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The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability
By Lierre Keith
Flashpoint Press/PM Press, 2009
Review by Jill Nienhiser
Lierre Keith spent almost twenty years as a dedicated vegan, “succumbing to weakness” by eating fatty dairy products only on rare occasions. Her book is a moving account of how that diet destroyed her body and how she came to realize that vegetarianism was not the answer to the problems of environmental destruction, animal suffering or Third World starvation.
She did not come to this knowledge easily. Despite her catastrophically failing health, she was certain it could not be due to her diet. Didn’t everyone know that animal foods with their saturated fat and cholesterol, not to mention their growth hormones and antibiotics, were the cause of all our modern health woes? And wasn’t it obvious that CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations) and slaughterhouses are institutions of torture, as well as environmental disasters, that the grain and water used for animals should feed the starving masses instead? Wasn’t it morally wrong to kill a sentient creature for food, when it was clearly unnecessary?
So she dragged her weary body through each day, her life a testament to her desperate, noble commitment to life, justice and compassion. As she struggled to find answers to her deteriorating health, she also took another step along her path as an environmentalist and began trying to grow her own food. As she puts it, these two quests led her to an adult knowledge of the world that she had never learned before. It’s that knowledge that she shares in her beautifully written book, which is organized into three main sections addressing moral vegetarians (those who are vegetarian because they believe that killing/oppressing animals is wrong), political vegetarians (those who believe that the grain fed to animals should feed starving humans), and nutritional vegetarians (those who believe that animal food is detrimental to human health). These chapters are bookended by an introduction (“Why This Book?”) and a conclusion (“To Save the World”).
In addressing the argument that it is wrong to kill animals for food, or even to oppress them for their milk or eggs, Keith makes it clear that she is in no way excusing the horrors of factory farming. But there are humane ways to raise animals for food. And what’s more, just because there is no dead animal on your dinner plate doesn’t mean many animals (and birds, insects, microbes, prairies, rivers) didn’t die so that you could have that plate of rice, beans and tofu. The worldwide expansion of grain-based agriculture has destroyed ecosystems, drained wetlands, caused extinctions, killed the life in the soil. Several hundred small animals die in or under the machinery every time a field of grain is harvested. And insects, and bacteria, and the plants themselves. Death is inherent in every bite of food that keeps each of us alive.
As Keith tried to raise her own food, she became aware of and involved in nature and its cycles, and learned that plants eat, and that what they eat is animals—whether in the form of fossil-fuel-derived fertilizers or today’s blood and bones. The soil eats too, a million tiny organisms in every spoonful of topsoil, all doing the producing and degrading that make life possible for the rest of us. The insects needed to eat, and if she was to rescue any of her vegetables from them, she had a choice between chemicals and birds. Could she bear to “exploit” some chickens, even if she didn’t eat them in the end, by putting them to work eating bugs in her garden? Would she personally be culpable for the death of those insects, having put the chickens in proximity to them herself? Adult knowledge dawned in her, that “predators” and “prey” could apply equally to all life forms, depending on when. All life forms fit into a circle of producers, consumers and degraders. We all need to eat and in the end we all need to be eaten.
Political vegetarians argue that it’s unethical to wastefully feed animals tons of grain that could feed hungry humans throughout developing nations. Keith exposes the ignorance of this argument on several counts. First, we shouldn’t be feeding animals grain in feedlots; they should be eating grass on pasture and returning nutrients in the form of urine and manure to build the soil. Second, much of the world isn’t suitable for intensive grain cultivation and we’ve almost tapped out the topsoil in the places that are suitable. Even with increasing crop yields, we’ll run out of oil to make synthetic fertilizer and transport the grain around the world. Third, a grain-based diet will only keep these people malnourished (see the “Nutritional Vegetarians” chapter).
