Cowspiracy: Fake facts and fall-guy “truths”

July 21, 2016 by Frontline Copy

Part 1
Cowspiracy: The fake facts


Cowspiracy movie poster livestock environment
by Faith Attaguile

Before we begin, know this: I’m a vegetarian. Well, sort of. I’m a vegetarian when I’m not sure where the meat on my plate comes from or how the animal providing the meat was treated. Thus, I eat meat — but mostly only when I “know” it.

You see, I grew up on a New England dairy farm. Livestock played an essential role on our farm — for milk, fertilizer and meat. My dad named each cow. He knew their history from birth. He treated them with respect and care, as did we kids. They were dependent on us. We were dependent on them.

It’s called the cycle of farm life. When we finally took a cow for meat, it was with reverence and thanks for the sustenance the cow gave us throughout her life. I wonder: Do vegans eat their veggies with the same care and reverence, knowing where their vegetables grew, how they grew, the problems they had and the care their growers gave to them? After all, plants are also alive until eaten.

But back to the subject at hand.

I have several issues with the movie Cowspiracy, which I address in two parts. In this first part, I focus on serious flaws in the particular greenhouse gas numbers our Cowspiracists chose to use. And I point out a great irony in who the filmmakers say they are (vegans) and who they use for one of their sources (proponents of factory farms). You’ll love that one.

The story of their sources

To begin making their case against cows (really, they mean livestock), our Cowspiracy filmmakers relied on two reports for estimates of livestock GHG emissions.

It’s not that they had a limited range to choose from. They didn’t. Here are some of them:

Global emissions category
12005World Resources Institute flow chart
22005World Resources Institute flow chart
32006FAO report:
"Livestock's Long Shadow"
42007Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) report
52009Worldwatch Institute report:
"Livestock and Climate Change"
62013FAO report (update of 2006 report):
"Tracking Climate Change Through Livestock"

Note the wide range of estimates. That’s because final numbers are often the result of who’s counting, what’s being counted and which (if any) policy agenda is in play. Thus, it’s always important to look behind the numbers to see what may be lurking in the background.

Did our Cowspiracists take this step? We may never know. What we do know, however, is that from all the choices available, they chose the highest figures (Nos. 3 and 5 above).

So, let’s take a closer look at them.

Cowspiracy Livestock's long shadow
2006 FAO report: Life-cycle cowspiracies

“Which causes more greenhouse gas emissions, rearing cattle or driving cars? Surprise! According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent — 18 percent — than transport.”

FAO Newsroom Press Release, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”

Wait a minute. The livestock sector generates more GHG emissions than the transport sector? Wow. Pay dirt for our Cowspiracists. Thing is, by relying on this estimate (18%), they ignored the downward revision (14.5%) the same authors published in 2013, which put livestock GHG emissions back on a par with transport GHG emissions. Interestingly, this new estimate was available to — but ignored by — our Cowspiracists when they made their movie. Did they ignore it for not bolstering their vegan case as strongly as the earlier one?

To answer that question, I decided to dig a little deeper.

Turns out, many people had critiqued the 2006 report’s 18% estimate, prompting the authors to revise their estimate downward to 14.5% in 2013.

Why was that necessary? Well, to arrive at their earlier 18% estimate, the authors had committed a very misleading error, counting:

  • Total life-cycle factors for livestock.
  • Partial life-cycle factors for transport.

Thus, for livestock, they counted birth-through-death life-cycle factors — including emissions from land clearance (to make way for livestock),1 fertilizer production (to grow plants for food), infrastructure work and animal by-products processing, among other things.

But for transport, they counted only partial life-cycle factors, beginning at the tailpipe (when the vehicle is driven out of the dealership) and ignoring emissions from things like vehicle manufacture, point-of-sale transport, fuel excavation for vehicle operation, and infrastructure construction like roads, bridges and parking garages.

Perhaps that issue didn’t bother our Cowspiracists. However, it bothered others, who pointed out that such calculations were like trying to compare apples with oranges. At best, this comparison told an incomplete story. At worst, it told a very misleading one.

Truthfully, for anyone concerned about GHG emissions, the revised 14.5% estimate is still high. Our Cowspiracists could easily have used that figure and ducked the charge of having misled well-meaning but gullible audiences.

But there’s more to the story….

Cowspiracy poultry CAFO conditions2006 FAO Report: CAFO  cowspiracies

Our Cowspiracists not only made their case for a fundamentalist vegan world by relying on estimates in a report its own authors later admitted were flawed. They also relied upon a report whose authors — rather than making a case for the elimination of industrial farming — advocated the continuation of industrial farming.

