I saw this movie at the same Whole Foods™ film festival as the previous film reviewed, however, this one has very little merit as it is pure propaganda for the “plant-based diet” that is part of the Whole Foods agenda and it is completely transparent in this mission from the very first scene at the beginning of the film so this review will be chiefly composed of descriptions of how this movie is attempting to skew data and manipulate the audience towards its goal. This is not to say that other films are completely objective or anything ridiculous like that, however, because of my familiarity with many of the topics that this film purports to represent “truthfully” I am in a unique position to see exactly how it is that this film attempted to manipulate me versus a film on a topic I know nothing about or where I am sympathetic to the position represented from the beginning.
This film is essentially an attempt to be the movie version or companion to T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study” book. As such, it relies mainly on him, his studies, and his conclusions though not exclusively. In addition to Campbell, a fair amount of time is also given to this Israeli scientist who attempts to construct the environmental argument against meat and dairy and Dr. Esselstyn who follows the line of cardiac event prevention.
The arc of this film is more or less character driven with T. Colin Campbell playing the role of the determined truthseeker going against the grain for what is right. However, in addition to this, you have an alternate line which has to do with how delicious a plant-based diet can be. The montage of the film is thus an intercutting between interviews that instill fear into the hearts of omnivores and shots of chefs preparing complicated, high end vegan food. The tack is obvious, the first line makes you want to give up meat while the second line shows you how delicious it can be to do so.
All right, so already from the way in which the montage is organized we can already see how transparent this film is about its agenda to get you to give up meat. At the beginning of the film you have a dinner scene which begins promisingly by describing how we all have a complex relationship to food and from there decides to focus on meat and dairy exclusively which I find very interesting. Food qua food has an impact on health, the environment, and so on and yet no reason is given for why we must investigate animal products and not plant products. This is the first instance in which cultural assumptions and just-so stories are used so that nothing is actually explained.
T. Colin Campbell presents his moving story of a boy from a dairy farm realizing that he needs to give up animal products based on his research but what isn’t explained to the audience are experimental design, the difference between a whole food and an isolated substance, and the problems with epidemiological correlations. So, when Campbell describes his experiment where cancer growth is promoted by feeding mice isolated casein, he generalizes this to mean that dairy is cancer promoting, a jump which is not feasible yet this is the implication from the film. Dairy, however, is not isolated casein and we cannot treat it like so. For instance, there have been experiments in which actual dairy has been used and an association has been found between low-fat milk and colorectal cancer while no association has been found between colorectal cancer and whole milk. Obviously, there is more to the story here. More that is not even hinted at by the movie which instead prefers to simplify and generalize.
The film, however, presents Campbell as someone who understands that he needs to prove that animal protein is bad in a human study or no one will take him seriously. He decides to do this by engaging in an epidemiological study in China. Of course, the film doesn’t explain anything about what epidemiology is or what its limitations are because that would create a few problems for the idea of “proving” anything. Epidemiology by its nature is observational and so epidemiology can present correlations which may be used to produce hypotheses which may then be tested in an experiment to see if it is, in fact, a causative factor or not. For instance, if it is snowing and everyone outside is wearing a coat, you have a correlation between snow and coats. You cannot, however, conclude from this that coats cause it to snow. This is the problem endemic to epidemiology and why it cannot actually prove anything. This is why it is very interesting that this film presents the data from the China Study as Campbell’s attempt to prove that meat is bad. This is also the problem with Dr. Esselstyn. Apparently, the intervention trials he performed with his patients had no control group and a high dropout rate which makes concluding anything from them very difficult. You need a base in order to compare how much of a difference your intervention made, furthermore, when you have dropouts the group you are studying stops being random and becomes selected. Maybe everyone who was doing badly on the vegan diet dropped out giving the impression that the vegan diet was 100% effective for preventing heart attacks since only those for whom it was effective actually stayed on the diet until the conclusion of the study. None of this is explained in the film, however, so that the impression is simply given that meat causes cancer and heart attacks and that Dr. Esselstyn and T. Colin Campbell have found the answer.