Finally, the argument about human starvation is simply a smoke screen for Big Ag. Hungry nations don’t need our food aid; they need us to stop the subsidized exports and strong arm trade negotiation tactics that demolished their native food systems and caused the starvation in the first place. Monsanto, Cargill, ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland—these are the companies that give us GMO corn and soybeans, promote junk food dressed up as “nutraceuticals,” and set grain prices below the cost of production—and which, with the oil companies and other big businesses, own almost all the small organic labels (Hain, Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen, etc.), too. They’re happy to take more money selling organic food to well-meaning yuppies while simultaneously doing all they can to erode organic standards so they can produce more cheaply yet still command a premium price. They do not have the wellbeing of the world’s hungry foremost in their mind, despite disingenuous “corporate pledges” that claim otherwise (see monsanto.com, cargill.com, and adm.com for some truly outrageous rhetoric about their “values,” which are in complete opposition to their behavior).
Monsanto is buying up seed companies and patenting every seed it can, thus stealing for their own intellectual property the work of generations of farmers worldwide over the centuries. They sue poor farmers who try to save patented seed from year to year. Do we really think it’s a good idea to make the entire world dependent on a handful of plants owned by a handful of utterly ruthless companies?
This chapter will be thoroughly familiar to regular readers of this journal. Keith learned through hard experience that her animal body needed the food it evolved to eat. Nutrient-dense animal foods rich in complete protein, saturated fat, cholesterol, fat-soluble vitamins, and minerals allowed our brains to increase in size while our digestive tracts shrank millions of years before we domesticated grains. We are no longer vegetarian primates like the gorillas.
Keith also discusses the damage the grains wreak throughout our bodies. Their opioids addict us and so we keep pulling down whole ecosystems to spread them, but their sugars, starches, lectins, phytates, enzyme inhibitors and phytoestrogens cause blood sugar swings, insulin resistance, gut and joint inflammation, autoimmune diseases, mineral deficiencies, digestive disorders, hormonal disruptions and many more medical problems. As other researchers and writers have shown, the last century’s exponential increase in consumption of modern agribusiness’s refined carbohydrates, manufactured fats, and isolated plant proteins coupled with the decrease in consumption of traditional nutrient-dense foods, is responsible for most of the chronic illness that plagues us today.
To Save the World?
If I have any major criticism of this book, it’s that the final chapter is pretty grim. And yet, I can’t even really fault her for that. Keith has done her research, crunched the numbers, and thinks that the planet can’t truly sustain even one tenth of our current numbers for the long term. Many will bristle at her first recommendation: “Don’t have children.” But as she points out, a large portion of humanity wouldn’t be around today if it weren’t for the Green Revolution, which accelerated the loss of our topsoil and the destruction of ecosystems even as it provided a starvation diet for billions more humans (with the profits going to a very few corporations). If we don’t decrease our numbers voluntarily, and soon, we may see them decrease rapidly and involuntarily through starvation, environmental collapse and warring over the last of our resources.
Keith seamlessly weaves arguments against grain agriculture with indictments of patriarchy, religion and the cult of masculinity. Many of these themes will unsettle or turn off readers who otherwise agree with her main points against vegetarianism. But she persuasively links the spread of agriculture to the spread of slavery, imperialism, militarism, and class divisions—on the whole, the agricultural experiment has meant a net loss in freedom and individual rights.
I don’t know whether she’s right about how truly desperate the situation is. But even if reality will not be quite so grim as she paints it, to mitigate the danger we must increase our vigilance and our activism in pursuit of grass-farming, not grain-farming. And we must be ever more active and vocal in politics and in the protection of individual rights. If global food crises do come when petroleum-based ag fails, can we imagine that governments under pressure wouldn’t seize the remaining fertile land from the grass-farmers, “for the public good”?
Keith’s bibliography is filled with names that will be familiar to readers of this journal: Daniel (mistakenly identified as Kaayla “Davis” throughout the book, an error that Keith will rectify in future editions), Eades, Enig, Fallon, Price, Purdey, Ross, Salatin, Schmid, Taubes. But don’t think that if you’ve read all of these authors and you’re eating meat that you have nothing to learn from this book. Keith will also introduce you to some fascinating voices you may not yet know: I’ve already ordered my copies of Derrick Jenson’s Endgame and Stephen Buhner’s The Lost Language of Plants.
