Co-writer, co-director, co-editor, co-producer, and cameraman Kip Andersen
aka: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret
USA (90 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn cowspiracy.com/facts
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
—Martin Luther King
A curiously provocative film that may leave some scratching their head from all the statistics flying around, wondering what to make of all that, but the overall arc of trying to learn about how to live on the planet and do the least amount of damage to the environment seems like a noble cause, yet midway through the personal exploration the tone shifts dramatically. We follow along the personal odyssey of one of the filmmakers, Kip Andersen, who is front and center throughout the film, initially seen quizzically scrutinizing his computer, where he spends a lot of time, apparently, exploring various environmental websites. A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo school of business while calling San Francisco home for more than a decade, Kip was initially wowed by a screening of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006), featuring former Vice-President Al Gore doing one of his power point slide shows educating the public and raising international awareness of global warming, which certainly caught the eye of this young citizen in the making, becoming extremely conscious at a young age of his own personal role, recycling regularly, turning out lights in unused rooms, taking shorter showers in drought-stricken California and turning the faucet off while brushing his teeth, riding his bike everywhere in lieu of a car, basically conserving his water and energy consumption, dedicated in his role to help save the planet. What initially catches his eye is a UN News Centre article and press release (Livestock a major threat to environment) that indicates animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption, and pollution, responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the accumulated fossil fuel pollution from all modes of transportation combined in the world today. Since most environmental websites overwhelmingly stress the need to reduce fossil fuel transmissions from automobiles, trucks, ships, trains, and airplanes, claiming that as the leading cause of air pollution, he was initially curious that these websites made no mention whatsoever of animal agriculture. Like a roving reporter, he decides to meet with some of the environmental agency representatives, scheduling appointments with Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, or Oceana, asking pertinent questions, finding it startling that they would collectively as a group exclude the primary offender, with most talking in circles or suggesting it was all a matter of personal preference to target fossil fuels, but none were willing to engage with him on the subject of animal agricultural. Granted, there aren’t many cattle ranches in California, so livestock issues may not be a primary interest, but there is an ocean, where major polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops, causing not only water pollution and dead zones in the ocean, but the destruction of coral reefs. Surprisingly, without explanation, Greenpeace refused to meet with him altogether, sending him regrettable emails but thanking him for his interest. What this film has going for it is the relentless curiosity of Kip, seen as a good-natured and honest narrator, often humorous, whose educational quest for the truth seems admirable, prompting viewers to ask the same kinds of questions, hoping to get underneath the hidden veil of like-minded language that surrounds climate change, where the public assumes these organizations have their best interests in mind, yet their own sustainability in a crowded field may actually be their primary concern. To his credit, Kip opens the door to a diverse group of industry experts voicing their concerns, ranging from published authors, professors, climate activists, corporate executives, ranchers, doctors, and nutritionists, allowing viewers to make up their own minds.
Asking various friends and journalists about this particular dilemma, most concede activist organizations don’t wish to offend their donors, as their existence is entirely dependent upon voluntary contributions, so they don’t wish to antagonize the large population of “meat eaters.” But clearly, there is more to it than that, as the stonewalling of the truth is not what these organizations stand for, and Andersen’s friendly persistence in getting to the bottom of it is utterly fascinating, offering a different side of these normally environmentally friendly agencies. What stands out in particular are the invaluable contributions of two men, Will Anderson, Greenpeace Alaska Founder and former Board of Directors, particularly incensed by the vast influence of the animal agriculture industry, where there are 50,000 wild horses in government holding pens, rounded up and taken off their land because ranchers want to graze their cattle on that land, also resulting in the wanton killing of wolves and other wild animals to protect rancher’s livestock, and Howard Lymon, a former Montana cattle rancher, now an animal rights activist known for promoting vegan nutrition (consuming no animal products at all) and organic farming, both disgruntled by the limitations of their respective industries, neither one hesitant in confronting the dominant issue of the agriculture industry, where livestock production is the leading cause of human-induced climate change, accounting for 30% of the world’s water consumption, occupying 45% of the Earth’s land, while responsible for 91% of the Brazilian Amazon destruction. Rain forests, according to the film, might be described as the earth’s lungs, converting healthy, breathable air into the atmosphere, yet rain forest land is being cleared at the rate of one to two acres per second (the size of a football field) in order to make way for grazing land for livestock animals, where over one hundred plant, animal, and insect species are lost everyday due to this rampant destruction. In the United States, agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of the nation’s water consumption, where growing feed for livestock consumes 56% of the water. Using graphs and relevant statistics onscreen, Andersen makes quick work in convincing viewers that animal agriculture is the leading cause of environmental destruction, where it takes 660 gallons of water to produce a single McDonald’s Quarter Pounder hamburger, the equivalence of two month’s worth of showers. But this doesn’t explain why all these environmental websites exclude the most damaging facts. Lyman is an erudite ex-rancher who became famous by spilling the beans on the beef industry on the Oprah Winfrey show, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the next two years defending himself from lawsuits. Lyman also added that while everything he revealed on television was true, if the same thing were said today he would be convicted by the Patriot Act as being guilty of defaming the Agriculture Industry, deemed an essential ingredient in the War on Terror by the American government, placing a target on their backs for the topics being discussed. Leila Salazar Lopez, director of Amazon Watch, offers even more chilling testimony, revealing that outspoken defenders of the Brazilian rain forests have been murdered by the cattle industry, some 1100 activists in the last 20 years, including Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005, an American nun who became an ardent defender of the poor and the indigenous. All this paranoia started swirling around Kip’s investigation, made even more startling when major sponsors started pulling their funding from his movie, leaving him feeling particularly exposed and vulnerable to potential lawsuits, unsure whether or not he wanted to continue.
