What do cows have to do with it?

There is a movie doing the rounds called Cowspiracy. The central proposition seems to be that the evils of climate change can be avoided if we can halt deforestation and that since deforestation is driven primarily by agriculture aimed at beef production for consumption by the US, we can avert catastrophe by all becoming  vegan.

There seem to be a number of problems with that but I might be misrepresenting the movie so I will defer comment until I have seen it in full but I do want to take a look at a central plank of the thesis, which is that livestock farming, and specifically agribusiness driven by US consumption, is the primary driver of deforestation.

NASA is a wonderful resource for this sort of thing and I went to their Earth Observatory site for information: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/deforestation_update3.php  Their verdict is:

Direct causes of deforestation are agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization.

but in particular:

“The single biggest direct cause of tropical deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock to meet daily needs.”

In other words, local people clearing land for their own use is responsible for the majority of deforestation. That seems to be a knockout blow to the idea that agribusiness is responsible but things are rarely so simple. Here’s another quote:

“Although subsistence activities have dominated agriculture-driven deforestation in the tropics to date, large-scale commercial activities are playing an increasingly significant role.”

So maybe it’s not so cut and dried. And I should say that they also identify some non-agricultural drivers, such as logging, as major factors second only to subsistence farming in the process of deforestation. So then, if industrial agriculture is a factor, however small,  what products are driving the process?

“In the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasingly important causes of deforestation, and in Indonesia, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial palm tree plantations to produce bio-fuels for export is a major cause of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra.”

So there we see it: cattle ranching! Is it true? Are we really eating our species into an early grave? Right about now is a good time to introduce a graph:

deforested area by country







It tells a depressing story; the amazonian rainforests lead the world in area cleared but wait: Indonesia? The cleared acreage is right up there with Brazil and looking back at the quote, we see that it has nothing to do with cattle ranching or even soybean production. The Indonesians are planting palm trees for biodiesel production; in other words, the culprit there is our old friend the internal combustion engine.  Even worse, this depredation is caused by the noble intention to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Taking another look at the graph, it’s easy to see that if we add together the deforested areas in Africa (that’s all the blue bars) the total is as great as Brazil and no-one is suggesting that agribusiness is a factor in that case: it’s all subsistence farming. So what are we left with?

In the amazon, which contributes perhaps a fifth to the total deforested area, there is a proportion which can be attributed to beef and soybean production. I lump those two into one because, as everyone knows, soy is grown to feed cattle. Or maybe not.

I took a look at this website: http://www.ncsoy.org/ABOUT-SOYBEANS/Uses-of-Soybeans.aspx  – it’s a mine of information. They don’t seem to have any agenda, they just love to tell you what soy beans are used for; and what they are used for turns out to be amazingly diverse. They start off with this revealing statement:

“Nearly all soybeans are processed for their oil.  
Soy processors (such as Cargill & ADM) take the raw soybeans and separate the oil from the meal.  The oil may be refined for cooking and other edible uses, or sold for biodiesel production or industrial uses.  The processors bake the high-protein fiber that is left after the oil is removed and sell it for animal feed.”

“Nearly all soybeans are processed for their oil”  and once again we see the internal combustion engine in the background, with its insatiable appetite for hydrocarbons. So, sure, soymeal is fed to livestock, but not before the primary uses have been satisfied.

In fact, there is one report (admittedly old)


which identifies demand for soybean oil as a cause of a glut of soybean meal but goes on to say that that is no reason to curtail production. In other words, the demand for oil, not agribusiness aimed at feeding cattle, drives soybean production. And in any case:


“Over half of the soybeans processed for livestock feed are fed to poultry, about one-quarter is fed to swine, and the rest is used for beef cattle, dairy cattle and petfood.”

(that’s ncsoy.org again)

So where does this leave us? We have seen that the primary cause of deforestation is still population growth. Even where industrial agriculture is a major factor, logging takes first place, while biodiesel production, whether from soybeans or palm oil, is the next most important. Livestock agriculture comes in a distant fourth place. Even soybean production is driven by transportation needs and the residue feeds our pets as well as agribusiness.

US meat consumption is a factor only in Amazonian deforestation, which is 20% of the world problem. Of the factors in Amazonian deforestation, it ranks fourth, fighting for the last 10% in competition with soybean production and logging.

Should we go vegan, or should we fight the real enemies? Overpopulation is driven by lack of education, lack of womens’ control over their economic circumstances and a backward looking campaign by the religious to prevent women’s control over their own  reproduction. Biodiesel might be a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Both of those are topics worth addressing; veganism? Not so much.



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10 Responses to What do cows have to do with it?

  1. Nancy Yuen says:

    Thank you for doing the legwork that too many of us are simply too lazy (some would say “busy”, but I’m not feeling that self-important) to attempt, and for your thoughtful consideration of the facts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom says:

    Soybeans -> biodiesel = deforestation. Who would have known. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pyjamaslug says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tom. The whole biodiesel thing bears looking at very closely; while I like the idea of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, this alternative seems to be very costly while also failing to address the emissions problem. Grist for a future blog, I think.


