Mistruths in Cowspiracy

The documentary Cowspiracy questions the Surfrider Foundation as an organization and our mission of protecting the world’s coastlines. We admire film documentarians that work to uncover truths and the impacts of agricultural and livestock industry on water quality is an important topic.  However in this case, Surfrider has been misrepresented and painted as an organization that doesn’t understand or care how agriculture and feedlots impact our water. This simply is not the case.

First and foremost, the Surfrider Foundation’s driving goal is the protection of the ocean and coast. As a grassroots organization, we work with our national network of 84 local chapters and support them. As a grassroots organization, our chapters identify the coastal issue(s) that are most relevant to their local area that work towards our mission of “protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches.”

Over our 31-year history, we have developed a deep, science-based understanding of the threats to coastal water quality. While agriculture and feedlots are a factor in many locations, other areas are dominated by urban sources of water pollution. Non point source pollution is the number one source of ocean pollution and is by definition diffuse.

There are many other threats to the health of our ocean and coasts, including poorly planned coastal development, offshore oil and gas development, habitat destruction and alteration, and the impacts of climate change.

At Surfrider, we are addressing all of these issues based on the priorities of our local chapters.

Finally, our organization doesn’t support activities that contribute to ocean pollution or accept funding from corporations that do not share our vision.


Q1: How does Surfrider address coastal impacts from the agriculture industry?

Due to the wide range of sources causing damage to the ocean and coasts, each of our 84 local Chapters has the ability to choose which coastal issue(s) they would like to focus on, as long as they are working toward our mission of “protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches.” 

We also work to encourage consumers to adopt behaviors that support the improvement and protection of our ocean and coastlines.  For example, this past August we partnered with Native Foods Café on its “Veg Pledge,” which had a goal of saving 100 million gallons of water by encouraging the public to eat one vegan or vegetarian meal per week during August’s Water Quality Month.

Q2: What is Surfrider’s stance on agriculture and feedlots?

There is no question that agriculture and feedlots are a major source of ocean pollution. Both the Pew Ocean Commissions report “America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change” and the US Commission on Ocean Policy report “An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century” identify agricultural and livestock facilities as major contributors to water quality impairment. These reports go on to identify hundreds of additional threats to our coasts and oceans ranging from coastal development, offshore oil and gas development, habitat alteration, point source pollution and climate change.

As an organization dedicated to the preservation of the ocean and 100% of our coast, we work to encourage our local chapters to focus on the priority issues in their local region. We then seek to scale these issues up to the state and national scale. If a chapter focuses on an issue related to the coastal and ocean impacts of an agricultural or livestock issue, we will provide technical, scientific and legal support to address the issue. You can see our local, state and national campaigns here: http://www.surfrider.org/campaigns

Q3: What is the Surfrider Foundation doing to support ocean and coastal conservation?

Surfrider’s mission and focus is on the coastal zone, including a number of issues related to ocean and coastal use and development, such as water pollution, beach access, coastal development and near-shore ocean protection. We believe that maintaining this focus allows us to be most effective on the issues we tackle.

Some of our largest programs include Rise Above Plastics, Blue Water Task Force and the Clean Water Initiative, but these initiatives are just a sampling of the work we do, as our local chapters are currently involved in 90+ campaigns.

The majority of Surfrider’s work takes place at the local scale (63 campaigns) and at the State and Regional scale (25 campaigns). We support a few national scale campaigns (4) when they are tied to our local campaign priorities.

Q4: With all of the environmental issues society faces today, how does Surfrider focus and prioritize efforts? 

The Surfrider Foundation is a grassroots organization that prioritizes our campaigns based on the issues identified by our local chapter network that is distributed along the coasts of the United States. You can see our network of 84 chapters here: http://www.surfrider.org/chapters and a list of their 90 + campaigns here: http://www.surfrider.org/campaigns

The work we do focuses on water quality campaigns that range from offshore oil drilling to wastewater treatment facility upgrades and water recycling to improvements in water quality monitoring and reporting.

The majority of Surfrider’s work takes place at the local scale (63 campaigns) and at the State and Regional scale (25 campaigns). We support a few national scale campaigns (4) when they are tied to our local campaign priorities.

Q5: What are the primary sources of ocean pollution in coastal Southern California?

The primary source of ocean pollution in coastal Southern California is urban run off, both in dry weather and from winter storms. The Cowspiracy documentary misrepresents Surfrider CEO Dr. Chad Nelsen by trying to suggest that he is unaware of how CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) impact water quality in Southern California. This is simply not true.

In the film Dr. Nelsen is shown next to a county-scale map of the CAFOs in Southern California.  The map indicates heavy concentrations of CAFOs in Southern California, but it didn’t show the distribution of those CAFOs within the counties. Those familiar with the coastal watersheds of Southern California would know they are largely urbanized and the CAFOs tend to be found inland. Additionally, coastal counties such as San Diego, span large areas and are comprised of watersheds draining in different directions – some to the Southern California coast and others to the Sacramento Bay Delta or Gulf of California.

Further, according to the water quality experts at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, a leading water quality research organization based in Orange County, CAFOs are not a cause of water quality threats in coastal Southern California.

The bottom line is that in urbanized coastal Southern California, agricultural and livestock operations can contribute to pollutants in runoff, but because the urban landscape is so much larger in terms of area, their impact is the dominant.

Q6: Where does Surfrider funding come from?

A conspiracy implies a secret plan or agenda. Here the implication is that the Surfrider Foundation is avoiding livestock issues because it would somehow affect our funding.

The Surfrider Foundation, like most non-profits, is transparent about our sources of funding. As required by law, we do an annual independent audit that is filed with the IRS and the results are published via a form known as a 990. The Surfrider Foundation 2013 990 is freely available on our website. It also lists all of our donors over $5000. 

We are finalizing our 2014 annual report now and will be making this public shortly. If you review our 2013 annual report, you’ll note that there are no connections to large agricultural or livestock companies on the list.

Surfrider performs a rigorous due diligence process before accepting corporate donations. We work hard to avoid taking donations from corporations with poor environmental track records, companies that produce highly wasteful products or that are fighting against issues we care about. For example, we turned down support from a large soft drink company because they were fighting the ban of single use bottles in National Parks and we also turned down support from an organic jam company because their parent company was fighting GMO labeling efforts.