Part of the brilliance of her book is its astonishing readability; the grace and ease with which she weaves lay-reader-friendly scientific explanations about plant chemistry and nutrition with heartbreaking narrative about her personal journey. And I was astonished at how much I learned about life cycles, soil, plants, animals, wetlands and politics (the nutrition I already knew) in a mere 274 pages of seamlessly flowing text. Keith bares her soul for us … a soul that aches for so much we’ve already lost. I wept at several points, not only on my first read through, but again on my second. Her book is a plaintive cry for us to wake up from the fantasy of endless consumption and entitlement that we’ve been playing out for far too long, and from the pernicious corollary that if we just recycle and “buy organic” and replace our incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents that it will all be okay.
The Vegetarian Myth is an eloquent and utterly persuasive argument against vegetarianism. Keith pulls no punches, but she does address vegetarians with empathy and love. She has been there; she knows the prayer in the vegan heart. Few vegans truly stick it out for twenty years, so Keith has earned her soapbox. And she realizes that for those who have built an entire identity around their diet, all three of the main vegetarian arguments must be thoroughly dealt with before another way can be considered. Mass vegetarianism would not save the world, but in fact would hasten its destruction.
I hope that this book will help vegetarians and vegans who are struggling to maintain their diet despite its effect on their health, to see that while their compassion and fervor for justice are honorable and noble, they are mistaken about the solution. I would love to welcome more recovering vegetarians and vegans into WAPF. Together perhaps our combined commitment and creativity can find the path to a truly sustainable, well-nourished future for humans and all our fellow creatures.
You may read an excerpt and order the book at lierrekeith.com/vegmyth.htm.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2009.🖨️ Print post
Read this in: Español
This book irritates me to an extreme level. Vegetarians have never advocated for farms without animals! We just want a diet without animals. There is a difference. It is possible to keep a dog in your house without eating it! It is also a well known fact that sustainable farms require animals for fertilization and maintainance, but why eat them? If Americans continue to insist on eating meat this perfect farm where animals can graze on the open fields will continue to only provide less than one percent of the meat produced in the United States. The McDonalds Chicken McNugget contains 37 ingredient, one of which is petroleum. I do not want my children to grow up eating such a cruel and environmentally harmful diet.
Cristi, did you even read the book???!!!
Lierre’s got a great new thing going now, called Grass-Fed Fridays, where she dissects the propaganda attacking meat-eating as planetarily unsustainable. One acre can grow corn to feed two steers, yes, and that is petrol-heavy and hugely wasteful. BUT one acre can instead feed two steers, and using Salatin’s rotation and others’ forest gardening, and with the cycle of the cattle feeding from the land and the cattle feeding the land, this process actually nourishes the soil. That’s not true with veganism or vegetarianism — as Lierre explains ever so patiently in the book itself. It takes animal inputs to maintain land health. The catch to animals-without-eating-meat is that humans need that level of protein to maintain health. Not eating the animals is a form of waste that further reduces the carrying capacity of a given landbase! Still, if someone doesn’t want to eat meat, fine; just allow others to do what Nature intended. Will get the website for Grass-Fed Fridays when it’s released.
So this is what Lierre has been up to since our native-nutrition list times.:)
Good going girl! Write on! I’m deeply touched by this review alone and must now order and read your book.
Author Of The Vegetarian Myth Attacked By Militant Vegans
March 13th, while speaking in the auditorium at the 15th Annual Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, Lierre Kieth was assaulted by pie throwing goons. The 3 pies were laced with hot pepper and therefor had an effect similar to pepper spray, blinding the author for a time. The painful attack was was carried out by three masked, militant vegans unhappy with the substance of the authors new book, The Vegetarian Myth.
Response to cristi
Clearly you didn’t read this book, or even the review very carefully. Lierre Keith in NO way advocates eating at places like McDonalds!!!!!!! Sheesh!!!
