A Synopsis of Cowspiracy
I've chosen to include this section because the film is behind a $10 paywall. Not everyone will pay to see it, so I feel that it it is beneficial for all readers to have a basic plot description.
Cowspiracy- The Sustainability Secret was directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn in partnership with A.U.M. Films and First Spark Media.2 Released on June 19th, 2014, the film follows Kip Andersen's quest to uncover why major environmental organizations fail to discuss, either at all or with proper emphasis, the impact of animal agriculture on the planet's ecosystems and environment. Along the way, a subplot emerges which attempts to resolve the issue. At just over 90 minutes, Cowspiracy is a full-length feature. In my opinion, the length of this documentary was sufficient to explore positions other than vegan absolutism.
The film opens with Mr. Andersen's life story and how watching Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth led him to become an "OCE" [obsessive compulsive environmentalist]. Following the advice of environmentalists, he changed his lifestyle completely. Rightfully content with his efforts to live lightly on the planet, he was shocked by a friend's post on Facebook linking to a UN News Centre article about a FAO report called "Livestock's Long Shadow- Environmental Issues and Options. (Direct link to PDF)" "Livestock's Long Shadow" has, since its release in 2006, become a foundational report for many arguments for and against animal agriculture. Its key finding?
According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport [measured at 13%]. It is also a major source of land and water degradation. [Link to FAO article. Emphasis and transport % added]
Shocking indeed, as the sources for advice on reducing one's impact on the environment consistently either ignored the finding or buried the information. The bulk of their advice for the average citizen was to focus on personal lifestyle changes, with nary a word about the relative impact of their dietary choices. This led Mr. Andersen to search for more information, such as the oft-quoted "statistic" that it takes 660 gallons of water to produce a single hamburger.3 Stunned that the choice to eat one hamburger would be the equivalent of two months showering, he decided to take on the government and NGO's silence on the issue. Mr. Andersen visits California's Department of Water Resources, only to discover that while they understand the statistics, the department would not take any action on the issue because of the way government is set up.
Determined to find out what was going on, Mr. Andersen continues researching and turns up another report which claims that livestock account for not 18%, but 51% of world greenhouse gas emissions.4 Redoubling his efforts, he reaches out to NGOs like the Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and others to discuss why this information was not readily accessible. Meeting ambiguous answers or outright refusal to sit down for a conversation, he turns to activists, professors, authors, and researchers who would be willing to talk to him. In his interviews, research data points and opinions march one after another indicting "animal agriculture" as the key cause of environmental degradation. When he sits down with Michael Pollan, one of the most famous American food issue authors, Mr. Pollan informs him that these are membership driven organizations. Relying upon funding from members, they don't want to upset potential contributors by tackling something so close to heart.5
Essentially, the rest of the film follows the same pattern: seeking answers, Mr. Andersen, armed with his FAO and World Watch Institute reports, visits organizations that he feels are ignoring the issue. As with the government, time after time he meets a wall of resistance and eventual silence. Between these meetings, he continues with clips of interviews with those who believe that animal agriculture is the single major cause of environmental degradation. There is even a short detour to discuss the impending collapse of the world's fisheries and oceanic ecosystems.6 Well, it isn't really a detour because the world is an intricately interconnected system with feedback loops turning up everywhere we look.
2. This link will take you to the film's homepage.
3. Look to the second part of this diary to find why I put quotation marks around certain "statistics." 4. Goodland, Robert and Anhang, Jeff (2009) "Livestock and Climate Change." World Watch Institute. Direct PDF link.
5. Paraphrased from the interview which begins at 0:15:36.
6. I've written about this topic here at DK before: a) Taking applied ecology to the seas: Philip Hoare on Whales and Climate Change b) Introduction to Agroecology: "A Serengeti on Our Doorsteps"- George Monbiot & Rewilding the Earth c) Agroecology: 1- Study Nature. 2- Facilitate Natural Functions. 3- Rediscover Abundance
A Subplot Emerges
It is in the prelude to the discussion about human impacts on the global ocean that the subplot rushes to the fore. The most concise way I can describe the subplot is: exclusionary thinking leading directly to an absolutist position; which is then presented as the only solution to the impacts of animal agriculture. The first indication of its existence was when Mr. Andersen interviews Dr. Richard Oppenlander. He states:
"Concerned researchers of the loss of species agree that the primary cause of loss of species on earth that we are witnessing is due to over grazing and habitat loss from livestock production on land, and by over fishing, which I call fishing, in our oceans." [-Dr. Richard Oppenlander 0:14:32-48 Emphasis added]
Wait a second, all fishing is overfishing? Now, taken alone, this statement would simply be the opinion of one individual and wouldn't necessarily reflect anything about the film as a whole. However, as the film went on, it became clear that Mr. Andersen tacitly approves of the statements by other activists and researchers who, at one point, state that "it is Sea Shepherd's position that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing"7 and that "seafood is not a protein source [...], a sustainable protein source for the feeding of the planet, for the people on the planet. It's just not."8 Does this apply to only the ocean or is fresh water fishing out too?
How is it possible that we can sustainably catch 100 million tons by 2050 regardless if it's in a farm or if it's in the ocean, if for every pound fish your taking out, your essentially taking out five pounds of wild fish. No matter if it's in a pond or it's in the ocean, how can that be sustainable? [-Kip Andersen 0:27:28-52 Emphasis added]"
Ok. Hold up. So now Mr. Andersen has conflated fishing in the oceans to farms and ponds wherever they are located? I understand that fish farms are generally in the ocean and that it is wild caught food that is generally fed to them. I also understand that shrimp or pawn farming is disastrous as well, what with the utter devastation of mangrove forests and the chemical soup that these poor creatures are forced to live in. But not all fish farming is like that- either in the sea, the littoral zone, or in a pond surrounded by land. Without batting an eye, without once stating something like "perhaps there are some models of fishing that could be sustainable" or, "perhaps there are ways in which we can allow the oceans to recover naturally (restoring the baseline that Dr. Geoff Shester of Oceana alludes to in the interview beginning at 0:25:58)," the film plods on, no longer in silent approval, but parroting the notion that there can be no such thing as sustainable fishing.
