Food and Farming

Cowspiracy: stampeding in the wrong direction

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By focusing on veganism to the exclusion of all else, Cowspiracy implies that anyone who eats meat isn’t a ‘proper’ environmentalist. This is deeply offensive and elitist, and it harms the movement we need to build.

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Danny Chivers is a professional carbon analyst, performance poet, climate activist, and author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change and No-Nonsense Renewable Energy. This article is republished, under a Creative Commons License, from New Internationalist.

by Danny Chivers

“Why do you keep talking about fossil fuels? Don’t you know that animal agriculture is the biggest cause of global warming? Why don’t you campaign on that? Watch Cowspiracy!”

If you’ve posted anything online about fossil fuels and climate change lately, the chances are you’ve seen a response like this. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret may have started as a crowdfunded documentary by US filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn but following a year of online success a new version of the film – executive produced by Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio – has now been launched on Netflix. The film follows Andersen’s investigation into the climate impact of animal agriculture, and his attempts to get a series of large US environmental NGOs to speak to him about it. It’s a compellingly told story, as most of the green groups seem reluctant to answer his questions or to justify their focus on fossil fuels rather than livestock emissions.

This is not the enemy

This is not the enemy

The film has built a sizable and vocal following, as evidenced by the critical Cowspiracy-inspired comments that frequently pop up on articles about climate change, bemoaning the lack of coverage of the climate impact of animal agriculture. In Paris for the climate talks in December, there was no escape either. I spotted the headline statistic from the documentary – “animal agriculture is responsible for 51 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions” – emblazoned on at least one placard or banner at most of the protests I attended in Paris. Kip Andersen himself even turned up at the anti-oil protest outside the Louvre, with a film camera and the 51 per cent figure printed on his shirt, presumably to denounce such fossil-fuel-bashing antics as a waste of time compared to stopping the livestock industry.

There’s only one problem with this eye-grabbing stat: it’s a load of manure. Emissions from livestock agriculture – including the methane from animals’ digestive systems, deforestation, land use change and energy use – make up around 15 per cent of global emissions, not 51 per cent. I’ve been vegan for 14 years and have been asked to justify my dietary weirdness at more friend and family meals than I can count, so believe me – I’ve looked into it. If meat and dairy really were the biggest cause of global climate change I’d be trumpeting that statistic myself every chance I got.

But I don’t. Because it’s not true. The 51 per cent number comes from a single non-peer-reviewed report by two researchers – a report littered with statistical errors. This study counts the climate impact of methane from animals as being more than three times more powerful as methane from other sources [1], adds in an inappropriate chunk of extra land use emissions [2], and incorrectly includes all the carbon dioxide that livestock breathe out [3].

Setting aside this deeply flawed paper and looking instead at more reliable studies, we find that livestock’s real climate impacts – methane, land use change, energy use – make up just under 15 per cent of the global total.

The thing is, 15 per cent is still a huge amount, more than all of the world’s cars, ships, trains and planes put together. Environmental campaigners – including large NGOs – certainly should be doing more to tackle it. Which is why the 51 per cent fake statistic is so painfully groan-inducing. It undermines an important argument and makes otherwise well-meaning people look foolish when they use it.

It’s perfectly possible to make a powerful environmental case against the meat and dairy industry without using made-up numbers. A lot of the rest of Cowspiracy does just that – the film is packed with plenty of real facts about the dreadful deforestation, water use, and local environmental damage caused by animal agriculture. But there’s another major problem with the documentary: it’s built on the assumption that persuading Western people to change their lifestyles is the best way to save the world.

The film presents its viewers with a conundrum: why have the big green NGOs been telling us all to cycle and change our lightbulbs, when they should have been telling us to go vegan? The suggestion that, in fact, neither of those options are going to lead to significant political change never gets a look-in. I hope that wealthier people in the Global North do voluntarily reduce their impact on the climate – through their travel habits, their diets, and everything else – but this is never going to be enough on its own.

We need major changes in the energy, transport and food production infrastructures of the industrialized nations to create affordable, climate-friendly alternatives for all. We also need – as Southern campaigners at COP21 worked hard to point out – a transfer of money and technology from North to South, to allow people to develop out of poverty without trashing the climate. These changes won’t happen without serious political pressure from a global movement for sustainability and justice. Buying a greener brand of toilet paper or cutting meat and dairy out of your diet isn’t going to make that happen.

Cowspiracy also seems to assume that the only people worth targeting with its message are white, Northern and middle-class. One of the most problematic lines in the film is when a commentator says “it’s not possible to be a meat-eating environmentalist.” This statement is presumably meant to prick the consciences of well-off US eco-activists but it sweeps the struggles of millions of poorer Southern and Indigenous peoples under the carpet. Most of the people fighting for a safer global environment aren’t middle-class Northern folks with carbon-heavy lifestyles. They are the people engaged in frontline battles against fossil fuels, local pollution, and – yes – livestock megafarm projects around the world, and they are leading the way in the defence of our shared climate.

