A movie review – Cowspiracy: truth or propaganda?

(Originally published Sept. 21, 2014 on Examiner.com)

Cowspiracy is a new pseudo documentary film by Animals United Movement Films [A.U.M.] scheduled to be released this fall though it has already been shown in a number of private screenings throughout the country. Due to this column’s support of small farms, and the efforts that small farmers, along with chefs, make to improve our food systems, what follows is a review of this forthcoming film. As an ex-vegetarian and then ex-vegan, this column’s author is extremely conscientious about the quality of those food systems (especially in regards to knowing where the food he eats comes from) and has thus visited numerous farms and ranches .

Cowspiracy, like the movie 2016 Obama’s America on the far right (or Michael Moore films on the left), uses “facts” and talking heads to further the filmmakers’ particular agenda. The film largely repeats all of the arguments made by Richard Oppenlander DDS in his book Comfortably Unaware. The film tones down that book’s rhetoric not, like the book, citing more controversial organizations (e.g. PETA and PCRM) as references. Instead under the guise of concern for the environment, Cowspiracy’s instead ultimately reveals its real absolutist agenda by concluding that a vegan diet is the only solution to climate change, and no one can eat meat and call him or herself an environmentalist.

Thus Cowspiracy’s real agenda is to promote abolitionist veganism. Oppenlander is a abolitionist vegan. This strand of veganism is pretty much fundamentalist veganism meaning it allows for no alternatives or compromises. The real goal of Abolitionist vegans is to get rid of all livestock. They oppose any form of livestock management. To achieve this goal, such advocates pretty much use any means necessary to reach their goal including gross oversimplification of complex issues, finding “scape cows,”cherry picking the worse statistics, spinning those statistics, and in some cases downright lying to further their cause. Heck, if they just were vegan for moral reasons, fine. But absolutism is counterproductive, and doesn’t lead to real meaningful debate or solutions. Absolutism stifles dialogue.

Utilizing this any means necessary approach, the film’s vegan talking heads even go so far as to ironically borrow conventional feedlot cattle industry talking points almost verbatim to argue against any alternatives including smaller pasture based 100% grass fed cattle ranches. Thus the film argues that there is no such thing as sustainable livestock by quoting abolitionist vegan activist and NYC urbanite Demosthenes Maratos (aka @nycVeganPunk) while simultaneously glibly dismissing Allan Savory. Thus there is no mention of methods Savory champions including carbon sequestration, methane oxidation regenerative agriculture andholistic management. (Methods that all help against climate change that use cattle in an environmentally beneficial way).

The conventional feedlot finished cattle industry use the talking points, that vegans like Maratos and Oppenlander borrowed, to undermine the efforts of small ranches since small ranchers critique their industrial systems (especially input intensive environmentally unsound ones) and take market share. Small 100% grass fed ranchers do this by providing consumers with a more ethical and environmentally friendly alternative that’s better for the consumer’s health and cattle’s welfare.

So no, contrary to the communications director, NYC vegan punk’s, bold-faced lie, pastured grass finished cattle are NOT worse for the environment because they live longer than conventionally feedlot finished cattle . Cattle managed properly may be used to help combat climate change especially by being an integral part of a system that sequesters carbon and methane into healthier soils- see Cows Save the Planet by Judith D. Schwartz and Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman as well as recent peer reviewed research done by theUniversity of Georgia and at Texas A&M.

In an almost comical moment during the film, after visiting a small pastured ranch (Markegard Family Grass Fed) where the duped and lied to rancher plays the foil, the narrator Kip Andersen extrapolates a number for necessary acres for pastured cattle based upon this one ranch without understanding the rancher’s operating methods or having the slightest understanding of how stocking rates are determined…let alone how different grazing methods, locations and slew of other variables impact those stocking rates. In Kip’s over eagerness to further shoot down grass fed and finished cattle as an alternative to grain finshed cattle, Kip fails to realize or mention that over 3/4 of cattle in the US are already on grass, and majority of the world’s cattle are also already on grass. According to cattle inventories, from the University of Missouri for 2014 only 22 mill of the approx 88 mil of cattle in the US are in feedlots (13 mill beef cattle) or CAFO’s (9 mill dairy cows).

