Author: Nate from Vegetatio
Cowspiracy and What the Health Review
The vegan documentary What the Health launched in March of this year, and has received much backlash. From the same creators as Cowspiracy, these documentaries essentially serve to scare the population into consuming a plant-based diet.
The creators signed on big name producers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Joaquin Phoenix in order to provide some authority and credibility to their work. The documentaries analyze veganism through two lenses; for Cowspiracy, the lens is the environment, or climate change. For What the Health, the lens is personal health.
What the Health and Cowspiracy Facts and Sources
I have watched both of these documentaries, as well as done a sufficient amount of background researching into the articles and sources they use (spoiler: they're not very good). Therefore, I am at least somewhat qualified to provide this review.
As a student of data, I have several problems with the way these films represent numbers, and many others share this concern. The best way to summarize is that while Cowspiracy makes some accurate claims, they cherry pick statistics and numbers that over-represent how much influence animal agriculture has on climate change. Don't get me wrong, animal agriculture is a very significant factor in climate change, but it is not the end-all be-all that the documentary claims. This factors a bit into what I think the real problem with these documentaries are, which actually has very little to do with their misguiding statistics.
In response to criticisms, Cowspiracy was kind enough to address all them on their website. The more recent What the Health is receiving backfire for similar reasons. Although it seems the two documentaries do use mostly reputable sources, their lineup of experts is clearly quite biased, which doesn't help their credibility. Even if their credibility is not great, I do think their mission is noble, and it is one I subscribe to (just not in the extreme way they demand).
With food studies, there are often many opposing sides of the science, and presenting the "truth" will almost always be met with resistance from another faction. This mechanism is exemplified by the ever-changing opinions on whether fats, carbs, or calories are the biggest contributor to obesity. Because of this, it's no surprise that people are resistant to the claims that these documentaries make. However, my primary issue with the films is not with their accuracy, but another stance they take.
The Real Problem With What the Health and Cowspiracy
If you're able to look past the shady stats, there is still one thing that makes these documentaries invalid.
Kuhn and Andersen present What the Health and Cowspiracy as an all or nothing initiative.
To these men, the only way we can see any success on this front is by having the entire U.S. population adopt a vegan diet. This goal is incredibly lofty and, frankly, outrageously unrealistic, seeing as vegans make up less than one percent of the U.S. population. With such a strict and extreme call to action, the movable middle is much less likely to hop on.
Watching these documentaries made me feel alienated, and I was already a vegetarian when I first watched them. If I felt that alienated, I can only imagine how omnivores felt. Some of these people recycle, ride their bike, own and electric car, or donate money to sustainability foundations. Why would anyone of those descriptions feel anything but anger once being told their efforts weren't good enough?
This level of extremism is the worst way to gain support for a cause.
This rings especially true when attempting to dramatically change someone's diet, a habit that is culturally ingrained from the moment we are born. People take their food very seriously, and will swear by the current norms of food consumption. This isn't because people are madly in love with meat (side note: I have never really understood the love for bacon), but it's because they are afraid of a total lifestyle shift.
Even as advocates of plant-based diets, we understand that dramatically transitioning someone's diet can be difficult, scary, or just not right for them. That said, everyone can benefit from occasionally introducing vegan meals, if only for the reason that they can be really delicious! However, it seems that there is a growing divide and alienation between vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters.
According to research by the London School of Economics, consumers were 56% less likely to order the vegetarian options on a menu if they were separate from the rest of the menu. This shows that the average consumer is willing to eat these meals, but once the identity is attached, that consumer feels like they no longer belong.
There is a long list of stereotypes for vegans and vegetarians, including that it'll be the first thing they tell you when they meet you. There is also a certain stigma of vegans and vegetarians that involves obnoxiousness and shoving-diet-down-your-throat. Whatever the truth about these stereotypes, documentaries like What the Health and Cowspiracy surely help to perpetuate them, which is, well, bad.
Dr. Richard Oppenlander in Cowspiracy even goes as far as to criticize the Meatless Monday Campaign, saying that the program is just giving people an excuse to give up on the planet the other six days of the week. Oppenlander does not seem to understand that a dramatic change of diet needs to be nurtured within a culture. Meatless Monday shows that people can make a small difference, and learn more about a cause in a way that doesn't need them to take the most extreme route.
What's the Takeaway?
Both of these documentaries are worth watching (with a grain of salt). However, try to be more open than the closed-mindedness that the documentaries portray.
You can make a large difference by simply cutting out meat 1 day a week.
You can make a difference by simply adopting a vegetarian diet.
You can make a difference by trying out a meat substitute.
You can make a difference by riding your bike instead of driving.
Honestly, the documentaries may be more successful at alienating eaters than at converting them, which is ultimately an unrealistic expectation to push. At the same time, keep in mind that the claims made in the documentary have some truth to them. Ideally, we can create a better world by taking the facts in these documentaries, and implementing them into our lives at a reasonable pace.
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