By focusing on veganism to the exclusion of all else, Cowspiracy implies that if any of these frontline defenders – including the murdered Brazilian land rights campaigners mentioned in the film – eat meat then they’re not ‘proper’ environmentalists. This is deeply offensive and exclusive, and also ignores the cultural importance of hunted meat in many Indigenous societies. To build the genuinely international climate movement we desperately need, Northern campaigners need to think carefully about the language they use to challenge the industrial livestock industry, and avoid sweeping statements that ignore the struggles of millions of people across the world.

So to anyone who’s been moved by Cowspiracy and wants to take action on animal agriculture, I have a few friendly suggestions:

  1. Don’t use the 51 per cent figure. Please. You’re making us all look bad.
  2. Please do go vegan, but remember that it won’t lead to political change by itself. Look for groups and campaigns that are pushing for meaningful action on this issue, or who have good, thoughtful strategies for challenging the culture of mass meat and dairy consumption in industrialized nations.
  3. Resist the temptation to just preach at everyone about veganism. Instead, be prepared to work with non-vegan groups and networks as part of a broader movement for fair and sustainable agriculture, especially those representing agricultural workers, small farmers and Southern communities (such as La Via Campesina).
  4. If you want more people to understand that animal agriculture is a significant part of the climate change picture, bear in mind that there are lots of good reasons why many people are focusing on the fossil fuel industry and it’s not an either/or issue. Fossil fuels are the biggest cause of climate change, and the companies that profit from them wield huge political power. We need to find ways to support each other’s causes and tackle all these problems together, rather than fight over which one is more important.
  5. Find meaningful ways to act in solidarity with people on the frontlines of this issue. For example, if you want to stop the mass felling of trees for cattle ranching and other destructive industries, one of the most effective things you can do is to support forest peoples in their struggle to defend their land rights.
  6. Turn up, join in, and help out. The UK Climate Camps – and their successors, the Reclaim the Power anti-fracking camps – have been challenging the fossil fuel industry since 2006, and have had entirely vegan kitchens for the whole of that time. This is largely due to the fact that enough vegan campaigners were practically involved from the beginning, making the case for animal-free cookery while also playing an active part in the camps themselves. This seems a far more effective way to win people over to the importance of livestock’s climate impact than posting snarky messages on strangers’ Facebook walls.

Well, that’s enough from me – I’ve got a butternut squash that needs roasting. I look forward to sharing houmous sandwiches with you all on an anti-fracking blockade somewhere soon.


[1] The standard way to measure the climate impact of greenhouse gases is over a 100-year time period. However, this method tends to downplay the importance of methane, which is a greenhouse gas that has a more powerful impact than CO2, but remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter time. The authors of the report argue that if we instead consider global warming over a 20-year time period, the impact of the methane from cattle is three times higher. They therefore triple the impact of the methane from livestock in their calculations. However, they do not carry out the same tripling effect on all the rest of the methane produced by human activities – for example, from reservoirs, coal mines and natural gas production. This therefore overinflates the importance of livestock compared with other sources of greenhouse gas.

[2] The study makes an estimate of how much CO2 would be saved each year if all the land used for livestock was turned back into forest and allowed to photosynthesize. This is an interesting calculation, but the authors then make the error of adding these imaginary ‘what if’ emissions onto the real-life annual emissions from the livestock industry. This is a major accounting error – it’s adding together apples and oranges (or possibly pigs and chickens). It makes about as much sense as saying that the annual emissions from fossil fuels should include all the emissions that would have been sucked out of the air if all the oil drillers and coal miners had instead been employed planting trees. It’s an imaginary number, and has no place in a study that claims to present livestock emissions as a meaningful percentage of the global total.

[3] The CO2 from cattle’s breathing is cancelled out by the carbon sucked out of the air by the plants eaten by the cattle in the first place. Animal respiration is part of a cycle, not a source of emissions, which is why it is not included in any serious climate change studies.


  • My biggest criticism of Cowspiracy was the way that the whole film seemed to be set in an isolated US bubble, and that bubble itself was a very distorted view of America that focused almost exclusively on a particular subsection of the population.

    For instance, we heard lots about the complicity of meat-eaters, and middle class NGOs. But there was precious little about the lives of those who farm the agricultural land outside of the US. I was surprised to not even hear the names of a single agricultural mega-corporation, let alone any details of their profits. One of the more powerful aspects of (say) Michael Moore’s work is when he doorsteps CEOs or does “actions” outside head offices. Where was the criticism of Monsanto, Cargill. Or even international policies like the COP process, or the European Common Agricultural Policy that have helped entrench factory farming.

    Ultimately though, this felt like an attempt to guilt trip people into making change (on dubious scientific evidence) rather than any attempt to build a political movement that can change the status quo. in its neglect of the vast majority of the world’s population (except as passive consumers of meat) it was patronising, offensive and it will be a dead end if it becomes the dominant narrative in the climate / ecological movement, or indeed the wider left.

  • I fully agree with the criticism of the 51-number and the awkward WWI study, which will certainly cause more harm to our cause than do good.

