Five years after its explosive release and the stampede it generated among meatatarians and climate warriors alike, we still can’t have enough of the infamously famous documentary Cowspiracy (2014). The formidable show-up at Zero Waste Uppsala’s first screening of the new term held last Friday revealed that we are hungrier than ever for critical and environmentally contextualized knowledge about the animal products that end up on our plates – whether we want to add more plant-based meals to our weekly menus or are curious where our beefsteaks actually come from. That Friday’s audience was so satisfied with the Cowspiracy we showed illustrates how, no matter what your diet consists of, we want to call into question our food choices, especially with the environmental crises going on. Before we plunge head first into the relevance Cowspiracy has (gotten back) today, there are two controversies we need to get out of the way.
- False facts
The misrepresentation of numbers the documentary submits as evidence is generally considered Cowspiracy’s original sin – and the one for which it has been most openly and most gravely condemned. The offence? Shouting from the rooftops that animal agriculture (including methane from animals’ digestive systems, deforestation and energy use) is responsible for 51 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions while, in reality, it amounts to about 15 per cent. And while almost every critical review has foregrounded this particular exaggeration, Cowspiracy has been juggling with more numbers, like those of fisheries. This sins against the core principle of the evidence-based scientific research it alleges to be based on. What is more, it makes a laughing stock of the gravity of the actual 15 per cent of all greenhouse gasses emitted by animal agriculture, and of those actively fighting these emissions without falsifying what they are fighting.
The “all-or-nothing”-fundamentalism the vegan movement is more generally (though often wrongly) accused of has been turned into the mind-set underlying Cowspiracy. There is no middle ground, no welcoming of alternatives or intermediary steps like locally and biologically produced meat, flexitarianism, or even vegetarianism, for that matter. The only way to be an environmentalist is to go hard and go vegan or go home. This belittles every other act of environmentalism, and completely misses the point that there are a variety of ways to pursue a zero-waste lifestyle.
Furthermore, quitting meat and dairy cold-turkey is for many people just not attainable – for socio-economic reasons, for dietary reasons, for cultural reasons, or just for personal reasons. Scientific studies even differ about whether a world with a zero tolerance for animal products is the most sustainable solution after all. These findings resonated strongly with the general opinion of the audience of Friday’s screening, who are not keen on throwing the food they are served on social events in the thrash-bin if it has a speck of dairy, or turn a blind eye to meat when they are diving the dumpsters and, as a result, let it go to waste.
Yet why does Cowspiracy still matter for today’s conversation about sustainability and a zero-waste lifestyle?
Perhaps not the first one to introduce the subject, it was the first documentary to so publicly draw the tremendously important and existing line between climate change and animal agriculture and kick-start the highly polarized discussion. It not only points the finger to the corporations, industries and (environmental) organizations backing animal agriculture; it also points the finger to us and the entanglement of our food choices with our carbon footprint, especially in the weight of the meat and dairy we pack our lunchboxes and plates with.
But Cowspiracy drew that line even further, and connected the animal products in our (reusable) grocery bags with other environmental crises such as deforestation. This has literally turned into a burning question with the escalation of the 2019 human-made wildfires in the Amazon rainforest – aka “the lungs of the earth”. The wildfires are one of the most effective deforestation tactics primarily to clear the way for more cattle ranches used for the mass-production of beef and dairy. More Amazonian woodlands are chopped down or set ablaze for collecting palm oil or cultivating soy to feed livestock. Indeed, while we associate our typical soy-eater more with our dairy-substituting human herbivore than your animal herbivore (thanks Alpro Soya), Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies has shown that about 67 per cent of soy is cultivated to feed the cattle ending up on the carnivore’s plate or in the modern milkman’s carton packages. In other words, it is not without reason that Cowspiracy’s cows play the documentary’s central non-human character: they dominate the conflict of the Amazonian wildfires and, according to paleoclimatologist Maureen Raymo, they dominate the emissions of all animal agriculture as well. So, if you want to start somewhere, try to hold the beef. Or gather more knowledge on how to eat more local products in and around Uppsala in the article we published earlier this year.
A last and concluding point why the “Cowtroversy” occasioned by the 2014 documentary is not only hugely significant for our present-day environmental conversation, but also hugely telling of this conversation, is because it illustrates how radical environmental changes seem indigestible for large parts of our world. The public disagreement and even derision of Controversy painfully resembles the furious backlash Greta Thunberg is subjected to. The most discussed climate activist of today is equally radical in the zero waste lifestyle she advocates for, including a vegan diet and a zero tolerance for flying. Will her campaign go down the same way as Cowspiracy’s went down some years before? Or is it finally time to go hard instead of going home, now that home turns more instable each and every day?