The Netflix documentary is the latest viral documentary tackling the American food complex and every one of us has had a bevy of Facebook friends announcing they were going cold turkey vegan…or is it cold tofu vegan?
Produced by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, who are also the minds behind Cowspiracy, What the Healthy (WTH) has definitely made a splash. In turn, I find it to be an excellent lesson on the downfalls of propaganda highlighting how much we as society love to be lied to as long as the lie speaks to our emotional sensibility.
People love to be lied to. This is not indicative of any race, culture or ethnicity. Most of us don’t even know how much we love to be lied to. We say things like “I just choose to focus or find joy in the world.” “Just focus on the good parts” We don’t realize how much we push back against critical thought and dialogue. This is really nothing more than an optimistically lazy approach that defies the purpose of critical thought. Critical thought and dialogue for many is uncomfortable because it’s puts on their nose the changes they need to make and the work that needs to be done. It’s uncomfortable because it’s easy to find comfort in messages that reaffirm our own choices, no matter how dubious the messenger is.
We live in a capitalistic society where private wealth is what we are all chasing after. We are averse to change that confronts our own role in admiring qualities of the oppressor and embodying it in ourselves, our own greed, or own desire to accumulate and own things…
From religion to food we construct ideologies that allow us to live in our comforts without too many harsh liabilities confronting us.
What the Health opens with Dr. Robert Ratner who was formerly the Chief Scientific & Medical Officer for the American Diabetes Association. Kip is asking him about the links between diabetes and diet, when Dr. Ratner ends the interview. Nutrition science, is a burgeoning scientific field, that because of how nutrition and the individual works, can lend itself to being a rather subjective playing field. For almost any food theory there is a study or a subsequent interpretation of said study that reaffirms any side of the debate on food. Will we ever find a consensus on eggs + cholesterol? It’s not so much a conspiracy as it is precaution in Dr. Ratner not wanting to unknowingly create a frenzy commenting on studies he wasn’t given the time to review.
It’s amusing that people made it through the first ten minutes of What the Health and were are not like “is this guy serious?” Kip positions it as profound that he didn’t realize that processed meat included deli meat, hot dogs and bacon. He’s positing that people don’t realize hot dogs are unhealthy food items.
We then see Kip calling the 1-800 number for the American Cancer Society expecting to get scientific answers from the customer service rep. The person who is likely getting paid $12/hour to forward you to the correct local resources in your community. He does this with several organizations and is aghast when he consistently finds out that the person in the call center doesn’t have the answers about the science behind the food that is featured on the websites. Just about every organization outsources web development and content handling to federally approved firms. I know because I use to work at one of those firms. Customer service was an entirely different department that’s equipped to do little more than forward you along. And this is the foundation Kip is building his argument on? Googling things, then calling the 1-800 number to question the first person he gets on the phone about the things he found on Google.
Here is the problem, you can’t present half truths as a factual arguments. You can state them as unequivocally fact, like “eggs are more toxic than cigarettes.” Once you enter the territory of manipulation, in that you are manipulating information to get people to agree with you rather than engaging in a critical dialogue, your credibility is gone. It means nothing to me that people are going vegan off this documentary when they are not considering how we got here and what the holistic impact our diets have within the global eco-system. When they don’t understand anything about how the data Kip pushes forward works. What is nutrition science? You’re just going vegan cause someone told you that meat is bad and vegan is healthy. But how did we get to diets that are based on consumed unhealthy meat?
Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress. – Paulo Freire
What has largely shifted how Americans consume foods, and subsequently lead to meat being so unhealthy is: Mass production. Our gleaming suburban grocery stores with fresh produce sections piled high and aisles full of every food group. How do you keep those grocery stores stocked? There’s two wings on a chicken, when chicken wings went from being a food consumed by poor Black folks to the du jour popular bar food of American society, when it went from the thing folks were harvesting themselves, to needing to be readily available in every grocery store. How did we do that? The post war boom of the 1950s saw the shift in the politics of food in America and how we consume said food.
