What the Big Environmental Groups Don't Want You to Know


I used to be a fan of Greenpeace. I’ve donated to them in the past and have always assumed they were leading the way in terms of raising awareness about the devastating effects of climate change, and the relevant human activity that contributes to these effects. But my view of Greenpeace completely changed when I watched the recent and much-discussed documentary Cowspiracy. Directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, it follows Andersen as he tries to discover the driving force of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. If you haven’t seen the film, you must watch it.

A keen environmentalist himself, Andersen learns from a 2009 World Watch study that livestock products contribute to 51% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making animal agriculture the key factor in climate change. Even if we take a more modest estimate from a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock is responsible for 18% of GHGs, a bigger share than all transport everywhere combined. Clearly then, the food which we eat every day, and the industries which this supports, has serious consequences for ecosystems and the future vitality of the planet. However, as Andersen soon discovers through his research, this is not something that big environmental groups want you to know about. But why are renowned groups like Greenpeace hiding these statistics? Is it not in their interest to disclose the most accurate information to date?

What unravels before the viewer’s eyes is a deeply unsettling truth: many big environmental groups – such as Greenpeace, 350.org, WWF, Amazon Watch, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and Rainforest Action Network – are concealing information about animal agriculture because it will harm their public image and sponsorship. On Greenpeace’s website, for example, you get the impression that it is the burning of fossil fuels for energy that is the main reason why the planet is in the dire state it’s in. They claim that the solutions for climate change include protecting tropical forests, replacing ‘dirty’ fossil fuels with renewable energy and energy efficiency, and rejecting “false solutions” like nuclear energy. These are valid recommendations, but there is still absolutely no mention of the well-documented effects of animal agriculture on the environment.

If you go on the ‘Individual action’ page on Greenpeace’s website you are given advice on how to reduce your own impact on the environment. You can turn down the temperature on your refrigerator, washing machine and water heater; use compact fluorescent light bulbs; insulate your home; walk, cycle or use public transportation wherever possible; use efficient showerheads; and purchase appliances that are the most energy efficient you can afford. And as many other groups will tell you, you should cut down on your use of plastic bags.

What these big environmental groups don’t tell you is that massively cutting down on, or eliminating completely, your consumption of animal products is the the most effective way to minimise your impact on the environment. This is an unsettling truth for most people, because most people consume animal products on a daily basis, and the prospect of changing a lightbulb and using a bag for life seems like a much more manageable accommodation than giving up meat and dairy. For fear of damaging their fundraising campaigns, these groups refrain from telling us that it is our eating habits - those deeply ingrained in our daily lives and in our culture - which deserve a large portion of the blame for resource depletion and environmental degradation.

As finding show, a quarter pound hamburger requires 660 gallons of water - equivalent to two months of constant showering. This means that any efforts to cut down on personal water usage pale in comparison to the water that can be saved from cutting down on, or giving up, beef. In the U.S., domestic use of water makes up only 5% of total water consumption in the country, whereas animal agriculture makes up a shocking 55%, due to the fact that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. In other words, raising cows for beef production is an insanely inefficient use of our dwindling resources and energy. If you carry out all of the recommendations made by the U.S. government to cut down on water consumption, you can save 47 gallons of water per day. But this is kind of insignificant when you compare that to the 660 gallons that can be saved from refusing to eat one hamburger.

In interviews with representatives of big environmental groups, Andersen finds that they are either an unwillingness to address the problem of animal agriculture, or they attempt to understate, deny or claim ignorance about the conclusions reached by the FAO and World Watch reports. This feat of intellectual dishonesty stems from a prioritisation of publicity and business over integrity. I was also shocked to learn that activists have been killed over trying to expose the harmful effects of cattle rearing in the Amazon rainforest. A U.S.-born nun called Dorothy Stang, who lived and campaigned in the Brazilian Amazon, was shot and killed at point blank range by a gunman hired by the cattle industry. 1,100 activists have been killed in Brazil in the last 20 years, which illustrates that discussing this elephant in the room is not only a risk to the profitability of animal agriculture groups, but to the lives of the outspoken as well.

