The Latin origin of the word “companion” literally means “one who eats bread with another,” and anyone who has ever walked past a bustling restaurant on a Friday night and listened to the harmony of clinking forks mingled with laughter and conversation knows that this etymology hasn’t lost any of its cultural force. Eating and sharing food with our companions is one of the few truly cross-cultural human universals; the processes of finding, preparing, and eating food have been among the most vital components of our evolution, making the biological—and social—importance of food continue to be a commonality that all humans share. In our own culture, romances blossom over candlelit dinners, milestones are made official by the cutting of a cake, and the smells and tastes of familiar recipes are what create the nostalgia of our holiday traditions. One could say that just as the most important moments in our social lives often take place over food, food itself is a faithful daily companion.
But with growing world hunger, over-fishing, pollution caused by farming, the controversial use of GMOs, and America’s obesity epidemic, it seems that food has become a problem—both for our bodies, and our planet. We have to eat to survive, so why does it seem like it’s the food we consume that’s threatening our very existence? And more importantly, what do we do about it?
Planeat, a new BBC documentary about the merits of choosing a plant-based diet, is one of the latest commentaries to enter the discourse on the Western world’s ecologically damaging eating and farming practices. The film opens in a swanky London restaurant, where we see attractive, hipster-ish chefs arranging colorful vegan cuisine on plates like consumable works of art. The food is brought by smiling waitresses to wine-sipping 30-somethings, and the entire scene is lit with a sultry glow. However, within a few minutes, it becomes clear that this visually tasty hors d'oeuvre is meant to give viewers a little something to salivate over before offering up the raw ingredients of the film’s main message: an evidence-based presentation on how the consumption of animal protein is fatally damaging to our health, and how the farming of animal livestock pollutes our world.
The journey of Planeat is navigated by Dr. Colin Campbell, a biochemist; Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a cardiac surgeon; and Dr. Gidon Eshel, a professor of geophysics. Through a clear, scientific presentation of the results of decades of research, as well as personal testimonials from patients, Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn make an extremely convincing case for the existence of a direct correlation between the Western diet’s high intake of animal protein (meat, fish, dairy, and eggs) and our culture’s high incidences of heart disease and cancer. Alongside the discussion of diet-related health issues, Dr. Eshel provides us with equally straightforward—and, shall I say, easily digestible—facts that demonstrate how the farming and processing of livestock pollutes, contributing to global warming, loss of biodiversity, and the development of the ocean’s “dead zone.” In another compelling segment, he discusses how the huge amount of farmland and resources required to feed, raise, and process meat products is counterproductive to the fight against world hunger. If we’re really concerned with “feeding the world,” he says, we need to begin by removing or drastically reducing large-scale meat production from the equation.
The film’s ending revisits the aesthetics of the gastronomically pleasing beginning, as we watch Dr. Esseltyn’s wife and a charismatic vegan chef breezily prepare artisan-looking kale sandwiches and seitan roasts. While I was entranced by the power of the film’s messages, I began to feel pangs of disillusionment in these moments, which seemed to suggest that we can all just as easily adopt a diet consisting of fresh, gourmet vegan cuisine artful enough for the glossy cover of a magazine. While I’d love to have the economic access to these kinds of food, this kind of culinary knowledge, and the time it takes to create interesting vegan meals, it seemed sadly unrealistic for the average cook and eater, myself included.
But as I reflected on my own food habits, I realized that the bulk of my time in grocery stores was spent trying to reconcile my meager college student budget with moral concerns over buying the most responsible, yet more expensive choices. I realized that perhaps rather than continuing to stand in aisles puzzling over labels boasting, locally farmed! organically grown! grass-fed! cage-free! free range! wild caught!, I should spend more time concerning myself with what I’m buying. Simply choosing plant-based foods over animal products is easier, fundamentally more sustainable for the planet, and in the end, less costly, both for my wallet, and for my future health and well-being.
Ultimately, Planeat is a film admirably resistant to the traditionally moralistic mode of documentary storytelling. Throughout its 71 minutes of compelling narrative, this film never once directly tells its audience to stop eating meat. Instead of patronizing us, it informs us. And instead of commanding us to take responsibility for changing the entire world, it gently asks us to examine our own eating habits, and how simple changes, such as the reduction of our own meat consumption, can allow us to take responsibility for our health. If each of us reduces or removes animal products from our diet, we could collectively reduce the ecologic footprint caused by our necessity to eat food. Not only would we be a healthier generation, we would leave the world a little healthier for the next.
To learn more about the Planeat movement, visit the film’s website at planeat.tv. Here, you can watch the film, learn about the science behind the statistics, and get dozens of delicious recipes for plant-based eating. You can also watch the film, free with membership, on GaiamTV at gaiamtv.com.