On both sides of the debate, there’s anecdotal stories that suggest why either lifestyle works towards longer lives. My great grandmother was born in 1904 and grew up eating all the fat off the meat. From the chitterling to the ear, the more gelatinous the better. And she passed away at 99 years old. That doesn’t mean that eating animal fat will not lead to heart disease for myself. That a similar diet would not be superbly unhealthy for myself and there are a host of intricate reasons as to why her diet and lifestyle allowed her to live a long life.
It’s noble that Kip shows how zoning of an industry often creates a negative burden on Black and brown communities, as he uses the example of pig farming. Several episodes on the Reveal podcast break down how the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies often fails poor neighborhoods, criminalizing their advocates. Industry throughout America have risen and bulldozed straight through brown and black poor communities. From highways and airports to pig farms, tire factories and almond farms. Everything is political, even your bananas.
I encourage you to consider the politics behind how food is manufactured in America. Something What the Health doesn’t truly explore, as it spends the bulk of it’s time asserting the absolute fact that any meat product is poisonous. Kip references of a slew of studies backing his claims and they are linked to on the What the Health website. You can click through a number of them, to find that he’s either overstating the claims, it was not peer reviewed, or he’s taking the study entirely out of context. This is not an argument on whether the studies that support veganism are accurate, but rather how What the Health attempts to misconstrue the studies so they can speak in absolutes.
We as the middle class do directly impact the access to food that further disenfranchised communities have. Telling people to go vegan cause meat is poisonous and not addressing the food desserts that largely exist in black and brown lower income communities, is dubious at best. If you’re vegan and you still buy groceries at Walmart what are you really doing? You can be vegan and still eat processed foods, what’s a soy product?
By all means go vegan and choose whatever lifestyle works for you. Overall the push towards veganism does have very solid legs when you approach it from an animal advocacy standpoint. That’s the strongest factual argument one can make for veganism. Which is likely why you heard so few negative critiques of Kip and Keegan’s Cowspiracy documentary. But everyone is not going to be moved by the idea of animal rights. What the Health attempts to speak to the “I” the individual, the emotions of self and wildly overstates claims.
There is absolutely truth in the benefits of a plant based diet. But we can’t just focus on one part of a massive structure and overlook who everything plays into the system. What about eating whole foods and supporting locally grown foods? Making sure our farmers markets take food stamps and that they are accessible to poor communities. Teaching urban residents how to grow their own foods to supplement how out of reach a plant based diet may be to them. There’s a whole extra headache for you when you discuss how food is sourced and how that impacts the environment, climate change and international communities. But you are much better able to improve upon your impact in this whole eco-system when you’re equipped to think about it critically.
Think about where your food comes from, how it’s produced and harvested. Give people the tools to understand the mechanics that uphold the system that got us here. I would definitely recommend checking out In Defense of Food on Netflix, you will walk away with more insight and ways to think deeper about the food you consume and how you’re going to walk into a healthier lifestyle. It does not attempt to make up your mind for you, but rather spread out the information for you find.
As much as one might want to say What the Health is harmless, because if more people go vegan and veganism is healthy then what’s the problem? But this is not about dissing veganism. It’s about the issue with a film that uses propaganda and manipulated data to push an agenda. When we realize how we have a society that’s built on seeing us as people who are unable to have intelligent thoughts, that are only emotional reactionaries and are things that need to have thoughts simply dumped into, we’ll realize how many of the structures stand against us, and what will be needed to dismantle them. This is only a beginning step in encouraging critical thinking. I have no interest in telling you exactly what believe, I want you to find it for yourself and engage in a dialogue that allows us to pull our intelligence out from within.
If what I believe in is so right, I can advocate it with honesty and facts. Veganism has the right to be advocated in the spirit of honesty without the misconstruing, overstating or manipulation of information.