If You Watch Common Ground, Please Watch It Carefully.

5 Mins Read

The new documentary about the broader regenerative agriculture movement has debuted to a host of accolades and positive reviews, and its emphasis on smallholder farms and indigenous voices is welcome and inspiring. But the film also makes a host of unsubstantiated claims so viewers beware.

Common Ground is a documentary about soil health and the benefits of regenerative agriculture. It was written, produced, and directed by Joshua Tickell, Rebecca Tickell, Johnny O’Hara, and Eric Dillon – the same folks behind the 2020 documentary Kiss the Ground – and it features a star-studded cast including Woody Harrelson, Jason Momoa, Donald Glover, Laura Dern, Rosario Dawson, and Ian Somerhalder. The film opened to glowing reviews, winning the Human/Nature Award at the 2023 Tribeca Festival Competition and receiving an 8.8/10 on IMDb and 75% on Rotten Tomatoes (as of this writing).

At its best, the film reminds us of the virtues of organic farming – virtues shared with regenerative agriculture. By adopting an ecosystem approach and working with nature (rather than against it), we can use time-tested principles like rotating crops or maintaining cover crops, implementing low/no-till, and fixing nitrogen with plants (like legumes) to reduce our reliance on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

Common Ground, and the broader regenerative agriculture movement, emphasizes the growing importance of preserving and building soil health. Despite our differences, the soil beneath our feet is the one thing that we all have in common. The film makes a sincere effort to bring people together, and it shares the microphone with an impressive range of diverse voices who are often left out of the food sustainability conversation. It profiles forward-thinking smallholder farmers like Gabe Brown, and it celebrates black and indigenous farmers instead of glossing over their essential contributions.

No matter who you are, and no matter your diet –  Vegan, Keto, Paleo, etc. – we all have the soil to thank for the nutrients in the food we eat. But that soil is degrading at an alarming rate, and so is the nutrient density of the food it produces. According to National Geographic, “Mounting evidence from multiple scientific studies shows that many fruits, vegetables, and grains grown today carry less protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C than those that were grown decades ago. This is an especially salient issue if more people switch to primarily plant-based diets, as experts are increasingly recommending for public health and for protecting the planet.”

But for all of its virtues, the film still has its vices. Some of its claims stretch too far. Others actively undermine meaningful gains being made in sustainability and public health. This is why Common Ground needs to be watched carefully. Because if the film is simply taken at face value, we may – collectively – be taking one step forward and two steps back. Here are just a few of the claims that warrant deeper reflection.

1. Suggesting that the USDA’s dietary guidelines can’t be trusted

The problem isn’t the guidelines. The problem is low adherence to the guidelines. Only 12.3% of Americans eat their daily fruit, and only 10% eat their daily vegetables. But Americans eat more beef than any other country on the planet. Further, the film was quick to point out the cancer risk of Glyphosate (something the US EPA and the IARC disagree about), but neglected to mention that red meat itself is classified by The World Health Organization as a Group 2A carcinogen as “probably carcinogenic to humans…showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer” (WHO). The only cause of death greater than cancer – both in America and globally – is heart disease, and the evidence is clear. Researchers at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health conducted the largest-ever systematic review including 13 cohort studies involving more than 1.4 million people, and they found that each 50 grams per day higher intake of processed meat increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 18% and each 50 grams per day higher intake of unprocessed red meat increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 9%.

2. Implying that grass-fed beef can help you live 5 years longer

Compared to conventionally raised beef, grass-fed beef does contain approximately double the Omega-3s. Further, Omega-3s have been associated with an additional 4.7 years of longevity, but the study focused on Omega-3s from oily fish. To match a single 3-ounce serving of salmon, you’d have to eat 5 pounds of grass-fed beef. Alternatively, you could eat 5 walnuts. That’s not 5 pounds of walnuts; that’s 5 nuts total.

3. Claiming that grass-fed beef is carbon-negative

The film quickly flashes up a bar chart with three bars – one for conventionally-raised beef, one for plant-based meat, and one for grass-fed “regenerative” beef – each in declining order, with only grass-fed beef showing a negative carbon impact. But this claim needs serious substantiation because the greenhouse gas emissions from beef dwarf every other protein source by magnitudes. The vast majority of beef’s emissions footprint comes from land use, and, by definition, regenerative grazing requires more land.

4. Ignoring livestock’s role in deforestation

At present, 46% of all habitable land is used for agriculture and 77% of that goes to livestock. To accommodate increasing demand, agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. Fully 41% of global deforestation and 80% of Amazon deforestation is driven by beef production. Deforestation is also the leading cause of biodiversity loss. And intensive grazing is a major cause of desertification. Desertification: exactly what regenerative grazing aims to solve.

5. Dismissing all university research as implicitly biased and suggesting a grand conspiracy

Yes, research requires funding. Yes, sometimes funding creates a conflict of interest. But dismissing all research and all institutions as inherently untrustworthy does more harm than good. If we can’t trust our government, our universities, our corporations, or our scientists…Who can we trust? Is distrust really the main message of this film? Because if it is, the film is either misnamed or it misses the mark. Surely a better takeaway from a film called “Common Ground ” is that we all need to find a way to work together – even if trust is at an all-time low and even if our food systems are in desperate need of repair.

Common Ground got so many things right, and there is so much good in the regenerative movement. But resorting to unsubstantiated claims, celebrity appeal, anecdotal evidence, and discrediting our institutions is not the way forward. Ruminants may have a unique role to play in a regenerative system, but we can’t ignore their negative impacts. If they are necessary to preserve and build soil health, one simple question can help us quantify and test it. 

How many cows do we need? 

Maybe by answering that question together we can finally find common ground.

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