In her book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, Lierre Keith successfully assails not only vegetarianism, but also industrial civilization and agriculture itself. The effectiveness of her assault may dishearten anyone with abiding fondness for these institutions. She puts the puzzle pieces together excellently and without holes; the resulting picture challenges the foundations of industrial capitalism. She gives no quarter, and, as in James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, her proposed resolution is not an easy one.
She starts by explaining her motivation. She deplores factory animal farming, and seeks above all an end to cruelty and oppression of all kinds. This is why she herself was a vegan for 20 years. In this respect, her goals are still aligned with those of moral and political vegetarians and vegans.
According to her, their hearts are in the right place, but they've got the facts wrong.
First, she describes her own early, naïve attempts to grow a vegan vegetable garden. When it came time to fertilize the garden, she shunned industrial, fossil-fuel-based fertilizer, for political reasons. Using manure was morally questionable, because it would have made her garden dependent upon the oppression of animals. The remaining option was organic fertilizer from the garden store. She recounts her surprise when she read the list of ingredients: blood meal, bone meal, and so on. As she said, "My garden wanted to eat animals, even if I didn't."
Next, she explores (and explodes) the notion that a grain-based diet is morally superior to an animal-based diet. Eating meat is demonstrably compatible with preserving species and ecosystems in many places that have been inhabited by hunter-gatherers. On the other hand, agriculture based primarily on annual grasses (also known as grains) necessitates clearing fields, cutting down forests, draining rivers, and depleting topsoil. In place of killing individual animals, we destroy entire ecosystems and we eradicate the multiple species of animals that inhabit them and depend on them.
She similarly investigates the notion that if people in rich countries stopped eating meat and ate grain instead, we could end hunger worldwide. Among other problems with this idea: most parts of the world can only grow grain with huge water inputs, and there's not enough water; the topsoil wouldn't last very long; and, for various political and economic reasons that she explains convincingly, growing grain leads to poverty.
In the largest section of the book, she discusses the nutritional consequences of shunning or consuming animal products. She testifies that her 20 years on a vegan diet did not enhance her health (to put it mildly). She goes on to tell the story of the misinformation campaign propounding the benefits of a low-fat vegetable-based diet; the confusion about the role of cholesterol in the body and its links to heart disease; the metabolic challenges of carbohydrate-based diets; and the elevation of soy protein from an industrial by-product to a "health food". Keith makes excellent arguments against eating soy, citing its damaging effects on digestion, mineral absorption, and the endocrine system. Although it doesn't prove anything, I found this tidbit fascinating:
The Chinese characters for barley, millet, rice, and wheat are pictures of the grains, because it's the edible parts that matter. The character for soy shows the roots, because it was grown as a cover crop, not a food. [quoting Kaayla Daniel, The Whole Soy Story, p. 9]You may have some idea by now where she is leading us. Eat local, native food. Stop driving cars. Stop having children. And: there's no way that we can feed all the people on the earth. There's going to be a die-off, same as when deer overpopulate a forest and exceed its carrying capacity. The bonanza of fossil fuels has allowed us to postpone this die-off, but the day will come, probably sooner than most people think, and the more we continue with business-as-usual, the less prepared each of us will be for it.
Her perspective as a radical feminist activist suffuses the text, resulting in some interesting side-trips into the sexual politics of war, and the connections among vegetarianism, eating disorders, and the dominant culture. At the same time, the unfolding narrative of her personal journey from vegan to anti-grain runs throughout the chapters. She does a great job of integrating her own story into the larger one.
Parts of the book, including the title itself, will challenge many readers. It is my hope that these readers will start reading and keep on reading, because Keith has put together so many important ideas in this book, so artfully. We owe it to ourselves to hear them, discuss them, and most importantly, act on them. The time is ripe. (Or perhaps the time was ripe 10,000 years ago.)