I’ve spent the past 20 years studying filmmaking and the language of cinema, so when I see it done badly it tends to produce feelings—of a kind—the filmmaker didn’t intend. So I will spare you my feelings of Cowspiracy in this regard and try instead to focus on the content itself. Content is the most important ingredient in any movie and should have been more carefully groomed in this one.
Was this a documentary about global warming? Or ocean life extinctions? Deforestation, environmental damage, or drought? Was it about evil corporate agribusiness? The meager and misplaced foibles of sustainable animal husbandry? Or was it about veganism? Every ten minutes I wanted the filmmakers to make some kind of point. Turns out they only had one point to make so they saved if for last: Cowspiracy attempts to persuade people that veganism is the only reasonable answer to annihilation by bludgeoning the audience with ad nauseum ill-informed outrage activist appeals to emotion.
First let’s talk about the movie’s title, the “conspiracy of cows.” I’m pretty sure the filmmaker intended to mean that it was the cattle industry that was conspiring and not so much the cattle, but we’ll let that slide. I lost count of how many times the filmmaker finds it “odd” that the people he drops in on, unannounced, to talk about global warming wouldn’t be prepared to talk about the cattle industry—a whole other topic. Ignorance, especially your own, is not evidence of a conspiracy. A conspiracy is something that happens in secret. Nothing about the cattle industry is secret, most certainly not any of the filmmaker’s “revelations.” How do you keep something secret that you can literally smell for miles before you actually see it? Just because the filmmaker was ignorant of the practices up until five minutes before he decided to make a documentary does not mean that there was a conspiracy—massive or otherwise—in order to produce his ignorance. Sorry buddy, but that’s all on you. This information has been in the public domain for decades.
If you do a google search for “list of fallacies” you’ll find the shooting script for Cowspiracy on Wikipedia. Let’s start with “slippery slope.” The filmmaker starts with how he became an environmentalist after watching An Inconvenient Truth which predicted in dates now past that we’d all be swimming in the ocean due to the burning of fossil fuels. When that didn’t happen, and it turns out that fossil fuels aren’t as big a contributor as passionately argued, he moves on to “special pleading” to change the culprit from oil to animal husbandry, despite the fact that animal farming is tens of thousands of years old and would have been contributing more towards global warming all this time than Al Gore’s original argument for fossil fuels. And still the dire predictions are yet to be seen.
The filmmaker then uses a hodge-podge of fallacies to ignore any counter argument to his own: strawman, false cause, black-or-white, composition/division, tu quoque, etc. My favorite is when the Sierra Club suggests that eating fish is a great way to protect fish from extinction and the filmmaker objects, “That’s like saying you can protect panda bears from extinction by eating panda bears.” Ok, so two things right here: 1) We don’t eat panda bears and they are going extinct; 2) I wonder if there’s an example of animals that we do eat that are proliferating. Hmm… Let me think. How about: cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits and yes even fish. Needless to say it kind of proves the point.
The filmmaker even manages to combine two separate fallacies into one, the anecdotal and the appeal to authority fallacies, where he includes Susan Hartland from Sea Shepherd saying that we are headed towards fish-less oceans and, “this is coming from The Scientists.” Which scientists? We will never know because the filmmaker never bothers to back this up. Are these the same scientists that predicted Florida and New York City would be under the ocean by now? The ninety minutes of this documentary are one gigantic fallacy—an appeal to emotion—wrapped around so many other fallacies it is impractical to cover them all here.
By now you’re probably thinking that 1) I’m a climate denier, 2) I eat steak at every meal, and 3) I hate veganism. The truth is I am none of those things. The Earth is warming up. This is undeniable. However, this is the only part of global warming where there is scientific consensus.* My personal position—not being a climate scientist—is to be skeptical about the claims of what is going to happen due to global warming (a discipline separate from taking the Earth’s temperature, btw); to wait and see what other scientists find on that matter; and to allow for more information to come from the scientific community before I start believing in somebody’s agenda. Being reserved about jumping to conclusions (the bandwagon fallacy) has made me more correct on the issue than has been Al Gore, for instance, and is usually enough to land me on the finger-pointing end of outrage activists because I refuse to preach the gospel. I do refuse to preach what I don’t think is fully formed, and I’m fine with people being outraged because of that. They can be the first to be foolish if they want.
