The impact of animal agriculture on the environment is the highly controversial and almost censored subject matter of Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn’s documentary Cowspiracy. It’s been dubbed ‘the film that environmental organisations don’t want you to see’. It’s also the film that the booming and monopolistic meat industry doesn’t want you to see.
The film revealed that animal agriculture is the leading cause behind environmental devastation, producing more greenhouse gases than all the cars, trucks, boats, trains and planes in the world’s entire transportation industry. This may be hard to believe, but the methane gas produced by a cow’s digestive process is 86 times more destructive than the carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles. Not only does it carry a colossal carbon footprint, raising animals for food occupies 45% of the earth’s land, causes 91% of Amazon rainforest destruction, is the leading cause of ocean dead zones (areas completely devoid of life due to a dramatic decrease in oxygen concentration) and is a huge strain on the world’s water resources.
Everyone can remember the fracking furore that erupted a few years ago, where the public opinion of the UK was polarised over the emergence of the controversial non-renewable resource. And rightly so; along with the health and environmental threats, a staggering 100 billion gallons of water is used every year in the USA alone for hydraulic fracking. Raising livestock uses 34 trillion gallons. To add a little perspective: every time you eat a quarter pound hamburger, the water used to produce it is the equivalent of two months of showers (660 gallons, to be precise).
Having travelled around America interviewing members of environmental organisations and government departments of water resources, Anderson reveals an uneasy truth: they’re hiding something from us. In an interview with the California Department of Water Resources, the government officials spiel out advice on using low-flow showerheads, water efficient toilets and checking broken sprinklers for leaks, claiming that these are all areas “with a lot of room for conservation”. When the delicate question of livestock farming is brought up, officials throughout the film descend into a perplexed silence. You can almost see the beads of sweat forming on their furrowed foreheads as they frown, shake their heads and gaze awkwardly up at the ceiling, before claiming, “that’s not my area”. Case closed.
Why won’t people talk about this? What are they hiding from us?
Every day, it’s estimated that almost 100 plant and animal species are completely wiped out as the rainforest is destroyed at a rate of an acre a second. 136 million acres of rainforest have been destroyed and replaced by pastures to graze cattle, and grow their feed crops. That’s 136 million acres of our planet’s lungs gone, directly affecting the air we breathe. However, environmental devastation doesn’t stop on land. Scientists predict that we will see fishless oceans by the year 2048, due to ¾ of the world’s fisheries being either over-exploited or significantly depleted, and due to the horrific bi-kill that results from unsustainable fishing. For every single pound of fish caught, there are five pounds of sharks, dolphins, whales and sea turtles ensnared in the net as well; between 40 to 50 million sharks alone are accidentally caught every year.
Of course, demanding a behaviour change as radical as eating less meat and dairy products would put people off environmental organisations, damaging their profiles and fundraising. Instead, they focus on switching your showerheads and turning the tap off when you brush your teeth. As Will Anderson, a former board of director for the environmental giant Greenpeace, says: “Environmental organisations are not telling you the truth about what the world needs from us as a species… it’s there for everyone to see, but the environmental organisations refuse to act… they are failing us and they are failing ecosystems.”
It seems that the very people who are meant to be saving our planet are deliberately ignoring the devastating effect of animal agriculture on the environment.
The documentary also reveals the logic (or rather illogic) behind drinking cow’s milk. The milk from a cow is the maternal lactating secretion of a mammal that isn’t a human, specifically designed to turn a 65-pound calf into a 400-pound cow. In other words, cow’s milk is “baby calf growth fluid” as Dr. Michael A. Klaper explains. It’s full of hormones and growth factors from a pregnant cow that are specifically tailored to the requirements of a baby cow. So is it really wise or even healthy to drink the milk of another mammal? You wouldn’t drink the milk from a horse, would you? Or from a dog? How about rat’s milk? The idea of drinking milk from these animals may seem repulsive, but really how different is it to drinking cow’s milk? It’s still produced by a mammal that isn’t human. We stopped drinking our mother’s breast milk a long time ago, so why are we still drinking the breast milk of mother cows?
With the species-specifics aside, the cow’s milk of today is nowhere near as pure as it was half a century ago. The average cow used to produce around 2,000 pounds of milk per year, whereas today, top producers claim to give 50,000 pounds. How is this possible? These aren’t super cows we’re dealing with here; it’s hormone growth antibiotics, drugs and force-feeding schemes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel too great about ingesting growth hormones. It causes lumps to form in women’s breast tissue and gives men man-boobs.
Having added up all the facts and figures, Anderson comes to the conclusion that a plant-based diet is the only way to sustainably feed the world, whilst addressing urgent issues like climate change, human health epidemics, animal welfare and natural resource conservation.
Although a utopian solution, it’s worth asking: what would actually happen if the whole world went vegan? Well, we wouldn’t need to kill all the cows and pigs and chickens and fish that we’ve been eating, so we wouldn’t need to breed them so extensively. If we didn’t need to breed them, we wouldn’t have to feed them. If we didn’t have to feed them, we wouldn’t have to devote huge amounts of the earth’s land to growing their feed.
And what would we do with all this free land? The choice is ours: we could either use it to grow food to feed all the hungry people of the world, or we could let it revert back to it’s original, natural state; whether that’s a rainforest or a habitat for a diminishing species.
Solar panels and wind turbines are all well and good, but they’re projected to take at least 20 years and over £11 trillion before they have a positive effect on the environment. We could stop eating animals today, get an instant impact and it would cost us nothing.
I’m not saying we should all go vegan right this instant, but it’s definitely food for thought.
(Article first published in Exetera Magazine)