Correcting the ‘Vegetarian Myth’

The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith

Corrections to Some of the Many Errors and Misconceptions

The Claim: Lierre claims that grazed animal farming/polyculture can feed nine people per ten acres. (P. 101)

In Reality: Lierre lists the food produced on a 10 acre perennial polyculture. Her numbers are based on Michael Pollan’s exposition of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and are arrived at by dividing the numbers for Salatin’s 100 acres of grass by 10. But Pollan explains at great length (P. 222-225) that the 100 acres of grass is really 550 acres because the adjacent 450 acres of forest are essential to the health of the farm. Accordingly, ten acres of land actually feed about two people rather than her estimate of nine. Lierre says that if you live in New England you should eat what grows there. However, with this level of productivity, you couldn’t feed all of New England on all the land in New England.

The Claim: “I built my whole identity on the idea that my life did not require death…Did the lives of nematodes and fungi matter? Why not? Because they were too small for me to see?” (P. 18, discussed throughout the book)

In Reality: This is a straw man argument. These views are not held by most vegans. The goal of veganism is to eliminate direct, unnecessary suffering at the hands of humans — not to magically end all death. Why shouldn’t the cow with its undeniable ability to suffer take precedence over plants and organisms with limited or non-existent nervous systems such as the nematodes Keith frets about in this book?

The Claim: Lierre claims that sustainable farming is not possible without domesticated livestock. “I would need domesticated animals—their labor and the products of their bodies—to farm sustainably. I needed their manure and their unspeakable bones, their inconceivable blood.” (P. 58)

In Reality: How then does she explain the success of vegan organic agriculture in the UK and US, where no animal inputs are used? How does she explain that the most successful organic CSA in the country actually uses no animal products on their fields (Honey Brook Farm in New Jersey)?

The Claim: “Understand: agriculture was the beginning of global warming. Ten thousand years of destroying the carbon sinks of perennial polycultures has added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as industrialization, an indictment that you, vegetarians, need to answer. No one has told you this before, but that is what your food—those oh so eco-peaceful grains and beans—has done.” (P. 250)

The Reality: Much of Lierre’s book is borrowed from Richard Manning, a well-respected environmentalist and author. Manning understands that human dependence on grain monoculture is not a result of the small percentage of concerned people who decide to be vegetarian, but is rather a historical mistake of which we all share the burden of repairing. Despite Lierre’s insistence, vegans do not need to eat grains nor any sort of annual crop. Why did she target vegans when compared to average corn-fed Americans, vegans consume much less grain? On the topic of climate change, Lierre fails to address that regardless of type of feed or forage, ruminant animals emit an abundance of methane. She, along with other grass-fed proponents, point out that growing pasture sequesters carbon in the subsoil and claim that farms like Polyface are carbon-neutral. However, she ignores the fact that soil only retains a limited quantity of carbon—once pasture is healthy, it is carbon stable. Any pasture-based livestock production contributes, pound-for-pound of meat, to climate change as much (if not more) than conventional livestock production—an indictment that you, Lierre, need to answer.

The Claim: “We’ve been doing what we’ve been endlessly badgered to do since the 1960s. We’ve eaten, according to the USDA, less fat, less meat, fewer eggs. Our dietary fat has fallen 10 percent, hypertension has dropped 40 percent and the number of us with chronically high cholesterol has declined 28 percent.” (P. 203)

In Reality: Americans eat more meat now than in the 1960s according to the USDA (http://tinyurl.com/USDAstats1). While the average percentage of calories from dietary fat consumption has decreased, dietary fat intake increased from 135 g to 178 g from 1960 to 2006 (http://tinyurl.com/USDAstats2).