A full 71% of the earth's surface is covered by the world ocean, but there can be no such thing as sustainable fishing? And the filmmaker's don't think it matters where or how the fishing takes place- either in the ocean or "in a pond"? Is that really the position this documentary wants to take? At this point, alarm bells are going off as to this film's intention. The film conveniently ignores the evidence that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can contribute positively to surrounding commercial fisheries due to the "spill over effect." Of course, implementation and enforcement matter greatly in the effectiveness of MPAs. I discuss this a little bit in my own diaries mentioned in footnote 5 as well as my review of George Monbiot's Feral. Here is an excerpt from that diary:
Feral's chapter on "Rewilding the Sea" brilliantly describes the breathtaking beauty and profound sorrow of the state of our seas. But unlike many environmental books today, Monbiot aptly draws the reader's attention to what happens when we apply a bit of rewilding:11
When fishing stops, the results are remarkable. On average, in 124 marine reserves studied around the world, some of which have been in existence for only a few years, the total weight of animals and plants has quadrupled since they were established. The size of the animals inhabiting them has also increased, and so has their diversity. In most cases the shift is visible within two to five years. As the slower-growing species also begin to recover, as sedentary lifeforms grow back and as reefs of coral and shellfish re-establish themselves- restoring the structural diversity of the seabed- the mass and wealth of the ecosystem is likely to keep rising for a long time. [emphasis added]
As I have noted in earlier diaries and comments- and as Monbiot states the case for as well, is that in addition to "spillover" from these reserves, improved oceanic health is directly related to terrestrial health due to the migration patterns of oceanic species into rivers and streams.12 Trophic cascades indeed. Setting aside marine reserves of all types should be a no-brainer. Oceans cover 2/3 of the earth's surface. There is more than enough space and more than enough evidence for preserves to be created and strictly enforced. Rewilding the ocean also happens to be relatively easy. [All emphasis same as in original diary. Check original diary for footnotes]
Why would the growing body of research revolving around establishing and enforcing extensive, interconnected MPAs be ignored? It isn't as if MPAs are off the radar entirely. Could the omission of this evidence have something to do with reinforcing the budding case for vegan absolutism?
In my opinion, it is because any information that conflicts with the subplot of the film- that vegan absolutism is the only option for humanity- must be thrown out, dismissed, or otherwise ignored.
7. Interview with Lisa Agabian of Sea Shepherd. 0:30:02
8. Interview with Michael Besancon, a former Whole Foods Market executive. 0:30:19
The Subplot Stages a Coup
I believe by now I have revealed as much of the story as I care to. There is another plot element I have left out because I don't believe it has any relevance to this discussion. I encourage everyone to either pay to watch the film alone, or share the expenditure with friends and family. The original objective to uncover why environmental groups were ignoring the environmental impact of animal agriculture is worthy and just. But what is the impact of animal agriculture? Are the impacts dealt with in sufficient detail to provide a well balanced view of it? Can animal agriculture even be talked about as one giant monolithic industry? I don't believe so.
Over the course of the film it became apparent that this subplot was just as important as the main one- if not more. Time after time, when a nuanced approach to ascertaining the impact of domesticated animals on the world's environment and climate would be appropriate, the opportunity was squandered. "Facts" were cherry picked from reports based upon global and country-wide averages and then presented to the audience as if they were universal the truth, leaving out ever important context. Interviewees were repeatedly asked to give pronouncements on a global scale, throwing the self evident diversity of this planet and our cultures to the wind. Poor examples of alternatives were presented to the viewer, superficially strengthening the case for vegan absolutism. The existence of alternative standpoints, as we have seen already with the fate of the world ocean, are ignored entirely. Instead of examining the arguments of those offering multifaceted positions, the filmmakers even chose to vilify a messenger at one point.
The Building Blocks of an Absolutist Argument: Reductionism, Selective Observation, and Vilification
Absolute positions are, typically, only convincing if contradictory evidence is deliberately ignored or, in desperation, a challenger's character can be vilified. Complex subjects are forced through the grinder of reductionism, leaving nothing but generalities. They cannot stand opposing views being aired, less conscious demands a moderation of position. We see this time and again in absolutist politics, religion, and other social realms. Thus, reductionism, selective observation (akin to "turning a blind eye"), and vilification are the building blocks of an absolutist argument. All three of these were on full display in Cowspiracy. Rarely do all three of these things occur together in such a blatant display. By illustrating how they are used, perhaps readers will be able to identify their employment elsewhere.
In this diary, the term "reductionism" is defined as "the effort to over simplify complex subjects to the point where discussion is void of sufficient detail to fully appreciate said subject."
With this working definition in mind, allow me to examine cases of reductionism in the film.
1) The reduction of the totality of animal agriculture to industrialized animal agriculture. Animal agriculture takes place in many forms throughout the world. From CAFOs in the United States and Europe (and increasingly elsewhere), to the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, to complex integration of animals in agroecosystems. They all fall under the rubric of "animal agriculture." The environmental impact of any specific practice can only be determined by examining the specific details of said practice. Even the "same practice" can have a wildly different impact on the environment depending where it takes place. What the filmmakers have done here is conflate industrialized animal agriculture with all of animal agriculture. To them, it doesn't matter if the animals were raised on pastures that are purely precipitation fed. An animal raised in that situation is exactly the same to them as an animal trucked off to a CAFO in Iowa and fed corn, soybeans, and a cocktail of drugs while standing in its own feces.
To an objective observer, these are two entirely different systems with two entirely different environmental and socioeconomic impacts. Interestingly enough, if one cares to actually read the FAO report that prompted this documentary to be made in the first place, one will encounter a multifaceted and nuanced approach to livestock. Their recommendations are in line with what advocates of regenerative agricultural practices have been saying for decades: remove the damaging subsidies, encourage greater efficiency, and ensure some kind of payment/valuation for ecosystem services (among dozens of other changes). While it is entirely within the filmmakers' rights to take an absolutist position, the absence of absolutism from the reports themselves is noteworthy.