Barry Schinnerer says
I was a vegetarian for several years when I was in my 30’s. Late in my thirties I developed Addison’s disease and then following that came one malady after another. I had a serious prostate infection and on and on, no energy sick all the time etc. It took me until I was in my late 40’s to break down years of brain washing about diet and health. I discovered the Weston Price site and read and read. I have since worked hard at improving my health. Unfortunately the Addison’s remains, but I am much healthier. We eat only locally grown mostly organic beef and we have our own chickens for more natural egg’s. We get raw milk from a local farmer. We grow many of our own organic vegetables also. Don’t get me wrong we do not do everything perfect but we try and it makes a huge difference.
Being a vegetarian almost killed me, so you can draw your own conclusions. But even at nearly 50 years of age you can turn it around. I still believe in raising and slaughtering animals as humanly as possible. My chickens are my pets and bring me much joy, also much nutrition.
This article makes much sense to me, having lived the lie.
Looks like we can’t even trust organic anymore. They say some companies try to pass food that was grown with even more toxic insecticides as organic.
I’m so sick of these companies and the fact that thy are not properly regulated.
as for McDonald’s, they are not the best, but they are the first to have at least minimized the use of antibiotics in their meat and are at least trying to be better. Such actions must be encouraged if we want companies to improve their practices.
I agree about the meat .. there are also little creatures living in most everything we eat anyways.
no one says
Is there a valid Spiritual argument against eating meat/ or be a vegan?
Natural Order of Things
It is odd how some people can ignore the natural order of creation. Man and animals have never been equals. By making the mistake to believe that they are is at mankinds peril. The universe has many universal laws that we can altruistically deny. If you jump out of a high rise building you will not float without artificial support no matter how much you think you will. This does not make it all right to abuse animals. In so doing we can also harm ourselves.
This is a good article, well argued.
I am a veggie guy and have been for sometime. I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer to this question of vegetarianism. It’s right for some who’s bodies can manage it and it’s not right for others. It’s a personal choice. Many do site that there are religions that profess not eating meat as a commitment to non-violence. Being a Buddhist I know of no teachings from the Buddha that suggest not eating meat or allowing yourself to become ill in an effort to avoid eating meat. I think people need to be flexible in there direction and make the right choice according to their circumstances. Certainly any obsession in any direction eventually turns a positive into a negative.
Freedom Fighter says
What is a Natural Life?
“It is odd how some people can ignore the natural order of creation.”
It really is. That natural order means dying a natural death rather than extending one’s life as long as possible via artificial means, which is a huge reason the world is over populated, and yet, the author’s proposed solution to world hunger is “Don’t have children”.
Wow. How unnatural.
@Freedom Fighter: I can’t think of a more humane way to steady the population growth than to ask yourself “do i really want or need to have children” It’s a voluntary choice. The Medical Industrial Complex is culling the population everyday with torturous treatments that have no clinical relevance and only result in pain and death for the patient and huge profits for the Medical/Pharma Industry. What about the 6 million innocent lives taken since post World War 2 by US interventionist/imperialist forces by means of covert and overt actions to expropriate the wealth of the third world against defenseless population? And you call asking someone to not have children unnatural?
Vitamins B12 and D
In response to Stephen Ault’s comment, I mention health problems in vegetarians and vegans as being related to their diet because of my own reading in nutrition as well as my personal knowledge of a number of former vegetarians and vegans whose health declined but who recovered when returning animal foods to their diet.
Usable vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal foods. See the subheading “Vegetarians” in this article: http://www.westonaprice.org/ab…n-b12.html
Food sources of vitamin D are almost exclusively from animal foods as well (butterfat, eggs, liver, organ meats, marine oils and seafood, particularly shrimp and crab). Sunlight is the best way to get vitamin D but most of us do not get enough sun exposure and at certain times of year in certain climates you cannot get enough vitamin D from the sun (and being near naked in the winter to try is probably not appealing to most). Synthetic vitamin D2 added to milk substitutes has been linked to hyperactivity, coronary heart disease and other allergic reactions.