Here’s what happened. Our Cowspiracists relied upon a report whose authors took as a given that meat consumption would increase over time. But, the authors argued, factory farmed cattle had a much greater negative impact on GHG emissions than did factory farmed poultry and pigs. So, out with the cows! In with the poultry and pigs! Either way, these factory-farmed animals would face horribly abusive conditions inside an inhumane production system.

This inconvenient fact was lost on our Cowspiracists. So, in their search for the highest figures they could find, they relied on a report authored by advocates of industrial farming.

As author, sustainable food advocate and former vegetarian Simon Fairlie comments:

“The irony is that the agenda promoted in this [2006] report is diametrically opposed to that of most greens and vegans. Its authors’ mission is not to phase out or reduce meat-eating…. Nor do they want to see an end to factory farming.”

But it gets worse. Our Cowspiracists not only relied on figures that compared apples with oranges, compiled by advocates of industrial farming. They also relied on fudged “facts.” That got them into even more trouble.

Cowspiracy deforestation livestock environment2006 FAO Report: Deforestation cowspiracies 2

Those who criticized the 18% estimate discussed above not only pointed to the unacceptability of comparing total life cycle emissions in one category with partial life cycle emissions in another. They also noted the unacceptability of including (1) deforestation emissions in the livestock emissions category, and (2) assuming Amazon deforestation is representative of worldwide deforestation.

Here are four reasons why our Cowspiracists should not have ignored this controversy.

  1. Deforestation emissions don’t belong in the livestock emissions category.

Normally, analysts include estimates of deforestation emissions in a unique category called Land Use. Why? Because land cleared for cattle or crop production is a one-off event. That is, deforestation emissions don’t recur annually, while those resulting from livestock production or crop cultivation do. Thus, adding the two together is problematic. The authors of the 2006 report ignored this pesky problem, and our Cowspiracists jumped right on their bandwagon.

  1. Livestock aren’t necessarily in the driver’s seat.

While there’s consensus that cattle are often the initial drivers of deforestation, there's little consensus over underlying motives at play. For instance, a low-maintenance way to gain title over Amazon forest lands is to let cattle on run them. However, once owners gain titles to these lands, they often remove the cattle to make way for crop production.

Of course, that doesn’t happen all the time, but it makes the issue more complex then may appear at first glance. Interestingly, the primary author of the 2006 report, Henning Steinfeld, admitted as much when he wrote in 1996:

“…[T]here is increasing evidence that livestock ranching in deforested areas is merely the most obvious symptom of a much more complex degradation process with a variety of driving forces…. A large part of the expansion of pasture land may … have had more to do with land speculation than with cattle raising per se.”

However, in their 2006 report, he and his co-authors did an about face. Rather than discussing livestock as initial drivers, they made cattle the primary drivers of deforestation — even though there was still no consensus on the issue.

Another pesky problem the report authors ignored. Our Cowspiracists jumped right on that bandwagon, too.

  1. Amazon beef aren’t “typical” livestock.

The authors took a local estimate of deforestation emissions from running “atypical” Amazon cattle and elevated it into a global estimate.

As Simon Fairlie notes (and even the 2006 FAO report authors acknowledge), on a good day the Amazon cattle industry provides “barely 1% of the world’s meat and dairy produce.”

So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume all Amazon deforestation occurs to make way for cattle ranching. Even if that were true, stopping the process today would affect only 1% of total livestock emissions. The rest of the global livestock industry (99%) would go on as before, throwing off the same amount of emissions (just not from deforestation).

In their 2006 FAO report, however, the authors base one-third (6%) of their 18% estimate on Amazon deforestation emissions. Thus, given that Amazon livestock comprise only 1% of global livestock production, if Amazon deforestation for livestock production stopped today, this 18% figure would shrivel to about 12% in one fell swoop.

As Simon Fairlie notes, this is what happens when you boost the impact of an atypical industry (Amazon livestock at 1%) into a typical industry. Nice mathematical trick, wouldn’t you say?

  1. Deforestation isn’t necessarily constant.

Contrary to the assumption in the 2006 FAO report, deforestation isn’t necessarily a constant. The report authors based their deforestation projections for 2001-2010 on data from the previous decade, which had high rates of deforestation in the Amazon. Their figures were correct for that period. However, for the period 2001-2010, instead of increasing — deforestation decreased.

Indeed, since 2005, Amazon deforestation (especially in Brazil with 65% of the Amazon forest) has been decreasing such that by 2014 it had dropped 70% from its 1996-2004 average. Take a look:

Cowspiracy Amazon deforestation

Image: from an article by Doug Boucher, “How Brazil Has Dramatically Reduced Tropical Deforestation.”

