The environmental impact of agriculture is probably not something you think about on a day-to-day basis. It's unlikely to come up in chats with your co-workers at the water cooler, or with your mates down at the pub.
It's the type of conversation topic that might be met with a frown, or a yawn, or a stifled snigger and the words “cow" and “farts" uttered shortly afterwards. But this issue could actually be a lot more serious than you previously thought. We don’t want to sound the apocalyptic alarm bells here and tell everyone it’s time to panic but now might just be the moment to sit up, take notice, and do something before it’s too late.
Are you aware, for example, that 18% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture (more than the combined exhaust fumes from all modes of transport - 13%)? And do you know that 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce just one pound of beef (the equivalent of five Big Macs)? Or that animal agriculture is responsible for a whopping 91% of Amazon destruction? No. Probably not. Why would you know this? Even if you're a self-proclaimed environmentalist, it's not normally the kind of thing you'll see splashed on the standard eco-agenda.
One animal agriculture film that's currently got the attention of quite a few Netflixers, social media enthusiasts, celebrity-endorsers, and environmentalists is 'Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.'
Cowspiracy is an environmental documentary that follows filmmaker Kip Andersen as he delves into the murky depths of, arguably, the most destructive industry facing the planet today. It questions why leading environmental organisations seem so reluctant to talk about animal agriculture, and opens up pages upon pages of revelatory information.
We managed to get hold of Kip Andersen, who's based in California, to talk to him not only about the film itself but also the frightening issues raised within it. Kip is, as you'd expect, absolutely chuffed to bits with the good reviews Cowspiracy is getting. However, for him it's much more exciting that the important messages contained within the film are getting spread to such a wide and varied audience.
"Being a filmmaker, it's really cool to see [the positive feedback] because it means we've made a successful film, but the fact that it's an activist film gives you this whole other thing as well. It's not like we've made a comedy or an original drama here. It's all about spreading a message. That's why we made it. And to see that message take on a life of it's own and become way bigger than any of us...you know...it really has become everyone's movie; a tool that everyone can use."
"We always felt that once the information was out there, and it is so shocking and important, that it would really resonate and spread around quickly. You can't hide the truth and when the truth is this powerful, it's meant to shine a light everywhere and that's what we're seeing."
Throughout the film, there is a sense that people in influential places will stop at almost nothing to stop the information from getting out. Howard Lyman, an American farmer and animal rights activist, alludes to this in the documentary when he tells Kip and his fellow filmmaker (Keegan Kuhn) "If you don't realise right now that you're putting your neck on the chopping block, you better take that camera and throw it away."
The Amazon Rainforest, which has had a whopping 136 million acres cleared for animal agriculture, has a particularly bloody history with over 1,100 land activists killed in Brazil over the last 20 years. Dorothy Stang, an American-born nun and environmental activist, received a number of death threats from Brazilian loggers and land owners for her outspoken views on the Amazon before eventually being murdered in 2005 in the city of Anapu.
Another shocking story involves a man called Chico Mendes. Chico campaigned tirelessly to preserve the Amazon rainforest, but was murdered in front of his entire family in 1988.
Horror stories such as these shine a light on the lengths to which some people, who have a vested interest, will go to make sure their operations continue to roll forward. Those who have established themselves at the summit of the economic pyramid will clearly in some cases do whatever it takes to make sure they remain at the top, even murder.
We asked Kip about the frightening characters and stories lurking at the darker edges of environmental activism, and whether he himself has ever felt threatened or suffered any negative backlash in person or online since the film has been released.
"The fear of not doing anything has to supersede any individual fear, including my own because if we don't do anything collectively or as individuals we're not going to be around much longer [as a species]. The bigger fear, as far as we were concerned, should always be about the consequences of not doing something."
"You can't hide the truth and when the truth is this powerful, it's meant to shine a light everywhere..."