The film’s final thrust veers away from investigative reporting, turning instead into personal responsibility, where he questions whether there is such a thing as sustainable farming, visiting the owners of the Markegard Family Grass-Fed farm, a nearby ranch known for raising cows, pigs and sheep on an open prairie, with no pesticides or chemical fertilizer and no injected synthetic hormones, interacting with their kids who obviously adore the animals, knowing that within a few months they will be slaughtered for meat consumption. Despite the care taken to provide the best quality meat product, continually moving animals to new grazing land, the amount of land required is substantially more than normal farm operations, so while it may be sustainable in a smaller market, the model would not hold up if you were trying to feed the world, as there’s simply not enough land on the planet. Spokespersons for both the cattle and dairy industries agree that their industries are not sustainable using a worldwide model, but their business models target a smaller consumer base. And therein lies the real crux of the matter, whether or not it is advantageous to internationalize what are presumably local businesses, often feeding local markets, as most never originated their operations with a global market in mind. How does one compare advantages and disadvantages if your “only” criteria is global sustainability? Most businesses simply don’t operate under that criteria, where producing sustainable fish or meat within their own market outreach seems like a laudable goal. Andersen’s insistence on global impact kind of changes the game for most people, but he’s all in when it comes to personal responsibilities. Visiting urban farms, which offer surprising growth results from small plots of land, perhaps the most convincing diagram used is the football field model, where the smallest land usage required would be vegan consumers, where the land required to feed one person for one year is 1/6th of an acre, three times more for a vegetarian, and 18 times more for meat consumers that obviously require the lion’s share of land usage. Another visit to a backyard farm becomes a hellacious experience, as viewers must watch a farmer take an axe to a duck, describing how he initially witnessed this at age 5, leaving him somewhat queasy, but now it’s simply part of any ordinary day. The same could not be said for Kip, who found the footage objectionable, personally, yet showed it nonetheless. Even more gruesome is footage of the senseless slaughter of 40,000 African elephants, an action recommended in the 1950’s by Zimbabwe ecologist Allan Savory, at the time a research officer for the game department, believing too many animals led to overgrazing of their grassland habitat, a misguided decision that was later proven wrong, but only after 14 years of relentless slaughter, a decision Savory now regrets, calling it “the saddest and greatest blunder of my life.” Savory, by the way, did a complete turnabout and resurrected his career, learning from his earlier mistakes, something the filmmaker omits. Yet it is these horrific images that finally persuaded Kip to take action, convinced there is an ethical and moral obligation to eliminate this practice of slaughtering animals. Accordingly, he makes the transition to becoming a vegan, initially suspicious about leading a healthy lifestyle, but once he arms himself with the facts, the film makes the only recommendation it can possibly make, urging viewers that this leaves the tiniest carbon footprint and is the best possible means of saving the planet, the only option that leads to a sustainable global option, with no lingering regrets about the cruelty of having to kill another species. 75% of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, yet less than 3% are vegan, with suggestions that each day a person on a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, the equivalence of 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, and one animal’s life. What the film doesn’t address is the cost of converting to a vegan lifestyle, as it’s an expensive option not readily available in some parts of the world, particularly indigenous or tribal cultures, impoverished third world regions, areas of extreme drought, and polar regions. While the film is perfectly enjoyable and extremely informative, Kip is an immensely appealing subject, kind of like a grownup version of the human host on the children’s television show Blue’s Clues (1996 – 2006), with no one disputing the vegan option would have a substantial global impact, and some may find this film life-altering, yet it’s also fairly obvious that despite the clear and insistent message, 7 billion people around the globe are not going to suddenly become vegans, but it’s a convincing mandate for those that do.