Omnivores can also have health problems related to their diet if they are not eating primarily whole natural foods (see http://www.westonaprice.org/ab…lines.html for an overview of healthy diets).
Factory farming, CAFOs, and modern slaughterhouses are cruel. We promote small scale mixed farms, grass-based animal husbandry, and local small slaughterhouses. These practices allow animals to live as they are meant to and want to live, and they are killed as humanely as possible.
Life is only possible with death; this is the point of Keith’s book. Vegan diets are responsible for death just as surely as omnivorous ones, and if adopted on a wide scale, would actually cause far more environmental destruction, loss of soil fertility, habitat loss, species extinction, etc.
Steven Ault says
Why does the reviewer mention that vegetarians and vegans have problems with their health? There’s nothing in meat and dairy products that cannot be either found in plants or synthesised. This is just anti-vegetarian propaganda as usual. Meat eaters have terrible health problems all the time caused by a variety of factors. Why when a vegan or veggie has a health problem is it related to food? Being vegan is safer than dieting, yet millions of people do that. Vegan food has loads of vitamin B12, and vitamin D. These are the vitamins meat eaters say vegans don’t consume. Just accept that you’re lifestyle promotes cruelty and that vegans are more healty than you!!!
I will be a vegetarian to the day they turn me into ashes.
I don’t leap to the conclusion that everyone who refuses to eat broccoli does so for one or more political, moral, nutritional or spiritual reason.
I refuse to eat meat because I refuse to kill and consume other beings. How many chickens have you butchered? lambs? beef? pigs? Well, I’ve butchered too many to keep count. Butchered them with my own hands, as a matter of fact, and I cut them up while they were still warm. But I’ve only butchered one pig. That’s what changed me.
Killing and butchering the pig who played jokes on me, who was intelligent enough to ‘lie’ to me by hiding his apple so I would give him another when I was passing them out to the horses -which, by the way, I never slaughtered and ate. He didn’t eat it and then ask for another. No, he hid his apple and came back and asked for another.
I have my reasons for never ever eating meat again. And you have your reasons for not eating broccoli.
To try to make me look stupid, uninformed or hypocritical is not nice. It is suspect, in fact. Makes me want to know what you are selling. What does it matter to YOU if I make the informed choice to be a Vegetarian? I’m not a Poser and take full responsibility for my actions. I eat a varied, organic when possible, diet devoid of HFCS, and anything grown, processed or produced by ADM, Monsanto or other conglomerates like Kraft. And I make sure I take natural pro-biotics manufactured by the one company that manufactures all the pro-biotics in this country. I am a thoughtful, responsible, adult vegetarian. And will be for the rest of my life. I am certain there are many others ‘out there’, just like me.
And I don’t care if you never eat broccoli again. But I love it and will eat your share gladly.
Steve L says
Everyone please go read the excerpt from the book reviewed here. Very good, it’s link is at the end of the review.
Steve L says
Nobody has said anything about brocolli. You imply that a diet that includes meat is somehow against vegetables or this one vegetable you mention. No one is saying this. This is an examination of the reasons for and against actively excluding a major, nutritionally important (if not critical) food group from one’s diet. Throwing brocolli into it is a red herring.
Your comment about killing and butchering is important input, however. Most of us have not. I have heard others say that butchering pigs was emotionally most difficult. This does beg the question though of degree. If killing and butchering pigs is too much like killing sentient beings, then does that extend to all animal protein ? Would you have trouble eating oysters for the same reason? Fish, Chicken? Then I supposed you have transferred your experience with pigs to all animals, even though you did seem to have a different experience first hand with others, according to your comment.
From this your reasoning does appears to be primarily moral, belying your contention that your reasons are above classification, and thus, one supposes, above examination.
Questions arise – How do you address the issue of animal habitat displaced for agriculture, that uniquely modern and human practice? And animal deaths for harvest? Are you saying that it feels ok if we kill animals casually when they get in our way, but only indirectly? Are those animal deaths not equal or worse than one killed, with respect, to be eaten?
