Can Netflix’s Vegan Documentaries Convince Me To Quit Meat?

Photographed by Anna Jay.
I tried to watch Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret on a hangover a few months ago. Big mistake. I can’t really tell you how or why I ended up on one of the most infamously shocking and emotionally draining environmental documentaries around while vulnerably scrolling through Netflix on a Sunday morning. But I did.
I’m embarrassed to say that my stumbling upon the documentary and guilting myself into watching it more than five years after the rest of the world is an accurate (and disappointing) metaphor for my approach to veganism. I know it’ll make a big difference to the planet. I know there are both health and sustainability benefits. But like many of us with memories rooted in the smell of roast turkey for Christmas dinner, burned burgers on the barbecue over summer and late night McNuggets/KFC/kebabs, I’m reluctant (and lazy) to make such a huge change to a part of my lifestyle that I really enjoy. There. I said it. I’m sorry.
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These fleeting pleasures do not equate to the good of the planet, of course. But it’s this overwhelming pressure to upheave and overturn habits that makes documentaries like the Leonardo DiCaprio-backed Cowspiracy as intimidating as they are important. Well, that and growing up in a Zimbabwean and South African family who couldn’t really get their heads around the vegetarian thing. But I felt obliged to inform myself better and at least try a little harder than my feeble attempts at Meat-Free Mondays.
Given the huge reaction to the documentary on its 2014 release, I expected to be automatically converted. I’ve had friends say it completely changed their perspective and prompted their transition to veganism. It all sounded very admirable and, indeed, it made me worried for the world. It made me sad. It heightened my awareness of just how big an impact agriculture is having on the planet. But dripping in self-pity and resigned to regret, it didn’t alter my hungover takeaway order.
I hit pause on my efforts to force my brain into the plant-based mindset and continued to go about my usual, easier methods of being environmentally friendly. Recycling, energy saving – you know the drill. I was waiting for my own personal wake-up call; for someone to say to me, "Jazmin, it's time to cut the meat" and for it to actually resonate with my BBQ ribs-craving soul. And then The Game Changers landed on Netflix.
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All of a sudden, the committed carnivores in my life were speaking about veganism – the lifestyle that was usually met with eye rolls and impassioned speeches about the importance of meat protein, real protein – with sincerity. Co-produced by celebrities including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic and Jackie Chan, The Game Changers introduces us to the benefits of plant-based diets from the perspectives of athletes at the top of their game, and the impact has been huge.
The film breaks down the myths and misconceptions around the necessity for meat in a high protein diet. We hear from boxers, weightlifters, cyclists and long-distance runners about how the relationship between eating meat and muscle, strength and athleticism might not be as accurate as it's been marketed to us for years. We see NFL players being shown how reducing meat can increase blood flow and improve muscle endurance, and all of a sudden mates who would inhale nothing but steak and eggs over bulk season (not that I really know what that means) were popping up in group chats to ask if anyone can recommend a vegan restaurant for dinner next week.
Though it made sense for the pertinence of a plant-based diet to hit my friends (mostly the men) through the lens of sport after years of being sold the idea that 'men eat meat', 'meat equals muscle' and 'vegetables are rabbit food', the value in a change of perspective wasn't lost on me, a gym-averse omnivore who has already exploited the easiest methods of reducing my carbon footprint.
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My limited knowledge, most of which has come from easy-access documentaries like these, seemed to be framed around fear. Cowspiracy producers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn went from a documentary fuelled by conspiracy and cover-up in America's agricultural industry, geared to shock us into veganism, to What The Health in 2017. With this documentary – this time backed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Joaquin Phoenix – the panic wagon was steered towards meat's apparently catastrophic effect on our health. It told us that "eating eggs is as bad as smoking five cigarettes" (it's not) and, as a vegan dietitian on Vegan.com claimed, "cherry-picked" research and "overstated" data. We know there are health benefits to reducing our meat intake, but the takeaway from this documentary was that more studies are needed before lofty claims about "one serving of processed meat per day [raising] the risk of diabetes by 51%" can be taken at face value. Though the benefits are clear and the understanding of the true impact is vital, I'm not at all surprised by my reluctance to commit to plant-based alternatives while being fed the idea that "all meat and dairy is going to kill me because science said so".
Perspective and research are going some way to nudge me towards veganism, though. In the latest episode of explained, a Netflix docuseries by Vox, they tackled "The Future of Meat".
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"I think people need to wake up to the idea that animals take a very heavy toll on our lives and the environment. We're about to have 10 billion people living on a space that will require us to grow more food in the next 30 years than we've grown in all of human history," science journalist Michael Spec explains in the episode. The show talks about how the way we use language ('beef' not 'cow'; 'pork' not 'pig') and the hidden nature of the animal agriculture business makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from the fact that we're eating animals. But it also approaches solutions that don't stop at "give up meat because we're all going to die".
Through it I learned that a billion-dollar industry is growing and racing to create better plant-based food that replicates the taste, smell and texture of meat for stubborn meat-eaters like myself. There's also a ton of research going into 'cultured meat' which, according to the documentary, hasn't been met with the most enthusiastic early responses. It involves making meat – yes, actual meat – without having to kill animals, instead taking cells from them while alive and developing them into edible meat in a laboratory. It's early stages but plausible alternatives are growing faster than my perhaps naive understanding of the sustainable and animal-free market led me to believe.
Maybe I've been looking for excuses not to do anything, maybe I've been defensive about being meat-shamed by strangers on the other side of my TV screen, but having finally taken the time to sit and watch more than one programme about how going vegan really can change our lives, I feel far more willing to reduce my meat and dairy intake further. The key, I guess, is applying enough scepticism to both sides and exploring beyond the scary headlines – even if it does have to start with incidental hangover viewing.
Cowspiracy, What The Health, explained and The Game Changers are all available on Netflix now.
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