After 90 grueling minutes, Luma—the bovine star of Andrea Arnold’s new documentary Cow—is led alone down a misty path to an empty barn. There, a bucket filled with food is placed down for her before a farmer walks onto the screen and, without fanfare, shoots her. In an empty cinema, my gaze is locked with Luma’s as she takes her final breath.
Filmed over four years on a British dairy farm, Cow has been described as “life changing… beautiful and brutal.” But Arnold insists she has no activist agenda to impart. Rather, she hopes to explore what it might mean for Luma—a farmed animal—to be truly seen.
The documentary follows in the footsteps of Victor Kossakovsky’s award-winning Gunda, which chronicles the daily life of a pig from the birth of her piglets to the moment they are hauled away in a tractor. Arnold, like Kossakovsky, brought the camera to the eye-level of the animals, pushing the human workers who oversee Luma the cow’s life into the background.
Cows are often on the minds and lips of environmentalists as monstrous methane emitters who are destroying the climate. What makes Cow so unique is that in telling the story of Luma as an individual, her agency and resistance to her circumstances take center stage, challenging these dominant narratives of cows as an abstract mass of flatulence.
The “cow issue” has been on the global agenda since at least 2006, when the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization published the Livestock’s Long Shadow report, which showed how modern farming systems degrade soils, destroy biodiversity, and contribute to global warming. The report found that “the livestock sector [is] one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”.
Despite these stark warnings, global emissions from agriculture are set to rise 60 percent by 2050, and scientists predict that this could mean missing the Paris Agreement’s climate change targets. Beef and dairy are the biggest contributors to these global agricultural emissions.
At COP26, the most recent UN climate change conference in Glasgow, campaigners protested the absence of livestock farming on the agenda, despite around 20 percent of global emissions coming from agriculture and associated industries. The Executive Director of the Human Society, Claire Bass, called this ignorance the “cow in the room,” with methane from cows accounting for about a third of global agricultural emissions.
People across the world are already reducing their meat and dairy intake to try and assuage the problem, while scientists are exploring novel ways to cut the climate impact of cows.
But whether the objective is scaling up the production of beef from low-methane cows or getting cows off the menu completely, there is one understanding in common: cows are the villains in this environmental tale.
The cows that people eat are far from “natural”. Rather, they have been engineered with goals of efficiency and docility in mind. In the face of the climate crises, this engineering has “sped up” through attempts to reduce their methane emissions and save the world—or just sell more burgers. Investments in science and technology are seeing cows being engineered in “climate-friendly” ways.
The science shows that intensive agriculture is a big problem: for the environment; for human and public health; and especially for the animals. Despite some scientists arguing that not all cows are created equal, and that smaller herds or higher-quality food could “fix” the food system, the predicted trajectory of increased meat consumption, especially in low- and middle-income countries, is going to rely even more heavily on intensive farming.
Experiments to fix the problem of climate-destroying cows have recently dominated environmental news beats: adding lemongrass and seaweed to feed; zapping cow dung with lightning; potty-training cows; and, least popular, potentially reducing livestock numbers. Producing climate-friendly cows is big business for decision-makers, governments, and producers, while appealing to supposedly environmentally-minded consumers.
However, what is rarely present in these discussions are the cows themselves, whose quality of life is devastatingly portrayed in Cow. Environmentalists frame cows in numbers, percentages, and weight contributions to methane emissions, but Andrea Arnold presents an alternative vision of cows, by seeing them as individuals. Cow portrays, in intimate and graphic detail, the mundane cruelties of eating cows and their byproducts, dispelling any lingering myths of laughing cows ambling over rolling green fields.
About an hour into the film, after the calf we saw Luma birth in the opening scene has long gone, the vet confirms that Luma is pregnant again. This time around, the audience knows what is coming. When the farmer comes to take the second calf away from Luma so that she can be hooked up to the milking machine again, her swollen udders wobble as she tries to block her calf from the farmer.
“Has she always been this bad—overprotective?” we hear Arnold ask. No, the farmer says, but now that she is having her sixth calf, she knows what is coming, and is desperately trying to prevent it by pushing back against the human.
Cow doesn’t just shine a light on the dairy industry; it forces audiences to recognize that the animals that we talk about in the abstract have real desires, feel pain, and resist their circumstances. The agency afforded to farmed animals in this new generation of animal documentary-making doesn’t just tell a story, it pushes back against totalizing narratives that ignore these individuals.
Cow shows how dominant environmental narratives seeking to “fix” cows to save the world ignore the larger problems with the animal food system, not least its built-in cruelty. Anything short of veganism will continue to see cows like Luma suffer. Ultimately, the current food system is unsustainable for not just the environment, but for the sentient animals like Luma who are conscripted into it.
Against an environmental narrative that has painted cows as a mass of emissions that must somehow be excised, Cow holds up a mirror to society, making it clear who the real villains are.
Cow is in UK Cinemas January 14 and streaming on MUBI February 11.
Catherine Oliver is a geographer and researcher currently working with ex-commercial laying hens in London at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham in 2020 and her first book, Veganism, Archives, and Animals was published with Routledge in 2021. Catherine writes widely about animals from a geographical perspective in academic and public-facing forums. She can be found on Twitter at @katiecmoliver, her website and more about her work is available here.