Are we what we eat?
Tell me why you eat like that and I’ll tell you who you are
The alarming regression of collective health of US-American citizen, increasingly mirrored by several European countries,(1) is doubtlessly reason enough to denounce the food industries’ power in influencing scientific outcomes for their own good – for profit. In the famous China Study, initially published in 2005, the biochemist T. Colin Campbell elaborates a clear statistical correlation between the excessive ingestion of animal based protein and some of the growing Western civilizational diseases – among others cancer, adiposity and heart diseases.(2) The second part of his publication is an effort to answer the question which probably comes to everyone who gets the insight from that impressive long-time scientific study: “Why haven’t I heard about that earlier?” The author clearly explains how stances which oppose the currently dominant views and discourses are systematically sidelined and goes on to show how science, industry, and politics collaborate and lobby closely in order to conceal scientific insights which would otherwise urge us to scrutinize existing alimentary habits more critically. A word comes to mind, which recently has gained much attention: Agnotology – the wilful propagation of ignorance.
Let’s try to get an understanding of why the country with the highest per-capita health care expenses is not only unable to sustain the wellbeing of its citizens but faces a decline in life expectancy; one of the most important indicators for development.(3) Using Johan Galtung’s sociological lenses – which help recognize the Archetypes of underlying deep cultural assumptions – might be conducive to understanding this conundrum.(4)
Cultural codes, inscribed into the collective subconscious of a civilization or a nation, can contain, promote and advocate cultural violence. The latter refers to cultural assumptions legitimizing direct or structural violence.(5) A system that negates a human being’s access to information which might be needed to keep mind and body in a healthy state – a basic need – can accordingly be considered structurally violent. “We may be on top of the germs, or at least many germs; but the society and its processes, or at least most of it, seems to be on top of us.(6)
From Galtung’s point of view, “meatism”, the tendency to eat meat, much, and frequently is not a surprising habit in Western societies. The US are carriers of what he calls an occidental deep culture, which is mainly derived from Judeo-Christian theology. The latter posit that humans are dominant over nature.(7) Instead of recognizing the dependency on nature through nutrition and therefore fostering a cooperative, ecological and health conducive relationship, humans alienate themselves even more and try to escape the situation through more domination by genetically engineering organisms, producing and consuming chemical pills with the explicit purpose of releasing humans from the very suffering which is caused by the artificial and unhealthy mass consumption thus fostered.(8) A vicious cycle which cements the exploitation of nature to an extent that it is “no longer capable of absorbing and degrading pollutants toxic to human beings”.(9) The German Environment Agency (UBA) just announced that the water price might increase up to 45 percent as the nitrogen level in the groundwater exceeds the capacity of the current purification plants. The cause for this immense pollution? The intensive mass livestock production. (10)
Campbell further argues that the trend to favor factory-made dietary supplements rather than an integral natural nutrition, also has its roots in the epistemic method mostly used for scientific insights; namely the current habit of scientific reductionism. “The method, […]to examine details without their context and the attempt to use the result to explain complex coherences is fatal.”(11) This procedure yields information and practices which, according to a more encompassing understanding of medicine and health, are not eco- or health-consistent. Low-fat and light become equivalents for healthy, while the consumption of vitamin pills, balancing the lack of vitamins in low-fat fast food and light coke, escalates. Such an atomistic, one-dimensional perspective on reality is deeply encoded in the Occidental unconscious code which builds on the Aristotelian-Cartesian contradiction-free logic. Galtung and Campbell would agree, that dichotomy as a mental modus operandi, mainly finding its way into science through mathematics, has immense potential to map certain structures, however, with its one-dimensionality it cannot have the last word in explaining the multifariousness and complexity of reality.
This method gives ample operational scope to the pharmaceutical industry selling in-detail products and additionally satisfies the meat, milk and egg industries which fear a drop of profit caused by changing food habits. The profit-oriented machinery embracing government, science, medicine, industry, and media successfully denies readily available information to direct consumers. All of them strive to be in tune with the fatal slogan of eternal growth and for that sake, human beings are deprived of indispensable information which would allow them to consciously work towards a healthy somatic state; clearly structural violence legitimized by cultural assumptions.
