October 7, 2015

Cowspiracy Review: Nothing More Than a Overflowing Truckload of Vegan BS.

I first heard of the documentary "Cowspiracy" by someone touting it on a discussion page as the "real truth" about the cattle industry. Though this was some time ago and well before I was able to see the film, out of skepticism from hearing such proclamations, I began to immerse myself in what this documentary was all about and why it was supposed to be one of the "best" films on animal agriculture out there. It didn't take me long to figure out that it was a big pile of rhetorical vegangical bull-patooties. Just visiting the Cowspiracy Facebook page was enough to prove that it was anything but a reliable resource with amount of inaccurate facts, misinformation, misperceptions, and vegan rhetoric found on there. Try correcting just one of the facts on there, like I did. I guarantee you the vegan trolls will come out from under their bridges to jump on you and tell you how stupid and how much of a liar you are. I've gotten told that I might get a "different impression" if I watch the film. Oh I watched the film all right, and did I get a different impression? Laughably, not at all. Besides, how could I get a "different impression" with watching the film when both the Cowspiracy Facebook page and website were deliberately and blatantly misleading already as it was?

The review below, taken directly from my own answer on the site Quora in answering the question "How accurate is the movie Cowspiracy?" could still have more information added to it considering how fast and often the narrator and his panel of "experts" were spitting out fact and stat after fact and stat to the audience it would make anyone's head spin. With all the quick-facts and headliners put into the movie, I had to keep my review as relatively concise (though still detailed) as possible without getting too deep into details on the various topics mentioned (and some not) in the film.

The Inaccuracies of Cowspiracy

As an obvious vegan propaganda piece, I found Cowspiracy to be very single-minded and superficial with only one fundamentalist agenda: To appeal to the reductionist or abolitionist vegans' goal to have the Earth completely rid of all livestock, including cows and cattle, and convert every human on the planet to a vegan. No compromises.  So the whole film was a determined means to argue the case for a vegan diet or lifestyle, and to demonize the cattle industry. 
There was nothing unbiased about the film no matter how many facts and figures were pulled out and how quickly they were fired out throughout the entire footage. It seemed to me that the faster the facts were thrown at the audience, the greater the shock-value and sensationalism the audience would feel. Even though the film was an hour and a half long, it took me at least three hours to get through it because of the amount of data being thrown at me at such a rapid pace. I had to pause many times and go back even more so that I could get a chance to get a gist of what was being said and take the time to write out some notes. For example, just going through the first ten to 15 minutes of the film took me pretty well three quarters of an hour to get through. And I was writing like I was back in my lecture classes again (in which there is no such thing nor time to make any nice, neat, nor pretty notes). The more I was able to pause and write down and consider what was being said, the more I understood just how inaccurate and misleading much of the data was. Let's not forget that the entire film overall was a joke. 

It was really hard to ignore that the primary "expert" or "statistical advisor" (he was referred to as an "environmental researcher") that narrator/protagonist Kip Anderson always was turning to is a vegan dentist by the name of Richard Oppenlander. (My understanding is that whole "documentary" (rather, a mockumentary) is based on Oppenlander's book "Comfortably Unaware", as are most the "facts" and statistics used.) Other well-known vegan "environmental experts" like "Dr." William Tuttle, "Mad Cowboy" Howard Lyman, David Simon, and several others, were also the primary sources Kip always seemed to turn to as the ones who knew better than those others interviewed or declined interviews. Only those vegan "experts" were used as the protagonist's "A-team" in a way because pretty well everyone else interviewed were, in some way, made out to be either subtlety antagonistic or stand-offish with something dubious to hide. Exceptions were the animal activists who were undoubtedly anti-fishing (members of the Sea Shepherd) or anti-cattle (Wild Horse Preservation Campaign). The "expert" panel on the film had barely an ounce of knowledge or understanding of agriculture and/or the environment, especially with regards to raising and grazing cattle. Kip Anderson was absolutely clueless about the whole cattle-raising thing to begin with.   
The inaccuracies begin (and certainly don't end) with the erroneous data pulled from Livestock's Long Shadow (FAO, 2006). A graphic showed that animal agriculture was responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which was more than transportation at 13 percent. Yet there was absolutely no acknowledgement that one of the authors from that book--Pierre Gerber--openly agreed that that their calculations were wrong and off-base after Associate Professor and Director of Agricultural Air Quality Dr. Frank Mitloehner pointed out their mistake (proof here: UN admits flaw in report on meat and climate change). The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) has since corrected their calculations and released them in 2013 to 14.5%, which is actually less than the transportation sector (FAO Key facts and findings).  I didn't see anything of that nature on the film, nor any sort of recognition to it. Ironically though that very report, which is so often mentioned by all vegans and anti-cattle activists as being the one defining proof that animal agriculture is bad for the Earth, is actually quite pro-CAFO (confined animal feeding operation). It does not advocate nor really advise for a more sustainable means of raising cattle (i.e., holistic managed grazing practices), and certainly does NOT state any means to phase out meat eating. Also, according to an article from The Guardian, "Are claims that meat is a climate crime a load of hot air? asks Simon Fairlie,"  the FAO actually seemed to have arrived at the percentage by performing some questionable methodologies. 

