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Cornell, T. Colin Campbell, and the China Study

In my student days, when my procrastination-prone roommates and I would have heated discussions lasting by the hours, if not days, we once had a debate about the relative health benefits of drinking cow's milk. I wasn't convinced that a liquid designed for calves was the healthiest for human consumption. My liquid-lactose loving roommates claimed otherwise. Dear Uncle Ezra was actually called to the rescue:

What do you know about the affect cow's milk has on humans? Our apartment woke up this morning only to get into an argument regarding whether or not milk has ill affects to one's body. Does milk really 'do a body good?' Your curious nephews on West…

Aside from the glaring fact that our sophomore selves didn't know the difference between affect and effect, Dear Uncle Ezra's response was entirely too predictable for a land-grant university in a large dairy state: milk is an essential source for your necessary nutritional intake!

Unfortunately, both MetaEzra and our Dear Old Uncle Ezra should have asked Cornell doctorate and Professor Emeritus T. Colin Campbell the question instead. Campbell's research shows that diets with low or no animal products are associated with much lower incidences of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Campbell's best-selling book, The China Study traced chronic diseases to their diet-based sources by studying the incidence of disease across the different diets of China:

As some of you may recall, Campbell was also the professor who's 'vegetarian nutrition' course was canceled without explanation a couple of years ago by a dean with connections to the dairy industry. But since then, Campbell has drawn accolades from the likes of Bill Clinton and others.

Given my own struggle with an autoimmune arthritis, I've been interested in the work of Campbell and others, and was privileged to be able to hear Campbell speak today as part of an educational speaker-series hosted by a local cooperative market. Now, I've heard others speculate that Campbell is a bit 'out there', and I was fully expecting Campbell to come out and aggressively denounce the dairy and livestock lobby, the federal government's food policies, and our national obsession with meat and animal fat. But instead, Campbell came across almost as apologetic -- the son of a dairy farmer who was more chagrined by his findings than anybody else. (It was amusing, however, to see him present some pretty sophisticated regression statistics to a lay audience.)

Interestingly, there was a specific question from the audience about Campbell's relationship with his colleagues in the animal science department and the Ag School's position relative to the industry as a whole. (And, no, it didn't come from me!) Here too, I was surprised. Campbell spoke very highly of Cornell as an institution, asserting that he had 'brilliant colleagues', and maintained that he only had misgivings about a select few of his fellow faculty members with ties to the dairy industry. But he did publicly regret the fact that his department canceled his popular class 'for unknown reasons' and maintained that it was an issue of academic integrity, both at Cornell and elsewhere in academe.

Coincidentally, Cornell is still not offering any courses on vegetarian nutrition in its courses of study, but the profit-driven eCornell thinks that it is worth it to offer classes on Campbell's research. Maybe it is all about the money.

N.B. To read some criticisms of The China Study (from a vegetarian's perspective) you can click here. And in the interest of full disclosure, I do consume meat on occasion and French cheese is my heroin.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on November 21, 2010 (#)

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