The Vegetarian Myth
Before I get into a discussion of the absolutely phenomenal book you see pictured at the right, I’ve got a few disclosures to make. First, I’m not much of a believer in the notion of man-made global warming or climate change (as they now call it since temperatures have been constantly falling instead of rising). I’m a denier, in the pejorative term used by those who are believers.
Second, I’m not particularly pro-feminist. And I certainly don’t hang around with any self-proclaimed radical feminists. I have a wife who is smarter than I am, who is more talented than I am, and who, pound for pound, is probably a better athlete than I am, and I’m not bad. (In my defense, I can read much, much faster than she, but, she has better comprehension.) I long ago gave up the idea (if I ever really considered it seriously) that men are superior to women in any ways other than brute strength. Having said that, however, I do believe that men are better suited to certain endeavors than woman and vice verse, but that doesn’t mean either men or women should be denied the opportunity to give whatever it is they want to do a whirl just because of their sex. I guess I consider myself an egalitarian. But from what I’ve seen of radical feminists, I’m not sure that I would count myself a big fan.
Given the above, you wouldn’t think I would enjoy and recommend a book written by a self-proclaimed radical feminist who is obviously a believer in global warming and the impending end of the earth as we know it. I wouldn’t think so, either. Not my cup of tea even when it is sort of preaching to the choir.
But I can tell you that Lierre Keith’s book is beyond fantastic. It is easily the best book I’ve read since Mistakes Were Made, maybe even better. Everyone should read this book, vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike. If you’re a radical feminist, you should read this book; if you’re a male chauvinist, you should read this book; if you have children, especially female children, you should read this book; if you are a young woman (or man) you should read this book; if you love animals, you should read this book; if you hate vegetarians, you should read this book; if you are contemplating the vegetarian way of life, you should definitely read this book; if you have a vegetarian friend or family member, you should this book and so should your friend. As MD said after she read it, “everyone who eats should read this book.”
Anyone who has ever read a book on writing has come across the hackneyed piece of advice to cut open a vein and bleed on the page. Lierre Keith, the author of this book, has come closer to literally doing that than almost any writer I’ve ever read. Not only does her passion for her subject bleed through in almost every sentence, she is a superb lyrical prose stylist. My book is dog eared, underlined and annotated from front to back – I can’t remember anything I’ve read that has contained so many terrific lines.
In fact The Vegetarian Myth is filled with so many good quotes (most by the author but some from other authors) that I was reminded of the old joke about the redneck who went to see a performance of Hamlet. When the show let out, someone asked him what he thought of it. Replied he: It wasn’t nothin’ but a whole bunch of quotes all strung together. As you’ll see when I ‘quote’ them below, The Vegetarian Myth contains quotable lines and paragraphs at about the same rate Hamlet does.
Ms. Keith was a practicing vegetarian (vegan) for twenty years, driven by her passion for kindness and justice for all creatures. She couldn’t bear the thought of even killing a garden slug, or, for that matter, even removing a garden slug from her garden to a place where something or someone else might kill it. Her years of compassionate avoidance of any foods of animal origin cost her her health. Her story of coming to grips with the realization that whatever she ate came as a consequence of some living being’s having to die form the matrix onto which her narrative hangs.
You can read the first 14 manuscript pages of the book on the author’s website. I have quoted from these 14 pages liberally below.
The introduction to The Vegetarian Myth explores Ms. Keith’s rationale for writing such a book, a book that, given her years of walking the vegetarian walk, must have been incredibly difficult to write. She says as much with her first sentence.
She ponders the idea of factory farming, which she loathes, and the misbegotten idea that most people hold (not most readers of this blog, but most of the people in the world) that grains are good, not only for people, but for many animals as well. And the common misconception that agriculture, the growing of annual grains and plants, is a wonderful, kind, sustainable activity.