"It was genuinely quite scary while we were making the movie but what we realised, after we released the film, is that there's not much anyone can do. It's out there now, and people are spreading the film so much it's basically taken on a life of its own. People will try to attack the film, try to kill it, but it's just so hard to do that because the facts are facts."
"And, of course, once we'd worked with someone like Leonardo Di Caprio [an Executive Producer on Cowspiracy], we had to make sure that our facts were even more locked down. I mean, they're bulletproof [the facts] so sometimes, even if you're just talking to a meat-eating environmentalist or whatever...they try to attack a certain aspect of the film and their argument falls apart because you can't beat the truth."
Rather surprisingly, you might think, Cowspiracy is particularly critical of non-profit environmental organisations such as Greenpeace. The film points to how little coverage these types of organisations are giving to the negative environmental impact caused by raising animals for food, and criticises them for not tackling the debate head-on.
When you consider that methane from livestock has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 over a 20 year frame, you do start to question whether anywhere near enough attention is being given to the subject.
Of course, it's easy to laugh at the idea of "cow farts," and the somewhat surreal thought that large quantities of gas produced by Daisy and her friends could be the human race's undoing. Farts are funny, ipso-facto livestock farts are funny. However, when you dig down and look at the numbers and the wider picture, this rather smelly idea suddenly goes from being laughable to altogether more chilling and disturbing.
Globally, cows produce a truly astonishing 150 billion gallons of methane per day. This rather daunting figure means that even if we all stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow, we would still exceed our 565 gigatonnes limit of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2E) by the year 2030; just through the processes and effects of raising animals for food. Emissions from agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050, which could have truly catastrophic consequences for the planet.
The film opens with a line from Martin Luther King: "In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." As the documentary goes on, and the film expands on this idea in the most hard hitting ways imaginable, it becomes easier and easier to understand why people like Kip are annoyed at how little focus is given to something that is having such a negative impact on our planet.
"In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Greenpeace, of course, have not taken the film's accusations lying down. Robin Oakley, Program Director of Greenpeace UK, has called the film "a sensationalist conspiracy." When we challenge him on this comment, Kip seems determined to stick to his guns and not be seen to let Greenpeace off the hook. After hearing what Oakley has to say about Cowspiracy, he can't help but laugh.
"The one thing for me is that, I mean I'm on Greenpeace...the UK one...right now, and I just don't see it. You go on Greenpeace, the website, and you don't really see anything to do with animal agriculture."
"Animal agriculture, raising animals for food, is the number one, not the number two, not the number three...it's the number one cause of...ok maybe not climate change but water pollution, water consumption, ocean dead zones, wildlife extinction, rainforest destruction, and the decimating of the oceans...and yet you don't see this information anywhere on their homepage."
"It's the number one cause of pretty much everything they're supposed to be opposed to. But, yeah, not only is this information not on their homepage...you can't even find it on their website. Not only is that completely unacceptable and, I mean, you can call it what you want; whether it's complete ignorance, a conspiracy, or just downright shady, it is completely unacceptable."
"...whether it's complete ignorance, a conspiracy, or just downright shady, it is completely unacceptable."
"Keegan, my co-director, is angry at Greenpeace and the Sierra Club because it's just so obvious there's connections somewhere. They don't accept money directly but you just need to take a look at their board of directors and that's where you find out a little bit more about the story."
"Since making the film, we've had a whole heap of insider information that shows these organisations in an even worse light. Of course, they do some good work but the whole thing is completely ridiculous. You just need to look at their website to see how ridiculous they're being."
Numerous people have argued, including many of the people Kip and Keegan speak to in Cowspiracy, that the reason organisations don't talk about animal agriculture is that it would harm their public image and sponsorship deals if they did so. This idea suggests that it's all about 'political points-gaining', and that to tell the meat-eaters amongst their supporters that they're contributing to the downfall of the planet rather than helping to save it is a quick way to lose friends and alienate people.
Cowspiracy hits the viewer with so much information during its entire 90-minute running time that if Mpora were to discuss it all here, you'd have to spend the majority of your day going through it all. With that in mind, we asked Kip to discuss which piece of information he found the most horrifying upon discovery.