In reality Kip, like city dweller NYC vegan punk Maratos, is clueless. Kip’s contrived land requirement number is meaningless as well as grossly inaccurate. (This math comes from Oppenlander’s book noted above, pages 123 and 124, where Oppenlander makes the absurd assertion that there are a billion “cows” in CAFO’s and feedlots). One would have to assume that neither has ever been to a cow-calf operation where 66 mill head of US inventory including bulls, cows, calves and replacement heifers are on GRASS. Though it’s no surprise that Kip is so utterly clueless because his “statistics advisor” for this film as listed in the closing credits is the dentist Oppenlander, who like most of the other abolitionist vegan talking heads in this film is anything but an expert on sustainability, ranching, the environment or pretty much any other issue raised in this film. .

As a side bar, Doniga Markegard noted, “We were lied to by the directors from the start. Our words twisted to make us sound ignorant to things such as the carbon cycle.”

So the film, in order to make it’s initial argument, that there is a conspiracy to deny livestock’s impact upon global warming (before furthering its absolute one), Cowspiracy refers to the 2006 FAO Long Shadow Report. Though the film fails to refer to the more recent 2013 revisions to that report from the FAO that lower the prior report’s livestock emission numbers from 18% down to 14.5%. The revised report also states that agricultural emissions can be cut an additional 30% with better “intensified” management practices. The film doesn’t delve into how the original 2006 number was generated so doesn’t acknowledge any of the politics or math behind this and the later revised numbers. The movie doesn’t also recognize that the intent of the authors of the 2006 FAO report was to provide an argument for “intensification” i.e. more factory farms, and not less meat consumption. This article, “A load of hot air?” printed in The Guardian back in 2008, points out some of the questionable methodologies the FAO used to derive their statistics plus points out the irony of abolitionist vegans appropriating the original 2006 eighteen percent number as this community’s mantra when the article notes the following:

“…These campaigners and websites all derive their 18% figure from a single source: a report published in November 2006 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), called Livestock’s Long Shadow. The IRONY is that the agenda promoted in this report is diametrically opposed to that of most greens and vegans. Its authors’ mission is not to phase out or reduce meat-eating; indeed, they anticipate that world meat consumption will have doubled from 229m tonnes in 2001 to 465m tonnes by 2050. Nor do they want to see an end to factory farming. Instead, they say that “intensification and perhaps industrialization of farming is the inevitable long-term outcome”, which can “only be achieved at the cost of pushing numerous small- and middle-scale producers out of business”…”

The movie then goes on to reference numbers from the late vegan activist Robert Goodland’s 2009 World Watch non-peer-reviewed report that have been completely rejected by the greater scientific community (including the UN long shadow authors). The way Goodland generated his numbers was dubious at best. As pointed out in the peer-reviewed report “Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right”,Goodland takes only half of the equation of cycles without factoring in the other half of cycles that mitigate emissions. Plus Goodland spun scenarios that maximized his emission numbers. Here’s another excellent critique of the World Watch report that points out this reports many flaws: Climate chicanery. Like Goodland’s non-peer reviewed report, Cowspiracy provides a lot of graphics with numerical statistics but doesn’t really explain how any of these numbers were calculated. As in political pseudo documentaries like “2016: Obama’s America”, figures lie, and liars (especially a certain dentist) figure or, at least, spin data and “facts” to reinforce their biases. The modus operandi? Repeat the spin often enough so, even if it is a lie, it becomes the truth.

There is obviously no reference to the Union of Concerned Scientists 2011 report that states: “Climate-friendly beef production practices reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions while increasing carbon sequestration.” There also isn’t any reference to more recent conflicting EPA’s numbers that put all agricultural emissions at 10% well below the energy and transportation sectors of 32% and 28% respectively. The EPA’s numbers for the US are similar to those numbers for greenhouse gases noted in the 2014 UN Climate Change committee’s report where the entire agricultural sector in the US (farming and livestock) accounts for slightly over 8% of the total and, doing the math, enteric methane from cattle is only 2.17% of the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted.