The Claim: “We owe our bodies what we owe the world; we must inhabit both and, in the act of inhabiting, nourish both. This food must also be an apology for what my kind has done, and part of the repair. It must protect this land, and extract from me the promise of more. My food is those things, all of them. It’s based on the forests and grasses that nestle this planet in soil and air.” (P. 271)

In Reality: Lierre’s own blog posts demonstrate that she can’t stick to her own ideals. She has posted entries where she raves about the perfection of grain-fed pork and happily offers a bucket of mass-produced, processed chocolate laden with factory-farmed dairy to trick-or-treaters last Halloween. If this is what she’ll post on her own blog, what other unsustainable foods is she eating? (http://tinyurl.com/lierre1, http://tinyurl.com/lierre2)

The Claim: “…there are no good plant sources of tryptophan. On top of that, all the tryptophan in the world won’t do you any good without saturated fat.” And later Keith blames the lack of tryptophan in vegetarian diets for depression, insomnia, panic, anger, bulimia and chemical dependency. (P. 10)

In Reality: A cup of roasted soybeans contains nearly three times the adult RDA of tryptophan and a cup of pretty much any other bean will get you between 50-60% of the RDA. Two tablespoons of coconut oil more than meet the adult saturated fat RDA. Nuts, dark chocolate and avocado are all rich in saturated fat.

The Claim: “Sixty grams of soy protein—that’s one cup of soy milk—contains 45 mg of isoflavones.” (P. 215)

In Reality: The soy milks available in supermarkets have about 6 to 11 grams of soy protein per cup. According to Lierre’s often-cited Weston A. Price Foundation, a cup of soy milk contains only 20 mg of isoflavones.

 The Claim: “I am of this world, carbon and breath like my parents, my siblings, the creatures great and small, single-celled or green, that create the miracle the rest of us consume. They gave me this body and the air it needs, the food it eats. All they ask is that I take my place, a predator, dependent and beholden, until I am prey.” (p. 271) In

Reality: The animals humans consume are quite literally prey, but unless Keith intends to be eaten by a wild animal, her claim of being “prey” is a specious one based on her decomposition. She considers this a repayment to the biosphere for its kindness in feeding her, but that same repayment is unacceptable from edible animals.

The Claim: Lierre claims that “Researchers from Cornell showed that E. Coli 0157:H7 could be stopped by a very simple action: feeding cows hay for the last five days of their lives.” (P. 99)

In Reality: In the study Lierre refers to, the researchers showed that overall E. Coli levels (i.e. including strains other than 0157:H7) in three cows were decreased by feeding the cows hay for five days. They conjectured that 0157:H7 levels would be similar. However, subsequent research suggests that grass-fed beef does not have lower levels of 0157:H7 (http://www.slate.com/id/2242290/pagenum/all/). 

The Claim: “The pursuit of a just, sustainable, and local economy will eventually lead us to the grim conclusion that there are simply too many of us. The world population is supposed to reach 8.9 billion by 2050. Meanwhile the oceans will be fished empty by 2050, the aquifers and water tables will be well out of reach, and the last trace of topsoil rendered dust. We are already living on fossil fuel and this—right now—is the historical moment when oil will peak. It will never be this cheap or accessible again. What then?” (P. 120)

Counterpoint: Keith has no answer to “What then?” The only answer one can deduce from the book is that she advocates nothing short of the elimination of agriculture and civilization and a drastic reduction of population to some level that she considers sustainable. Simultaneously, she believes that civilization’s doom (and consequently, an enormous loss of human life) will soon be upon us, so maybe it makes sense that her ideas are not solutions.  The only thing worth taking from The Vegetarian Myth is the idea that the simple act of going vegan automatically solves all problems with our food production. That said, it is still the easiest and most substantial immediate action a person can take on the path to a sustainable lifestyle. True, some vegans and organizations do exaggerate the ecological benefits of eating highly processed, conventionally-grown vegan food; however, a balanced plant-based diet of mixed perennial and annual fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes is far more sustainable than any diet based on ruminant, energy-hungry, greenhouse-gas emitting livestock.

Further Reading:

Veganic Agriculture Network: http://www.goveganic.net

Plants for a Future: http://www.pfaf.org

Vegan Organic Network: http://www.veganorganic.net/

Animal Rights & Anti-Oppression: http://challengeoppression.com/

The Permavegan: http://permavegan.blogspot.com P

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: http://pcrm.org/

https://www.indybay.org/uploads/2010/03/15/correcting_the_vegetarian_myth.pdf

An Anti-Civilization Mythology: A Review of Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth”