I hardly ever eat meat. I never drink milk and I don’t eat cereal, I do enjoy milk-based products from time to time (cheeses, yogurts, butter, whey). I eat a lot of eggs. I eat meat about once a week, if that much, usually chicken, sometimes pork. I’m not a huge fan of beef, honestly, I think pork tastes better. I’ll usually reserve meats for when I cook at home. I don’t eat a lot of grains because Americans eat more grain than is healthy, the same reason it isn’t healthy for cows. A little bit is fine, but as the foundation for every meal? Please.
Where I absolutely avoid meats, as well as any kind of food, is processed and fast foods. This is the culprit—not agricultural industry. As long as there is McDonalds there’s going to be a massive cattle industry and subsidized agriculture. And I agree that Americans should be eating less of it. If the American diet were comprised of 70% fruits and veggies, 20% meats and dairy and 10% grains we would be a healthier population, and the environment would be much more stable.
Lastly, I don’t hate veganism. I just hate Cowspiracy. If you want to watch a documentary that actually makes a decent case for veganism, watch Forks Over Knives. Those filmmakers know how to make a movie, and it gets right to the crux of the issue that fits with most people: the health benefits of a vegan diet. Forks Over Knives is probably the best argument for veganism I’ve ever heard, but unfortunately even that falls short.
I disagree with the philosophy of veganism, but not with the moral practice of boycotting industrial agriculture. Everyone gets to have their own values, and it’s not my place to tell you what to believe or how to feel. If you don’t want to support industrial animal husbandry on the principle of it, that’s fine. And whatever your reason for not supporting sustainable and humane animal husbandry is your business. My objection is to the claim that pure veganism is the most balanced and humane way to live one’s life. It completely ignores the relationship that has been cultivated for thousands of years between humans and animals on the farm. Like it or not, animals are great for farms and safeguarding the health of the land they live on. They provide the best fertilizer and allow for maximized organic output, just take a look at Polyface farms. Even Michael Pollan says this in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Veganism isn’t the most balanced way to live, not by a long shot. Vitamin B12 is essential to life—you will die without it—and it comes most readily from animal products. Without B12 you cannot produce new blood cells, or virtually any cells in your body. Do a search for “vitamin B12 vegan” and you will see that the “vegan source for B12 comes from fortified foods.” Well, where do you think those B12 fortifications are coming from? Animals. While there are non-animal sources of B12, the largest concentration is found in yeast extract. 100 grams of the stuff provides a whopping 8% of your daily value.
Yeast extract—also known as Vegemite to Australians, and BLEGH to Americans—those of us who love it (yup, that would be me) use it sparingly, never enough to make up for animal sources of B12. You would need to consume 2.75 pounds of the stuff every day, and at that point you would have a sodium problem. Most vegans eat B12 fortified foods to get what they need, or take a vitamin supplement to ensure they’re getting the essentials. Making the vitamin pill shaped, or hiding it in your grains only suspends disbelief in the 100% non-animal fairytale.
Balanced living means you survive on the foods you eat without requiring extra processing. In the wild we would hunt and gather. If you have to take a pill every day to stay alive, that isn’t balanced living—that is life support. Until the day Vegans find the magical Vitamin B12 shrub it is highly impractical to live authentically off a 100% vegan diet. There certainly won’t be enough B12 produced to keep everyone in the world alive if we all went vegan and stopped killing animals or consuming their milk and eggs. I certainly don’t want to eat 3 pounds of yeast extract every day. Do you?
*After listening to Professor Ivar Giaever’s take on this issue, I’m not so certain about the global warming consensus. But I’m not a scientist, he is. So perhaps it would be fair to listen to his 30 minutes in addition to the last decade of punditry.