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.