Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows

cowspiracy-bigCowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Produced by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. A.U.M. Films and First Spark Media, 2014. 91 minutes.  $19.95/DVD; $9.95/download.

Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment

By Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes. W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. 392 pages. $27.95/hardcover; $26.23/eBook.

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The makers of the documentary Cowspiracy present this intriguing question: why do the most prominent environmental groups fail to mention one of our best opportunities to reverse global destruction? This movie shows, in an engaging way, that animal agriculture and fishing—and by extension, our diet of animal products—add up to a critically important source of greenhouse gas emissions, habitat loss, resource waste, and pollution. Starting with an exploration of cow raising, the filmmakers branch out to fishing and to livestock in general, revealing one devastating consequence after another. The standard American diet requires many times as much land, fossil fuels, and water as a vegan diet. A huge proportion of the sea animals that are killed in fish nets are tossed back because they are unwanted by humans. The vast majority of deforested land in the Amazon is used for grazing or for raising soybeans to feed livestock. Many more eye-opening figures can be found on the Cowspiracy website (cowspiracy.com).

CowedThe documentarians are not overly particular about the statistics they quote, going more for effect than for precision. By contrast, the authors of the book Cowed present their exhaustive research into the cow industry impartially and with great compassion and admiration for those small farmers who work so hard to raise cows in a more responsible manner.

Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, and his partner Gail Boyer Hayes lay out the surprisingly fascinating history of how corn subsidies and the externalization of other costs have made it profitable to confine cows in massive factories, much to the detriment of the environment and human health, not to mention to the well-being of the cow. The treatment of both dairy and beef cows in those settings is abusive in the extreme, and bacterial contamination, antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones are passed on to the consumer.

The authors also show how organic farming techniques and technological fixes such as converting manure into electricity can mitigate some, but by no means all, of the costs of eating meat and dairy. Although they briefly mention the unspeakable sufferings of animals in factory farms, they do not address the ethics of condemning the current 93 million bovine Americans to an unnecessary early death.

Whether the information is presented as interesting research or as compelling entertainment, the readers or viewers can see that the numbers just do not add up to a sustainable future for humans as omnivores. The movie asks: if against all odds we could make meat-eating and fish-eating “sustainable”—though at the cost of using all available land and eliminating the majority of other life forms from the earth—would we consider it a job well done? Or would we prefer a planet where all members of the living world can thrive, because humans have turned to a plant-based diet? We each face that choice, three times a day, one bite at a time.

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