Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith

The Vegetarian Myth, written by a radical feminist/anti-porn activist from Western Massachusetts, is currently the unlikely darling of the Paleo/Primal/Caveman/Very Low Carb/Carnivore circles that I have frequented ever since I found out that my USDA-approved high-carb, low-fat diet was making me metabolically deranged. And as celebrated as Lierre Keith’s part dietary memoir, part political manifesto is among unabashed meat eaters, it has became a source of outrage in the vegan community, probably touching a particularly sore spot because Keith is writing from the perspective of a former hard-core vegan for 20 years – one who obviously regrets every single day of it.

I could somewhat relate to Keith’s sheepishness, for I was a vegetarian for nearly 12 years. I honestly, deeply believed that going meatless was the most morally, politically, and nutritionally correct diet in this modern world of readily-available soy protein. I didn’t want to directly contribute to any animal’s death; I looked at the dead meat in the grocery store, at restaurants, on other people’s plates, and I empathized with it. I was outraged that people should eat grain-fattened beef in a world of starving people. And I was thrilled by my wholesome meals of beans and grains, which tasted so healthy and pure.

But looking back on my years as a vegetarian, I have to admit that I didn’t eat healthy; I relied on carbs and sugars for sustenance. Most of my dietary fat came from vegetable oils, and I was not mindful of balancing amino acids or ensuring adequate intake of all the nutrients that a meat-free diet typically lacks (zinc, calcium, iron, Vitamin D and the infamous B12). Compared to Keith, though, I got off easy, only having developed mild insulin resistance from my exorbitant intake of carbs and sugars. Keith spent much of her 20 years as a vegan depressed and angry, nauseated and bloated, with a crippling spine disorder that is now permanent from lack of proper nutrition.

Not only was I not doing my body any favors, but I wasn’t doing the Earth or its Third World inhabitants any favors, as well. Because just as evil as the practice of factory farming is agriculture — any agriculture. Agriculture destroys biodiversity, rivers, topsoil, and self-sufficient human communities; it creates dead zones and robs animals of habitats. As Keith so eloquently puts it:

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

The toll on the Earth is profound, but equally disturbing is how agriculture indentures farmers to the land. Says Keith, “Agricultural foods — the grains, beans, and vegetables we are all urged to eat in the service of the world community — are foods of displacement and destruction, not justice or peace. They have been the foods of slavery, and when this short moment of oil engorgement fades into memory and then into myth, we will be left with sweat… Grain requires sweat. Agricultural food is soaked cleans through in oil and blood.”

There is no doubt about the repugnance of the factory farming that supplies most of our meat and dairy. Grain-fed meat lacks both the conscience and the nutrition of  eating pastured, grass-fed meat. Animals weren’t meant to eat grain, any more than humans were. We did not evolve to be farmers; cows did not evolve eating grain; chickens did not evolve eating corn. Is clearing off land to create monocultures of grains morally superior to eating a chicken — when thousands of animals and plants have been displaced or destroyed for the farming and harvesting of the land? Not to mention the water. Rice, wheat, and corn are crops that drink entire rivers, and the irrigation destroys wetlands, trees, rivers, and all the animals that need that water to survive. Framed from this perspective, eating pastured beef becomes less environmentally problematic than eating industrial tomatoes and lettuce. As Keith puts it, “If you live in Burlington, VT or Santa Cruz, CA and you eat rice — ubiquitous, vegan brown rice — this is what you’re eating: dead fish and dead birds from a dying river.

If there is a fault wth Keith’s precise arguments, it is how she paints all vegans and vegetarians out to be naive and helplessly idealistic. The antecdotes she tells — about a vegan who wants to erect a fence in Africa to stop animals from eating each other, about a farming commuity that lives solely on bread and salad — are from the half-lunatic fringe. And there are people who live perfectly healthy meat-free lives that are no more destructive than the typical American diet.  Me, personally, since I’ve started eating meat rather than massive quantities of beans, grains, and soy (there is a special ring in Keith’s hell reserved for soy, which can cause thyroid damage), I’ve felt healthier than I can remember. Now, thanks to Keith, I can feel a little better about my choice to start eating pastured animals from a moral and environmental perspective.