“Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” - Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn (2014)

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) is a documentary film written and directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn that takes on the ambitious task of seeking to find a solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our planet.  It follows the personal quest of Kip Andersen, who was inspired by watching Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to do something about our impending climate catastrophe.  So over the course of this film, the viewer watches onscreen protagonist Kip Andersen (Kuhn handled the camerawork) as he narrates his efforts to see what can be done.  
At first Andersen sets about changing his own lifestyle, believing that if everybody did this, then our problems would be solved.  So he gave up driving his car and took to bicycle riding, took shorter showers, and tried to conserve electricity.  But as he investigated further, he learned that these matters of personal behaviour are not where the problem lies.  For example, he discovered that 660 gallons of water are used in the production of a quarter-pound of beef for a hamburger – a figure that dwarfs whatever water savings that could be made by taking shorter showers.  

And in fact as Andersen investigated further, he learned that animal agriculture in general is the primary source of human-based environmental degradation.  There is evidence for this out there, but it is not prominently on display.  Andersen wanted to know why.  

One piece of evidence that probably a number of people have heard about is a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, “Livestock's Long Shadow”, stating that raising animal livestock produces more greenhouse gas emissions than do all transportation vehicles [1]. Andersen found that the UN FAO assertion was supplemented by a 2009 World Watch Magazine report by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang claiming that livestock causes 51% of greenhouse gas emissions [2,3].  However, a number of lobbyists and supporters of the meat and dairy industry have taken great exception to this latter report, arguing that the 51% figure was a gross exaggeration and that its mention in Cowspiracy renders the film fraudulent.  It should be pointed out, though, that the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production is a complicated matter, because one needs to include peripheral greenhouse gas sources, such as fossil fuel emissions from the transport of livestock and associated items (food, waste, etc.).  There is not always agreement on what must be included.  We must keep in mind that what we are interested in is the difference in total emissions from two different global situations – our current world and one in which no animal food products are produced.  In any case, it should be noted that no matter what calculation measures are used, they all agree that the total greenhouse gas emissions from animal food production are very high and significantly exceed the greenhouse gas emissions from those of all transportation vehicles [4].

One thing that shocked Andersen is that the primary U.S. environmental organizations, like Greenpeace and The Sierra Club, make no mention of the high environmental costs of animal food production on their web sites.  When Andersen tried to contact these organizations about this matter, they refused to discuss it with him – even when he made personal visits to the organizations to see if he could get their views on the subject.  For example, spokespeople for The Sierra Club simply dodged the issue (this is shown on film), while Greenpeace formally refused to talk to him.

It turns out that the major environmental organizations all receive funding and support from meat and dairy companies and lobbies. Andersen even shows meat and dairy industry logos on display on some environmental organization websites. Apparently the environmental organizations are unwilling to risk this funding by discussing animal agriculture impacts on the environment.  And  so they shut out speaking with inquisitors like Andersen.  

We also learn that both federal and state government agencies heavily subsidize the meat and dairy industry.  When Andersen tries to talk to California state government officials about the matter, they won’t talk about this issue.  So the animal agriculture industry seems to have a lot of economic clout. Cowspiracy does give some of their people a chance to speak – for example, Emily Meredith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance (a pro-livestock lobby), but their pro-livestock testimony seems weak to me.  For one thing, they have no answer for a basic issue with animal agriculture: the fact that no matter how nicely the animals are raised, these animals will all be killed well short of their natural lifespan.  No matter how we may try to ignore it, somebody has to do this killing.  We are graphically reminded of this terminating action when, towards the end of the film, we are shown closeups of a backyard farmer personally using his hatchet to chop the heads off of the ducks he has raised.  

As the film proceeds, Andersen and Kuhn take on wider, more global issues, and world experts  are interviewed on these matters.  For example, one issue is the dramatic depletion of the world fish population due to over-fishing and pollution.  Another issue concerns the imminent destruction of the Amazon rainforest due to human exploitation.  The program director of the Amazon Watch organization, Leila Salazar Lopez, tells us that the entire Amazon rainforest could be lost in just10 years.

Overall, Cowspiracy provides a fascinating and informative investigation of the impact of animal agriculture on the environment.  Kip Andersen’s investigative style is mild-mannered and genuinely exploratory.  He lets the pro-meat people have their chance to take the floor and defend their products.  As a result, the film has received a number of favourable reviews [5,6,7] – at least from those critics who don’t have a pro-meat axe to grind.  

But no matter what the advocates of animal agriculture may say, and no matter how much many of us love the taste of meat (I used to be one of those people, when I was a meat-eater), they don’t have an answer or suitable response to a simple fact pointed out by sustainability consultant Richard Oppenlander:

for any given area of land, you can produce 15 times more protein from plants than from animals. 
We must keep this in mind when we ponder what to do with animal agriculture in connection with such major issues as the world food crisis and global pollution.  Reducing animal agriculture (in fact preferably eliminating it) can save the planet.   

So I recommend that you watch Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and take into consideration its message(s).  This film is both entertaining and informative.  However, one should bear in mind that there is one area of concern about animal agriculture that is not given a lot of attention in Cowspiracy, and that concerns the consequences and impact on one’s  personal health of consuming meat and dairy products.  Rest assured, though, that this was not a topic outside the purview of Andersen and Kuhn.  It was just an area of concern that in their minds deserved to have a whole film devoted to it.  And this is what they did when they made their subsequent documentary What the Health (2017), which is another film worth your consideration.


  1. “Livestock's Long Shadow”, Wikipedia, (15 March 2022).  
  2. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change”, WORLD WATCH MAGAZINE (2009), a well-fed world, (November 2009), . 
  3. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, Jeff (Nov–Dec 2009). "Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change were pigs, chickens and cows?" (PDF). Worldwatch Magazine, Worldwatch Institute. pp. 10–19. S2CID 27218645. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-10-01. 
  4. Keegan Kuhn, “Response to Criticism of Cowspiracy Facts”, Cowspiracy, A.U.M. Films & Media, (n.d.).   
  5. Kate Irwin, “More meat, more problems in ‘Cowspiracy’”, The Daily Californian, (27 June 2014).    
  6. Chris Sosa, “Are Burgers Really Destroying the Planet? Kip Andersen Thinks So”, HuffPost, (19 August 2014; updated 6 December 2017).   
  7. Ward Pallotta, “Cowspiracy Exposes the Truth About Animal Agriculture”, EcoWatch, (10 October 2014).   

Kip Andersen

Films of Kip Andersen:

Keegan Kuhn

Films of Keegan Kuhn: