For ages, global warming due to the build-up of greenhouse gases has been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels (by factories and cars) and the clearing of forests (for logging and plantations).
However, one industry seems to have slipped through the cracks – animal agriculture.
While other sectors have been vilified for decades for their role in the world’s environmental degradation, there seems to be a reluctance to discuss the issue of industrial-scale animal farms.
Intrepid filmmaker Kip Andersen and his videographer colleague Keegan Kuhn unravel this in the documentary titled Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.
After watching An Inconvenient Truth (the landmark environmental movie by former US Vice President Al Gore), Andersen began to recycle religiously, turn off lights constantly, shower infrequently, and ride a bike instead of driving.
He believed he was doing everything he could to help the planet by following the guidelines of various environmental organisations, but his life took a different direction when he found out about the ecological role of animal agriculture.
Cowspiracy uncovers what Andersen, who is CEO of AUM Films and Media, has identified through his research as the most destructive industry facing the planet today.
The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) recently held a screening of the documentary (executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) at its headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
The 90-minute show uses graphics and injects some humour into this heavy topic. Andersen records what appears to be an intentional refusal to discuss the issue of the animal industry, while whistle-blowers and watchdogs warn him of the risks to his freedom and even his life if he dares to persist.
In the documentary, he explains how animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry.
To double check the movie’s claims, Robin Oakley, the program director of Greenpeace UK (Greenpeace was not part of the documentary) does confirm that the greenhouse gas emissions of the meat industry are greater than every plane, train, car, lorry and boat – put together.
Overall, livestock agriculture (including all cows, pigs, sheep etc.) is responsible for about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – below the burning of fossil fuels at 57%.
Cowspiracy co-director Keegan Kuhn says in a blog on the website www.cowspiracy.com, “We absolutely need to stop producing and using fossil fuels, but given the timeline we are on, even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels (now), we would not see a mark in the atmosphere for close to 100 years.”
He added, “(But) if we stopped producing methane from livestock, we would see effects within a decade because methane has a (much greater) global warming effect than CO2 but a lifespan of only about 25 years.”
So what was the purpose of the film?
Kuhn explains: “It was to raise awareness of the single most destructive industry facing the planet today: animal agriculture…The fact that the entire environmental movement is focused on fossil fuels and not animal agriculture is to the detriment of true sustainability.
Andersen says that the cattle industry is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss and erosion of topsoil.
His analysis reveals how this sector is responsible for 91% of the destruction of the Amazon forests, with the clearing of 550 billion square metres of rainforest.
It has been calculated that a whopping 3,000 litres of water is used (to grow grain to feed cows among other things) to make just one hamburger. This is equivalent to water used for two months of showering. Similarly, 1,000 litres of water are used to produce one litre of milk.
In terms of animal waste, Andersen demonstrates how the amount of waste from 2,500 dairy cows is equivalent to the waste generated from a city of 411,000 people.
Gidon Eshel, a professor of environmental science and physics at Bard College in New York, was the lead author of a 2014 study that made headlines around the world and found that beef is about 10 times more damaging to the environment than any other form of livestock.
Eshel, who was featured in another landmark environmental film by DiCaprio called Before The Flood, said:
“Of all the reasons for tropical deforestation, the foremost is beef. Beef is one of the most inefficient use of resources on the planet. In the USA, 47% of land is used for food production and, of that, the lion’s share is just to grow feed for cattle. The things that we (humans) actually eat – fruit, vegetables, nuts – is just ONE percent.
“Maybe not everyone is ready to eat tofu 24/7. I get that. But even if you just have to have some flesh between your teeth, if you switch to chicken, you will have eliminated 80% of (ecological impact).”
Chicken vs beef
In Before the Flood, it’s explained that raising chickens requires just 20% of the land as that required to produce the same amount of beef. Chicken farming also produces just 10% of the greenhouse gases compared to raising cattle.
Besides the ecological impact, an uncomfortable gap between rich and poor is also revealed by cattle farming in Cowspiracy.
Large tracts of land are used to grow grains and legumes that are then exported to more affluent countries (to be fed to their livestock), even in countries where children are starving.
The film also addresses the long-term danger of animal agriculture to marine life by causing habitat destruction and water pollution leading to ocean “dead zones” and species extinction.
So what is the solution? Do the filmmakers believe that the problems with climate change will really be solved if everyone became vegetarian?
“A global shift to a vegan lifestyle will do more to repair the damage done to the Earth than a global abandonment of fossil fuels (though) movement towards renewable energy is (also) essential,” says Kuhn in the blog.
He adds that according to a forthcoming publication from Dr. Sailesh Rao and Atul K. Jain (University of Illinois professors of Atmospheric Sciences), if we removed livestock from grasslands and allowed the forests to regrow, we would be able to sequester (store in plant tissue) 265 GtC (Giga or billion tonnes of carbon dioxide), which is greater than the 240 GtC that we have added to the atmosphere (by burning fossil fuels) in the entire industrial era.
Some people are vegetarian for health or religious reasons – as the slogan goes: “Be kind to animals – don’t eat them.” Now, there is another good reason – to save the environment.
Going totally vegetarian may not be for everyone, but one can perhaps start by avoiding meat on certain days (there are groups such as Meatless Mondays for example) or meals (light dinners help us avoid weight gain too!). If not, switching to chicken will at least cause less ecological harm compared to beef.
You can download Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret or order a DVD at www.cowspiracy.com.