The other GHG-related numbers that Cowspiracy used came from one particular non-peer-reviewed "scientific article" by from the World Watch Institute authored by Goodland and Anhang (2009). This particular report has been widely rejected by the real scientific community for the dubious methods and numbers calculated--if even that--which were used to bolster their outrageous conclusion that 51% of GHGs were created by livestock. A peer-reviewed rebuttal report compiled by several scientists well-versed in the environmental aspects of agriculture and livestock production showed how G&A made no effort to acknowledge the mitigation factors of  the main natural cycles (carbon, nitrogen, water), which makes up half of the equation of those cycles, and how various scenarios were made up so as to maximize emission numbers. More here: Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right. Not surprisingly, Cowspiracy didn't even bother mentioning that the World Watch report was a total joke nor even how G&A really came up with their outrageous number. All I could get was it was from calculating the amount of carbon emitted from respiration, waste production, and clear-cutting of forests for grazing. 

Cowspiracy's numbers on water consumption by cattle were inaccurate and just plain misleading. The host of the film claimed that it *supposedly* takes 2,500 gallons of water to make one pound of beef. Per my calculations and answer to another Quora question asking "How much water is needed to raise a cow for slaughter?"  I calculated that number out to be only between 140 to 200 gallons to make a pound of beef. And that was really only for the finishing phase. Some calculations for the rest of the animal's life were a lot more complex than what it seemed, especially since the larger an animal grew, the more water it would drink. But basically the film hinted that the number comes from the assumption that beef cattle are born and raised in the feedlot up to slaughter. This of course is not true. Cattle are held in the feedlot for only 4 to 6 months of the year before being sold to slaughter. They're fed feedstuffs which include grains (not solely though) that are more likely to have been irrigated than not depending on where such feeds are sourced. Before they got to the feedlot they were on pasture and on a forage-based diet, and many pastures are not irrigated. Quite frankly, about 75 percent of all cattle in the US alone are already on pasture. 
California was made as an example for concerns with water shortage, and blame, of course, was placed on animal agriculture. According to the film, 55 percent of water was dedicated to animal agriculture compared with only 5 percent for domestic use. (Note: Even though California is the top fourth state for number of cattle and calves in the country, it's not the top for beef production. California is much more a dairy state than a beef one. See here: http://www.beefusa.org/beefindus....) Also stated in the film was that 1500 gallons of water was used by Californians per person per day, and close to half is associated with meat and dairy products. This I found to be a bit misleading. According to the same link used on the Cowspiracy facts page, the latter half of that statement is actually based on California's water footprint by sector, not by how Californian's water use amounts were associated with what they ate! The pie chart on this site (California's Water Footprint, Pacific Institute (2012)) on page 3 certainly showed that 47 percent of water use was dedicated to meat and dairy production (and 46 percent to other agricultural uses), but it clearly stated on that page that "...especially large water footprints [were] due to the amount of water-intensive feed required to raise the animals." Only 1 percent of  water use goes into hydrating, washing and processing animals. The rest goes is used for growing feed and fodder for livestock in the form of alfalfa, pasture, corn and grain crops for silage, and hay. 
Water footprints over the entire nation I found to be taken out of context. The report on farm animal water footprint done by Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2012) had laid out the numbers in metric, not imperial. The stat for milk, for instance, was based on the global weighted average of 1,020 cubic metres per ton. It was also divided into three different categories: Green (precipitation), Blue (surface and ground water) and Grey (waste water). Milk water footprint had almost 90 percent green water, which is much less concerning than amount from blue and grey water. 
Methane production was stated to come primarily from cattle or enteric fermentation. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Even though cattle, and all other ruminants, do contribute a significant amount of methane, they are not the largest contributors. Wetlands, landfills and natural gas production and/or leakage are the three largest contributors to methane emissions. Not only that, but methane is actually less concerning than carbon dioxide. Methane may be more potent than carbon dioxide, but it has a much shorter half-life. According to this link (Phys.org - News and Articles on Science and Technology) methane has a half-life of only seven years. Compare that to carbon dioxide, which is more like 31 years (The lifetime of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide). The link on the EPA site does factually state that enteric fermentation is the second-highest methane contributor, but this is something that shouldn't cause much alarm because there have been many millions or billions of animals living on this earth for the past 80 million years that have been enteric fermentors themselves. And these animals have all naturally been a part of the carbon cycle.  