According to Campbell’s study, less meat based nutrition patterns, especially prevailing in South and East Asia, show a clear correlation to a lower prevalence of probed diseases. So why do occidental societies not use this resource by learning from it? Galtung would clearly reply that there is a lack of flexibility inscribed in the codes of occidental civilizations. While civilizations driven by more eclectic deep cultural modes of cognition avail themselves of innovation from all around the world, puristic ones like the Occidental are preoccupied with defending their own achievements even though they may not be the best option or may even prove incapable of coping with the antinomies that make up reality.(12) That vicious circle is alimented by two characteristics of the Occidental archetype: Firstly, the self-perception as the Chosen people, holder of THE single-universal truth and secondly, a dualistic world-view which accordingly classifies or degrades the Others as the holders of the untruth. The ‘Othering’ is further applied to the human-nature relation. The medical professions keep on hunting nature’s threats (virus and bacteria) to tackle them with medication instead of searching for the root causes triggered not by nature but by society; among others stress, pollution, and overconsumption.(13) The subsequent incapability to confess to this reflexive blindness is not just an obstacle for mutual dialogue, but – as the China Study indicates – can even be a weighty disadvantage for the respective civilizations themselves.
Campbell puts some hope in the growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets. Galtung, however, argues that individuals rejecting mainstream stances have a tendency to create alternative ideologies, but do not have the power to transform underlying elite-centered cosmologies.(14) To secure their power, it is essential for the leaders of a society to act in tune with the cultural archetypes.(15) Accordingly the elites of politics, the health sector, pharmaceutic and food industries will hardly promote a fundamental change through inner debate and dynamism.
Galtung suggests consciousness-formation as a therapy to cure modern societal pathologies by identifying and deconstructing cultural assumptions leading to structural violence which in turn contributes to causing psycho-somatic illnesses. The treatment is as follows: Becoming aware of the collectively held subconscious assumptions through probing and self-questioning dialogues. As a consequence of such deep dialogues, encoded contradictions leading to conflicts – in this case between the public interest for health and the elite-industrialist interest in supporting the idea of eternal growth – and violence to the somatic health of the people at large, can be recognized and transcended. Indeed, we need a multiplicity of dialogues, externally with other cultures and internally between patient, medicals, politicians, scientists and all other parties concerned. The method is very clearly described in Galtung‘s UNDP training manual for Peaceful Conflict Transformation & in his textbook Transcend & Transform. The absurd reality of scientific insights linked to profit driven economic interests could be taken as a first hint for where to engage with this definite need for collective, deep culture sensitive sociotherapy through deep dialogue. Let’s not just ask ‘What do you like to eat?’ but ‘Why do you eat like that?‘ .
(1) Köhncke, Ylva (2010): Übergewicht; Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung; http://www.berlin-institut.org/online-handbuchdemografie/bevoelkerungsdynamik/auswirkungen/uebergewicht.html (lastly accessed: 28.06.2017) ↩
(2) Campbell, T. Collin and Campbell, Thomas M. (2011): China Study; Verlag systemische Medizin, München, p.117ff ↩
(3) Heike Buchter (21.03.2017): Kollaps im Hinterland; Zeit online; http://www.zeit.de/2017/10/lebenserwartung-usa-statistik-bildung-lebensumstaende-drogen (lastly accessed: 28.06.2017) ↩
(4) Galtung, Johan (2014): A Theory of Civilization: Overcoming Cultural Violence; Transcend University Press https://www.transcend.org/tup/index.php?book=22↩
(5) Scheyer; Grant-Hayford (2016): Strukturelle Gewalt verstehen (Teil 1): Anleitung zur Operationalisierung; https://www.galtung-institut.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Hayford-Scheyer-Strukturelle-Gewalt-Verstehen-und-Operationalisieren-.pdf ↩
(6) Galtung, Johan (1982): On the Dialectic between Social Processes and Health/ Illness Processes; Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin: p. 4 ↩
(7) Galtung, Johan (2014): p. 33 ↩
(8) Campbell, T. Collin and Campbell, Thomas M. (2011): p. 2 ↩
(9) Galtung, Johan (1982): p. 9 ↩
(10) Umweltbundesamt (09.06.2017): Too much fertiliser: drinking water could become more expensive; available under: http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/en/press/pressinformation/too-much-fertiliser-drinking-water-could-become (lastly accessed: 28.06.2017) ↩
(11) Campbell, T. Collin and Campbell, Thomas M. (2011): p. 306 ↩
(12) Galtung, Johan (2014): p. 130 ↩
(13) Galtung, Johan (1975/1981): Society and Health – Some Health Related Societal Trends in Industrialized countries; Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development, UN University Project, Institut universitaire d’études du développement, Genev: p.6 https://www.transcend.org/galtung/papers/Society%20and%20Health-%20Some%20Health%20Related%20Societal%20Trends%20in%20Industrialized%20Countries.pdf ↩
(14) Galtung, Johan (2014): p. 160 ↩
(15) Galtung, Johan (2014): p. 164 ↩