The reports understand that animal agriculture is not a monolithic entity that can be swept aside due to destructive practices in many sectors. This is like saying that automobiles contribute to climate change, therefore there shouldn't be any automobiles produced anywhere on the planet ever again. Or that because some computing devices are built under abhorrent conditions that no one should ever purchase another one again- regardless of where or how it was made. In other words: abandoning animal agriculture entirely because of deforestation in the Amazon and ethically abhorrent CAFOs in the States is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.
2) Reducing animals down to the products we derive from them, ignoring ecosystem services. Not once in the film was the observation made that it is a bedrock principle of agroecology (which itself was never mentioned, see point 1 under Selective Observation) to consider animals as more than the sum of their products. The amount of "waste" produced by the animals was a perennial issue, but not once did they differentiate between the system the animals live in to make the point.
In agroecosystems with integrated livestock, the manure and urine of said livestock are accounted for as fertilizer. The animals are moved from paddock to paddock in a designed, holistic manner in order to distribute fertility around the farm. This fertility is used to grow not only the grass and herbage the animals will eat, but agroforestry systems are able to take up many of the nutrients and put them to use- producing fruits, berries, nuts, wood products, perennial forage for animals and people, and other products. As the animals move through such a system, they graze back the pasture. The grazing initiates rhizodeposition of the plant, which sequesters carbon into the soil. The animals are then moved before they can "overgraze" the system. They should not be allowed back to the same paddock until it has recovered.
Depending on the time of year, the animals are able to eat fallen fruit. The larvae of many so-called "pests" are killed in the digestive system of the animals and the plants receive the reward of digested organic material (manure) that the soil organisms can more readily break down into humus. Done well, the pastures can support annual crops in rotation to take advantage of the healthy soil development. The manure of these animals plays home to many other "pests" as well, but the well timed intervention of fowl, like chickens, can reduce their number. Chickens will scratch the manure paddies to get to the larvae (whose growth cycle is understood and so are allowed to "fatten up" in the paddy, turning a problem into a high protein solution). Spreading the manure allows more even fertility distribution and the high nitrogen poultry droppings are well suited for engaging rapid regrowth by fast growing grasses and pasture species. All of the "ecosystem services" animals perform, simply by being allowed to express their natural habits, are accounted for in an integrated management program. The entire farm is considered a living ecosystem.
These "ecosystem services" amount to important work in agroecosystems and its value should not ignored. It allows us to partner with livestock to perform tasks that we otherwise be responsible for (otherwise known as the burden of the intervenor). These systems stand in stark contrast to the industrial feedlot system where the animals are not allowed to express any of their natural tendencies. The livestock are then blamed by well intentioned environmentalists for the human decision to keep them standing in crowded feedlots that are designed to concentrate their waste. The amount of waste produced is out of balance with their local ecosystem. But this isn't the fault of livestock or all of animal agriculture!
The rise of CAFOs cannot be entirely blamed on one actor or another, but rather is a complicated issue in and of itself. At the same time, the decision to never explain the difference between these kinds of farms and well designed agroecosystems speaks volumes about the intent of this film. The filmmakers only once visit a farm that works as an agroecosystem. What happens when they do?
3) Back-of-the-envelope calculations which either extrapolate from one data point to make a global average or taking global averages to masquerade as universal truths.
3a) Mr. Andersen's visit to one of Markegard Family Grass-Fed's ranches. (0:41:25-0:45:32)
In an attempt to investigate grass-fed beef operations, the documentary visits one ranch of many in the Markegard Family Grass-Fed operations. The interview with Doniga & Erik is the first in which anything approaching a complex understanding of the planet's ecosystems and diverse agricultural practices is actually raised. When asked about the impact of "animal agriculture" on the Brazilian Amazon, Erik replies, "They shouldn’t be eating beef. If their environment wasn’t designed to raise beef then they shouldn’t be eating it. (0:43:44)" Doniga agrees. As do I and many other advocates of regenerative agriculture. There is no excuse for clearing rainforest to plant soybeans or graze cattle. Almost no one advocating for grass-fed, holistically managed systems and diverse agroecosystems does. The philosophy and practice of agroecology is wholly opposed to deforestation as means to an end. The entire field revolves around place appropriate practices!
When Doniga & Erik share production figures with Mr. Andersen, he seems convinced. For a second. Back home on his couch, he dives into back-of-the-envelope calculations. Taking the production figures they just gave him, then factoring in the average American consumption of meat, he extrapolates that it would take the majority of North America and much of South America to meet the American appetite for meat from grass-fed practices. He then claims that "Just like Brazil, the United States isn’t suited to meet the demands for meat. [0:46:30]” How absurd.
It is disingenuous to extrapolate from one farm's production figures the total amount of land necessary to feed the average American appetite for beef. This completely bulldozes over the arguments the family just made to him that raising beef cattle isn't appropriate everywhere. And, of course, this completely ignores my previous two points. This laser focus on production figures to swipe aside grazing systems is the epitome of reductionist thinking. To use the outcome of this calculation- that we would need the landmass of North & South America to feed Americans grass fed beef- is simply farcical.
Consider for the moment that he takes the average consumption of meat by Americans, 209 lb/yr, and uses that in the calculation. Well, most people who work in the alternative, regenerative agriculture movement recognize that dramatically reducing the amount of meat that Americans (and most Westerners) eat is integral to sustainability. Let's imagine that Americans would eat 1/7th that amount of meat. Say, Meat Mondays instead of Meatless Mondays. Suddenly, we drop to just under 529 million acres from 3.7 billion. An 85% drop in the amount of space by reducing meat consumption to one day per week. That still translates to 825,893 sq miles- a huge area of land, larger than the Great Plains (about 500,000 sq miles). But wait, this is still a back-of-the-envelope calculation based upon the production figures from one single farm. The amount of land required to produce anything is going to vary dramatically depending on local conditions, which can often be as hyper local as whether or not the farm has a well designed system of wind breaks. Wind breaks reduce the amount of water and feed required by livestock dramatically, as well as greatly improving the growth rate of plants. They are also be multifunctional: the same windbreak can also produce perennial fodder for livestock while acting as a habitat for wild creatures.
The assumption that you can take one farm's production figures, multiply it by a few factors and "prove" anything reflects the ridiculous notion pushed throughout the film that because an approach to agriculture that may work in one place cannot be scaled up to feed every last human being on the planet, regardless of where they live, that approach should be completely abandoned everywhere. This crops up again and again.
How is anyone convinced that a sole focus on production figures and back-of-the-envelope calculations provides the full picture of something as complex as livestock in agriculture?
3b) The "over 660 gallons of water to produce one 1/4 lb hamburger" statistic.9
First, there is no citation given when this number is presented. A visit to Cowspiracy's "Facts" page to see where this information came from doesn't actually point you to the original report. Instead, it brings you to either an EPA blog and a Friends of the River page. Both point to a National Geographic article, although the primary source for that is the Water Footprint Network (also mentioned separately in the EPA article). In the film, he says that it takes over 660 gallons to produce a 1/4 lb hamburger, but neither of the two links state this. Instead, the EPA blog says a 1/3 lb hamburger. Think I'm splitting hairs here? Well, it just so happens that 1/3 is 133% greater than 1/4. That is a significant error in any field. The EPA blog post doesn't give a citation for their figure either, it just says:
Estimates are that a 1/3 pound burger requires 660 gallons of water to be produced, most of which is for the beef. One pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons, a pound of cheese requires 700 gallons, and two slices of bread require 22 gallons.
So how many gallons of water, using these numbers (which are averages), would it take for a 1/4 lb hamburger? Beef: 25% * 1799= 449.75 Cheese: 700 gallons per pound. One slice of prepacked cheese is about 0.6 oz. ; 0.6 oz = 0.0375 lbs... so we get 26.25 gallons Bread: 22 gallons = 498 gallons. Which is 75% of the original total of 660 gallons. Start multiplying that out by the average number of hamburgers and the total amount of water needed for this hypothetical hamburger, while still high, is significantly lower. A 133% increase didn't get caught by their fact checkers before the film was released? Since the numbers were skewed in the film, I decided to dive into the figures presented by the Water Footprint Network.10 Glancing at the WFN's homepage, one can read:
The production of one kilogram of beef requires 15 thousand litres of water (93% green, 4% blue, 3% grey water footprint). There is a huge variation around this global average. The precise footprint of a piece of beef depends on factors such as the type of production system and the composition and origin of the feed of the cow. (Emphasis added)
If you take those numbers to find the number of gallons per pound of beef, you'll wind up with the 660 gallon figure the film uses. It also clearly states that there is "huge variation around this global average." This "1/4 lb burger" is more accurately described as a "1/4 lb global average burger." Because there is huge variation, a 1/4 lb burger may take the 498 gallons or the 660 gallons. In some places, it may take less or more. But that is the key: it depends on the system.
Now, I'm not saying that livestock don't consume more water than plant production systems. To do so would be lunacy, anyone with basic knowledge of ecology understands the loss of energy that occurs as you move "up" terrestrial trophic layers. What I am saying is that to not even mention that these numbers vary dramatically is a misrepresentation of the source material. There isn't any indication that the sources are nuanced. What happens if you spend some time reading the report? It turns out that, in an attempt to find country and global averages with some semblance of nuance (grazing, mixed, and industrial systems are accounted for separately), they've had to make some assumptions. Everywhere you look, the report is letting you know that they are talking about averages, not specifics. And when you wind up with averages of averages, well... it doesn't take long to figure out that perhaps these numbers are not accurate reflections of your local producer. It doesn't take long to find gems like this:11
It is relevant to consider from which type of production system an animal product is obtained: from a grazing, mixed or industrial system. Animal products from industrial production systems generally have a smaller total water footprint per unit of product than products from grazing systems, with an exception for dairy products (where there is little difference). However, products from industrial systems always have a larger blue and grey water footprint per ton of product when compared to grazing systems, this time with an exception for chicken products. It is the lower green water footprint in industrial systems that explains the smaller total footprint. Given the fact that freshwater problems generally relate to blue water scarcity and water pollution and to a lesser extent to competition over green water, this means that grazing systems are preferable over industrial production systems from a water resources point of view.
After reading the same report, you can justifiably cross off water use from Mr. Maratos' laundry list of "problems" with grass-fed beef:12
8 months addition lifetime: The horror that a farmer may want animals to live longer and perform more ecosystem services. Again, these animals are being reduced to hunks of beef for the sake of argumentation, rather than being appreciated for all they contribute to a well designed and managed farm.
-More water use
Land use: Debatable. Animal agriculture need not exclude other agricultural activities, indeed, it can enhance them. See agroecology, section 1 under Selective Observation.
Feed: it comes from the land. There need not be additional feed in grass and perennial-forage-agroforestry (silvopasture) based systems
Waste: doesn't concentrate in one place. Fertilizes the farm and in a well designed system, there will be belts of productivity to capture and utilize any excess manure. [Edit: not to mention healthy populations of organisms like dung beetles which have a nearly global distribution range]
Carbon footprint: Deforestation for grazing or growing of feed is the greatest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions from livestock. If you take the cue from those working responsibly in the sector, the deforestation doesn't occur. And if the beef is coming from a local producer who hasn't cut down a forest to graze his animals, and the animals have no connection to rainforest deforestation [ie, they are not being fed imported soy beans], their carbon contribution is going to be much smaller than these globalized averages. And, in fact, the farmer may be planting more trees to reap the benefits of windbreaks, forage from woody species, and the purported increase in pasture productivity in the presence of light shade.