  3. Rad Guy (SD Diver) says:

    Really they should all just use left over french fry oil from fast food restaurants!


    • pyjamaslug says:

      Yes but wouldn’t you know they have come up with a scam there as well, at least in the UK. There, you can claim your oil is recycled even if only a small portion of it has ever seen the inside of a fish and chip shop. The result is that huge amounts of new vegetable oil is being diverted to fuel use, mixed with a tiny proportion of chip fat and sold as recycled. I really think the whole biofuel thing is misguided.


  4. “Should we go vegan, or should we fight the real enemies?”

    Actually both. Veganism might not be a solution to an environmental calamity as many suggest it is but it remains the only solution to one of humankind’s greatest moral calamities.

    I understand this is not the focus of your blog so I’ll leave it there.



    • pyjamaslug says:

      Hi, thanks for the comment. Your point is perfectly valid from a personal perspective but as you have already recognised, my blog tries not to take a moral stand. That’s not to say I am uninterested in discussions about it so please feel free to make your case.


    • Thanks for the opportunity.

      I’ll spare you the inviolable case why veganism is a necessary for anyone who considers that non-human animals deserve *any* moral consideration. That can be found all over the web – particularly my own blog! Instead I’ll skirt on something a little more arguable and less obvious:

      I would argue that “eco-warriorism” is no less or greater a concern for our shared natural environment than that displayed by the greatest exploiters of the natural environment. Both you and they subscribe to an ideal and try to claim dominion over natural resources to further that ideal. Your ideal is to preserve the supposed benefits that you believe the natural environment affords you now and into the future, theirs is reaping the supposed benefits they believe ripping it up brings them. In essence you are both fighting over the same patch of dirt to further your own interests.

      An alternative view that I believe only ethical veganism can espouse is a proper consideration of interests for all sentient beings. If one holds such a position then it is only (morally) right to consider the use of all natural resources in an equitable manner and make/leave them available for all species. Thus, while I have no interest in the protection of inanimate objects like rocks, rivers or trees (per se), in having an obligation to not harm my fellow sentient cohabitors I am automatically compelled to assume adequate responsibility to make sure those same inanimate objects are available to them as natural resources just as they are to me.

      In effect a vegan’s obligations are immediate, perpetual and directed to all other sentient beings. The non-vegan eco-warrior’s obligations are to a vision of what he thinks the world should look like now and into the future, and subject to change. The vegan obligation is to necessarily care about all others, the non-vegan obligation is to care about those he arbitrarily chooses to care about – usually people in a particular category, like their children and grandchildren. Which is a greater imperative is for individuals to decide.

      Finally, the vegan is also generally in a position to more easily meet (either of) those obligations with less effort. Even if they are not responsible for the largest tearing up of the Amazonian rainforest there is no denying that, all else being equal, those who live vegan have a lower environmental impact than those who don’t. This advantage comes without financial burden. It often takes a position of privilege to realise environmental protections (with solar panels, electric cars, etc.) but a vegan lifestyle comes at no personal financial cost and is available to all classes. The fact remains, even after this article, that almost no other single choice generally makes such a drastic difference to our environmental impact.


      • Nancy Yuen says:

        Once, when I was a young teen, I talked to my brother, who is older than I and probably the most intelligent person I knew (and know), and he said at one point, “How do you know that when you rip a lettuce out of the ground, that it doesn’t scream?” Indeed, it seems that we are limited by our senses (at least, if not also our mental blindnesses) to perceive some acts as just or unjust because we either can sense or not sense the destructive nature of continuing our own (personal) existence. Vegans, as you say, draw the line at sentient beings? What is exactly meant by the word “sentient,” then? And how can we perceive this quality in another species when we cannot communicate directly with them?


      • Hi Nancy.

        If one wants to rest on an emotional rather than scientific judgement then what your brother presents is one of many possibilities. I could offer you counter-pleas in that vein but I’m not sure what they’d be worth.

        The literal definition and science of sentience are easily found on the web so I won’t give my own interpretation here. All I will state is that science is unanimous that sentience is a quality/ability possessed by and limited to almost every, if not every, member of the animalia kingdom. There are surely pseudoscientific claims of sentience outside of animalia and all I can suggest is that you approach those according to your own general position on pseudoscience.

        Of course, science asserts no moral relevance to sentience; whether we ought to slice a lettuce or a puppy largely falls outside of strict scientific thought. Interestingly, those same claimants of extra-animal sentience most often do apply some sort of moral relevance to sentience, but then spread it so thin across all things that it essentially becomes a non-issue and mostly indistinguishable from a nihilistic point of view. Show me one person who limits their plant intake or refuses to mow the lawn because they believe plants have feelings!

        I could happily discuss sentience for days but I’m not sure this is the right place. If pyjamaslug agrees then I’m happy to continue else message me if you want to take it elsewhere.

        Cheers from Sydney.


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