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Documentary downer

It used to be ever so middle class to deny watching much television. About the only things it was acceptable to say that you viewed were the news, plays and documentaries. It was almost a mark of being educated that you liked documentaries. But, personally speaking, I have real problems with them. In general, documentaries bore me.

This can be a bit embarrassing when someone says 'Did you see Horizon on quantum physics?' or 'Did you see that latest David Attenborough?' Because I won't have done. I've never successfully watched a full episode of a David Attenborough documentary. Admittedly it's partly because wildlife films are rarely about science, but I think the main problem is that I'm too word-oriented. I enjoy good story-telling TV, but I find that factual programmes manage to take about two pages of text and stretch it into an hour's worth of documentary. I'd much rather read the two pages. (This is also why I can't be bothered with the YouTube videos people are always saying I should watch.)

So I wasn't the ideal person for someone near and dear to persuade to watch the Netflix-streamed documentary Cowspiracy. Apparently this anti-animal farming documentary is turning people into vegetarians in droves. I must admit, my immediate response to it was a strong urge to go and get a hamburger, but I'm perverse like that.

First the good news about it. It made a couple of decent points that would have made up a whole page in a book on the subject. It is ridiculous that swathes of the Amazon rainforest are being cut down to raise cattle. And American levels of beef consumption are ridiculous. And it's true that most green protest groups ignore the issue. The filmmaker showed lots of green movement representatives looking embarrassed when he brought the subject up. This was presented as being because they are funded by agribusiness (and that may be true with some US groups). But to me it came across more as embarrassment because they didn't want to admit their ignorance. Given green groups' knee-jerk response to nuclear power, it doesn't surprise me at all that they ignore farming as not having the right image for their campaigns.

But. A lot of the rest of the documentary had me shouting 'That's not true!' at the screen. (Sadly, given the subject, I didn't think at the time to mutter 'Bullshit.')

I think the biggest problem with Cowspiracy was that it was totally Americas-centric. I don't think they interviewed anyone who wasn't from America, and it was all done from the viewpoint of the pretty much unique American approach to agriculture, plus their vast meat consumption (nearly twice as much as Europeans) - but their statistics were then scaled up as if it represented how the rest of the world would become. Most hilarious in this respect were comments on dairy, given the fact significant chunks of the world can't even consume it, as they don't have the appropriate gene.

So, for instance, we had pompous American 'experts' telling us that wherever you can raise animals, you could do better raising crops. I'd like to see what crops they would grow on the Welsh mountains instead of having sheep eat grass. There were also long (long) swathes of the film about water consumption, telling us how much water we use to raise a pound of beef (all in gallons, of course). But they didn't point out a) how much this varies (I don't think those sheep are given much water) and b) how almost all the water 'consumed' in raising animals is rapidly released back into the wild. If a cow contained all the water they said was used in raising it, it would be the size of a skyscraper.

Of course America uses lots of water inappropriately for agriculture (strangely, the documentary didn't say how, for example, the almond industry, used to make make milk for the vegans the film praised, was one of the worst examples) - but it's misleading to suggest that somehow raising animals consumes vast amounts of water in some kind of permanent way. It leads to short term issues, particularly in regions of the US that aren't naturally water rich, but not to long-term global problems.

There were without doubt seriously dubious 'facts' in play. We were repeatedly told that animal agriculture produced 51% of greenhouse gasses (as CO2 equivalent). This was stated as 'fact'. Yet the figure comes from a single, non-peer reviewed paper, where the scientific consensus is around 18% - cherry picking at its worst. And even that figure has been called into question with 10% being a more likely amount. Similarly, the ratios of useful plant weight to useful meat weight in the film are wildly inaccurate. As George Monbiot points out 'If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don't compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it's a significant net gain.'

However, the biggest problem was an either/or attitude. It's the same logical fallacy you often see used by Intelligent Design creationists. They say 'if mechanism A can't explain a particular biological feature then it must have been a designer. But it just means A is wrong, not B is right. Here it was 'the way Americans eat and raise meat is unsustainable.' True. So the world must stop eating meat. Which simply doesn't follow in any logical fashion.

Most hilarious were a set of images towards the end where the documentary maker 'saved' a chicken from being killed and fed assorted cows. Yet his entire argument up to this point was we shouldn't raise animals. So he should have been killing them, not 'saving' them. All emotion, no reasoning.

As you might gather, I wasn't convinced by Cowspiracy, though it did emphasise just how bad the American situation is. But more than that, it made me surer than ever that I am not the right audience for a documentary.

This has been a green heretic production.


  1. Thanks for the summary. I'll know what to expect when our national broadcaster shoves this down our throats.


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