At 0:46:57, Mr. Andersen states: "Turns out, due to land use, grass fed beef is more unsustainable than even factory farming. I had to come to terms with the fact there was no way to sustainably raise enough animals to feed the world's current demand on meat. [Emphasis added]" Isn't that the problem? The world's current and forecasted demand coupled with an agriculture sector that thrives on a revolving door with Congress? The only way this "turns out" is if you assume the worst as the only option, which makes it easy to reject. But that is reductionism at its finest. "If everyone cannot have it, no one can!" isn't a good rallying call. This was yet another squandered opportunity for nuance. All the reports say that dramatically reducing our demand is important. But that isn't good enough, total abandonment is the only option presented as ethical and sustainable by this film.
4) Leading interviewees to weigh in on a hypothetical "global" diet.
I've already touched on this before, but in almost every single interview, Mr. Andersen wants the interviewee to make a statement to the affect of "if their [Clover-Stornetta Dairy's] product was sustainable for the world's population [-Kip Andersen 0:47:15]." The filmmakers have already removed 71% of the earth's surface from even factoring into the equation of the world's diet. Now they want interviewees to smooth over the differences in the remaining 29% of the world? If a product isn't "sustainable" for every single human on the planet, then it shouldn't be made at all? Again, what does this tell us? Absolutely nothing. The world has dozens of different ecosystems, climate zones, and cultural preferences. That is what makes cuisine so great- you get to see how the local environment has informed their culinary tradition.
I wonder why the filmmakers didn't fly to Sápmi and ask the indigenous people there if reindeer are a sustainable option for the global population. Or to Africa where the Khoikhoi peoples have been herding cattle for centuries, if not millennia, and ask them if their lifestyle is a model for every human on this planet. After all, "you can't be an environmentalist and eat animal products" and "the only way to sustainably and ethically live on this planet with 7 billion other people is to live an entirely plant based vegan diet." Why not go tell that to them? Or are they excluded from "the only way to sustainably and ethically live"? And if so, why didn't the film make that clear? After all, the constant going on about whether something is sustainably "globally" surely applies to everyone, not just Americans.
9. Graphics. 0:06:40.
10. Here is the direct link to the report (PDF) and their preferred citation: Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.
11. IBID p. 6. One may want to refer to WFN's "Glossary" to get their definitions of green, blue, and grey water.
12. Interview clip beginning at 0:46:40
Selective Observation, or, Turning a Blind Eye
In this diary, "Selective Observation" means "only highlighting what supports your case and ignoring the rest." It is closely related to reductionism.
1) Total attention to a couple of reports and complete blindness to others.
Recall that the film was launched after reading "Livestock's Long Shadow," a report produced by the FAO, a UN agency, in 2006. Their resolve was further hardened when they uncovered the World Watch Institute's report from 2009 claiming a 51% share of GHG emissions from animal agriculture. Now, I understand that it is impossible to read everything. Still, even back in March of 2011, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food released a report he authored. The UN News Centre- the same News Centre Mr. Andersen shows on screen for the 2006 Long Shadow report- had this to say in their press release:13
Small-scale farmers can double food production in a decade by using simple ecological methods, according to the findings of a new United Nations study released today, which calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a poverty alleviation measure. [...] “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavourable environments,” he added. [...] “It simply is not the best choice anymore today,” Mr. De Schutter stresses. “A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation – and this is what is needed in a world of limited resources. [Emphasis added]
This report echoes the calls of authorities in the field from around the globe. But yet, not one single mention of agroecology is made in the entire documentary. A field of research that can "double food production" and is being shown to regenerate landscapes, using livestock in the right situations, is entirely absent from this documentary's discussion about the sustainability of animal agriculture.
There are researchers all over California that are leading experts in this field. University of California at Berkeley (which they visit), Davis, and Santa Cruz all have ongoing agroecology research or departments. How is it possible to make a full length documentary about the future of sustainable food and miss out on this? Well, it was just one link. In 2012, representatives from around the world came together in Rio to discuss climate change. Surprise surprise, agroecology was a topic of discussion under the human right to food! In 2013, marked support for agroecology was released in a 341 page report called "Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. Support for well planned, implemented, and managed integration of livestock in agroecosystems can be found throughout the document, written by over 60 experts in the field. From the report's main page:
Developing and developed countries alike need a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a "green revolution" to a "truly ecological intensification" approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation) UNCTAD's Trade and Environment Review 2013 (TER13) contends. [Emphasis added]
If this diary sounds harsh, take another look the section I just emphasized above. The film chose not to take a holistic approach to agriculture, but rather a linear one that led them straight to an absolutist position. Once again, these reports and papers offer, in comparison to the film's position, a moderate stance.
13. UN expert makes case for ecological farming practices to boost food production. March 8 2011.
2) Time for vegan agriculture as the solution, but none for agroecology.
This one is hard to miss. Although the UN is encouraging the uptake of agroecology throughout the world, there isn't any mention of it in the film. Even though there are projects all across the United States that utilize the insights gained from that field. There is, however, time for vegan agriculture. I recognize that vegan agriculture isn't a monolithic field. There are some who do believe there is a role for livestock in these systems. And then there are others who might lead you to believe that you don't need any animal inputs for agriculture.
At 1:19:30, Mr. Andersen takes a road trip to Detroit to visit an urban farm that he says is practicing vegan agriculture. On the road, he states: "I still thought you needed animal manure to grow organic agriculture. It turns out, that theres an entire movement of people growing food without any animal inputs. [Emphasis added]" This is simply false. Animals are an entire kingdom of species, ranging from humans and cattle all the way down to sponges. If that is being too open minded for you, how about the humble earthworm? Earthworms are animals. And as any gardener, farmer, rancher, or orchardist will tell you, earthworm manure (for some reason the process has been dubbed "vermicomposting" even though you are feeding animals food to get their manure) is extremely important in soil fertility. Mind you, there are some places in the US and Canada that have not evolved with earthworms since the retreat of the ice sheets and the import of semi-domesticated species from Europe during colonization has been causing drastic shifts in these ecosystems. That aside, to flat out state that there is any gardener in the world producing food in soil without the inputs of animals is simply false on its face. Adding compost (organic matter), using mulch, reducing tillage, and otherwise keeping the soil healthy (which includes many other animals like moles and voles) actively encourages earthworms! They eat decomposing organic matter and turn those nutrients into plant available fertilizer! So the filmmakers are trying to tell this audience that it is possible to produce food without animals and yet live in balance with nature? That is simply not true. Removing domesticated livestock from the equation doesn't mean that you have suddenly started producing food without animal inputs.