    But – does this justifiy this article summary: “By focusing on veganism to the exclusion of all else, Cowspiracy implies that anyone who eats meat isn’t a ‘proper’ environmentalist. This is deeply offensive and elitist, and it harms the movement we need to build?”

    I think not. 15% GG emissions from animal farming are a fucking high number – this the scale of the global transportation sector which has rightly been in the focus of the anti-climate change movement since along time.

    • Reply to siyah: I am amazed by the inability of some readers to understand a very clear issue. The issue is NOT whether industrial beef production is a substantial contributor to climate and change or whether we should oppose it. Of course it does and of course we should. The issue is whether our opposition should focus on individual behavior change as the solution, whether it is in any way appropriate to engage in moralistic shaming of non-vegans as not being a proper environmentalists. When we campaign for a green transportation system, we don’t condemn all drivers as villains, or demand that everyone stop using any product that has ever been carried in a truck. We focus on the system, not on individuals.

  • Danny Chivers is correct in arguing that CO2 emissions due to respiration should be left out of the audit of GHG emissions from livestock farming. and he is also right that the authors of the Worldwatch report miscalculate the proportion of GHG emissions due to livestock methane in the manner that he describes (but it would still increase the value over the FAO estimate). But I do not understand his argument about land. Danny argues that to add (negative) emissions from land that is now used for livestock grazing or livestock feed is like “adding apples and oranges” and a “major accounting error”. Well, actually, apples and oranges are both fruit, so if you use your categories correctly, you CAN add them. It is NOT equivalent to arguing that oil drillers could have been out planting tress, as a reduction in livestock farming would automatically reduce GHG emissions from land use. (I’ll come to the other issues later). Finally, Danny Cherry picks the GHG emissions from the FAO paper, ignoring the higher figure of 18%, so I suspect overall a figure of 25-30% dues to livestock farming is a reasonable estimate.

    I would argue that a reduction of 90% on that figure should be aimed for, so that, as Colin Tudge argues, meat is mainly used as a garnish except in those indigenous cultures where it is part of the staple diet. The trouble is, as with all the major changes that are required, this is not achievable under capitalism. That does not mean we should not aim for this, of course, but it leaves us with a conundrum: this reduction in livestock production is something that a socialist government will have to argue for and implement – as it will a massive reduction in production of all kinds of goods (and non-benficial “services”) – especially in the most developed countries, but also for the most privileged sectors of society in the less developed countries as well.

    How do you persuade people to support that? It might not be “persuading western people to change their lifestyles” in the manner that guilt-tripping reactionary greens might use now, but it presumably is “persuading people that a major change in lifestyles” is ultimately (but not that ultimately, I hope) what will have to happen?

  • There is surely a compromise case for avoiding or reducing consumption of beef and lamb, rather than chicken, pork and fish, in order to reduce methane emissions.

    • In extensive (pastused) systems with well managed ruminants, enteric methane is offset by carbon sequestration and methane oxidation via healthier soils. In regards to the methane, the soils contain methanotrophs which oxidize the atmospheric methane produces via methanogenesis by the methanogens in ruminants’ rumen. The problem with so much analysis is that it’s linear and reductive rather than complex and system oriented. When you look at the system as a whole, what’s emitted is more than offset in well manged pastured so much so that such ecosystems are sinks not emitters.

  • We should all quit tip toeing around the reality here. If we are to be honest we should be talking about the animals we exploit for food being sentient beings with minds capable of experiencing a range of emotions and feelings including pain, distress, and suffering. That’s why veganism is important. Not for being a “green” lifestyle that will “save the world”, but as a movement to challenge unnecessary exploitation and oppression of other animals and uphold other animals’ intrinsic value as subjectively aware individuals.

    I disagree with this article on many points and agree with other points, like we shouldnt present vegan consumerism as a panacea that will cure all the worlds ecological problems especially in the absence of a sustained challenge to capitalism. I also agree strongly that vegans should show much more solidarity with folks on “the front lines” (which as pointed out in the article some already do). Rather than state my disagreements I think readers should read the work of Anhang and Goodland (authors of the “51%” article published in world watch) and judge it on its own merits. Those authors are environmental specialists whereas the FAO report they were critiquing was conducted by livestock specialists who *promote livestock* and as Anhang and Goodland point out, THAT study was highly flawed.

  • Many of the criticisms of “Cowspiracy” raised in this article were addressed during the vetting of the documentary by Leonardo DiCaprio’s team prior to its Netflix release. I respectfully disagree with the specific criticism of the late Dr. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang’s environmental assessment of the impact of livestock production. There was a scientific debate about their result in the Animal Feed Science and Technology journal and here’s a summary with links to the original papers:

    Anthropogenic interference in the Earth’s carbon cycle is much more complicated than just the fossil fuel component, as evidenced in the IPCC AR5 carbon cycle block diagram (all numbers in red are anthropogenic components):

    Some of these components are by-products of human interference in the Earth’s nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle and the biodiversity cycle, but all such interference have to be remedied before we can reach sustainability. Cowspiracy has served to broaden the dialog since a narrow focus on fossil-fuels alone won’t solve the problem…