Even if everyone ate grass-fed beef, long touted as the ethical and environmental panacea for factory farming, this would require 3.9 million acres of grazing land in the U.S. in order to feed the entire country’s population. Yet as the documentary points out, the U.S. only has 1.9 million acres of arable land available, meaning that grass-fed beef would still lead to escalating deforestation in the Amazon. It seems that there is simply no way to sustainably meet the world’s demand for meat, which will inevitably increase with the exponential growth of the global population.

It is well documented how the meat industry acts as a powerful political force and how livestock lobbying groups have been successful at weakening or preventing new meat-safety initiatives. The influence of meat corporations, through the millions spent on lobbying each year, probably also explains why governments have been so unwilling to agree on policies and regulations which reflect the severity of environmental degradation. If regulations did match this destruction, the meat and dairy industry would have to bear the external costs incurred through their activities - those which harm third parties - including air pollution, soil erosion, ocean acidification, and so on. 

If these industries had to internalise these 'negative externalities' - as they are called in economics - this would substantially drive up the price of meat and dairy, making it impossible for the general population to maintain their demand for these products, which in turn would cause agribusiness profits to plummet. It's no surprise then that these industries go to such great efforts to ensure that health and safety, environmental and welfare regulations do not get passed.

If the collusion between the meat industry and government wasn’t bad enough, the possible affiliation of livestock lobbying groups with environmental organisations is even more disturbing. In an interview with Emily Meredith from Animal Agriculture Alliance, one of the biggest livestock lobby groups in America, Meredith is silent on the issue of whether the meat and dairy industry has ever supported or donated to groups such as Greenpeace. Her silence really does speak louder than words. This means that groups like Greenpeace may be concealing the main cause of climate change from the public, not just for fear of public disapproval and fewer donations, but because they will lose serious funding from groups which represent the villains in the fight for sustainability.

The big environmental groups and government leaders can no longer be depended on for effective change. The salient point I took from this documentary is that it is individual responsibility and action – achieved through a switch to a vegan diet – which marks the path to a sustainable future. This lifestyle change is easier, cheaper and more effective than any other eco-friendly recommendation you will hear from Greenpeace or the government.

11 comments:

  1. I agree with you up to the point when you mention veganism. Vegetarianism is something that we all can strive for, but veganism is an extreme that you should not push everybody towards. Yes, milk is not good for you, but cheese and eggs have many health benefits that should not be overlooked. Besides, not everybody can afford or has access to the vegan replacement foods.
    The key to a health diet is variety - beans, nuts, kale, soy, quinoa, etc, which can easily be found at a Trader Joe's or another fancy market.. but some people even have trouble driving to a Walmart! Think about the rest of the world and what they "can do" realistically.
    There are way too many "vegans" that suffer from anemia and Vitamin B12 deficiency solely because they do not have the knowledge or resources to have a good diet.
    Instead of wasting our breath on pushing others to a life of beans and veggies, we should be fighting for more human ways of raising eggs and milking cows.. and this CAN be done. Just as we can have windmills on our roofs, we can just as easily have community dairy cows or chicken coupes in our backyards.

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    1. I think the health argument in favour of veganism is more up to debate than the environmental argument. I could share studies showing the improved health benefits of the diet and the dangers of a diet heavy in animal protein, just as you could point to evidence of the downsides to a plant-based diet. But in terms of reducing your carbon footprint, it's pretty clear that giving up meat, dairy and eggs does a lot more than any other lifestyle choice.

      You say that there are 'humane' ways to have egg laying hens and cows, but I can't think of any scenario - organic, free range, grass-fed etc - which still does not inflict suffering on the animal in one form or another.

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    2. How exactly does raising hens in their natural habitat cause suffering?

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    3. Hens, even those on so called 'organic' and 'free range' farms, suffer intense pain, discomfort and stress in a variety of ways. Overcrowding, poor transportation conditions, debeaking without an anaesthetic, gassing of male chicks, and eventual slaughter apply to even hens who live in the best conditions.

