Q&A with Brainchild Behind Groundbreaking Doc 'Cowspiracy'
Like a lot of folks, Kip Andersen was moved to action upon seeing “An Inconvenient Truth.” Al Gore touted the virtues of embracing eco-friendly habits while warning of the repercussions were we to stand idly by and do nothing. So, armed with new knowledge this 2006 film instilled, Andersen made several behavior changes: Among other things, he took shorter showers, recycled, composted, bicycled everywhere, paused the faucet when brushing his teeth, replaced inefficient light bulbs, and made sure to turn lights off when exiting a room or leaving the house.
But something wasn’t adding up. Several years passed and — despite Gore’s widely watched and revered documentary — the planet was still in peril, in a worse position than it had been before. Then, Andersen stumbled upon a United Nations report stating that cattle rearing alone was responsible for more global warming greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector — that is, cars, trucks, trains, planes and boats — combined.
This is where the groundbreaking environmental exposé that is “Cowspiracy” starts. Andersen turns to the obvious nonprofits — Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, Climate Reality, 350.org and Amazon Watch, to name a few — and is flummoxed to find that not a single one meaningfully addresses what can now be dubbed the quintessential elephant in the room: the fact that diet has a huge impact and that eschewing animal products is the number one way to help planet earth (for reasons including but not limited to overall inefficiency, methane emissions, water waste, food waste, wildlife extinction, ocean dead zones, deforestation, world hunger and so on).
Andersen — who was born in Georgia and lives in San Francisco — began reaching out to these groups, wanting to know what their thoughts were on the matter and why this critical information wasn’t packaged for the masses online and in other literature. Ditching dairy, eggs and meat (including fish), Andersen quickly learned, was the easiest, swiftest and most significant first step any individual could take to do their part, so how come no campaigns disseminated this messaging?
Met with disheartening responses — or, in some cases, no response at all — from those institutions the public trusts to advise on these issues, Andersen was sure something was amiss. And so, he set out to make a movie, tapping Keegan Kuhn to help him.
You’ll have to watch the doc to find out what the duo discovers, but we caught a captive Andersen as he was driving (yes, he’s driving again, for the greater good) to Los Angeles in June for the LA premiere. Read on for more from the brainchild behind this pivotal film and, if you’re in or near New York on August 21, run-don’t-walk to snag tickets to the NYC premiere. It’s sure to sell out soon.
When did you first get the idea to make this movie?
A few years ago. But I didn’t have a camera documenting me emailing and calling all these environmental organizations to no response whatsoever. Eventually it got to the point where I realized, “This is ridiculous. I need to start filming this.” That’s when, god willing, I teamed up with Keegan. We hit it off right away. It looks like filming took a couple months, but the entire process was a few years. The story is true, exactly how it happened.
But you recreated a few things for the camera.
Parts we recreated were my calling and emailing.
How long did it take to make?
Actual filming was less than a year. We powered through it. And we filmed essentially in silence. A lot of films — before they even start filming — ask for funding and begin to get buzz going, but we had to do it in silence due to the controversial nature of the subject matter. We wanted to make sure we had all the interviews with the environmental groups.
Were you ever nervous showing up to confront the nonprofits?
It was exciting more than anything. Nervous excitement. It’s been two to three years of wanting to talk to these people.
Did these organizations know the interviews were going to be for a film like this?
[They knew it was] a film about sustainability. We asked questions about all sorts of things. Every interview lasted about two hours. But, you can’t talk about sustainability without talking about animal agriculture. That’s where you see things start to stumble.
How can we get those organizations that are ignoring or avoiding the problem to acknowledge it and do something about it?
By holding them accountable. We look to them to share the truth with us, that animal agriculture is the number one leading cause of [environmental degradation]. This needs to be the number one cause they showcase. We’re not looking to the animal agriculture industry to make changes. It’s the environmental groups that have the power to effect true change, to address the biggest [problem]. They need to be proactive.
How was the editing process?
The total amount of hours was somewhere around 200. It’s kind of like Michelangelo. You [chisel] away. There’s something there. But, once it gets down to three hours, it’s tough. There’s so much more information we wanted to share. The longer version is so powerful. Someday we’ll release the director’s cut. Later this year we’re going to release longer interviews.
Looking forward. You alluded in the film to times you felt like giving up?
Absolutely. After we interviewed Howard Lyman [and] Will Potter, it was super sketchy. It was scary. We [did] some real soul searching. How it went down was portrayed truthfully in the film. But, what would it help if we didn’t do anything? This is bigger than any of us. We had no option but to keep going. Either live for something or die for nothing.
Right on. So conversations with Howard Lyman and Will Potter instilled a certain sense of trepidation?
Big time. Especially Howard Lyman’s interview. It was frightening. We were thinking about putting down the camera. “Maybe we’re not ready for this.” But, you know, we had to do it.
