Cowspiracy: A Documentary the Unsustainable Nature of Animal Agriculture and Much More


I have a few questions for your consideration. After posing these questions, I’ll outline what the evidence suggests about each question. I’ll follow that with a discussion of what it all means for those who want to enjoy quality lifestyles guided by reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty.

Here are the questions:

  • What do you think is the most destructive industry in America and elsewhere in the world today? Hint: It’s not the tobacco industry. It’s not the oil and gas industry, either.
  • Why are the world’s leading environmental organizations unwilling to talk about the problems that the most destructive industry causes that degrades the environment and threatens the health of every living creature on the planet? Hint: It has to do with donations.
  • What is the leading cause of deforestation?
  • What is the leading cause of water pollution – and guzzler of water?
  • What industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry?
  • What industry more than any other drives rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean dead zones, and virtually every other environmental ill?

One more question – then I’ll provide answers and a discussion. This is the most important question: Why is it that one industry, the one featured in what I believe is the correct response to every one of the above questions, almost entirely unchallenged by almost every environmental organization?

Introducing Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn have produced a 91 minute film called Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. It features a variety of notables; the cast includes Michael Pollan, Richard Oppenlander, Will Tuttle, Howard Lyman and Will Potter. Other experts involved include Michael Besancon, Michael Klaper, David Robinson Simon and Kirk R. Smith.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is playing in theaters across the country. I watched it on Netflix. It makes a convincing case that Animal Agriculture is by far the most destructive industry to ever operate on Earth. Nothing else comes close. The data presented throughout the film fully supports this sweeping judgment. In addition to the horror that the products of this industry inflicts on humans and animals and damage to air quality, to ocean resources and to the sustainability of the environment, an equally amazing reality supported throughout the film is the sellout of the world’s environmental organizations to this industry. Representatives of such organizations are silent on the role of Animal Agriculture – that is, the dairy, cattle, pork and other animal protein factory farming operations. This industry seems to have bought not only our politicians but the leadership of the very agencies we rely upon to safeguard the natural world.

This film should alert the public to the mistreatment of humans and the environment in a way that the film Blackfish served to alert patrons of Sea World about the treatment of killer whales.

Despite the ghastly revelations, this documentary is fascinating to watch from beginning to end, and contains many moments that are unexpectedly humorous. It is not unlike Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, in fact, Kip Anderson credits that show as inspiration for his environmental awakening.

The Facts

So, what exactly is the impact of Animal Agriculture on the planet’s ecosystems and environments that make it such a disaster for one and all? Much of the information, but not all, comes from a United Nations News Centre report entitled, Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options. The producers of Cowspiracy have set up a website, with regular updates, providing references, notes, sources and the statistics used in the film.

A partial summary of the problems associated with Animal Agriculture includes the following.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation. Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide and which remains in the atmosphere for 150 years. Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day.

WATER: Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) water use ranges from 70-140 billion gallons annually; animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually. Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US. The amount of water used to produce 1lb. of beef varies greatly from 442 – 8000 gallons. The filmmakers used the widely-cited conservative number of 2500 gallons per pound of US beef. Five percent of water consumed in the US is by private homes; 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture. Animal Agriculture is responsible for 20%-33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today – 1/5 of global water consumption.

LAND: Livestock or livestock feed occupies 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution and habitat destruction. In addition to the monumental habitat destruction caused by clearing forests and converting land to grow feed crops and for animal grazing, predators and competition species are frequently targeted and hunted because of a perceived threat to livestock profits. The indiscriminate use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers used in the production of feed crops often interferes with the reproductive systems of animals and poison waterways. The over – exploitation of wild species through commercial fishing, bushmeat trade as well as animal agriculture’s impact on climate change, all contribute to global depletion of species and resources. Nearly half of the contiguous US is devoted to animal agriculture. The US lower 48 states represent 1.9 billion acres. Of that 1.9 billion acres: 778 million acres of private land are used for livestock grazing (forest grazing, pasture grazing, and crop grazing), 345 million acres for feed crops, 230 million acres of public land are used for grazing livestock.

WASTE: Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the US. This doesn’t include the animals raised outside of USDA jurisdiction or in backyards, or the billions of fish raised in aquaculture settings. Also in America, 335 million tons of dry matter is produced annually by livestock. A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. In this country, 130 times more animal waste than human waste is produced – 1.4 billion tons, from the meat industry annually. (Five tons of animal waste are produced per person.)

In the U.S. alone livestock produce 116,000 lbs of waste per second. The count per animal type is as follows:

* Dairy Cows – 120lbs of waste per day x 9 million cows.

* Cattle – 63lbs of waste per day, x 90 million cattle.

* Pigs – 14lbs. of waste per day, x 67 million pigs.