This misunderstanding is born of ignorance, an ignorance that runs the length and breadth of the vegetarian myth, through the nature of agriculture and ending in the nature of life. We are urban industrialists, and we don’t know the origins of our food. This includes vegetarians, despite their claims to the truth. It included me, too, for twenty years. Anyone who ate meat was in denial; only I had faced the facts. Certainly, most people who consume factory-farmed meat have never asked what died and how it died. But frankly, neither have most vegetarians.
The truth is that agriculture is the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet, and more of the same won’t save us. The truth is that agriculture requires the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems. The truth is also that life isn’t possible without death, that no matter what you eat, someone has to die to feed you.
I want a full accounting, an accounting that goes way beyond what’s dead on your plate. I’m asking about everything that died in the process, everything that was killed to get that food onto your plate. That’s the more radical question, and it’s the only question that will produce the truth. How many rivers were dammed and drained, how many prairies plowed and forests pulled down, how much topsoil turned to dust and blown into ghosts? I want to know about all the species—not just the individuals, but the entire species—the chinook, the bison, the grasshopper sparrows, the grey wolves. And I want more than just the number of dead and gone. I want them back.
After she had seen the error of her ways as a vegan and had been eating meat for two years, for reasons unknown to her, the author continued to surf the same vegan websites and message boards she had for years. Until she read one post that was so bizarre that she finally realized the large intellectual gap that had widened between her rationale thinking and the cult like thinking of, well, a cult. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.
But one post marked a turning point. A vegan flushed out his idea to keep animals from being killed—not by humans, but by other animals. Someone should build a fence down the middle of the Serengeti, and divide the predators from the prey. Killing is wrong and no animals should ever have to die, so the big cats and wild canines would go on one side, while the wildebeests and zebras would live on the other. He knew the carnivores would be okay because they didn’t need to be carnivores. That was a lie the meat industry told. He’d seen his dog eat grass: therefore, dogs could live on grass.
No one objected. In fact, others chimed in. My cat eats grass, too, one woman added, all enthusiasm. So does mine! someone else posted. Everyone agreed that fencing was the solution to animal death.
Note well that the site for this liberatory project was Africa. No one mentioned the North American prairie, where carnivores and ruminants alike have been extirpated for the annual grains that vegetarians embrace. But I’ll return to that in Chapter 3.
I knew enough to know that this was insane. But no one else on the message board could see anything wrong with the scheme. So, on the theory that many readers lack the knowledge to judge this plan, I’m going to walk you through this.
Carnivores cannot survive on cellulose. They may on occasion eat grass, but they use it medicinally, usually as a purgative to clear their digestive tracts of parasites. Ruminants, on the other hand, have evolved to eat grass. They have a rumen (hence, ruminant), the first in a series of multiple stomachs that acts as a fermentative vat. What’s actually happening inside a cow or a zebra is that bacteria eat the grass, and the animals eat the bacteria.
Lions and hyenas and humans don’t have a ruminant’s digestive system. Literally from our teeth to our rectums we are designed for meat. We have no mechanism to digest cellulose.
So on the carnivore side of the fence, starvation will take every animal. Some will last longer than others, and those some will end their days as cannibals. The scavengers will have a Fat Tuesday party, but when the bones are picked clean, they’ll starve as well. The graveyard won’t end there. Without grazers to eat the grass, the land will eventually turn to desert.
Why? Because without grazers to literally level the playing field, the perennial plants mature, and shade out the basal growth point at the plant’s base. In a brittle environment like the Serengeti, decay is mostly physical (weathering) and chemical (oxidative), not bacterial and biological as in a moist environment. In fact, the ruminants take over most of the biological functions of soil by digesting the cellulose and returning the nutrients, once again available, in the form of urine and feces.
But without ruminants, the plant matter will pile up, reducing growth, and begin killing the plants. The bare earth is now exposed to wind, sun, and rain, the minerals leech away, and the soil structure is destroyed. In our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything.
On the ruminant side of the fence, the wildebeests and friends will reproduce as effectively as ever. But without the check of predators, there will quickly be more grazers than grass. The animals will outstrip their food source, eat the plants down to the ground, and then starve to death, leaving behind a seriously degraded landscape.