by Abbey Volcano

I understand completely why someone might want to write a book about the “myths” of vegetarianism. We live in a world where capitalism has this amazing ability to co-opt anything and everything (you’ve almost got to admire what a good job capitalism does at that). “Green” capitalism is a case in point. Even radicals may have a hard time resisting the pull of green capitalism, though perhaps by accident. For vegans and/or vegetarians (heretofore referred to as “veg*ans”) who use their diets as a radical act, if they are promoting what to eat or not eat, buy or not buy, then there is really no way to avoid advocating for a different way of consuming—something capitalists can make loads of profit off. In addition, it’s easy to critique the idealism that some veg*ans hold: that, by way of their diet, they are not engaging in the hurting or killing of any animals, nor hurting the earth for the most part. This is of course obviously not true. Another easy critique to have of veg*ans is of their often-claimed belief that we can change the world by our diets alone; a silly idea, at best
Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth aims to discuss the “myths” of vegetarianism, but she sees these myths as something quite different than what most anarchists advocate for: a basic critique of capitalism and the need for actual movements that not only resist the structures we live under, like capitalism and the state, but also movements that provide space for resisting the ways we’ve come to relate to ourselves, each other and the non-human world (and create new, egalitarian and sustainable relationships!). Keith does point to a few things that are easy to get behind, but most of her book is a diatribe against veg*ans as people, as well as how, health-wise, a veg*an diet is a diet that will kill you—literally. I went back and forth from reactions like “that’s a good point” when she wrote of the destruction of the earth that is part and parcel of monocrops and agriculture in general, to reactions like “wow, that’s really offensive” when she wrote three entire chapters dedicated to explaining why a veg*an diet is basically “wrong” and “immature.”

The book has two different themes that are distinct. One theme focuses on the material ways that mass-agriculture and the cultivation of monocrops are destroying the earth—and quickly. The other theme is that of a couple different philosophical arguments like: agriculture is the base of all evil, as well as the argument that veg*anism is actually wrong and detrimental to the earth and our human bodies, and that veg*anism is “immature” and that all humans should be eating meat. I’ll break this review down by responding to the question of agriculture, responding to her critiques of veg*anism “the diet” as well as “the person,” and I will finish off the review with my take on the violent pieing of Lierre Keith that took place at the 2010 Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair.

As far as agriculture being the basis of all (organized) evil—that needs to be challenged, of course. Having said that, the way agriculture often (mis)utilizes irrigation and deforestation; plants annual grains; depletes (almost all) top soil, rivers and aquifers; causes desertification and total removal of tons of species; misplaces animals, human and non-human alike—I think it’s easy to make the case that agriculture, as we know it, is swallowing entire ecosystems whole (p. 42). At the same time, Keith concludes, like many anti-civilization theories, that agriculture is the basis of all domination, coercion and control and that we need to go back to a way of living that came before agriculture (agriculture is synonymous with civilization in her text). To do that, we’d need to kill about 5 billion people; so, it’s easy to see immediately, the problem with this analysis. In my thinking, domination, coercion and control are what we need to eradicate. I am so used to reading texts that reduce domination to the economic sphere that reading a “civilization-reductionist” text was a breath of fresh air—a breath, however, that will never bring us to a state of being that is truly free, participatory and healthy for all living things. Killing off (or the need to kill off) 5 billion people is not an answer to anything. We need to find ways to exist sustainably (buzz word of the year) with each other and the non-human world, something I think is possible without killing off billions of humans and forcing people to eat meat.

Keith is correct that veg*an monocrops are detrimental to the earth. Anyone who has studied diet and sustainability has seen those statistics that “growing” meat is less sustainable and more wasteful than growing vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes: for as much water as it takes to grow the grain to feed the cattle, we could just grow the grain and eat that; that far more fossil fuels are used to “grow” meat rather than to grow crops; that methane from cattle is awful for the environment. At the same time, we need different ways of growing crops; the way we’re doing it now is depleting top soil, creating salinization of the waters and causing desertification. It’s not as simple as “eating meat will save the world”. On the other hand, there are different ways of raising cattle and other animals that we slaughter for meat. One of Keith’s main points in the book is that cattle and such aren’t supposed to be eating grain in the first place; factory farming itself is unsustainable and has caused much of the crises that many blame “meat” in general for, when we need to be blaming the ways we “grow” and feed cattle and other livestock, perhaps not the existence of livestock itself.

