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Dodging the burger won't save the planet by Rob Lyons


Meat is murder, sang The Smiths. But according to a new documentary, the real problem is that meat is killing the planet – and maybe us, too.


Planeat is, pretty much, a 75-minute advert for veganism made ‘independently with absolutely no funding’ in their spare time by Shelley Lee Davies and Or Shlomi. But it’s not all hard polemic. Instead, it weaves in mouthwatering pictures of plant-based food from a variety of plush restaurants in an attempt to persuade you that not only is cutting out the animal-derived foods the ethical thing to do, but it won’t involve wearing a hairshirt, either. Not only will you be saving your health and the planet, but you’ll be discovering a whole new world of eating.

The three pillars of Planeat are T Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn and Gidon Eshel. Campbell is an American biochemist who worked on a 20-year study of Chinese diets and health and later produced a bestselling book, The China Study, which can apparently count former US president Bill Clinton among its advocates. Esselstyn is an American doctor who advocates a plant-based diet to treat heart disease. Eshel is an Israeli physics professor now working in New York with a particular interest in food and climate change.

Campbell argues that animal protein is key to the development of disease, particularly cancer. So he explains research he conducted in rats, which showed that when fed a diet of a milk protein, casein, rats will develop liver tumours. However, when fed plant proteins, the rats did not develop cancer. Campbell also points to the results of the research in China – an apparently perfect place to conduct such research given the relative homogeneity of the population, which he says supports the conclusion that ‘people who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease’.

Esselstyn believes that a plant-based diet can not only prevent heart disease but also reverse it. He claims in the film that in his first batch of patients, all but one avoided a repetition of heart problems as a result of a plant-based diet – and the odd one out had simply strayed from the path of enlightenment. Esselstyn shows off some remarkable-looking scans of patients’ arteries that he says indicate the transformation of their health after cutting out meat and dairy products.

As for saving the planet, the film shows Australian philosopher Peter Singer declaring that ‘Nothing changes the face of our planet as much as the way we produce our food. You have to think about the choices you make in terms of what you eat as choices with ethical consequences.’ It’s a view fully endorsed by Eshel: ‘Most people have no greater spatial effect than their dietary choices’, he says. Eshel argues that by switching from meat and dairy to a plant-only diet, our ecological footprints would fall dramatically.

Unsurprisingly, these claims are disputable. Campbell has been criticised for a rather selective approach to the data, making claims about links between animal protein intake and liver cancer, for example, that just aren’t supportable. As Denise Minger points out in a critique of The China Study, there are better explanations for some of the disease links Campbell makes and it’s even the case that many of the plant foods that he praises have stronger correlations with disease than animal food.

Which all makes Esselstyn’s claims a bit harder to swallow. Unless we could conduct long-term trials on his methods, it is difficult to tell whether Esselstyn is really achieving the miraculous results he claims and whether those results are due to cutting out meat and dairy products. We have to fall back on the kind of epidemiological evidence that Campbell cites – and that doesn’t really support Esselstyn’s case. A point slipped in at the end of the film, however, is that we’re not just talking about a plant-based diet – we’re talking about a whole foods diet, too. That means excluding all the sugary and easily digestible stodge, too, not just animal foods. Could it be that it that it is the rapid increase in carbohydrate consumption in recent decades that has caused increasing obesity, heart disease and type-2 diabetes, as other authors like Gary Taubes claim? To the extent that Esselstyn has identified something of therapeutic benefit, it may well have nothing to do with cutting out the meat.

As it happens, while Campbell and Esselstyn’s dietary suggestions won’t kill anybody, they might just bore them to death. In the film, Esselstyn’s wife Anne gives a little cookery class in how to make a kale and lemon sandwich. Yes, a cabbage butty, with no-oil, no-tahini houmous and lemon juice. She thought it the greatest thing ever. My impression was that it’s just the kind of thing that gives veganism a reputation for crankiness. Still, it’s better than self-flagellation, I guess.

Eshel’s claims that avoiding animal foods will save the planet seemed dubious, too. It’s an idea that has already been roundly and convincingly criticised by former Ecologist editor Simon Fairlie in his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance. For instance, using animals allows food to be produced in all sorts of places – like hilly pasture and semi-arid desert – where growing crops would just not work. The film also suggests that small-scale organic production is better – an idea that would involve ploughing up billions of acres of land to make up for the productive shortfall that organic agriculture inevitably entails. At the London Green Festival screening that I attended, the Friends of the Earth representative accepted that some animal food production was probably beneficial.

What was pretty much absent from the film was any discussion of animal rights. Having failed to win over anything like a majority of people to the idea of eating plants as a way of avoiding ‘cruelty’, it seems that vegans have adopted the tactic of trying to convince us that we should eat tofu to save our own lives. But if the issue of animal rights is sidelined - it was always a dubious idea anyway - there is no basis for being vegan. The evidence that it is healthier is unconvincing. If our current method of meat production is really screwing up the planet – and that claim seemed rather overcooked – then we can always change our production methods.

The one thing we don’t have to do is give up on all that lovely steak, chicken, bacon and cheese. As ever with green campaigning films, in Planeat problems are exaggerated and the ecological message – eat less, travel less, apologise for your existence generally – trumps all potential alternative solutions. While it may be considerably less hectoring than many other such eco-films, Planeat is still an unappealing dish.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. Read his blog here.

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