Friday, July 14, 2017

On Hedges' Veganism Claims

Chris Hedges' recent article, "Eating Our Way to Disease," largely just advertises the new doc What the Health:
"Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn—whose documentary Cowspiracy, about the environmental impact of the animal agriculture industry, led me to become a vegan—recently released a new film, What the Health, which looks at how highly processed animal products are largely responsible for the increase of chronic and lethal diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the United States and many other countries."
Eating vegan is more ethical from an animal rights point of view. I believe it's healthier for the body to eat way more vegetables than meat and that it's much more efficient for people to eat grains than to feed grains to cattle and then eat the cows. From a moral, nutritional, and environmental perspective, I support the shift to veganism or at least vegetarianism, or, at the very least, reducetarianism. Absolutely.


I wrote about some concerns with Hedges' praise of Cowpiracy before:
"The documentary Cowspiracy claims that 51% of GHG emissions are from agriculture (scrutinized here). Every other report on emissions has much lower numbers, including the IPCC, which puts it at 24%.... It's still up there, and it's definitely something we should act on by eating way less meat, but that 51% number seems to be seriously questionable. Documentaries need fact-checking too....But then Chris Hedges started praising the documentary and citing that number as fact. Yes, even the great Chris Hedges doesn't have time to fact-check everything he sees, and his bullshit meter must have been subdued from all the footage of suffering animals. When facts are reported inaccurately, but they help the cause, it's harder to be motivated to correct them. But it doesn't make them any less inaccurate."
Those last two lines linger.

First of all, we need to acknowledge the three-dimensional nature of all of us, neither demonizing nor glorifying anyone. I tend to think of Hedges as a bit of a hero, and he's clearly intelligent, but it appears that that doesn't stop him from being a little sloppy around some facts. Others have raised concerns around plagiarism, and his response there is perplexing. Well, it's only perplexing if we think of him as better than the rest of us fallible souls.

But secondly, if these shocking claims encourage people to eat less meat, which will have a positive effect on the environment (not quite as much as claimed, though), then should we just let it go? A Lund University study shows that eating a plant-based diet is one of the four most important activities individuals should do to affect climate change. The amount of meat we eat is definitely a problem. Should we let people think meat-eating is as bad as these films suggest? I think not. I fear it runs the risk of a Reefer Madness backlash. Once teens realize that their health teacher's tales of people jumping off a building after one toke from a marijuana cigarette are total bullshit, then they stop believing anything else from them. They need to know the real problems with smoking pot, and there are some, in order to make an informed choice. If Hedges supports claims that are a little bullshitty, then people might stop listening to any of it and continue to eat meat several times a day despite some real problems with that.

And then he boasts that the companion book to the new movie was written by his wife.

Her book's reviews on Amazon are mostly glowing, some reviewers suggesting they're using the book in their high-school classrooms (which feels more like a pitch than a review), but the criticisms there addresses specific concerns, many with solid backing:
"This is nothing but fear mongering at its best. You simply cannot say that processed meats cause as many deaths as tobacco, it's factually impossible! There are 34,000 deaths per year on average (W.H.O estimates) from processed AND red meats. There are over 8,000,000 deaths from tobacco every year. This is no way, shape, or form comparable to processed meats."
Here and elsewhere people are taking to task another claim from the book and film that beef is toxic because pollution gets in the cows when they eat grass, since it's obvious that the same pollution would get into vegetables and grains that we eat. Denise Minger does a thorough take-down of claims from Dr. Garth Davis, one of the experts from the film. And the Skeptical Cardiologist questions some claims from another expert, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, as does Minger.

I don't have any interest in seeing the film or reading the book, but I skimmed the Amazon "look inside" pages, and this bit caught my attention (page 75):
"People who ate 68 grams (about a cup) of broccoli sprouts significantly inhibited the bloodstream levels of an enzyme linked to cancerous tumor development (24), only three hours after eating the sprouts. The broccoli sprout snack was just as effective, or even more so, than the chemotherapy agent specifically concocted to lower that enzyme (25). Broccoli sprouts or chemo? Hard decision." 
Hold the phone - so broccoli can replace chemo?? I linked the studies cited to show the problem with this claim. The second study (25) found that the spouts briefly inhibited the epigenetic markers for cancer. But it makes it very clear that the study was  an attempt to prevent one specific provocation, not a therapy for cancer that exists. The three (three!) participants tested were all perfectly healthy at the time. And, as Wong says elsewhere, genetic markers cause only a small percentages of cancerous tumours anyway. The first study cited (24) explains the idea, but doesn't actually discuss the broccoli sprout study specifically as one would expect given the location of the citation in the passage. If it were a student's essay, I'd call that padding. Regardless, the original study's finding is in its initial stages and, more importantly, doesn't remotely suggest broccoli sprouts could replace chemotherapy in the least. Wong conflated concepts in a very misleading way.