This is where Keith could use a much bigger (or any, really) analysis of capitalism and its role in the livestock “industry”. Keith’s main point about grain-fed beef and other livestock is that the reason humans eat other animals is that the animals we feed on feed themselves on the grasses that we can’t digest, that is, we get the grass’s nutrients through the animal we eat that have eaten the grasses. Eating animals that eat grain is pretty ridiculous since we can just eat that grain ourselves. At the same time, the grain we feed animals is awful for their own health and livelihood, and ours, in return, when we eat them. Eating animals can be nutritious if they eat the food they naturally feed on, if you look at the nutritional content of factory-farmed and grain-fed animals (as food for humans), the nutrients aren’t there and the animals have become unhealthy to eat in the first place.

Moving on from there, the rest of the book is a diatribe against veg*ans as people. She writes three chapters: “moral vegetarians,” “political vegetarians” and “nutritional vegetarians”. All three types of vegetarians are proven “wrong” by Keith. Funny thing is, none of those chapters describe me and my veg*anism—but that’s beside the point. She argues that vegetarianism is an “immature” standpoint and that when and if folks adopt an “adult knowledge,” we will see that eating meat is “natural,” glorious and correct (I’m paraphrasing here). “Adult knowledge,” according to Keith, is basically that death is embedded in all life, that we should accept that and stop trying to get out of “killing” and start eating meat like we’re supposed to (p. 77). Keith seems to think that vegetarians are folks with “child-like” brains that ultimately want to close their eyes and pretend like death isn’t happening all around them—I’ll let readers decide how they feel about this notion on their own. There are a slew of other silly conclusions from Keith, one being that anorexia is ultimately the fault of vegetarianism (p. 230) and that vegans are “obsessive” and “rigid” due to their lack of proteins and fat (p. 236)—in my opinion, some vegans are obsessive and rigid because of their dogmatism and ideological arrogance (along with many anarchists, for that matter). In short, it doesn’t take any particular diet to be an asshole with the Correct Line that everyone MUST adhere to.

I ultimately feel like her book is a rant, filled with massive sweeping statements (many quite insulting) that rely on some really unfounded “scientific” claims that don’t seem to have any good sources, or that are the exact opposite of other “scientific” studies—so who do we believe if both premises can be “proven right” (veg*anism is “good” and also “bad”) ?

“filled with massive sweeping statements (many quite insulting) that rely on some really unfounded “scientific” claims that don’t seem to have any good sources, or that are the exact opposite of other “scientific” studies”

If you want to pull something useful from this book, here it is: 1) we need to reassess the way we mass-produce everything from lettuce to cattle, 2) we need to let go of ideologies as “identities” and use them as ways to understand, not let them control us or our conceptions of, well, anything, really, 3) capitalism is one of the main causes of unsustainable food production (I’m being generous here, she never really states this, which is one of my main critiques of the book), 4) a veg*an diet won’t save the world.

Having written all this, and as a veg*an, I am totally against the attack of Lierre Keith at the 2010 Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair this past March. I attended the book fair, randomly, and was outside during her talk. But three able-bodied men attacked a woman who needs a cane to walk. They didn’t try to embarrass her or humiliate her with a pie plate full of (veg*an) whipped cream. Instead, they directly attacked her with three pies filled with not only whipped cream, but also with hot pepper and cayenne (à la what cops use as pepper spray). Furthermore, what does this say about the anarchist “movement” in the States? That if we disagree with people we should physically attack them? That doesn’t give much hope for progress within our struggling “movement,” or the fact that many veganarchists thought the attack was “delightful” and not sexist or ableist at all. Ok, I’ll let the readers try to figure out that one too. Funny thing is—they attacked Keith in the middle of her speech when she was denouncing factory farming.

My conclusion of all of this in a nutshell? Diets alone won’t change the world, but we need to contract, specific to this book, different relationships with animals and the non-human world, relationships that are good for all of us. We also need to develop different ways of conception: ways that allow folks to exist as veg*ans or not, but that don’t create identities out of diets (or much at all, really) and find ways in which we can rally around broad agreements instead of physically attacking folks we disagree with. New social relationships combined with mass movements can change everything—and must.

Abbey Volcano is a member of North Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists and the Workers Solidarity Alliance. She lives in Syracuse, New York.