* Sheep/Goats – 5lbs of waste per day, x 9 million sheep/goats.

* Poultry – .25-1lbs of waste per day, x 9 billion birds.

OCEANS: 3/4 of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted; fish-less oceans are likely by 2048. At present, 90-100 million tons of fish are pulled from our oceans each year – an unsustainable rate. This amounts to 2.7 trillion animals pulled from oceans each year. For every 1 pound of fish caught, up to 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill. As many as 40% (63 billion pounds) of fish caught globally every year are discarded. Scientists estimate as many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels.

RAINFOREST: Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction. One to two acres of rainforest are cleared every second. The leading causes of rainforest destruction are livestock and feedcrops.

WILDLIFE: Ten thousand years ago, 99% of biomass (i.e. zoomass) was wild animals. Today, humans and the animals that we raise as food make up 98% of the zoomass.

HUMANITY: World population in 1812 was 1 billion; in 1912, it was 1.5 billion; and in 2012, it was 7 billion. Seventy billion farmed animals are reared annually worldwide; 6 million are killed for food every hour. Humans drink 5.2 billion gallons of water and eat 21 billion pounds of food each day. Worldwide, cows drink 45 billion gallons of water and eat 135 billion pounds of food each day. Worldwide, 82% of starving children live where food is fed to animals and the animals are shipped to and eaten in western countries.

MISC: Dairy consumption may leads to breast lumps and may give guys man-boobs.

The land required to feed one person for 1 year on a vegan diet is 1/6th of an acre. The comparable figures for vegetarians and meat eaters is 3x and 18x, respectively. Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent and one animal’s life.

What to Make Of It All?

For starters, the future as we think of living on the Earth today does not lie ahead. It will be different. Quite so. It seems unimaginable that Animal Agriculture will continue as it is – the resources on the planet will not sustain it and we won’t be able to live very well with the deterioration of the environment and the earth’s resources. Things will have to change. How fast will changes come and what will bring changes most rapidly? Nobody knows. However, individual changes by those, like ourselves, who are favorably situated, can be immediate or at least pretty soon, for varied motives.

The film clearly favors a transition to vegan diets, which seems simplistic and unlikely, as well as the only way out of disaster. Most living today, at least under prosperous western standards, are unlikely to make the switch. Of course, they will be gone soon enough – in a few generations in any event.

Everyone with the slightest interest in a healthy lifestyle should watch this film. Besides the major topic of how Animal Agriculture is ruining everything, almost as much as religions have been doing throughout human history, Cowspiracy exposes the complicity of environmental organizations that are ignoring the impact of animal agriculture. This alone makes the film a must see.

Be well and look on the bright side. And maybe, just maybe, think twice next time you pick up a menu or wander the aisles of a supermarket.

What If Great Minds Fled the City?

Just over six years ago, my younger brother Cory wrote me a touching email. After hardly having seen nor heard from him for several years, I was surprised to find in my inbox a lengthy, thoughtful update on his life. (We had not been on the most cordial of speaking terms prior to that due to conflicts related to his drug addiction.) In his message, he spoke about his recent move from the mountains of rural Appalachia to Austin, Texas. In Austin he had finally found a community that was instrumental in his addiction recovery. By volunteering at local public charities, faithfully attending a dance community and altering his work ethic to be less hurried and more deliberate, he was able to see the importance of “the greater good” over the importance of the “temporal indulgence” of his addiction.

In spite of his general contentment, however, he expressed to me some regret over finding his niche in such a large city.

As he wrote:

“The only down side to [Austin] whatsoever is that its population is largely made up of young intelligent individuals that all came from somewhere that likely needs them. The “brain drain” effect to the max. There are so many amazing people here reciprocating energy off each other, I can’t help but think about all the small towns that are missing that source of personality and income… “

I read these words from the computer lab at my medical school in the largest city in the US, New York City. I was taking a study break from neuropathology. As a second-year medical student, I was spending twelve to fourteen hours at the medical school building on East 69th street. What little remained of my waking hours was spent walking to and from my apartment on East 77th street. Looking out the window at the busy intersection of East 69th street and York-one filled with fast-walking pedestrians to and from the buildings in the New York Presbyterian and Memorial Sloan Kettering medical centers-I wondered how our society would look if all the well-paying jobs in the economy were in rural areas.

Imagining this hypothetical scenario, I began a thought experiment that I still repeat from time to time to this day.

What if the economic growth over the past 200 years went in the direction not of urbanization but of ruralization?

In the 1800′s, well over 90% of the US population lived in rural areas. In 1900, that number had dropped to 70%. Today, a paltry 19% of the US lives in a rural area. What if the statistics were reversed? What if 20% of the US lived in cities while 80% lived in the country?