Thus, between 2004 and 2014, we had this situation: While worldwide meat consumption rose, Amazon deforestation dropped. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the situation is infinitely more complex than presented by Cowspiracy to its unsuspecting audiences.

But enough about that outdated (and I hope now debunked) 2006 report. Let’s look at the next report our Cowspiracists relied upon to make their case.

Cowspiracy Worldwatch Livestock and Climate Change2009 Worldwatch Institute Report
: Cow’s breath cowspiracies

This non-peer reviewed report has now been largely debunked. Yet it plays a front and center role in Cowspiracy.

It’s true that the report authors, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, also critiqued the 2006 FAO figure. But rather than arguing the 18% livestock emissions estimate was too high, they said it was not high enough. The real figure should be, they declared, a whopping 51%.

The main culprit responsible for this increase? Cow’s breath, or — more scientifically — respiration. (To a lesser degree, waste production and clearing forests for livestock also impacted this increase, but because Cowspiracy focused on the respiration component as the main culprit, I will, too.)

So, what’s their beef about respiration? According to Goodland and Anhang, “tens of billions” of livestock exhale a massive amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing a net increase of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

Nice try, but is that true?

Not according to the IPCC or the Kyoto Protocol, also here and here. Not even according to the authors of the Cowspiracy-beloved 2006 FAO report. Indeed, when the authors published their revised 2013 FAO report, they took special care to disassociate themselves from the cows’ breath argument of Goodland and Anhang.


Biology 101 and respiration

Cowspiracy respirationHere’s the scoop:

  • To exhale carbon, livestock must first absorb it.
  • They do that by eating their food of choice: plants.
  • When a cow eats a plant, the carbon in that plant recycles through the cow, then — through respiration — back into the atmosphere as CO2.
  • This is the same carbon from the same plant that, if left by itself, would have died, decayed, and sent that same carbon back into the atmosphere.

Bottom line? Livestock are essentially recyclers of carbon, not producers of it. Carbon goes in (cow eats plant), carbon comes out (cow exhales CO2). It’s essentially an even exchange.

When asked about their respiration idea, Goodland and Anhang acknowledged their argument came from a single, one-page opinion piece written for Physics World in 2005 by one Alan Calverd. His essay proposed only the possibility of such an effect. Goodland and Anhang changed it into a certainty. 3

Cowspiracy LivestockMaking cows the fall guys

The problem with our Cowspiracy vegan fundamentalists is they don’t finger the system. They finger a symptom.

A symptom generated by an unlimited growth economic disease on a collision course with the planet (as so aptly described by Naomi Klein). Their focus on a symptom of this disease allows them to take a mechanistic, cog-in-the-wheel view of the problem, promoting the idea that if we just replace one cog (livestock) with another (plants) — leaving the profits-over-people system in place — all will be well with the world.

Interestingly, this input-output perspective is not unlike that of proponents of the profits-first economic model. Now, I’m not saying our Cowspiracists don’t care about the environment. Clearly, they do. Nor am I arguing we should eat more meat. We should probably eat less.

However, consider how the tunnel-vision agenda of vegan fundamentalists set on building a vegan paradise — like the tunnel-vision agenda of profits-before-people capitalists set on infinite growth on a finite planet — blinds both to the realities of the natural world. Vegan fundamentalists don’t want to consider how properly managed livestock can have an important beneficial impact on the environment. Just like capitalists are closed to the idea that people should come before profits.

To promote their separate agendas, both clutch a mechanistic worldview and ignore the complex, intricately interconnected dance of all living things taking place every moment within our planet’s vibrant web of life and death. This dance — the ultimate decider — underlies balance in nature, a balance that’s not just an input=output kind of thing. Any farmer worth her salt will tell you that.

As Nicolette Hahn Niman said:

But is she right? Are livestock really an essential part of sustainable food production?

Find out in Part 2 of this review: “Cowspiracy: What's this about the fall guy?” where I reveal how the mechanistic worldview of Cowspiracy is not just clueless, but dangerous. You can read that rant here. [LINK]

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  1. In the next section, I discuss the why including land clearance emissions in the livestock category is misleading.
  2. The arguments in this section reflect those made by Simon Fairlie in his book, “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” — a must-read book for everyone.
  3. For a good shortish critique of this and other important aspects of the Goodland and Anhang report, which I can’t go into here, see “Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right.” Also, check out Simon Fairlie’s book, “Meat: A benign experience.”

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