Are you nervous now?
If anything happen[s], all it does is attract more attention. Say the meat industry or dairy industry says something about the movie; it’s just going to generate attention. Either way, the truth is going to get out. I feel at peace with everything.
What do you deem your greatest “get”?
The Michael Pollan [interview] was really exciting. He said straight up the most sustainable way to live is plant-based, which a lot of people get pissed off about, because a lot of “grass-fed local foodies,” they look to him. The most exciting part of any interview is when that came out of his mouth.
How did you feel when you heard from the grass-fed farmers during filming, “I love animals; that’s why I’m in the meat business”?
That is about as bizarre as “happy” farms or “humane” farming. Is there such a thing? An analogy I [reference] is “Hansel and Gretel.” The reason why “Hansel and Gretel” is such a bizarre, twisted, disturbing tale is because [the witch] pretends she loves them and feeds them all this candy and gets them fat. And they are so happy, because they think they’ve entered this paradise, but she has this underlying [motive] to kill them and eat them. That’s how I look at “happy” farms and “humane” farming. It makes it more bizarre than factory farming, to say you love an animal and then kill it. Animals know. What betrayal they must feel. [Non-factory farms are] the lesser of two evils, but not by much.
People like to find ways to distort reality and avoid change. It’s inconvenient to confront facts and evolve, so they live in denial. So, when did you adopt a vegan diet?
Once I learned the facts about animal cruelty, what happens to the animals. It blew me away. There was no other option than to become completely plant-based.
What did your diet used to be like?
I was the biggest carnivore. I was a hardcore cheese addict. I ate so much cheese. I love pizza and nachos. And now I am a huge fan of mock meats and cashew cheese. I eat more meat and cheese than anyone I know. I’ve found a substitute for everything!
Same. Are there any other resources that helped you along the way, in addition to your firsthand discoveries?
I watched a short clip narrated by Alec Baldwin, called “Meet Your Meat.” It [is] so disgusting at every level: spiritually, physically, mentally. I just wanted it completely out of my body. Another great movie I saw was “Peaceable Kingdom.” Brought me to tears. These two films, along with the environment[al] factors, did it for me.
What do you feel like was the most astonishing thing you learned during filmmaking?
Going into it, I never thought about the wildlife. That was new to me. [Rounding up] the wild horses? I had no idea. Growing up, I supported Sierra Club. I gave them money to help wolves. I never remotely realized that [wolves are gunned down around ranches to “protect” livestock]. We’re not saying animal agriculture is the only reason for these things, but it’s by far the biggest. The entire planet is being taken over by huge pastures of just cows with nothing else. It’s a monocrop of cows! I love cows, but in a way they’re like giant termites. They’re essentially eating up our planet.
Well, their existence is not in their control. It’s not their fault.
Exactly. We’re the ones mating them — giant termites — at a ridiculous rate. But the film ends on a positive note. There’s a shift happening. Conscious capitalism, like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek, is [gaining ground]. New [vegan] restaurants [are] opening all the time. Sustainable and profitable businesses are popping up every day. Dairy consumption is going down. Meat consumption in the US is going down.
Everyone’s either vegan or pre-vegan. Because we have to be. There’s no other option. It’s either that or we’re gone. You’re either part of the new realm or part of the old realm. If I go to a barbecue or something now, it seems like I’m looking at some flashback of a time long ago when people used to do this. “Wow, remember that time when everyone ate animal flesh and killed the environment and killed their own bodies?” I see it over the next few years falling apart. In a way it’s almost humorous when I see it now. It’s like the has-beens. It’s not gonna last for long.
It is primitive. I hope it hits soon.
The tipping point already hit. You’re going to see it more and more and more.
Given the staggering statistics surrounding global population growth, as outlined in the movie — 1 billion in 1812; 1.5 billion in 1912; 7+ billion in 2012 — does that provoke critical thinking about how human reproduction factors in?
For Keegan it does, big time. He’s all about population control. [For me,] it triggers the next figure: 70 billion animals [slaughtered per year the globe over, not including sea life]. Will Tuttle said in the film that we have enough grain to feed about 12–15 billion people. That’s twice as many humans, at least, our planet could sustain [were we eating grains and legumes directly instead of feeding it through livestock, which is grossly inefficient].
Stark. Has anyone like Al Gore been made aware of the film at all?
No, but it will definitely happen. It looks like this will be the game-changer we thought it would be.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to be a better steward for the planet?
Learn the truth and live it. Share the truth as widely as possible.
Disclaimer: The author, Nell Alk, is presently working with “Cowspiracy” to help promote the film’s New York premiere. She was not, however, working with them when she conducted this interview. It was the interview that led to an ongoing dialogue and, ultimately, collaboration.