I just finished reading The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith (Flashpoint Press, 2009) and I can tell you it was not an easy book to read. Keith forced me to face some pretty grim facts about the direction civilization has been traveling since the dawn of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago, and what it will take to reverse that course. Having said that, I highly recommend it to anyone serious about understanding the depth and breadth of the problems agriculture has imposed on the global, national, community, individual and gut (yes, I mean “tummy”) levels.
Coincidentally, while I was reading the book, I happened upon the news story of Bill Clinton’s conversion to veganism as a way to stave off further cardiac problems. The former president says he now consumes no meat, no dairy, no eggs and almost no oil. There’s no telling how any individual will react to a particular food or diet. A “lucky” few (very few) will stay slim on a diet of processed food or lose weight on a low fat, high carbohydrate regime (although probably not keep it off,) but if I was a betting woman, I’d put money on Bill’s heart giving out before too long. Fat is the heart’s fuel, and not refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils, either – fat from grass-fed animals, pastured eggs and whole raw dairy.
I was heartened (so to speak), though, by reading the readers’ comments below the article. It actually surprised me a little how many spoke up in defense of well-raised animal foods and the health and vigor they can bestow, and how many cited evidence that humans are omnivores and require both animal and plant foods for optimum health. Optimum health. That’s what we’re going for.
So this review is for you, Bill.
Lierre Keith was a vegan for 20 years. At 16 she ached, like so many sensitive, conscientious young people, to save the world. And like so many people with the most honorable of intentions, she decided that killing animals was wrong on many levels. So she stopped eating animal products and lived, or barely survived as it turns out, on vegetables, grains and the vegetarian diet staple, soy and its many byproducts. She almost died.
Keith chronicles the story of her descent into depression, emaciation, chronic pain and compromised fertility as she systematically disassembles the three major platforms from which vegetarians and vegans decry the killing of animals: moral, political and nutritional vegetarianism. Her story is an intensely personal and intimate one as she describes how she made the transition from a simplistic, child-like view of the world to a complex, mature conception of the web that is planet Earth, including the fact that there is no escaping this life without taking life. We take life and then we give our own so that life can go on. To ignore or deny this is ludicrous, says Keith:
The moral vegetarians believe – and they believe it with all their hearts and
with all their good reasons – that the question is life or death. But that is not the choice that nature offers any of us. We are all – apple trees and coho salmon, earthworms and black terns – predators, and then prey. Life or death? is not the question that will save us.
But this could be: What grows where you live?…What grows where you live becomes Why are there so many of us? This leads to the question of who controls women’s bodies…
It appears at first glance that Keith is making some giant leaps – from the taking of the life of a worm to overpopulation to the subjugation of women – but she does it thoughtfully and it makes sense. She discusses the complex and amazing sentience of plants. What to kill and not to kill is not so simple when you realize that plants communicate with each other, protect each other and have a deep wisdom of their own. Does the statement “I don’t eat anything with a face” make sense anymore in light of these facts? What’s a face got to do with it?
Addressing political vegetarianism is a little more complicated, at least to me who struggles with the labyrinth that is politics (although I can take you through the labyrinth of the human digestive system with aplomb, so maybe it’s just a question of aptitude.) Says Keith:
Refraining from factory farm animal products is a righteous act, for animals and the earth, but it will not feed a single hungry person. The hungry don’t have money to buy North American grain; getting the money means further dependence on the masters of globalization; and cheap commodities from afar only further destroy local food production, the only real food security that can exist. This is why there are no international aid agencies that suggest vegetarianism as a solution to world hunger: it isn’t one. I understand how the desperate longing for a just and fed world can lead us to cling to simple answers, especially answers that are easy to institute in our personal lives. But buying a soy burger is an emotional quick fix that does not address the tenacious and terrible roots of power and inequality.
Check the label: you’re probably giving money to the very corporations that are creating the problem.
Can you say “Monsanto?” “Archer Daniels Midland?” “Cargill?”
Keith brilliantly points out that, while we are now facing “peak oil,” the moment in history when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached and enters terminal decline, we reached “peak soil” 12,000 years ago, the day before agriculture began. It’s farmers like Virginia’s Joel Salatin who are rebuilding what was lost with perennial polyculture. Perennial polyculture is the use of native, perennial plants and a succession of grazing animals to build soil, as opposed to using it up, as does monocrop farming, especially of monocrop farming of commodities like wheat, corn and soy. According to Keith:
On Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm – the mecca of sustainable food production – organic matter has increased from 1.5 percent in 1961 [when Salatin’s father began farming that land] to 8 percent today. The average right now in the US is 2-3 percent…Salatin’s rotating mixture of animals on pasture is building one inch of soil annually.
Keith quotes Peter Bane (“Storing Carbon in Soil: The Possibilities of a New American Agriculture,” Permaculture Activist, no. 65, Autumn 2007) as saying that if all the agricultural acreage in the US today were converted to perennial polyculture it would sequester 2.2 billion tons of carbon each year! The US would become a net carbon sink and create 5 million new jobs in farming “if the land were used as efficiently as the Salatins use theirs.”
It’s when Keith addresses nutritional vegetarianism, the idea that the consumption of animal products is what is at the root of our epidemic of the diseases of civilization (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, infertility, etc.) that she strikes the loudest chord with me. She and I have great respect for those whose moral, ethical and political convictions lead them to wrestle with these issues. But I think the majority of people will be swayed mostly by the personal. We have to save ourselves, and our health, before we can save the world. If you only read the chapter entitled “Nutritional Vegetarians” it would be an education in itself.
Keith takes us through the archeological evidence that we are an omnivorous animal evolved to eat “meat, fowl, fish and leaves, roots and fruits of many plants.” Today:
We are eating foods that didn’t even exist until a few thousand years ago: domesticated annuals, especially grains, and even more their industrial endpoint of refined flours, sugars, and oils…Our own bodies, with their degenerative diseases and overgrowth of cells, are all the evidence we need that this diet is unnatural.
She takes the reader through a short and well-cited course on the human digestive system and metabolism, including the story of insulin, one of the major culprits in the crime that is the USDA food pyramid (now My Plate) and its recommendation that we eat a diet that is 60% carbohydrate.
Your body will turn that carbohydrate into almost two cups of glucose, and each and every molecule has to be reckoned with.
It’s insulin that does the reckoning – and the wrecking. An overabundance of this essential hormone leads to fat accumulation, high blood pressure, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, oxidation of LDL cholesterol, diabetes and more, much more.
Keith saves a few pages at the end of the book for the chapter entitled “To Save the World.” It’s not gonna be easy. She offers no quick fixes, but she is clear that the only permanent fix, to our health and environmental problems, is to disassemble the agro-industrial complex and return to local food economies, feasting on what grows in the regions where we live, rather than what can be carted from Chile, or New Zealand, or California if you are in Vermont.
Don’t just consider reading this book if you are a vegetarian, or know one. Even for those of us committed to supporting locally grown, grass-fed and pastured animals and their products for our own health and the health of the environment, there is much here to be gained. I challenge you to read this book and not look differently at food in the fields and pastures and forests, food on your plate, and what it takes to get it from one to the other while still leaving a world for your grandchildren.
This post is part of Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday