I finally read The Vegetarian Myth over my winter break. I know I’m more than a little late joining the party — the book has been out for some time and received quite a few reviews — but I’m going to add my review to the mix anyway, for one simple reason: It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I want you to read it too, if you haven’t already.
Lierre Keith is an extraordinarily talented writer. I enjoy some authors because they’re diligent researchers and fill their pages with facts I didn’t already know — Gary Taubes immediately comes to mind. I enjoy other authors for the logical, persuasive arguments they make on controversial issues — Thomas Sowell is one of my favorites in that arena. Still others, like Tom Robbins, are simply a pleasure to read, thanks to the grace and beauty of their prose.
As I read this book, I soon realized that Keith is all three: a tenacious researcher who can dig up the facts, arrange them into coherent arguments, and fold them into sentences that are pure brain-candy for anyone who loves words. (Okay, she wouldn’t eat candy and neither do I, but you get the idea.)
If you’ve spent any time debating vegetarians, you know the supposed superiority of a meat-free existence boils down to three main beliefs: it’s immoral to kill in order to eat, we must all give up meat to save the planet, and giving up animal products will improve your health. Keith refers to these as the Vegetarian Myths, and during her decades as a dedicated vegan, she believed them. But in this book, she destroys them one by one — by offering what she calls adult knowledge. Knowledge, after all, is the reason adults don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. As Keith puts it: “What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment. It’s information.”
And the information is rich indeed. In part one, Moral Vegetarians, she dispenses with the “killing animals is immoral” myth. I found this section particularly enlightening, because I long ago conceded the point that vegetarians don’t kill to eat. Okay, Mr. Granola, my food involves killing animals and yours doesn’t. Good for you. It so happens I don’t believe it’s immoral to kill an animal for food, especially since I’m healthier now, but if you feel morally superior ordering a soy burger, be my guest.
Turns out I was wrong to concede even that much. As Keith writes:
The moral argument is the clarion call that rallies most vegetarians to the cause. It’s what kept me unable to examine or even question my vegan diet, despite all the evidence that my health was failing. I wanted to believe that my life – my physical existence – was possible without killing. It’s not. No life is.
She then explains why living without killing is impossible, beginning with a fascinating, detailed description of the cycle of life … and “cycle” is the crucial concept. There is no food chain, with humans sitting at the top. We are members of a food cycle, with all of us eating each other. As Keith explains, even the soil is alive, with literally millions of organisms in each tablespoon. Take the animals out of the equation — along with the urine, feces, blood and bone that the soil “eats” — and the soil will die.
Keith discovered this for herself when she decided to grow her own food. She soon learned that her soil required nitrogen, and discovered to her horror that she had two choices: natural nitrogen — mostly blood meal and bone meal — or synthetic nitrogen made from fossil fuels … another form of dead animals. As she reluctantly concluded, “My garden wanted to eat animals, even if I didn’t.”
Her garden gave her further fits when she realized she had to stop the bugs from eating the plants she planned to eat herself. Chemical pesticides were obviously out, so she looked into “natural” pesticides — which she learned rip the guts out of the bugs. She finally elected to keep some chickens that would eat the bugs instead. Yes, she knew was simply outsourcing the killing to the chickens, and yes, she struggled with the double-standard. Her personal odyssey, sprinkled throughout the pages, is at times equally funny and sad.
Much of the Moral Vegetarians section describes the killing fields of mono-crop agriculture. Never mind the countless critters shredded by farm machinery. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real damage occurs earlier in the process. To create those sprawling acres of wheat, corn, and soybeans, prairies and forests that were home to millions of animals are destroyed, taking the animals down with them. Rivers are dammed, killing all the animals who depended on them. That soy burger Mr. Granola chews so smugly requires at least as many deaths as my steak, if not more.
And as Keith explains in section two, Political Vegetarians, eating soy burgers won’t save the planet, either. All those goofy vegetarian arguments about how many more people we could feed per acre if we all ate the crops instead of the animals who eat the crops are based on a flawed idea: that the animals who provide our meat are supposed to eat corn. They’re not. They’re supposed to eat grass. Keith recalculates the calories-per-acare figures assuming we were smart enough to raise our animals on their natural food, and not surprisingly, the disparity shrinks to nearly zero.
And feeding the masses is only part of the equation. When you raise animals in a pasture, you create topsoil — you literally can’t create topsoil without animals. But when you raise corn, you destroy topsoil. It’s mono-crop agriculture that uses extraordinary amounts of water and creates soil runoff. Then, of course, there’s all that fossil fuel required to keep the crops growing as the topsoil disappears. (Imagine the fun of explaining to your wild-eyed vegan friends that their “sustainable lifestyle” is enriching the oil industry.)
To make matters worse, our federal farm subsidies have created huge grain cartels and made our crops irresistibly cheap, destroying local farming around the globe. Keith recounts this in detail. But because of where she lays the blame, I’m going to pause and raise the couple of minor quibbles I have with an otherwise outstanding piece of work.
She is apparently hostile towards capitalism. As a libertarian whose definition of capitalism is “keep the @#$%ing government out of it,” I agree that farm subsidies are an outrage. But that’s not capitalism; it’s socialism. The huge farm subsidies that spawned mono-crop agriculture and the grain cartels were the work of FDR, the hero of the “Progressive” movement. As the old farmer told the filmmakers in King Corn, “You couldn’t make any money growing corn without the government payments.” Duh. Take the socialist federal handouts away, and much of the mono-crop agriculture will go with it. So will the cheap corn we feed to cattle.
My other minor quibble is Keith’s interjections of feminism (some have called it male-bashing) into the narrative. I don’t see any reason for it, other than the fact that she considers herself a radical feminist and felt a need to express some feminist ideas. As she points out herself, brutality and patriarchy existed in plenty of hunter-gather societies. And most of the radical, “meat is murder!” granola-chomping vegetarians I’ve met have been women who consider themselves feminists. Maybe I’m missing something here. But again, these are minor quibbles.
In part three, Nutritional Vegetarians, Keith recounts how her vegan diet destroyed her health. I’m sorry to say much of the damage is permanent. Her spine has degenerated, and it won’t come back. She spends much of her life in pain. I’m also sorry to say I know some vegetarians with ailments similar to hers, but unlike Keith, they refuse to connect the dots.
Now, 20 years too late, Keith has done the research. Some of the information in this section will be familiar to readers of this blog, but it’s presented in great detail and, of course, beautifully written. She describes how our digestive systems work … which would be pretty much like the digestive system of a meat-eating animal, not an herbivore. She explains the biochemistry of the physical damage caused by eating grains and soy. She knows this topic well, since she lives with the damage every day.
And of course, she now recognizes the many benefits of eating animal fat, as well as the shoddiness of the “research” that concluded animal fats will clog our arteries and kill us. She craved animal fat during her vegan days, but rarely allowed herself to eat it. When she did, she felt simultaneously renewed physically and tortured with guilt for giving in. She describes the depression, the fatigue, the “vegan rage,” and the chronic forgetfulness that plagued her and her vegan friends. And of course, none of them could admit that perhaps their diets had something to do with it.
At least she’s admitting it now, in a book sincerely I hope becomes a best-seller. I could post literally hundreds of delightful quotes from this book, but it’s getting late, and like I said, I hope you’ll read the whole thing. So I’ll close with this one:
Listen to your body, reader, a listening that must make your body known to you, less mysterious and more beloved. The listening is hard. You will have to hear past the propaganda of the agriculturalists, both the corrupt and the righteous. You will also have to listen past the cravings those foods produce: the addiction to opioids and intense sweeteners, the biological emergencies of blood sugar swings. And you will have to accept “the soft animal of your body,” as poet Mary Oliver so sweetly says, not punish it.
Told ya she could write.