Vegetarian Myth – fierce truth-telling

September 30, 2009

Seems a month does not go by, these days, that I find a book that causes me to re-arrange my world view. It might seem a little disorienting to contemplate monthly changes in one’s belief about life, the universe and everything, but it sure keeps things interesting.

The most recent shaker-upper is a truly fascinating book by Lierre Keith (its like Pierre, only with an ‘L’ and, no, there’s no relation 🙂 ): The Vegetarian Myth. The book is part memoir, part manifesto, part introduction to the study of metabolism and all just paradigm-shattering.

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability

While one might dismiss the title off-hand (especially if one is committed to a veg*an diet/lifestyle), it is noteworthy that Ms. Keith was a highly-observant vegan for 20 years. You can start by reading an excerpt from the book. If you’re not headed to the bookstore or following the above link to buy the book after reading the intro, I’d truly be interested in understanding why not.

From her perspective, she’s is as credible a source as you could imagine to probe these issues with integrity and depth. She identifies major categories of choices that lead many people to choose being vegetarian: Moral Vegetarians, Political Vegetarians and Nutritional Vegetarians.

On the Moral front, she uses detailed, in depth, information to counter the broadly-held assumption that eating only agriculturally-grown foods is morally superior than eating animal protein. For starters, she makes the bold statement that agriculture itself is, without qualification, the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet. Further, she broadens the ‘circle of life’ narrative to make it abundantly clear that no form of life can be sustained without the death of another form of life. To assert otherwise is to show your lack of knowledge (ok, ignorance) of the way nature truly works. The most striking example of this thinking is to acknowledge that any crop one may eat relies on nitrogen for its sustenance. The only truly abundant source of this nitrogen is the decayed organisms in the animal kingdom. That’s right. Plants survive because animals die.

On the Politics front (which is where I have the most trouble following all her assertions), she notes that the practice of agriculture itself was the pre-cursor to imperialism. She goes so far to say that without agriculture, there is no empire (no concentrated political power, no armies, etc.). Here’s where I will diverge in that many of the elements she deems to be endemic to Neolithic (pre-agricultural) societies, occurred in hunter-gatherer societies as well. That said, she truly cracked open the political/economic implications of corporate controlled agriculture which is inherently imperialistic and leaves less-developed countries in a perpetual state of dependence on industrialized countries.

On the Nutritional front, she uses her own very sad and painful story (massive endocrine dysfunction, depression, skeletal problems, etc.) to open your eyes, then she uses some of my favorites (the Eades, Codrain, Taubes) to educate her dear readers on the optimal diet for humans (clue – it’s not only veggies). The one big takeaway that the veg*ians appear not to understand that we are not ruminants (i.e. not able to digest cellulose), that we are ‘from our teeth to our rectums’ designed to eat meat.

Lest you think she has totally abandoned all the ideals that typically lead one to make a veg*an choice, she is unequivocal about her passionate work in favor of a more just and sustainable world. She is in major opposition to factory farming (which, by the way, is not in any way sustainable) and all it’s down-stream negative effects.

I cannot think of anyone who would not be able to benefit greatly from this one. The memoir part of the book was a little bit more than what I’d signed up for, and I would take exception to many of her political views, but please do not let the style get in the way of the content. There is much to learn here for all of us.

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2 Responses to “Vegetarian Myth – fierce truth-telling”

  1. compostbrain Says:

    An easy refutation of everything this book states:

    1. Nitrogen does not come from animals. It is the most abundant element in air and animals get all the nitrogen in them from plants. Legumes(plants) fix nitrogen from the air in a symbiosis with microbes. The only other sources of nitrogen are certain mined sources and a chemical process that takes nitrogen from the air using petroleum.
    2. Acknowledging the circle of life does not mean that you cannot choose where to be in that circle. Hence the vegan desire to eat lower on the food chain does not negate this.
    3. The vast majority of modern science acknowledges that a well planned vegan diet is healthful and prevents many diseases associated with meat.
    4. The author advocates pastoralism which is an outgrowth of agriculture(the very thing she claims is the root of all evil). This makes her entire argument absurd.
    5. The longest lives people on the planet all eat mostly plants. Many vegans have lived long healthy lives including myself and they have no need to lie about the food they eat contrary to her slanderous statements in this book.
    6. The authors credibility is lacking due to the many factual errors that riddle this book including her silly idea that you can get more calories per unit area from animal husbandry than from plant growth.
    7. She build a straw man argument by contrasting industrial agriculture versus Salatin model. Veganism does not equal industrial ag just as I am sure she would agree that meat eating does not equal CAFO.

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    • KMT Says:

      While you bring up a number of noteworthy points and I appreciate your comments, to call your reply an ‘easy refutation’ stretches things considerably.

      Your reference to the ‘pastoral’ solution is a good one and is one that I questioned as well (although probably not along the lines you might). Also, her references to the behavior of veg*ans was mostly anecdotal and did not really help her argument for the rest of us. I just chalked that up to the memoir/cathartic nature of the book. But to say those shorcomings render ‘her entire argument absurd’ is hyperbolic.

      ‘Nitrogen does not come from animals.’ Are you saying there is no need to ‘fix’ nitrogen into the soil in order to enable nutrients to reach plants through the roots and that using dead animals (that’s a good bit of what fossil fuels are) does not serve this aim? That air is composed of nitrogen is of little consequence in this regard (for most plants). It’s a little like saying I don’t need to ingest/digest (add acids, enzymes, yadda, yadda) my food, I can just schmeer it over my skin and I’ll be set.

      I thank you for the comment and agree with you on some points. However, a refutation it is not.

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