Thus like “2016: Obama’s America”, this film isn’t about balance. It’s a propaganda piece. So aside from a few brief editted clips from a duped Michael Pollan, all the so-called “experts” quoted at length are really just die hard abolitionist vegan activists like Richard Oppenlander DDS, David Simon, Will Tuttle, Demosthenes Maratos, and the “Mad Cowboy” Howard Lyman. There aren’t any other voices. No one from the Savory Institute, Carbon Nation or the Grass Fed Exchange. It’s like having Dick Cheney, Sean Hannity, John McCain, and Mitt Romney discuss Obama’s foreign policy on Fox News (or an equally slanted panel in the opposite direction on MSNBC). There’s absolutely no effort at balance. Everything presented is done so to present and support a single biased point of view.

The film repeatedly returns to the dentist Oppenlander, the film’s “statistic advisor” who is someone (in his abolitionist vegan lectures on youtube) who also mocks local food systems and the word sustainable while advocating for highly processed vegan protein energy bars. Like noted above, the film is largely based on Oppenlander book Comfortably Unaware. In his book and in this pseudo doc, the dentist basically blames all the world’s problems on “cows.” Oppenlander’s disdain for hamburgers seems to emanate from not being able to sell enough of his Ope’s B-12 fortified fake meat vegan patties (so yes Oppenlander has a vested interested in highly processed vegan food production, something not mentioned in the pseudo doc). The dentist Oppenlander even goes so far in the film to blame all the dead zones in waterways on cattle farming without the slightest critique or mention of large agricultural use of synthetic fertilizers or monocultures. The Mad Cowboy, Lyman suggests we can use all the feed crops grown instead for humans also without the slightest critique of the impact of NPK fertilizers, and monocrops on soil and waterway health. There’s zero discussion of how price supports, tax credits and crop insurance impact the type of crops farmers grow and thus why so much ends up as animal feed, in processed foods (high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, etc) or as ethanol. Furthermore during the film’s discussion of rain forest conversion there’s zero discussion on what role land speculation, government corruption, and sugarcane production also plays in deforestation. Nor do the filmmaker’s note Greenpeace’s role in reducing year to year deforestation rates in the Amazon eighty percent (since 2004) via their 2006 soy and 2009 meat moratoriums.

Deforestation involves a lot of issues including land speculation, mining, timber, farming, ethanol production, etc. In general there is so little larger context of any issue that at times this film, with its gross over simplifications of complex problems, feels more like a cartoon or mockumentary than a documentary.

At the end of the film, the movie suggests that veganic agriculture can replace all animal inputs without exploring the methane and carbon dioxide emission ramifications of composting at a large scale, the adverse carbon impacts of tillage, the reality of seasons, the vast amount of lands/grass lands not suitable for crops, and the dearth of minerals from just composting green matter. Though there is zero discussion of soil, soil building or soil health in this film therefore any balanced conversation on the advantages and importance of integrated and regenerative no-till organic farming shouldn’t have been expected.

Then again, this is a fairly simple minded film so if anything was actually critically discussed in depth the agenda wouldn’t be as clear or convincing to devout vegangelicals, who are this film’s most boisterous advocates and who probably have spent very little to no time on ranches or farms. Again like “2016: Obama’s America”, Cowspiracy is about spreading propaganda to further an agenda and not an in depth or real discussion on what needs to be done or can be done to reduce global emissions. Plus by being so uncompromising with its absolute position on any animal husbandry or meat consumption, the film fractures communities of people who should be united against factory farms, CAFO’s and feedlots, by turning them into antagonists. But then again with many of the speeches I’ve listened to by abolitionist vegans, I cynically believe that division is some of these abolitionists’ hidden intent, that is to divide people who should be allies against factory farming (including industrial agriculture) and all the horrific aspects that this form of farming entails especially in regards to environmental degradation.

If the movie was genuinely concerned about the environment, the pseudo doc’s directors would have provided a more balanced view including more data from other sources, talked to actual experts (not just vegan advocates) on the topics raised, and not dismissed solutions that included alternative ways of raising and managing livestock. Again, though not as blatant as a PETA production, this film is first and foremost interested in promoting vegan-ism not environmentalism.


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