There’s No Conspiracy in Cowspiracy

But the methane is real.

According to Cowspiracy, NRDC and other environmental groups have not paid enough attention to the pollution caused by the livestock industry, or worse, have been co-opted by the industry to keep quiet. It turns out that neither is true. The people at NRDC have worked for decades to hold the livestock industry accountable and keep its pollution in check. We’re disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t meaningfully characterize our extensive work on these issues, or even ask to speak to our livestock team.

NRDC has long recognized that industrial livestock production has placed a severe burden on the planet’s natural resources and is indeed a significant contributor to global warming. Producing a quarter pound of beef, for example, releases about 34 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the same amount of lentils and requires enough water for a three hour shower. Concentrated manure, over-grazing, and intensive antibiotic use pose five-alarm-fire level threats to public health and the environment.

We illuminated the impacts of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS) in our widely cited report Cesspools of Shame back in 2001. Since then, we have challenged harmful, illegal grazing practices, enforced clean air and clean water laws against industrial livestock operations, advocated for greater accountability by EPA in regulating confined animal feeding operations, blocked industry-backed efforts in Congress to deregulate livestock grazing, and challenged “ag-gag laws” that would criminalize citizens who try to document livestock pollution. NRDC is now campaigning to reduce the livestock industry’s reliance on antibiotics, and helped pass the first law in the nation, in California, that prohibits routine antibiotic use. We persuaded Subway, Foster Farms and other major food companies to phase out meat raised with these drugs. We’ve advocated for federal dietary guidelines to reduce meat consumption and we’re working now to reduce red meat purchasing in the food service industry.

While our core strength is improving and implementing laws and influencing companies, we haven’t been shy about promoting the consumption of less, better meat to our members and the public. NRDC supports Meatless Mondays and we’ve been educating our members and the public about the disproportionate impacts of meat for years (see, for example, our Eat Green Guide and newsletter articles like this one). We also recommend buying animal products from farmers who are using more sustainable practices, such as through well-managed pasture systems, organic production, and eliminating routine antibiotics, among other examples. By changing how animals are raised, we can greatly reduce pollution and produce food in ways that work with natural systems, not against them.

I also want to emphasize that NRDC has not somehow ignored the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution. Cowspiracy claims that the livestock sector emits 51% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and then attacks environmental groups for not making this their primary focus. However, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization pegs livestock emissions at 14.5%, globally; U.S. EPA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate that all agriculture, forestry and land use activities combined emit 26% of the world’s emissions, putting livestock’s share closer to the UN FAO estimate. It’s certainly possible that these agencies have under-estimated livestock emissions, but we’re not ready to say that livestock is the biggest source.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, where NRDC does most of its work, EPA estimates that direct emissions from livestock and their manure comprise 3.6% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (EPA’s number increases to 4% or 5% when emissions from growing feed are included). Some experts believe that this estimate is low if one considers the full life cycle emissions from agriculture, an issue we’re now evaluating. Certainly, the roughly 600 million metric tons (CO2e) of greenhouse gasses that EPA estimates are emitted per year by U.S. agriculture (including livestock) are far from trivial, and justify our work to reduce reduce them. But by contrast, U.S. transportation and utility sectors emit nearly 60% of our nation’s global warming pollution.  Unsurprisingly, these sectors have been the primary focus of NRDC’s climate work. Here, we’ve had amazing success, helping to win commitments that double the efficiency of our national vehicle fleet and cutting power plant emissions by 30% by 2030.  

We have an incredible challenge ahead of us to push back against the political influence wielded by the industrial livestock industry to promote a more sustainable food system. To succeed, vegans, vegetarians and informed omnivores will all have to work together.

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