I'm not going to fact check the many claims in the book, but one error of this type and magnitude is enough to throw into question other claims. And this passage is particularly dangerous if people take Wong, a classically trained actor, as a medical expert because the claim is published in a book about health and nutrition. I questioned the qualifications of the publisher and, lo and behold, it's a self-publishing company, Xlibris, so it's possible that nobody's fact-checked the material. Unfortunately, because it's in a paper form, it feels that much more legit. Caveat emptor and all, but this is troubling.

It's more important than ever that people understand how publishing works, what a peer-reviewed journal entails, and what is and is not peer-reviewed. But it's also important that we all understand some basics of the scientific method if we're expected to understand any of these studies. Or, at least, it would be nice if authors of nutritional books and films were able to use a basic scientific knowledge to understand their research more thoroughly. You don't have to have a medical degree to assimilate studies and form a conclusion, but you do have to read past the abstract.

ETA: Time Magazine also criticized the film.

ETA: I was sent two links by email that might suggest Hedges' claims are accurate. The first one says, "The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined," but when I checked the link they provide (which is dead, but it can be deduced from the address that it's from chapter 8 of the IPCC report), the only place that specifically discusses animal agriculture is in section 8.7.4, where it says,
"A single year’s worth of current global emissions from the energy and industrial sectors have the largest contributions to warming after 100 years (see Figure 8.34a). Household fossil fuel and biofuel, biomass burning and on-road transportation are also relatively large contributors to warming over 100-year time scales. Those same sectors, along with sectors that emit large amounts of CH4 (animal husbandry, waste/ landfills and agriculture), are most important over shorter time horizons (about 20 years; see Figure 8.34b)" (p 720). 
This isn't quite the same thing as the first link claims, and I'm not sure how they arrived at their conclusion.

The second link refers to a study on reducing the impact of food production: "our findings support an approach where producers monitor their own impacts, flexibly meet environmental targets by choosing from multiple practices, and communicate their impacts to consumers." They don't suggest that people go vegan, but that farming practices change towards using natural pastures instead of deforested land. The article says, specifically, that "cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent." Again, that's not the same as concluding that animal agriculture produces more GHGs than fossil fuels.


Lorne said...

Thanks for the reminder of the vital role critical thinking should play in our lives, Marie. It is often difficult to do, and I know that I often fall short, but it is nonetheless vital that we constantly strive to question and assess, not simply accept what we read and see.

Marie Snyder said...

Yes, we have to keep thinking, all the time. So much work!!

OnceJolly said...

The claim in Cowspiracy, derived from the 2009 "study" by Goodland and Anhang, is that *animal* agriculture accounts for 51 percent of GHG. For a debunking of this figure in English, Danny Chivers provides a concise explanation.

markgil said...

Marie Snyder said...

Absolutely one of the best way for individuals to reduce their personal impact on the environment is to avoid beef entirely (and other meats), but that's not the same as Hedges's claim that agriculture produces more than half of all GHGs. The IPCC still says that fossil fuels are number one, but a lot of that can't be affected individually without changes to industry. And it definitely doesn't mean people with cancer should opt for broccoli over chemo.

markgil said...

much of fossil fuels burned are used in Animal Ag so it is a complicated issue. if you read the recent research such as Poore's mega study, it shows that the single biggest thing a person can do to reduce their negative impact on the environment is to go vegan. individuals have little control over what the fossil fuel industry does or does not do but we all have complete control over who and what we buy at the grocery store. it was also not Hedge's claim but it was, as previously mentioned, is based on a study by the World Watch Institute. as Poore's study also shows, there are many more far reaching devastating impacts of animal ag than just GHG including species extinction, resource depletion and land usage.

in addition, study's such as these also show that trillions could be saved in health care and millions of human lives (in addition to countless billions of sentient non-human animals) by adopting a vegan diet.

another great example is the vaccine issue. no one seems to be talking about where most of these diseases came from in the first place and they are the direct result of exploiting non-human animals for food.

even if for some reason one only cares about human animals, the evidence is quite clear that living vegan is by far the best (and certainly simplest) thing on can do is to go vegan.

Marie Snyder said...

Again, absolutely we should stop eating meat and dairy, or, at the very least, reduce as much as we feel is possible for our individual situations. That's not what I'm arguing here. The case I'm making is that agriculture doesn't cause 51% of emissions, when measured by sector (including the fossil fuels used in farming). The EPA has it at 24%, and the EEA has it at 9%, and in Canada, the Government of Canada has it at 8%. The FAO has it at 18%. But I can't find any reputable estimate anywhere near 51%. But, yes, we should stop eating meat and dairy for a wide variety of reasons.

Anonymous said...

I'm a vegan, and I wholeheartedly agree with your criticism. I'm involved in vegan outreach and activism, and still, I don't recommend documentaries such as Cowspiracy or What the Health to others, because it makes me uncomfortable how they skew facts to align with the vegan agenda. I think there is enough information out there to make a persuasive case for veganism, without resorting to doubtful tactics like that!