related to meat production. Indeed, money moves in the other direction. In terms of Australian Federal Subsidies for food production 1995-2005:

    Vegetables and fruit – 0.37%
    Grains -13.23%
    Sugar, oil, starch alcohol – 10.69%
    Meat and Dairy – 73.80%

    The backdrop to this is Barnaby Joyce bragging about the increased numbers for live cattle export. At what cost to our land, water and air?

    At current meat consumption levels, humanity is already at earth’s carrying capacity.

    “We are, quite literally, gambling with the future of our planet – for the sake of hamburgers”, says Peter Singer.

    Will this film break through the silence around climate change and animal agriculture? Or will it be popular among the converted and carefully avoided by all those who want to keep ‘their meat’ and bequeath a sullied planet to their grandchildren?

    Deidre Wicks


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