How do you see the difference between a wild animal eating meat and us? Do you think that you would have the same reaction if you were a primitive tryng to keep yourself and you children alive?
Your comments about someone trying to make you look stupid also seem to come from nowhere, or be red herrings, as with the brocolli. Nobody said or implied that in the review or the comments. This is a review of a thoughful book written from experience. It seems to be intended to inform and help people find their way in the forest of ideas about what to eat to be a healthy human in these times. You may already be decided but many of us are still learning, deciding, and apreciate another side to the common vegetarian arguments given. If you feel threatened by the information and dialog, then perhaps you are not so secure in your decision as you claim.
No one is out to attack you, but simply probing the reasoning in the interest of sorting things out. Presumably, you entered the dialogue in order to discuss these ideas openly.
Finally, I’m confused. What do probiotics and the company you buy them from have to do with “th? I missed something…
S Khera says
Human teeth are made to eat vegetation not meat. Look at the teeth of carnivorous animals and compare them with human teeth or the teeth of the animals who do not eat meat. You will find the difference. The way humans eat meat, it is dead food. How do you expect dead food to give you life. Animal products like milk and its by-products are OK to consume.
Isabelle Crane says
A bunch of children here
Just like people who turn to vegetarianism because of the reasons outlined in this woman’s book, the thought that we need to choose not to have children is created through the same immature and irrational thought process. You can apply the same logic to that concept to realize how short-sighted it is that she used for dismissing the vegetarian diet. It is immature to think healthy people shouldn’t have children because the “world” or medical system is bad. Especially since it’s not true all around the globe. It’s equally immature and down right dangerous to say and think that there are too many humans. Nature will decide that despite our efforts. It’s your arrogance that allows you to think we can truly extend past what nature will allow. We can not. If we allow ourselves to believe there are too many people on the planet. If you allow yourself to think “humans are a virus”, “that there are too many people living”, “that we have to get our numbers down”, you will not find it distasteful when someone recommends a “solution”. You think long and hard about that.
I was just having a chat with a friend from China and he was explaining about the population increases in China during times of war when families were loosing many children. And how that became a problem during peaceful times and how they came to feel they should only allow one child. The end result… now they realize they have generations of children with no siblings, no aunts, no uncles. The family tree almost becomes completely vertical. How will that play out in the future?
It’s not just about the now.
David Salter says
If it wasn’t for veggies eating the Big Ag carbs, then it would be harder for me to eat healthy
I read some of the comments on here, and many of you are thinking in a very blinkered way. A few comments against the idea not to have children are particularly narrow-minded. Obviously it is a very difficult thing to deal with, which explains why we have so much governmental contradiction, but the simple fact is that if everybody wanted to eat the food that our bodies have evolved to eat (ie natural animal products and vegetables, and yes we have canine teeth AND molars because we are omnivores) then there would never be enough to go around. So the fact that so many people choose NOT to do their own research and think for themselves, and therefore blindly follow the health authorities recommendations, means that I am able to eat the food that I know is the healthiest for me.
You have to consider the whole picture. There simply are not enough resources to feed the current population size in a way that is most beneficial to thier health – opting instead to “sustain” life in a LESS healthy way so that more people can survive. This is all Keith is saying – that the current population size is the biggest issue, and one that is never addressed. How we achieve a smaller population size is a different matter, and I personally think that will be impossible to do voluntarily, which will mean that nature will take it’s course eventually and do the job itself.
So keep it up veggies – your ignorance is beneficial to my health!
At the moment “everybody” “knows” that vegetarianism is right for the earth in various ways. That’s why I like books like this, that someone comes around and kick the contemporary knowledge in the butt. This is how things get better in the long run eventually. I’m also happy to see movements like LCHF (LOW CARB HIGH FAT) in Sweden and the implications of food on health. In the western world we have too long focused on food as food and medicine as medicine, when the two in fact are one and the same for the vast majority of diseases.
The scariest thing in this book is that agriculture is so dependent on fossil fuels. I always thought that the end of oil would be the end of driving your car and maybe end of warming your house, not the end of you eating your food.