"When we were making the film and uncovering all this stuff, it just felt like one thing after another. Wow. I can't believe this. Wow. I can't believe this. Wow. I can't believe this. And then suddenly everything, when it hits you all at once, it's just..."
Kip goes silent, for a moment.
"The most emotional thing for me is the whole situation with the wildlife. It's just really sad to see things like all the wolves getting slaughtered [to protect livestock]. They just rounded up, in Oregon or Washington I believe, 1,500 wild horses and replaced them with 1,500 cows."
"And the bears, the bears are getting decimated and that's the saddest thing for me because growing up that's what I cared about; I cared about the wildlife. And then, you know, the oceans they don't get enough attention and this is really scary because as Paul Watson says in the film 'We cannot live on this planet with dead oceans...If our oceans die, we die.'"
According to some alarming reports, we could see fish-less oceans by 2048. It's clear from speaking to Kip that this is a subject close to his heart.
"No matter what people tell you, there's no such thing as sustainable fishing whatsoever. So, I guess it's just a combination of all this put together, that feels overwhelming...rather than one thing in particular."
Of course, as you'd expect, the film comes with a pro-vegan message. In society, as we all know, there's still a tendency to see hardline vegans as just a load of awkward eaters and hemp-wearing tree-huggers. We asked Kip about this attitude, and why he thinks so many people are reluctant to make a change.
"When you've grown up your entire life, doing something since day one, whether it's brushing your teeth a certain way or waking up a certain way, certain things become part of your routine. Discovering the addictive properties of dairy helped me to realise that I don't actually need this in my diet, it's more that I'm addicted. And then, you know, nobody wants to be addicted to something."
"People will try to attack the film, try to kill it, but it's just so hard to do that because the facts are facts."We talk to Kip about societal shifts in food consumption and whether he thinks people, en-masse, would ever be willing to completely cut meat and dairy out of their diets in order to prevent environmental oblivion. He's undoubtedly optimistic about the possibility of real change occurring, and is clearly a strong believer in it being an absolute necessity if the human race is to sustain itself in the future.
"The great thing is that you can see the shift happening so fast. Everywhere you look, there's more products and more people going vegetarian or vegan. In restaurants, and in stores, it's just happening so fast."
"There's these billionaire players, like Bill Gates and the Twitter founders who see five years down the line, and they're making investments in these sustainable food choices; plant-based meats and plant-based foods. They're doing it because they see it as the future, not necessarily for ethical reasons or anything like that. They just know that this is the future."
A future without meat and dairy? When virtually every street corner in central London seems to have some sort of gourmet steak/burger/pizza restaurant on it, it does seem like a bit of a long shot. But, Kip is clearly a real believer in change and thinks that humans can fundamentally alter the habits of a lifetime in order to rescue a dire environmental situation.
After briefly discussing what Kip gets up to when he's not campaigning against animal agriculture - snowboarding, playing golf, and being in the great outdoors; Mpora decides that it's probably time to let Kip get back to the important business of saving the earth.
"The bigger fear, as far as we were concerned, should always be about the consequences of not doing something."During the course of the next century, the human race is going to face a number of big challenges. Documentaries like Cowspiracy might not be everyone's cup of tea but they remind us that these challenges need to be met proactively. It's no good putting our fingers in our ears, burying our heads in the sand, shouting "LA! LA! LA! LA! LA!" and pretending stuff like this isn't an issue. Where our food comes from, and the manner in which it's produced, clearly has far reaching consequences for all of us.
Kip and his fellow filmmaker Keegan's message has real substance to it. How we sustainably feed the world's growing population in a way that doesn't simultaneously wreck the earth itself is an environmental issue that is going to require plate spinning skills of the highest order from both this generation, and the generations yet to come. "If we don't stop and do something," Kip tells us "...we're basically heading for a desolate Mad Max style situation."
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