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    4. Where are you getting this information? I've worked extensively in chicken farms. Mainly in northern England. Both egg farms and meat farms and I've never seen the extent of the suffering you're talking about. Yes I've seen caged chickens are not very happy and are often stressed but we as organic farmers have to give our chickens at least 2 square meters of space per bird, they are not overcrowded. We try to give our chickens the best lives that a chicken can live, otherwise we wouldn't choose to rear them organically at all. The better meat often comes from birds that are more content and they are often better cared for than any wild poultry. If you have an issue with the eventual slaughter I think that's a very different issue. Unless you have worked in a poultry farm it seems to me your opinions are skewed. I would advise you to go and visit some organic farms and maybe talk to some farmers about their practices.

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    5. "Unless you have worked in a poultry farm it seems to me your opinions are skewed". I mean, by that logic, it would be impossible to criticise any profession without having worked in that profession. I would be more than happy to visit an organic farm out of curiosity, but I could never, on principle, work for one. I'm sure not all farms are alike, and perhaps those you worked for had higher standards than others, but there are multiple sources of reports and leaked video and photo documentation of the inhumane conditions of many organic and free-range farms in the US and UK.

      Did your farm not use debeaking as routine practice? And what about all the male chicks that are gassed or ground up alive as by-products of breeding egg-laying hens?

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    6. Debeaking is banned in organic hen rearing - no organic farmers should ever debeak hens in the UK. In fact it's actually quite a big problem with organic farming. Theres often debate that debeaking causes less harm than leaving natural beaks due to feather pecking and infighting which is actually common in wild poultry as well as farmed poultry. But yes male chicks are generally killed or sent to laboratories. You could argue about the ethics of that on its own but we often look at it as a similar issue to abortion. It just isn't feasible to keep them alive, which of course is sad for all organic farmers but it's a necessary cost of our trade. Without rearing hens many of my friends would never have been able to make a living. As organic farmers we try to do our best to fit in with ethical regulations and we keep the welfare of the animal in high regard. You could probably find some examples online of organic egg farms in the UK, the hens are caused little to no suffering. At least when compared to how they would live in the wild.

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    7. Furthermore I am going to assume you live in the city? In the countryside our way of life is dependent on the rearing of animals. In order for us to make a living to support our families rearing livestock is often one of the few options we have. Unless we are going to be forced into London to work in the city which would destroy our rural way of life. I understand your concerns about the meat industry but my reference to your skewed view was not saying you can only understand if you work as a farmer. It's very easy to judge farmers for some of the reasons you've listed but from my experience to say 'so called 'organic' and 'free range' farms, suffer intense pain, discomfort and stress in a variety of ways' seems like a biased opinion. I'm glad the debate exists though, I would like to see better welfare applied to all livestock. This is something we as organic farmers try to strive towards the best we can.

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    8. I appreciate your perspective on the whole issue. It's always good to hear about the experience of someone who has actually worked in the industry.

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  2. My brother in law has 8 hens that he keeps in a 'hen mansion' he made himself. These birds are coddled and loved. They have plenty of space to roost, and roam, and are protected from roaming foxes or raccoons by chicken wire. They produce a lot of eggs, which the family eats. There is nothing of the factory farmer in this set-up; to imply raising all animals is to always incur suffering is misleading. I agree with the others above about the ecological factors of meat farming. I agree that the more vegetarianly we can eat the better off we will all be. But there is something fanatic and fundamentalist about the vegan approach that truly turns me off.

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    1. Thanks for your response. I don't go into whether people should be eating eggs that their own hens lay. That's a separate matter which people will have to decided for themselves. I still don't know whether I would eat eggs produced in that way - I see no obvious exploitation going on, but also I don't like the taste of eggs! However, factory farmed eggs have well established environmental costs. Unfortunately, not everyone can (or is willing to) raise their own chickens for eggs.

      Where did the hens come from? Were they rescued or purchased from a hatchery? You have to take into account that the male chickens which were born alongside the hens are not suitable for meat production and will be gassed as a by-product. Anyway, kudos to your brother in law for keeping the hens safe and looking after their welfare.

      Also, I don't think it's fair to generalise the 'vegan approach' as being fanatic and fundamentalist. There are different approaches to veganism and people adopt the diet and lifestyle in a variety of ways. Similarly, it would be unfair to stereotype all Christians, feminists etc. as fanatic and fundamentalist.

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com