The lesson here is obvious, though it is profound enough to inspire a religion: we need to be eaten as much as we need to eat. The grazers need their daily cellulose, but the grass also needs the animals. It needs the manure, with its nitrogen, minerals, and bacteria; it needs the mechanical check of grazing activity; and it needs the resources stored in animal bodies and freed up by degraders when animals die.
The grass and the grazers need each other as much as predators and prey. These are not one-way relationships, not arrangements of dominance and subordination. We aren’t exploiting each other by eating. We are only taking turns.
That was my last visit to the vegan message boards. I realized then that people so deeply ignorant of the nature of life, with its mineral cycle and carbon trade, its balance points around an ancient circle of producers, consumers, and degraders, weren’t going to be able to guide me or, indeed, make any useful decisions about sustainable human culture. By turning from adult knowledge, the knowledge that death is embedded in every creature’s sustenance, from bacteria to grizzly bears, they would never be able to feed the emotional and spiritual hunger that ached in me from accepting that knowledge. Maybe in the end this book is an attempt to soothe that ache myself.
How anyone who can read these 14 pages and not purchase and read this book is beyond me.
After the introduction which deals with why the author wrote the book, The Vegetarian Myth is divided into four sections: Moral Vegetarians, Political Vegetarians, Nutritional Vegetarians, and To Save the World.
The first three of these sections are the author’s in-depth refutations of the moral, political and nutritional arguments that vegetarians are constantly putting forth. She does a masterful job.
In the Moral Vegetarians chapter, the author addresses the moral issue of killing animals for our own food. She beautifully makes her case by cutting to the heart of the matter:
What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment. It’s information.
And while she was in her 20-year trek in the vegetarian wilderness, she shielded herself from information as most cultists do:
I was on the side of righteousness, and like any fundamentalist, I could only stay there by avoiding information.
She finally realized the truth about agriculture; she figured out that the amber waves of grain are as death dealing as any slaughterhouse.
And agriculture isn’t quite a war because the forests and wetlands and prairies, the rain, the soil, the air, can’t fight back. Agriculture is really more like ethnic cleansing, wiping out the indigenous dwellers so the invaders can take the land. It’s biotic cleansing, biocide. … It is not non-violent. It is not sustainable. And every bite of food is laden with death.
There is no place left for the buffalo to roam. There’s only corn, wheat, and soy. About the only animals that escaped the biotic cleansing of the agriculturalists are small animals like mice and rabbits, and billions of them are killed by the harvesting equipment every year. Unless you’re out there with a scythe, don’t forget to add them to the death toll of your vegetarian meal. They count, and they died for your dinner…
Soil, species, rivers. That’s the death in your food. Agriculture is carnivorous: what it eats is ecosystems, and it swallows them whole.
In Political Vegetarians she refutes the politics (predominantly liberal) of the vegetarian movement and describes the dark side of political meddling in our ecosystem approved of in the main by PETA and other vegetarian groups. She follows the money.
Rice, wheat, corn – the annual grains that vegetarians want the world to eat – are thirsty enough to drink whole rivers.
The result has been an unending river of corn, drowning our arteries and our insulin receptors, our rural communities, and poor subsistence economies the world over. The corn comes at a huge environmental toll: there’s a half gallon of oil in every bushel. And it’s essentially a massive transfer of money from the US taxpayer to the giant grain cartels, who are able to command the price of grain to be lower than the cost of production, with all of us making up the difference – five billion dollars in subsidies for corn alone, straight into the pockets of Cargill and Monsanto.
Nutritional Vegetarians is about the nutritional inadequacies of a vegetarian and especially a vegan diet. And she does an absolute bang up job of laying out the rationale for following a no-grain, low-carb diet.
I have a disclosure to make here. Much of the information in this chapter is based on Protein Power and The Protein Power LifePlan. MD and I are listed in the acknowledgments, but I swear I didn’t know this until I bought the book. We aren’t the only ones, but there are plenty of quotes from us in this chapter. Gary Taubes, Malcolm Kendrick and (dare I say it) Anthony Colpo are quoted liberally as well. I would have loved this book just as much if we had never been quoted.