Now, before I advance to far into this status-quo questioning line of thought, I want to declare first and foremost that I don’t hate, or even lament, the existence of cities. I’ve lived in New York City, Boston, London, Madrid, and Houston, and I’ve found a special fondness for every one of them. I loved being able to get up and walk down the street to national conferences while living in New York City and in Boston. In Madrid, I adored the Cercanías train that could get me from Madrid’s Barajas airport to my wife’s apartment near ‘Nuevos Minesterios’ metro stop within half an hour, allowing me to commute every week from my doorstep near Brussels to her doorstep in Madrid within a few hours. I love the cultural, social and economic riches that cities have to offer.
Back to the thought experiment.

If we imagine the rural/urban ratio of present day urban society being not 20% rural: 80% urban but rather 80% rural: 20% urban, the current-day countries that would fit the bill would be ones like Swaziland, Malawi, or South Sudan-countries which have not enjoyed even close to the amount of economic growth as Western countries have over the past two centuries. The accompanying growth of economic standards of living alongside urbanization could imply on the one hand that urbanization leads to economic growth. So has been the argument-urbanization leads to efficiency, economies of scale, economic growth, etc. This trend could also imply that the urbanization and economic growth are simply correlative trends and that one does not necessarily lead to the other.

If we could put historical blinders on-which I know is not entirely possible-would it be possible just for a moment to envision a society with the economic standard of, say, Switzerland (GDP per capita $84,000/year) while still maintaining a rural: urban ratio of 80% rural to 20% urban?
Many would say ‘absolutely not,’ but if we think for a second about essential economic services that are associated with urbanization could just as well be supplied in a rural-based economy.

Take food production to start. The vast majority of Americans’ food supply could theoretically be supplied by home gardening. Many homesteads have been able to supply their entire year’s supply of food with just a half-acre lot on which to grow vegetables and raise livestock. When specialized foods are needed, many can be acquired locally or even bartered for. And when families suffer from poor harvest, famine or pests, those with abundance could support those with less harvest through community pantries-on a local level-or inter-region food-sharing agreements on a larger scale.

Electricity, as well, could theoretically be supplied to a large population in a rural-based economy. Solar panels (especially with advances in production), hydroelectric energy, wind energy and simple conservation-from not keeping large urban office buildings running-could supply much of people’s needed electricity. And when fossil fuels are needed, there is nothing preventing power plants from supplying people’s power in rural areas.

As well, transportation can be made nearly as accessible in urban areas as it can be in rural settings. Cars of course have been the ‘staple’ of rural families in this country, but that doesn’t have to be so. If more people paid for trains to go to rural areas (as in France and much of the rest of Western Europe), a flourishing, extensive train network could transport people between rural cities for much less energy than cars could. As well, even air travel could be made extremely accessible to rural areas by either self-piloting or cooperative ownership of planes, where groups of families share ownership of planes. Many Alaskans manage to live hundreds of miles from the nearest city by flying their own planes.

Finally, quality healthcare could, I would argue, be delivered in a rural-based economy. Country doctors (general practitioners) could supply the lion’s share of medical care, and when more specialized care is necessary, much of it could be handled through e-consults online (as is increasingly the case in rural settings). Many lab tests can be performed on a patient thousands of miles away, and imaging could be read by read by a radiologist from virtually anywhere. Though as much as 80% of people’s medical needs could be met in a primary care setting, certainly there are cases where a person needs a surgery from a far-off surgeon or a drug infusion from a special cancer center. But-with a robust train system, flying cooperative or personal aircraft-a patient could just as well travel a thousand miles in a day. And for the emergent procedures, there are ways to adapt to rural settings (e.g. ambulances with CT scanners and clot-busting agents for strokes).

I will stop my thought experiment here. I have said nothing of entertainment, sports, or education in a rural-based economy, though I think that they can all be made accessible to most people in the scenario I’ve just described. That will be for another post.

My point is not to make a Luddite case against modern technology-which I very much appreciate-but to raise the question of whether the state of urbanization that we’ve reached in the West needs to be the status quo.


After reading my brother’s message, I took an extended break from my studies to compose a reply. I thanked him for writing and encouraged him to continue in his community service endeavors that helped him “climb one rock higher” over his addiction. I also proposed that he and I take a trip together, to reconnect after years of disconnect wrought by addiction. He replied quickly, saying that “he wouldn’t miss” the opportunity to spend much-needed time together. He unfortunately suffered a bike accident after that, after which he relapsed and ended up in prison. Several years later, though, we were finally able to make that trip together. After over a decade of estrangement, we walked the Primitive Way of Saint James, reconnecting in the mountains of Asturias-hours away form any city.