“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil." – Marx
Calling for dietary "choice" between capitalist plant products over capitalist animal products does nothing to challenge the system that is driving climate change and constraining choices. Any limited choice some of us might have in consumption -- a choice determined by the inequitable distribution of resources and income -- does not challenge the system of production. Our harmonious relationship with nature was not disrupted by consuming animals (which communities have done sustainably for millenia) but by a relatively recent system of production that has separated us from nature and turned animal and plant worlds -- and humans themselves -- into sources of profit. Our food system is not unsustainable because it includes animals, it is unsustainable because of capitalism -- which is based on driving peasants off the land, exploiting workers for profit and reducing animals and plants to units of production.
Kip Anderson who made ‘Cowspiracy’ found out that animal agriculture is responsible for significant emissions but is not the focus of many environmental NGOs. He could have made a film connecting animal agriculture to the rest of the oil economy, exposing the massive corporations who dominate the food supply and who have warped our relationships with animals. He could have called for vegans and non-vegans to unite, supporting front-line communities who bear the brunt of climate change, and integrating vegan concerns into a movement for system change and real control over food production and distribution. But instead he chose to make a film that counterposes animal agriculture to the rest of the oil-dependent economy, dismisses the challenge to tar sands and fracking and the need for climate jobs, blames cows and those who consume animal products, shames environmental NGOs instead of agribusinesses, ignores traditional knowledge about how to live sustainably with animals, and calls non-vegan environmentalists hypocrites -- while preaching veganism as the panacea for everything from climate change to world hunger. ‘Cowspiracy’ shines a light on the carbon emissions of the animal agriculture industry, but its beam is so narrow that it leaves the rest of agriculture and the economy hidden from view, and elevates dietary choice to political strategy. ‘Cowspiracy’ raises the important point that the climate crisis is not only driven by oil and gas companies but is also connected to our food system. But instead of challenging the corporations who control food production and distribution, it places all the blame on "animal agriculture." Kip Anderson argues "The solution is really simple…It doesn't even take necessarily widespread transformation with the legal system and our politics. It's basically just switching our diet.”
Kip Anderson claims that "the words sustainable and animal agriculture just is an oxymoron. They can't go together," rather than exposing how capitalism has separated cows from communities, concentrated them in factories and turned them into methane machines.
India's leading environmentalist Vandana Shiva fully understands that:
"Factory farming of livestock is definitely a very important contributor of greenhouse gases, especially methane. But normal livestock -- grass fed -- are important for a sustainable solution. The problem with many of these studies has been that they take the most industrial practice, for example factory farming for meat…and extrapolate it to the world. As if the whole world treats its livestock in the torturous way that factory farming does."
She explains in Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply:
"Ecologically, the cow has been central to Indian civilization…By using crop wastes and uncultivated land, indigenous cattle do not compete with humans for food; rather, they provide organic fertilizer for fields and thus enhance food productivity…Indian cattle provide more food than they consume, in contrast to those of the U.S. cattle industry, in which cattle consume six times more food than they provide."
Vandana Shiva explains:
"Livestock are absolutely key. The tragedy is on the one hand we've got those who would put animals into factory farms -- and that is the source of methane emissions, not free-grazing livestock…And there's the problem that those who think they love animals push for a situation where there will be no animals. So we need to avoid both these extremes that are anti-animal by denying an effective role for the animal, and an effective role of a farmer. And I think it comes from the paradigm that assumes that both humans and animals can only have a predatory relationship with nature. No, we can have a harmonious relationship with nature."
As capitalism has developed it has become concentrated and centralized into massive corporations that dominate every industry -- making our entire economy, including the plants and animals we eat, dependent on oil. As Vandana Shiva explains in Soil Not Oil:
"Industrialized, globalized agriculture is a recipe for eating oil. Oil is used for the chemical fertilizers that go to pollute the soil and water. Oil is used to displace small farmers with giant tractors and combine harvesters. Oil is used to industrially process food. Oil is used for the plastic in packaging. And finally, more and more oil is used to transport food farther and farther away from where it is produced. Fossil fuels are the heart of industrial agriculture."
‘Cowspiracy’ is right to highlight the massive subsidies and powerful interests that sustain the beef industry and create artificial supply and demand, but this applies to all industries -- including the massive agribusinesses that have reduced our diets to corn, soy and wheat monocrops, sustained by massive emissions in fertilizers, machinery, storage and transportation. Instead ‘Cowspiracy’ names and shames a dozen NGOs without naming any agribusinesses, dismisses demands for climate jobs and ignores Indigenous communities while claiming that those who eat meat are hypocrites.
By depoliticizing the environment, NGOs have traditionally focused on reforming single issues by lobbying governments and calling for limited consumer choice over the products capitalism has produced -- rather than challenging the profit-driven system of production and inequitable distribution.
Environmentalist activist Cam Fento insists:
“We need system change to stop climate change, and our personal dietary choices are not system change. Changing lightbulbs and taking shorter showers wasn't a really effective strategy for the climate and that's what switching out steak for tofu seems to be to me. Not only won't it do a whole lot to solve the climate crisis, it actually doesn't even get at the heart of what you’re purporting to be pushing — -- reducing emissions from agriculture. If the goal is really to deal with the emissions from agriculture, and these emissions are a big problem, it's time to stop telling people not to eat meat and start figuring out how you're going to stand with peasant farmers who are being forced by the Monsantos of the world to abandon their traditional methods of agriculture for massive mono-crop operations. It's time to support communities that are standing up to stop cattle barons who want to clear massive tracts of land -- like the rainforest in South America -- to expand their operations. These things, might help to tip the scales and bring down emissions from agriculture in a way that more vegans just won't, and they might win you some allies along the way."
It's examples like these, rather than ‘Cowspiracy’, that show how vegan concerns can be incorporated into the climate justice movement, so that we can challenge the corporations and states responsible for the climate crisis, and win collective system change rather than fight over individual diet change.