Review: The Vegetarian Myth

Another reason my honeymoon was a dream come true: Ample time to sit in the sun and ogle my hot Cavehusband while catching up on my Vitamin D and my reading.

Not too shabby.

I’ve wanted to review Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability for some time. It’s a difficult book on which to place a clear label: the passion of Keith’s concern for the well-being of Vegetarian and Vegan…well, self-tasked soldiers is unrestrained and her arguments contain a hefty dose of emotion, rage and unabashed “feminism” – the word “radical” even appears –  and in this politically sensitive world it’s easy to brush off any idea that comes packaged in Emotions.
But Lierre isn’t the only person passionate about sustainability. There are good-ole’ guys in the Midwest – my home state, even – who have taken on the yoke as well. This passion is not limited to the radical feminists, the soy-chowing “hippies,” or the Yogis. It’s for anyone who desires health or a more peaceful world; anyone who survived the Dust Bowl; and anyone who can’t sustain their farming operation without subsidies.

Back to the theme of this book.
Certainly, there are “nutritional vegans” and “nutritional vegetarians,” but any health bias is easily put right with a bit of science (Food Lies: Soy post to come). Overall, the Vegan and Vegetarian lifestyles are nearly always driven by emotional commitments and well-intentioned but short-sighted moral beliefs. This is why Keith’s equally-emotional philosophical discussion is valid. Necessary. Vital. In truth, the “moral imperative” of Vegans and Vegetarians actually holds the potential to destroy their personal health and crush Mother Earth far more handily than would “perennial polyculture.”
Keith has extreme sympathy for her Veg bretheren. She was a fiercely devoted Vegan for 20 years. Her book is not a diatribe against Vegans; it is an education on a more loving approach to animal rights, health, and the survival of Earth’s precious resources. It is a cause beyond Veganism that embraces the health of the entire planet while understanding the human’s proper place in the cycle of life, death, and regeneration. So many people, including this Vegan Realtor in Philadelphia, don’t realize that compassion for animals isn’t a language spoken only by PETA; but a cause to be carried out with profound gratitude for our Earth, our resources, and our biological place – a cause that exists independently of the compartmentalized cruelty of factory farming.
This guy just doesn't get it. Photo courtesy of Meghan Waldeck.

In her 20 years as a Vegan, Keith lost her health and her sanity to a Cause with a foundation that proved shaky at best – and entirely backward at worst. She started and ended her Vegan journey with the same love and passionate concern for animals, the world, and justice; but realized along the way that she’d assigned herself a false moral imperative.
I was moved by her mission:

“I want my life – my body – to be a place where the earth is cherished, not devoured; where the sadist is granted no quarter; where the violence stops. And I want eating – the first nurturance – to be an act that sustains instead of kills.
“This book…is not an attempt to mock the concept of animal rights or to sneer at the people who want a gentler world. Instead, this book is an effort to honor our deepest longings for a just world. And those longings – for compassion, for sustainability, for an equitable distribution of resources – are not served by the philosophy or practice of vegetarianism.”

