cow with tagged ears
dairy cow

The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy illuminates the connection between the global climate crisis and modern farming techniques. The hour and a half film follows an environmentalist, Kip Anderson, on his search for answers regarding the most pressing environmental issues. His research leads him to stumble upon a scientific consensus: the use of animals in agriculture is among the leading factors that influence environmental degradation, including ocean dead zones, rapid species extinctions, habitat loss, Amazon rainforest destruction, water overconsumption and land misuse.

However, Anderson grows frustrated as he discovers that some environmental organizations and other conservationists (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana) refuse to be truthful about the role of animal agriculture in climate change.

Animal agriculture, like any other form of farming requires generous amounts of land, water and chemical additives to produce human consumable foods. However, Cowspiracy depicts agriculture as the most resource intensive form of farming, and argues that it uses up more land space and freshwater than its worth. If true, this would suggest that animal agriculture contributes to deforestation more than other forms of farming. When forests are cut down and burned, much of the carbon stored in trees and plants is released back into the atmosphere again as carbon dioxide (CO2).

Raising livestock for human consumption also results in greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock ruminants like cows decompose and ferment plant foods and produce methane, a prominent greenhouse gas, as a by-product.

Sierra Club

Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club describes the present rate of greenhouse gas proliferation as exceeding levels ever before seen or estimated. This is hardly news. However, during his terse interview, Bruce Hamilton declared that other sources of methane and carbon dioxide should be prioritized above agriculture farming. Is Hamilton suggesting that some other economic sector has greater overall emissions than agriculture does? Doe he know agriculture’s impact estimates should include transport and energy generation? The Sierra Club is an organization that partly focuses promoting sustainable energy and limiting global warming. As the Deputy Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Bruce Hamilton should know.

Natural Resources Defense Counsil

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Ann Notthoff says that energy production and transportation are the major sources of environmental degradation. The woman then laughs when pressed about livestock’s contribution. She jokingly says, “that’s cow farts… I think that’s what that is”.


Dr. Chad Nelson of Surfrider notes that heavy metals from automated vehicles and herbicides and pesticides as sources of ocean pollution. When Kip Anderson questions Dr. Nelson about the influence of animal agriculture on oceanic pollution, Nelson simply remarks that California’s research teams do not see much evidence of it. A pattern is made apparent for the Cowspiracy audience. Environmental organizations do not wish to point the finger directly at factory farming.

The Cost of Speaking Up

Cowspiracy references the tragic assassination of Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun who was murdered in 2005 for her activism against cattle ranching. According to the film, more than 1,100 environmental campaigners were killed over a 20 year period in Brazil for animal activism. Journalist Will Potter, who was featured briefly in the film, believes that environmentalists are treated as terrorists by the FBI.

Activism comes at a cost. In some cases, the cost is lost revenue or a reputation blow. The fact is, agriculture corporations are powerfully influential due to the amount of profit that they reap and the jobs that they supply, meaning that they sometimes have enough influence to silence their critics. Speaking up could result in funding loss, loss of business, alienation or worse.

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