He also doesn't mention another key component to agricultural sustainability: the use of humanure and urine to fertilize our crops. The decision not to use our own "wastes" to close nutrient cycles is absurd. And if we do decide to use it, then we would be using animal inputs because human beings are animals.
Further on, he asks how much they are producing from how much space. The answer is about 14,000 lbs of food from 2.5 acres. The next scene, however, they are standing in front of piles of organic materials. Some are easily identified as wood chips. I'm as big a fan of urban agriculture as any (I'm actively involved in the field), but this film is simply misleading if they aren't including the footprint of offsite fertility inputs on the farm. Earthworks Urban Farm's website even states directly that they use off-site inputs to fuel their composting system. Furthermore, Mr. Andersen's statement that it is "kind of healthier and safer to use vegetarian or vegetable composting and stuff" as opposed to animal manure [-Kip Andersen 1:20:45]" is wholly unsubstantiated. They didn't even attempt to support the statement with a citation. Better get out the shovel and start removing those earthworm castings from the soil...
The "footprint" of this urban farm is greater than 2.5 acres. If a CAFO cannot claim that its footprint is limited to the size of the actual factory, a certified organic farm that leans upon imported nutrients to provide enough fertility for operations cannot do so either. And I doubt anyone from the farm would make such a claim because it is common sense. But this makes it sound like they are producing everything from 2.5 acres, ignoring the input streams altogether.
Additionally, Earthworks Urban Farm has had an apiary on site for probably a decade. Honeybees are animals and the farm boasts 30 hives. Not only do the bees increase pollination and therefore yield, but the Farm actively manages the hives for honey production. And then there is that little bit about many vegans eschewing the use of honey because it is an animal product (both the original British and American vegan societies declare it off limits). Both beekeeping and the encouragement of soil organisms, including soil dwelling animals, are part of animal agriculture. And this doesn't even begin to account for the ecosystem services provided by wild species that are encouraged in regenerative agriculture systems. Birds eating problem pests. Those are animals. Ladybugs are animals. As are parasitic wasps that are quite important as well. All animals. I have a hard time seeing any veganic system not relying upon the natural functions of animals to improve productivity.
Or are we back into conflation territory where livestock and animals are interchangeable terms? This is not a farm producing food without any animal inputs. What it is is a very good example of urban agriculture. Taking urban waste streams (problems) and turning them into solutions. Their work to provide healthy, organic food to those in need is absolutely laudable. Why go there and make the claim that they are producing without animal inputs when it clearly isn't true?
3) Using poor examples of animal agriculture as representatives of the industry as a whole.
3a) A terrible example of back yard farming of ducks.
Before visiting Detroit, the filmmakers visit a back yard farmer who has 42 ducks on what looks to be a small, beat up, dusty suburban lot.14 This is the best example of back yard farming you could find? This "back yard farmer" feeds these poor ducks seed that he doesn't even grow himself! The animals have next to zero visible forage and I didn't even see a pond for them to swim in. It is not as if California is totally devoid of back yard farmers doing their best to provide an agroecosystem for the animals! Here is one I found simply by typing in the words "permaculture duck california" into Google: Fallbrook Permaculture- Sustainable Living in Southern California. Is one not good enough? From the first page of "permaculture duck california" here is another one, the Permaculture Institute of Northern California. Notice anything different about these and the 42 ducks in a sand pit presented to us as an example of back yard farming? If it took me a total of 3 minutes to find these examples of people treating ducks with respect in California, and I'm writing for free, what is the excuse for making a feature length documentary and choosing what appears to be a suburban CAFO? Could it be that there are ways to raise livestock sustainably? Better not show that then, as it would conflict with the subplot of the film. Easier to let it slide and present this dude's 42 ducks and a slaughter as "back yard farming."
3b) An organic dairy near San Francisco during the worst drought in 1200 years15
Oh, California. Stricken by its worst drought in a thousand years, I doubt many places are going to look so good [Edit: and this includes the backyard farmer’s place included in the film]. In addition, being a sizable dairy operation, filming such a place will turn up some pretty bad optics (hauling off an "aging" cow via a front loader is dubiously humane). Still, John Taylor, co-owner of Bivalve Organic Dairy seems to have a pretty level head. He states that there are very few places in the world with this kind of environment and understands that milk isn't sustainable for the entire planet. Once again, though, the filmmakers want to make the claim that because this particular practice isn't sustainable for the entirety of the world's population, that it isn't sustainable at all. I understand that I'm working backwards here with these examples, but how many times will they try to make this same argument? What is with this desire to ensure that everything is 100% sustainable for the entire world? Most advocates of regenerative agriculture are arguing for sustainable, local food systems. This takes note of the self evident diversity of the world's ecosystems and explicitly understands that practices will differ from place to place. This obsession with "global sustainability or its out" line of questioning completely misses the point. One size fits all is a recipe for disaster.
14. His visit starts at 1:09:26.
15. His visit starts at 0:48:08. Link to the worst drought in 1200 years claim.
In this diary, I will use a standard definition of vilification: "to speak or write about in an abusively disparaging manner." Vilification or "shooting the messenger" is an age old tactic of deflection to draw attention away from contrary evidence by destroying the credibility of the messenger.