The film tried to claim that grass-fed beef or grazing cattle is bad for the planet--more damaging than feedlot beef--using, ironically, facts and statistics straight from the conventional/industrial cattle industry against the smaller, sustainable, regenerative cattle producers. Yet it completely misses the point that there has been grazing animals on the planet for eons, and much of the land that is being used for grazing has been adapted to be utilized by grazing animals over eons. Not only that, but all beef cattle are grass-fed, just not grass finished! So where there are currently around 90 million cattle, 9 million of that which are dairy cattle leaving around 80 million beef cattle (source: USDA Cattle Inventory as of July 24, 2015), less 12 million currently finished in feedlots, over 200++ years ago there was estimated that 70 million bison were present roaming and grazing much of the US and Canada. Let's not forget the vast elk and pronghorn herds that numbers in the tens of millions of well, both which were and are grazing animals. Cattle are no different at being as good grazers as bison were (and are), and bison are just as likely to severely overgraze an area as cattle are. Bison are also significant methane producers just like cattle are, and yet no heck is being raised for raising these critters for meat. (Study done on methane emissions of bison versus cattle here: Methane emissions from bison-An historic herd estimate for the North American Great Plains 
Additionally, cattle grazing is not a carbon source like factory or vehicle emissions are. Cattle grazing is actually just a natural part of the carbon cycle where cattle are the main management tool for grasslands and for plants in grasslands to sequester carbon from the atmosphere--including the carbon from their belches and flatulence--and put it back into the soil. Cattle grazing, when properly managed actually assists in maintaining and even increasing biodiversity of a rangeland than simply leaving it be. The key is proper grazing management. What was showed in the film was not based on the general consensus of the entire United States, but only a small area with a type of environment only found in that area. And they certainly showed the extremes: We were taken from a ranch with well-managed range land in the Sonoma and San Mateo counties of California, to severely overgrazed public grazing lands of Nevada held by the Bureau of Land Management. Yet we are forced to believe that pretty well all land in the US is like that of the BLM and rarely that like what the Markegard Family Grass-fed operation successfully has working for them. 
I found Anderson's attempts to extrapolate the acreage needed to get enough beef for everyone on Earth using grass-fed cattle was pathetic and comical at best. The number he came up with--3.7 billion acres of land needed to produce enough grass-finished beef for the entire population of the United States--was completely meaningless and absurdly inaccurate. Anderson was beyond clueless about how stocking rates were determined, and had no understanding of the management practices of that single ranch that he visited. Yet he based his calculations on that one single ranch, and made no attempts to understand how the family came up with their stocking rate--which was 1 cow per 10 acres--or how stocking rates vary widely across the entire country, all based on influential factors like types of grazing methods, location, climate, soil, vegetation, cow size, and many others. I genuinely feel sorry for the ranching family, because they certainly got fooled into allowing Kip to tour the ranch and couldn't really do anything to try to get him to understand anything about their diversified grass-fed operation. From what I have seen, they have to account for the raising of pigs, sheep, cattle, and chickens on their land. That means four species to manage. For them 1 cow per ten acres is sufficient because they still have enough room for grazing sheep and feeding pigs and chickens without running the risk of overgrazing the land or degrading other sensitive habitats on the ranch. 
Leading to this was the topic on Allan Savory. It really bothered me that Anderson considered Savory to "definitely be not someone [he] would take ecological advice from," all because Savory made the mistake of thinking that culling elephant herds by the tens of thousands would improve the already degraded land some 40 years ago. Of course his theory was wrong. He openly admitted that and has admitted that many times. But that's no reason to not trust Savory with ecological advice on best grazing practices. I'd sooner trust someone who openly admits to his faults and has moved forward with a solution that has proven to be better for the future, than someone who dwells in the past and can't get out of it to make better the future, all because of a particular mistake that seems so dastardly it shouldn't be ignored. Besides he has openly stated, just like with the elephants, how he has learned from this serious mistake in order to make better management decisions to improve and/or maintain range management practices. Most importantly, he practices what he preaches. So he is more than qualified to advocate holistic management practices for other cattlemen to adopt and incorporate into their operations however they may. I will never say the same about the "experts" on this film. They're as qualified to educate consumers about cattle grazing as a welder is qualified to tell someone how to dress via the latest fashion trend. 
Cattle grazing has nothing to do with destruction of the rainforest either. Many activists attribute the destruction of the rainforest to cattle production. Truthfully, and historically, forests have been destroyed for crop production. Crops include sugarcane and soybeans, the latter which goes to Asian markets and overseas markets, not to American feed or soy market. Once the soil of deforested areas is abused to the point where crops won't grow anymore, grass is planted and used for raising livestock on. It's pretty difficult to graze cattle on deforested land that isn't first cleared off and the soil laid bare for seeds to be sown. Better off planting crops than putting grass down for cattle; one can get income faster with the former than the latter.