Ms Keith has made a few minor innocuous errors in this chapter, but, all in all, she has done a tremendous job of synthesizing the scientific information into an easy to read, informative format.
The Nutritional Vegetarians section isn’t just about the science of why vegetarianism is bad and meat eating is good, it gets into the nutritional politics (as opposed to the vegetarian politics in the previous section) as well. Ms Keith shows how we got to where we are by the nutritional strong arming by the McGovern committee back in the late 1970s. George McGovern (a senator from a grain-producing state) and his cronies basically set the nutritional standards under which we are still oppressed. They have been a disaster, as some scientists at the time predicted they would be.
And some scientists knew ahead of time that they would be. Phil Handler, the president of the National Academy of Scientists asked Congress, “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?” Dr. Pete Ahrens, an expert on cholesterol metabolism, told the McGovern committee that the effects of a low-fat diet weren’t a scientific matter but “a betting matter.”
It’s twenty-five years later and we aren’t winning this bet. Each US American now eats sixty pounds more grain per annum and thirty pounds more cheap sugars, mostly from corn. [Is it any wonder we’re all fat?]
The result, Dietary Goals for Americans, set in motion a cast sea change in the public’s beliefs and behaviors. … Dietary Goals was a predictable victory in a war that started ten thousand years ago. What really won were those annual grasses that had long since turned humans into mercenaries against the rest of the planet. We would now enshrine them like demi-gods, those whole grains and their sweet, opiate seductions, believing in their power to bestow health and long life, even while they slowly ate us alive.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book review that was positive from beginning to end, and this one is no exception. Based on the many comments I’ve gotten on this blog and my response to them, I’m sure many of you will find my main objection surprising. There is too much politics in the book. Not nutritional politics, but feminist politics.
I know, I know, I let my libertarian leanings come through in all kinds of blog posts and comment answers, but there is a difference. My blog is just that – a weblog of things I find interesting or informative. And it’s free. I don’t particularly like to pay for a book (and I paid full price for this one plus shipping) on a given subject then be beaten over the head with a political viewpoint. I guarantee you that our new book has zero politics in it. And if people bought our book expecting to learn about getting rid of their middle-aged middles and were fed a generous dose of my politics mixed in with the information, I would expect them to be flamed.
To give the author her due in this matter, the vegetarian ideology that had her in its grasp for 20 years was intertwined with her feminist politics, so a bit of said politics are necessary to describe how she was so taken in for so long. But I think she went a little overboard with it.
And, I think the last section of the book – To Save the World – is the weakest part of the book. The author makes several recommendations, all of which (save one) are, in my opinion totally unrealistic. But I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions after you’ve read the book.
I’ve read that when people are asked to recall what they remember of something they read, they tend to remember the first thing in the piece and the last thing. Most of the middle melds into a vague memory of what the article was about. I certainly don’t want people to remember this last negative part I wrote and let it dissuade them from reading this book. The good parts of the book so far outweigh the not-so-good parts that there is really no contest.
At a time when PETA and other vegetarian groups are mobilizing and ramping up their activity levels, a book such as this one bringing sanity to the debate is more important than ever. And don’t think these groups aren’t becoming more active. In the past, PETA and PETAphiles pretty much devoted their educational efforts toward the idea that eating animals was cruel. Now they are starting to make the case that a vegetarian diet will solve the obesity epidemic. Take a look at this billboard in Jacksonville, Florida.
If you find this sign annoying, buy The Vegetarian Myth and do your part to fight back. And if you have or know anyone with a daughter who is contemplating going vegetarian (young females are the most common victims), please make this book available. It could be the most important thing you ever do for the long-term mental and physical health of a young woman.
If you’ve made it this far in this long review, take a couple of minutes and watch this YouTube of Lierre Keith at a book event; she’s as fascinating to listen to as she is to read.