Vegetarian Myth corrections from Vegans for Sustainable Agriculture

July 25, 2010

Vegans for Sustainable Agriculture are doing great work and have put out this useful pdf. You can download it here and pass it out if you want. Thanks, Vegans for Sustainable Agriculture!

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 ( 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 (

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? (,

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 (

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.


Chapter four: Claims and realities, part one

July 25, 2010

Claims/realities: Chapter 4

Claim: “Actually, if we really look at gorillas [vegetarian animals] et al., what we find are animals that contain the fermentative bacteria necessary to digest cellulose. We humans contain no such thing. This man writes books about diet without knowing a thing about how humans actually digest (p141).” On the next page she cites a chart that says humans have no bacteria in their stomach.

Reality: Humans currently have over 130 known bacteria in their stomach. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for their research in this area.  Keith’s information here came from a chart from 1975 (see below) and second- and third-hand analyses done by Eades and Eades and the Weston A. Price Foundation people. Additionally, the fact that we don’t have an enzyme to breakdown cellulose does not, in any way whatsoever, mean we don’t need cellulose. Keith uses this characteristic of cellulose to claim that we don’t need and weren’t “meant” to eat cellulose. In reality, cellulose is one of our most important sources of fiber. If it broke down in the stomach, our intensines wouldn’t move because they would have no bulk… we wouldn’t poop. Here’s a primer to some things that can happen if you don’t get enough fiber. “This lady writes books about diet without knowing a thing about–” oh wait, that would be obnoxious.

Claim: Humans are carnivores, here’s a chart to prove it (pp. 142-3).

Reality: This is a classic compartive anatomy chart. Here’s one that makes it look like humans are “naturally” vegetarians and if you combine them, you can probably get a chart that makes a good argument for how humans are “naturally” omnivores. Here’s a good article about how such charts are decieving and how we don’t really know what humans “naturally” are. Keith’s chart is from a The Stone Age Diet, a book self-published by Dr. Walter Voeltin in 1975– that’s 35 years ago. And  self-published books not only don’t need peer review or feedback, but don’t technically even need an editor, a manuscript reader, a consultant, or anyone else besides the author to decide what should be published. So it was already a dubious book when it came out. As you might guess, tons of research has since been done that severely complicates his theories about meat and plant eating (see all of our chapter 4 discussions, and do your own research.) This diet was a fad in the mid-70s and became faddy again in the 2000s, in part due to this inconclusive yet fairly well-publicized study.

Claim: “If the getting of food, of life, means we are destined for sadism and genocide, then the universe is a sick and twisted place and I want out. But I don’t believe it. It hasn’t been my experience of food, of killing, of participating. When I see the art that people who were our anatomical equals made, I don’t see a celebration of cruelty, an aesthetic of sadism. No, I wasn’t there when the drawings were made and I didn’t interview the artists. But I know beauty when I see it. And the artists left no question about what they were eating. Besides their drawings, they also left weapons, including blades for killing and butchering (p144).”

Reality: By now, hopefully we realize that mainly this isn’t even a “claim”, it’s a subjective anecdote about Keith’s internal eating experience. As for cavemen leaving “no question” about what they ate, this is simply wrong. Palentology is all question and speculation. Since time machines don’t exist, there is no way to truly prove anything in paleontology, even moreso than in many of the other sciences. This is partly why it’s an exciting science, and partly why the palentologists who are worth listening to, are carefully trained not to create overarching, unsubstantiated narratives based on cave paintings, like “all humans should eat meat” or “no one ever ate meat”. This kind of use of the social sciences is biological determinism, which is related to sociobiology. Generally, radicals, especially feminists, have noticed and criticized these methods of logic, which  have historically been employed by fundamentalist Christians, eugenicists, racists, misogynists, anti-semites, and others who dismiss loaded, complicated political and social issues by claiming that all correct human behavior is based in biology. This is what Keith’s sources do. This is the practice of using science as scientism– a dogmatic and simplified faith in science– versus using science for the critical and useful tool that it is. Keith, a second-wave radical feminist, apparently either missed or is willfully ignoring how one of the most significant and successful movements inside second-wave radical feminism included a huge, substantiated critique of this kind of science. You can read about this in any intro to women’s studies textbook. See also “paleofantasies” and the myth of the three Ns.

Claim: “One version of the vegetarian myth posits that we were ‘gathererhunters’, gaining more sustenance from plants gathered by women than from meat hunted by men. This rumor actually has an author, one R.B. Lee, who concluded that hunter-gatherers got 65 percent of their calories from plants and only 35 percent from animals (p146.)”