The attempts to sensationalize livestock manure production was particularly amusing. Despite the machine-gun-statistics thrown out purely for shock value, there was no acknowledgement on how livestock manure is one of the best natural fertilizers to use for crops and pastures.  And yet they try to shock everyone by stating how the amount of manure produced per day or second or whatever would be enough to bury several large metropolitan cities. I guess it wasn't in their interest to show how manure is spread out onto fields and incorporated into the soil to help plants grow. No, they just had to lie by using a silly graphic showing how millions of tons of manure leach into water ways and eventually the ocean causing these massive oceanic dead-zones. (Sorry, but it's the NPK fertilizer used to grow crops that contribute to this in much, much larger part than manure from "factory-farmed cows.") 
Every livestock producer always makes sure that there is a relatively even layer of manure on the land over time, no matter if it's cropland or pasture land, spread by the animals themselves or via machinery. Manure contributes to increased organic matter in addition to the plant matter left behind after grazing, and increases the nutrient load of soil through the nitrogen and phosphorus content often found in manure. (Note that cattle aren't grazed so that everything is removed. Cattle are and should be grazed so that over 40 to 70% of plant matter is left behind when they're moved to the next pasture or paddock.) The only problem that manure will create is when it accumulates in piles or lagoons from confined intensive feeding operations and overflows during a storm, or when it's stored improperly, or accumulation comes so fast there's issues with what to do with it all. But when there's a lot of land available to put the manure on, and other producers may be willing to have the manure from that operation put on their land, these issues become considerably uncommon. 

Overall, the inaccurate and misleading information was certainly cause for concern, but so was the superficiality.  No alternative view of a world without livestock was envisioned in the film. Questions came up like why is a monoculture wheat or soybean field considered better than a polyculture pasture or native grassland with animals on it? How would the land of abandoned farmland be utilized if it's unsuitable for growing crops for a new plant-based dietary society? Would there be any means of preserving lands which rely on large ruminant animals like cattle or would they just be left to be turned into bushy, forested "waste" or wildland? Should people be more connected to the land or continue to rely on industrial or intensive farming to feed them? Many more questions can be added to this.

Cowspiracy is a film that pushes one single extremist agenda which conforms to a particularly "extreme almost religious belief in the form of a diet already predetermined in the film. It doesn't leave an open-ended question to engage in discussion about agriculture and food and to help us to decide what to eat and why. A documentary film should be ending with thought-provoking, open-ended questions for us to discuss, not one that has a seemingly easy solution dressed up with shock-value and parroted facts and numbers for the vegangical sheeples to use. This film, in my opinion, is a conspiracy in and of itself, and not a means to educate consumers at all. It's more of a means fill the heads of the gullible and clueless with lies, misinformation and misconceptions about an industry they have no clue about so as to further an agenda of a world that so few hope will go vegan.
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