Gidon Eshel performs this same procedure for his environmental argument against meat. He produces a bunch of statistics without explaining how they were formulated and then uses mathematical equations that remain hidden in order to tell us that meat has the worst carbon footprint ever. Very little attention at all is paid to production methods except for one small section of the film which I shall get into later. In other words, he acts as an authority we must trust, after all, he’s a professor. The problem with all the information that he presents is that, even if he is completely correct, he has provided no argument whatsoever against meat consumption. He’s only provided an argument against the production of meat in the mode of the factory farm. I can get behind that. There is no question that the factory farm is environmentally destructive but this cannot be generalized to mean that all methods of producing meat are environmentally destructive. This contradiction, however, does become apparent in a small section of the film where Eshel visits a small scale farmer who raises grass-fed cattle. While earlier, Eshel says some jargon that isn’t explained clearly about how c-reactive protein is a marker of pollution in water produced by effluent from raising livestock and that the levels of c-reactive protein are the same whether it is a conventional or organic operation, once he gets down on this small scale, grass-fed farm he admits that there is no c-reactive protein being produced here. This is the only admission of this extremely large and important caveat to what he is advocating and this section doesn’t last long. If we examine more closely then this type of diversified smallholding operation, we can see that no waste is produced and marginal land is made use of and carbon is sequestered. When you have a closed loop farm you have cows that produce manure that fertilizes crops, the cows also eat the grass that spurs growth that sequesters carbon, and the cows provide meat and dairy for the farmers from land that would otherwise not be very useful. This alternative that allows for meat consumption without environmental degradation is hastily dismissed as being impossible on a large scale. It is simple enough to say such things but no explanation is given as to why it is not viable to have more of these sorts of smallholdings. Let us not forget that conventionally produced food is no more efficient than organically produced food and yet many still believe this is the case because it seems so very “obvious.” Global problems will not be solved by imposing from the top global solutions. We must think beyond linearity and numbers. Something which Eshel seems to be unable to do, obsessed with data manipulation as he is.
Another issue I have with this film is that the confounding of variables is not explained at all. People who are at risk for a heart attack are put on a vegan diet by Dr. Esselstyn after which they are able to live out the rest of their years heart attack free. Now, did these people avoid the heart attack because they stopped eating meat, because they stopped eating dairy, because they reduced sugar intake, because they reduced refined grains, because they reduced fats and oils, because they increased vegetable intake, because they increased nutrient density, because they decreased caloric intake, or because they increased fiber intake? It’s hard to attribute a cause because all these changes tend to travel together and considering how many of the cooking examples in the film involved people sautéing in liquids and not oils, you can bet that the amount of polyunsaturated fats consumed fell. In one part, Campbell tells an audience that if they become vegan but only eat processed vegan foods, they will not be healthy. This is a very interesting statement because if disease is unequivocally caused by meat and dairy then a vegan diet, even if that diet is just processed wheat and soy, should still protect you against heart attacks and cancer. Whether it is a whole foods diet or not should not matter so long as meat and dairy are excluded. This statement gives away a ton of information. First, the implication is that most people are coming from a diet high in processed food to his unprocessed vegan diet. So is the main change that protects against disease the absence of meat and dairy or the absence of processed foods? Considering that Esselstyn and Campbell have produced no convincing results about meat and dairy being harmful, I’m betting that the main benefit is from getting rid of processed foods. This would make a lot more sense considering that heart disease has increased only in the last hundred years, the same hundred years in which processed grain, sugar, and vegetable oil intake has gone up. This would also explain why a lot of indigenous groups who have diets high in meat and dairy like the Masai have no heart disease or cancer and this would also explain why a lot of indigenous groups start to get cancer, heart disease, and diabetes once they switch to a western industrial diet. In any case, the correlations that Campbell drew from his China Study data set do not even show his conclusions. There have been critiques done of his data which show that, for instance, where meat is correlated with colorectal cancer, chronic schistosomiasis infections are common. Once you look at areas that have high meat consumption where there are no cases of chronic schistosomiasis infections, you completely lose any correlation between meat and colorectal cancer. If you’re curious about how much Campbell’s own data does not support his conclusions, you should take a look at some of the links I have listed at the end of this review.
The prescription given by this film that if you change your diet, you’re done with your responsibility to the environment is also quite limited as it constrains an individual into only being allowed to express him or herself via consumer action. We can do more than just manipulate our buying choices but this is a very useful message for Whole Foods to promote of course since it wants to sell you more stuff especially expensive stuff that you want to buy because buying it makes you feel less guilty about being alive. Another thing to consider is how little the problem of grains is given air-time in this film. I believe there is one small part in which factory farming’s environmental degradation is tied to the fact that we have huge grain monocultures done for the purpose of feeding livestock and therein lies the bigger problem: grains. We subsidize them so that they are cheap enough to be put in virtually everything processed that they can be put in and used for animal feed. Without subsidized grain, I am not sure how feasible factory farming would be, not to mention that if animals actually ate the food they’re adapted to eat they would not be getting sick all the time and require the amount of antibiotics we give them. Without grain monocultures we could raise livestock on marginal grasslands, sequester carbon, and then recycle their manure to grow more vegetables and other higher quality plant foods on those lands that used to grow grain monocultures. A vision to strive for but difficult to achieve with the corporate control of the government this country now has.
Incidentally, soymilk and seitan were featured quite often in this film and who benefits from the sale of these products? The food processors of course. So whether you eat meat or not, Monsanto doesn’t care just so long as in some way, shape, or form you eat their crops. You can eat Monsanto via bread, soymilk, seitan, conventional beef, tofu, cake, or chicken nuggets and they don’t care which you choose just so long as you choose.
In conclusion, this is an interesting film to watch as far as seeing how propaganda works in its full spin but do not be fooled by it. Nothing is ever as simple as a film purports to make it, especially diet. You just have to make your own decisions and don’t trust anybody’s slogan or trust any so-called “authority” to tell you the truth.
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