Keith goes on to prove the most vital point of all: that industrial food production – hellish factory farm operations as well as large-scale agricultural production of grains, corn, and soybeans – vegan and vegetarian staples – are equally complicit in destroying natural resources, animals, our health, and our ability to feed ourselves for the purpose of both internal and external harmony.
Important: The factory farming model – large-scale meat marketing – where animals are fed grains to be fattened up and sold to line the pockets of a select few – is inarguably awful. Keith has no patience for it. It is right to refuse to support that cruel industry and its inferior product. This book is about sustainability, which means rotational grazing and grass-feeding and replicating natural systems. That’s the ideal we must support as natural omnivores. And we CAN support a healthy populus this way. Read the book and check the footnotes – most of which I agree with.
Annual monocrops (look it up) like wheat, soy and corn are not only the LAST thing both humans and animals should be eating; but their production destroys the topsoil and wipes millions of species of indigenous plants, animals, microbes, and insects from land that once belonged to them; land where the natural cycle of birth, death, decay, and rejuvenation once occurred with natural “perennial polycultures.” These whole-grain harbingers of death and destruction are then packaged up and sent to feedlots (and Whole Foods).
Rivers, wetlands, natural ecosystems, and animal habitats – and therefore, innocent animals – are destroyed in the name of unsustainable, selectively profitable industry. This doesn’t just apply to factory animal farms. Big Corporations that grow vegetables are guilty of this large-scale destruction as well. Manmade nitrogen – inseparable from the war-making industry – is what fertilizes these large operations.
To believe oneself peace-loving simply because one chooses vegetables over meat is a fallacy. Further, humans-as-herbivores is outside the design of Nature – the entity Vegs love so dearly. It’s generally unsustainable. It leads to a life not of nature, but outside of it – waste and decay in the name of moral, political, or nutritional vegetarianism. Keith dismantles each and every one of those ideologies systematically, yet patiently and lovingly.
Keith realized the untruth of the Vegan ideal. Because entire ecosystems are destroyed, beginning with topsoil, and cascading through colonies of insects, animals, “perennial polycultures,” and rivers that are dammed to produce a few pounds of rice at the expense of millions of fish, she realized the hypocrisy of attributing sentience only to those animals who are “similar to us” – those animals with human-ish faces and fuzzy babies. “There is no heirarchy where humans and maybe a few animals like us are the beings that count as ‘sentient,” or ‘conscious,’ or somehow more worthy,” Keith says. “We are all made of the same substance, a substance animate and sacred.”
I could go on with this review for pages, but I’ll summarize the rest – Keith tackles moral, political, and nutritional Vegetarian and Vegan ideals both individually and as they inter-relate. It is truly a beautifully constructed argument. Foundationally, she impresses upon the reader to understand that Factory Farming IS absolutely evil, not how we should feed ourselves, and entirely outside of the sustainability debate, as is large-scale agricultural production. She understands that the “facts” and assumptions used to argue the Vegan and Vegetarian ideals are largely based on an unnatural, factory-farmed, grain-eating model and fall outside the goals of sustainability and justice. She offers solutions that aren’t as easy as simply eschewing meat. True compassion, Keith argues, is reflected in activism – from eating locally-produced food (sorry, if bananas don’t grow in your community – maybe you don’t get to eat them anymore) and supporting sustainable farms that promulgate the regeneration of topsoil.
Keith believes that Vegan and Vegetarian moms are slowly poisoning their children (again, “Food Lies: Soy” post to come); and that it is futile to pretend that death is outside the design of life. She believes that Vegetarianism stands opposed to health and  sustainability; and that the doctrine of Animal Rights is baseless and unfair if not extended to all species, which ultimately means not eating at all, or respecting the role of every organism in the cycle of life.
Keith also gives numbers in support of her hypothesis – most of them well-interpreted. It was difficult for me to choose what to quote here, as her book is so full of data, but I’ll end this review with a few of my favorites:

” ‘According to the British group Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soybeans 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn [all annual monocrops] and only two producing cattle…’ Set aside the fact that a diet of soy, wheat, or corn will result in massive malnutrition – along with fun stuff like kwashiorkor, pellagra, retardation, blindness – and ultimately death. The figure of two cattle might be true if you assume grain feeding…By contrast, a ten acre farm of perrenial polyculture in a mid-Atlantic climate could produce:
3,000 eggs
1,000 broilers
80 stewing hens
2,000 pounds of beef
2,500 pounds of pork
100 turkeys
50 rabbits
Not to mention a few inches of topsoil.”

The natural cycle of life – birth, death, fertilization, decay, regeneration – is not supported with a Vegan ideal. Her journeys into “sustainable” Veg environments, “farms” and compounds proved this. Beyond that, the material it takes to support the farming of Veg staples is less productive from an energy standpoint:

“…Compare the nutrition in that pound of wheat against that pound of beef. The beef contains almost twice as many calories (592 vs. 339, per 100 grams). Calories are simply energy, which means the beef is providing substantially more. if you want to compare pounds of water for calories (energy) produced, wheat and grass-fed beef end up almost even. For wheat, sixty pounds of water produces 1524.45 calories, or 25.7 caloried per pound of water. For grass-fed beef, it’s twenty-two calories from a pound of water.
Ant there’s more than simple energy: those beef calories contain more nutrents, especially essential protein and fat. The numbers on those are 21 g. vs. 13.7 g, and 8.55 vs. 1.87 g, respectively. It’s also crucial to understand that the protein in the beef contains the full spectrum of necessary amino acids and is easy for humans to assimilate, while the protein in the wheat is both low-quality and largely inaccessible because it comes wrapped in indgestible cellulose.”

This brings me to the point that cows CAN digest cellulose. They turn it into protein and fat. Then we eat it, as we’re meant to, with gratitude and respect for our place in the web of life. When we die, the bacteria that feeds on our decay regenerates the land and provides food for the animals that our descendants will eat – in a sustainable model. Keith also goes into the importance of natural dietary fat – the kind from animals – in brain health and battling issues that plague our fat-free population – like depression and schizophrenia.
I wish I could read this book for you. Despite its flirting with militant eco-feminism and intermittent passionate tangents  – which are unnecessary and at times distracting – the arguments are broadly relevant and well worth considering.

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