My guide grunts as he stabs his finger at the knife sitting in a bucket of bones that are covered with bits of stringy flesh. This is my invitation to eat. I have a choice among the boiled femurs (I’m not sure if they are cow or horse), a bowl of clotted cream, dried milk curds and some bread-a fancy spread considering that many people just subsist on makh, the Mongolian word for “meat”-usually boiled mutton parts with a few potatoes thrown in.
I’ve come to Mongolia for a couple weeks to get some fresh air and perspective. Despite the country’s glowing reviews as an adventure travel destination, everyone I have spoken with has warned me that getting used to the food could be a challenge.
Meat in the winter and meat and dairy products in the summer are the traditional staples of Mongolia’s nomads. The introduction of wheat, rice and potatoes from conquered nations and trading partners has added some variety, but as the climate is harsh and farms and nomads go together like water and oil, many rural Mongols continue to subsist on a diet consisting almost entirely of animal protein and fat.
I’m not a big red meat eater, but I am pretty excited about my meal-all free-range, and I mean really free-range. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world and nomads, who still comprise about a quarter of the population, move their homes and their herds several times a year.
Animals are grass-fed-make that grazed (no one “feeds” them, they eat when they are hungry) and virtually no antibiotics or hormones are used. With little industry outside the capital, the air, water and earth are clean and I have little doubt that I am eating some of the most natural animal protein currently available to mankind.
But does that make it healthy?
I recently watched Forks Over Knives by Lee Fulkerson, a 2011 documentary that presents a strong case that most “Western” illnesses, i.e. cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, are caused by the consumption of animal products and processed foods. The film’s solution is simple; if we want to live healthy lives we must switch to a plant-based diet, a carefully chosen euphemism for veganism.
The film relies heavily on the research of Cornell University’s T. Colin Campbell and his 2005 book, The China Study, a vegan manifesto that purports to scientifically demonstrate that the consumption of any animal product of any type and in any amount (what Campbell dubs “the Western diet”) causes significant health problems in humans. The book is based on a comprehensive study that Campbell did over an astounding 20-year period in rural China and Taiwan.
Given how overweight, out of shape and addicted to prescription drugs the American public has become, it’s a compelling argument, particularly against the backdrop of America’s factory-farmed, corn-fed, hormone injected industrial meat supply portrayed in films like Food Inc., and Fast Food Nation.
As I contemplate the merits of a plant-based diet, a woman hands me a wet rag to wipe the animal fat from my fingers (like many Americans, Mongols eat with their hands). I wash my meal down with some Airag or fermented mare’s milk, a sour Mongolian beer-like beverage clocking in at around 2%-3% alcohol (yes, in Mongolia even the booze is derived from beasts).
To be honest, I’m starting to feel a little pissed and I don’t mean in the British sense. You see, according to Campbell’s assertions, Mongolia’s diet should be about as bad as theoretically possible and Mongols should be dropping dead left and right from “Western” diseases because of their “Western” diet. It must be no small inconvenience for the Fulkerson/Campbell team that they are not.
The Mongols have been eating this way since recorded history and it turns out that their present-day average lifespan is 68 years. While this is certainly shorter than America’s 78 years or Japan’s record 83, Mongolia is still a developing country with a GDP per capita of less than 1/10 of the US, and a very poor healthcare infrastructure. Furthermore the environment is extremely harsh and alcoholism and smoking rates are high among both men and women. All things considered, 68 years seems surprisingly good.
In fact, if you compare Mongolia to Laos, also a developing landlocked Asian country but with a rice-based diet and significantly higher vegetable consumption per capita, both Mongolian men and women live longer. While crude as formal science, this simple analysis raises a red flag.
It is here that both Fulkerson and Campbell appear to have forgotten one of the most basic techniques in science: always check the extreme cases; in this case, societies with meat-heavy diets like Mongolia.
The problem is that both men have conflated the consumption of animal-based foods with the consumption of processed foods. Admittedly highly correlated in America’s industrial food supply, but as every passing Statistics 101 student should know, “correlation does not imply causation“.
Thankfully, using proper statistical techniques ex-vegan Denise Minger has meticulously (and humorously) demonstrated that while there is plenty of evidence that processed and refined foods are the problem, Campbell’s claim that animal protein is fundamentally harmful is simply not supported by his own data. She also presents an excellent critique of the “science” in Forks Over Knives and how the film cherry picks its arguments and definitions to support a vegan ideal. She also notes that the movie completely ignores the well-documented benefits of fish-based diets in countries such as Norway and Japan. (Last time I checked fish were animals.)
This is good news for me-not because I need someone to justify my carnivorous predilections, but because like HAL in 2001, I would probably have a psychotic episode if I weren’t able to reconcile theory with reality. Fulkerson’s and Campbell’s theory is that meat is an unmitigated evil; reality says that ain’t so. The reconciliation is simple. The theory is wrong-now I feel rational again.
Personally I’m not a huge fan of mutton and if forced to make a binary decision between going vegan and eating the traditional Mongolian diet for the rest of my life I would probably choose the former, but for me it’s a matter of taste, not purported health benefits.
Going vegan because you prefer to is fine. What I can’t tolerate is sloppy filmmaking and pseudo-scientific dogma being used to scare people into thinking that doing so is medically necessary when obvious counter examples are so easily in sight. Perhaps the ultimate lesson I will take away from this trip to Mongolia has nothing to do with meat or documentaries or books, but rather travel itself: nothing beats first hand experience when it comes to trying to figure out the truth. Observations Over Proclamations.