7 min read

The Navel-Gazing Green Reforms That Make Us Feel Good But Do Nothing

The documentary Cowspiracy is enjoying a steady stream of well-deserved praise. Its core message -that leading environmental organizations ignore the detrimental impact of animal agriculture - is absolutely essential to exposing the hypocrisy within organizations whose financial foundation depends on membership donations. In highlighting this irresponsible gap in the mainstream environmental message, Cowspiracy brings to the fore a disturbing but unavoidable question: are we pursuing navel-gazing environmental reforms that only make us feel like we're saving a dying planet?

Given that animal agriculture (in every form) emits at least 14 percent of the world's greenhouse gasses (including 62 percent of nitrous oxide emissions), that livestock are the world's largest users of land resources, that a pound of beef requires nearly 2,000 gallons of water, and that there are 70 billion farm animals on the planet, it's nothing short of a bad joke that the advocacy of a diet devoid of domesticated animals is not an integral element of any environmental organization's defining platform. But it's not, and Cowspiracy makes this point and drives it home with powerful assurance. As a critic of animal agriculture, I'm proud to have that film on my side.

In fact, I think it should become a model. Indeed, what the directors, Keegan Kuhn and Kip Anderson, have done to expose the underlying hypocrisy of environmental organizations needs to be done with the "sustainable" food movement's effort to reform agriculture. Much like leading environmental organizations, the leaders of the food movement deliver big manifestos illuminating pervasive problems, but they do so while ignoring the dominant cause of our agricultural predicament: animals. The entire project of reforming the global food system, insofar as it continues to support eating farmed animals, is marked by denial and cowardice. It's a shame, really.

Instead of putting reality behind its rhetoric, the movement promotes the fiction that we can reform agriculture, and the food system, while continuing to perpetuate animal agriculture. The only difference, as they present it, is that animals need to be raised on pasture, outdoors, and without antibiotics and growth hormones. There's no doubt that, in many ways, such a transition is better for animals and the humans who consume them. But to think that this change would in any way contribute to real ecological or ethical improvement is to indulge in a kind of fantastical thinking, the kind that evades pragmatic and achievable action - eliminating animals from agriculture - in exchange for an ersatz sense of ecological responsibility, one that seems to be most enthusiastically embraced by, um, ranchers.

It is often said that raising animals (especially cattle) on pasture can improve the land and increase the sequestration of carbon. This has been shown to happen on a small scale. But it's extremely rare. There are several caveats to consider when thinking about scaling up.

The first is that a rarified and almost mystical form of knowledge is required to make rotational grazing work as advertised; even Joel Salatin, the guru, can't do it without importing commercial feed into his venture. The second is that animals on pasture aren't allowed to live their lives to natural completion. Instead, they're "harvested" about a fifth of the way through the deal, denying the land the benefits of their hoof action and manure production while requiring resource-intensive slaughter and breeding programs to keep the happy farm in play. Third, these animals are animals; they continue to require water and feed (grass is typically supplemented with alfalfa), and they generate more greenhouse gasses (per pound of beef) than their confined counterparts. Dozens of studies confirm these realities, as well as the fact that pasture-raised animals are not necessarily healthier for humans to consume.

How can a transition to this form of animal agriculture ever be considered a viable strategy of reform? I'd love to see a documentary explore that question, stressing the fact that pasture-based animal agriculture would continue to consume excessive resources, generate excessive greenhouse gasses, and deny us an agricultural future based on a realistic paradise: growing a wide diversity of plants for people to eat. How nuts is that?