And here is it is, the cornerstone of an absolutist argument. When presented with contrary evidence, vilify the messenger. I was shocked that they would employ a tactic which betrays the very root of journalistic ethics. Starting at 51:08, Mr. Andersen states that he kept coming across the work of Allan Savory in his investigation of grass fed practices. He states that Savory's position on desertification is to graze more. Which is a gross oversimplification, but let's move on. In the same segment, Mr. Andersen narrates the following:
This is the same man, during the 1950's working as a research officer for the game department for what is now Zimbabwe, came up with a theory that actually elephants were the cause of desertification there. And his solution was convincing the government to kill 40,000 elephants. Yet, after 14 years of relentless slaughter, the conditions only got worse. His theory was wrong. The culling finally ended, but not until tens of thousands of elephants and their families were killed. This is not someone I would ever take ecological advice from. [-Kip Andersen 0:51:30-0:52:18]
While narrating, footage from the elephant slaughter plays in the background. Scenes of elephants, piled one on top of another, being shot and killed. Moaning and crying, with the killers walking on their dead and dying bodies. Pretty powerful stuff. But what about Allan Savory's theory? Which one were we talking about again? Holistic Management or his deeply flawed idea that elephants were the cause of desertification? Oh, thats right. Allan Savory hasn't advocated the culling of wildlife for half a century. In his widely viewed, hailed, and controversial TED talk, he states:16
[...] I loved wildlife and so I grew up hating livestock because of the damage they were doing. And then my university education as an ecologist reinforced my beliefs. Well, I have news for you: we were once just as certain that the world was flat, we were wrong then and are wrong again. And I want to invite you now to come along in my journey of reeducation and discovery. When I was a young man, a young biologist in Africa, I was involved in setting aside marvelous areas as future national parks. Now no sooner, this was in the 1950's, and no sooner did we remove the hunting, drum beating people to protect the animals, the land began to deteriorate- as you can see in this park that we formed. Now no livestock were involved. But suspecting that we had too many elephants now, I did the research and I proved there were too many. And I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain. Now that was a terrible decision for me to have to make and it was political dynamite frankly. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They did, they agreed with me, and over the following years we shot over 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage. And it got worse, not better. Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life. And I will carry that to my grave. One good thing did come out of it, it made my absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions. [-Allan Savory 4:40-6:50 Emphasis added]
The biggest mistake of his life, a mistake he will "carry to his grave," prompted him to realize that without herbivores, grasslands die. This is why the killing of tens of thousands of elephants, which he deeply regrets, caused desertification to get worse.
So let me get this straight. A young man- considered an expert at the time- makes an incredible error of judgement that leads to the slaughter of 40,000 elephants, after a panel of other experts approve of his plan. This man learns from his mistake and reverses his position: herbivores don't always cause desertification. He devotes his entire life to discovering how to care for grasslands, people, wildlife, and the environment at large. He doesn't try to hide his killing of the elephants and genuinely regrets it. Somehow, though, the filmmakers choose to hang this grave mistake- that happened over 50 years ago and he has since expressed deep remorse for- like a millstone around his neck.
They don't take issue with what he is actually saying today, nor do they take issue with anything he has been saying or doing for decades now. Instead, they choose to run footage of elephants being slaughtered and dismiss him and what he has to say entirely. That, my dear reader, is a classic example of vilification.
Now, to top it off, enter Mr. Howard Lyman again. Born on a large dairy farm, he studies agricultural science at the university and proceeds to spend nearly 20 years of his life engaged in industrial animal agriculture. Public sources don't tell us how many animals were slaughtered from his farm over that period, though I would imagine in the thousands. After discovering a tumor in his spine, he vows to go organic. Soon, he adopts a vegetarian diet. Eventually, he chooses to become vegan. He became famous for speaking out about the industrial animal agriculture industry on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Sued under "food libel laws" by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for daring to break the silence, he has since written many books and participated in many documentaries.
Allow me to compare Mr. Lyman and Mr. Savory's stories. As young men, both spend decades participating in the wholesale slaughter of animals. One for profit and the other for "conservation." They both repent their past. Afterward, Mr. Savory believes that livestock have a beneficial role to play in agriculture and land management. He spends decades developing a system known as Holistic Management to help farmers act in concert with nature. Instead of addressing Mr. Savory's arguments, the filmmaker's choose to hang the killing of elephants around his neck as an unforgivable sin. So unforgivable that they won't address anything he has learned in the past 50 years. What is done is done. On the other hand, Mr. Lyman repudiates animal agriculture in its entirety. Remember, he is the one who claims that you cannot be an environmentalist and eat meat at the same time. An outspoken vegan, Mr. Lyman is invited to participate in Cowspiracy without any objections to anything he has to say.
Now, what is it about Mr. Savory that is unforgivable? Why are his actions- which he regrets just as deeply as Mr. Lyman I'm sure- unworthy of forgiveness, redemption even? Both men slaughtered animals by the thousands. But one chose veganism and the other did not. That is the only difference I can see. My guess is that Mr. Savory's position on livestock in agriculture and land management renders him dangerous to the proposition that veganism is the only option. Therefore, to be safe, the filmmakers chose to vilify him because he and a panel of other experts decided to slaughter elephants over 50 years ago. It doesn't matter that he doesn't believe that anymore, and hasn't for decades. It doesn't matter that what Mr. Savory cares about is mimicking natural ecosystem functions to help people and their environment.
What matters is that Holistic Management is the embodiment of the kind of moderate, nuanced position regarding land use that this film doesn't want to show in any detail. Don't give the audience any ideas. Just run the clips of savage elephant slaughter and let Mr. Savory's reputation crash and burn.
16. I have written quite a few diaries about Holistic Management and how it relates to agroecology. Feel free to view my diary history to learn more. I will note that in anticipation of the published studies which claim to debunk Savory's method (especially Briske 2008), anyone who is interested should really check out the following link which contains a paper outlining the debate between the detractors and those who actually implement the methods. You'll find both reductionism and selective observation at work in the literature claiming to have proved Savory wrong. I think I may have to write an entire diary on the issue, but suffice to say, if you think that the "science is in" on Savory being wrong, then I encourage you to read both the debunking papers and the rebuttals.
This is the longest diary I have ever written. I have taken great pains to temper my strident tone, but it has been difficult. Honestly, I don't even like writing such things as this. I'd rather focus on solutions. The thing is, though, it is hard to focus on solutions when films like this keep coming out. Poorly constructed arguments for humanity to entirely abandon animal agriculture serve little purpose. In reality, these things are complicated. They are so complicated that even the authors of the reports that this documentary was based on say so. But this film threw all of that into the wind and employed what I've called the "building blocks of an absolutist position" to drastically reduce the inherent complexity of human land use to a single universal truth. And you know, it would be one thing if the film had simply left it as reductionism and using poor examples. Documentaries do that all the time. Heck, I do it too often as well. But to employ vilification? To stoop to that level? Taking cheap shots at those who work tirelessly to change our mindset from fighting nature to working with it is unbecoming. And then to come out the back end of the film and claim:
"I had to come to the full conclusion. The only way to sustainably and ethically live on this planet with 7 billion other people is to live an entirely plant based vegan diet." [-Kip Andersen 1:26:55]
While allowing guests to say things like this without the slightest objection:
“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period. Kid yourself if you want, if you want to feed your addiction so be it. But don’t call yourself an environmentalist." [-Howard Lyman 1:16:42]
And to allow multiple guests to claim that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing, without demur? To close down much needed conversation about setting aside vast areas as Marine Protected Areas? What is the point in declaring that literally everyone who eats meat is unethical, living an unsustainable lifestyle, and cannot be an environmentalist? Other than rub a self-righteous finger in the eye of people who share common cause? Expect some pushback, even if it is 7 months overdue.
Sept. 14 2013. Introduction to Agroecology: Is it Anthropogenic or Bovigenic Climate Change?
Sept. 21 2013. Agroecology: "Rehabilitation of degraded land has the potential to double [...] agricultural land."
Sept. 29 2013. Agroecology: "...Outperform[s] the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production..."
Oct. 6 2013. Agroecology: "Wake up before it is too late"- UNCTAD's TER13 Report.
Oct. 27 2013. Agroecology: 1- Study Nature. 2- Facilitate Natural Functions. 3- Rediscover Abundance. April 9 2014. Agroecology: Ray Archuleta from NRCS: "The Soil is Naked, Hungry, Thirsty, and Running a Fever!".
June 12, 2014. Introduction to Agroecology: Soil Life Theory (Me on video!)
July 8 2014. Taking applied ecology to the seas: Philip Hoare on Whales and Climate Change.
George Monbiot's "Feral." Link.
Large Scale Damaged Ecosystem Regeneration [Diary]:
Excellent, must see documentary: John Liu's Green Gold- extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate" that was presented at the recent Rio summit. Another good article by John D. Liu. Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration.
Holistic Management [Diaries: First, Second, Third, Fourth]: The Savory Institute. The Africa Centre For Holistic Management. Holistic Management International. Seth Itzkan has put together a very good reference list for Holistic Management, here.
The Permaculture Research Institute is excellent (Updated: formerly PRI Australia). With almost daily updates from the world of permaculture (an ethical design system that utilizes agroecology [diary]), this site is on my "must check list" daily. Good news to be found here. There are some excellent video presentations from 2011's International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, which followed a permaculture design course taught at the world-renowned "Greening the Desert Part II" site in the Dead Sea Valley. Here is a link to the documentary about the site, and here is a photo update from Spring 2013.If you scroll to the bottom of this webpage, you will find links to video presentations given at the convergence. [Above links may be broken] Also, check out Permies.com and Richsoil.com/permaculture for Paul Wheaton's permaculture empire.
Ecological Gardening Here is a list of diaries I wrote that covered some of the very basics.
I. Basic Garden Ecology
Plant Databases Plants for a Future. Absolutely massive database for useful plants.
Documentaries: The first diary of this series revolves around three documentaries. The first is a TED talk by Willie Smits about rainforest restoration to provide habitat for orangutans and a standard of living for the local people using agroecological methods. Not only was the project highly successful, but climate moderation was demonstrated via satellite imagery. The second, The Rebel Farmer, is about Sepp Holzer, a very famous Austrian who practices his own version of permaculture. He has also written numerous books in addition to being in demand across the globe. The third presents "Greening the Desert"- which covers both sites in Jordan where Geoff Lawton and the Permaculture Research Institute have been applying permaculture with great success.
YouTube Channels: In no particular order:
John D. Liu: pioneering large scale damaged ecosystem restoration. What If We Change: John D. Liu's project to inspire others to share their efforts to combat climate change and other problems.
Whole Systems Design: operating from Vermont, Ben Falk's permaculture design firm. Excellent site overview and talks on agroecology. Also a must see video from Hurricane Irene.
Permaculture News: PRI's YouTube branch Permasolutions: Offering permaculture inspired solutions to problems
Toby Hemenway: Author of Gaia's Garden and permaculture designer. Great talk on horticultural society.
Al Baydha: Pilot project in Saudi Arabia to regenerate "bare bones" landscape for Bedouins.
Eric Toensmeier: Author of Perennial Vegetables, coauthor of Edible Forest Gardens, and plant guru. Has an upcoming book on perennial agricultural solutions to climate change.
Paul Stamets: World famous visionary mycologist who will change the way you see the world. You'll never forget fungi after his speeches regarding their potential use and place in the ecosystems. Books:
My favorite books:
Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I and II. David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. Chelsea Green, 2006.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Sepp Holzer, translated by Anna Sapsford-Francis. Chelsea Green, 2010. Gaia's Garden. Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, 2009 (2nd edition).
Let the Water Do the Work. Bill Zeedyk and Van Clother. The Quivira Coalition, 2009.
The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka. Link will point you to a decent review.
Akinori Kimura's Miracle Apples. By Takuji Ishikawa, translated by Yoko Ono. This is an absolutely fantastic story. My favorite part is towards the end, chapter 22, when Kimura is told of his family's first success. Give it a read!
Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. George Monbiot. Allen Lane, 2013. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. Ben Falk. Chelsea Green, 2013.
For a much fuller list of books on the subject, see Toby Hemenway's Permaculture Reading List. Other:
The Land Institute. Their goal is to develop highly productive perennial staple crops which will produce a living system as stable as natural prairies. This is the kind of pioneering research we should be funding. H/T to sfinx for bringing them up.