Reality: First off, this “one R.B. Lee” who started a “rumor” is one of the most well-respected and influential living anthropologists, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, and the editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherers. It’s probably safe to assume she has not read any of his numerous academic opuses, since she only quotes a second-hand analysis. We don’t want to be redundant about Keith’s resources, but suffice it to say, she goes on to use her usuals here plus an article written by Dr. Loren Cordain of the PaleoDiet Brand in an attempt to debunk him. She then uses pages more of anecdote about not feeling good when she was a vegan and how, if you don’t believe her, you, too, should see how you feel after eating beans (p147-8.) In any case, Dr. Lee’s studies present information and possible, though ultimately not provable, conclusions. Keith and her resources present psuedo-informaton plus rampant, unapologetically biased interpretation. Again, this is biological determinism.

Claim: Lectin might be damaging to our digestive tracts, we aren’t really sure (pp147-9), so this is another reason we aren’t meant to eat plants.

Reality: First off, her citations in this lectin discussion are all from our friends Eades and Eades, Davis, and Cordain (see above)–as are the rest of her claims in this chapter about how wheat causes health problems from indigestion, to arthritis, to multiple sclerosis, to schizophrenia. “According to Drs. Eades” almost functions as a catch-phrase in this chapter. She offers a hyperbolic disaster scenario about lectins, but her discussion of lectins’ known, unknown, and potential roles–and the research that has and hasn’t been done on them–is so limited as to basically be useless. Second, let it be noted that lectins are found in meat and dairy foods, not just plants. Thirdly, in the whirl of her hyperbole, Keith conveniently doesn’t mention things like the fact that lectins, specifically ones from plants, might be able to help/cure cancer. See these peer-reviewed studies:

Lectins as bioactive plant proteins: A Potential Cancer Treatment

Lectins: from basic science to clinical application in cancer prevention

Diet and colorectal cancer: An investigation of the lectin/galactose hypothesis

We’re not saying there are no potential problems with lectins. We’re just trying to round out the discussion.

Claim: Vegans can’t get Vitamin D (p180).

Reality: Vitamin D is hard to come by in food. It seems to occur nowhere in plant foods, except for certain mushrooms, and in only a very small handful of animal foods. Some types of fish contain Vitamin D, and small amounts are found in beef liver and chickens’ eggs. In no food is it abundant. No matter what your diet, unless you survive on certain types of fish, you probably get the bulk of your Vitamin D from either A) fortified foods–fortified cow milk and other dairy; fortified fruit juices; fortified cereals, vitamins, etc. or B) the sun–human skin synthesizes Vitamin D from sunlight. It’s not totally clear how much sun exposure one needs in this regard, and seasonal changes and geography play a role, especially in places with extreme weather. It’s worth looking into this based on where you live. The Vitamin D Council writes,“The skin produces approximately 10,000 IU vitamin D in response 20–30 minutes summer sun exposure—50 times more than the government’s recommendation of 200 IU per day!” They also write that people who don’t have regular sun exposure would have to take a 5000-IU Vitamin D supplement daily to catch up… that’s the equivailent of 50 glasses of fortified milk a day. So let’s look at the source Keith points to for her claim that vegans are sick from lack of vitamin D: an article called “Dietary Intake of Vitamin D in Premenopausal, Healthy Vegans was Insufficient to Maintain Concentrations of Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and Intact Parathyroid Hormone Within Normal Ranges During the Winter in Finland”. Now, this might be something to consider if it’s winter and you are a premenopausal Finnish vegan. But it cannot be generalized to all vegans, nor does it follow that, if this is indeed a problem, eating meat would be the remedy. In fact, this study shows that people-in-general from other arctic climates might not get enough D, and would benefit from supplements. Keith states, “It is possible to get vitamin D from ingested sources alone, which is how humans survive in the arctic.” This isn’t true. Lots of different people all over the world might have to take Vitamin D supplements.

Claim: “In every cell your body makes the sugar it needs, therefore there’s no need for carbohydrates and in fact carbs don’t actually exist…. There is no such thing as a necessary carbohydrate. Read that again. Write the Drs. Eades, ‘the actual amount of carbohydrates required by humans for health is zero.’ ” (p 154.)

Reality: Compare this simplistic and sensationalist claim, made by a couple proponents of brand-name diets, with over three-thousand research studies done on the mircobiology of carbohydrates. Keith’s entire discussion about carbohydrates and sugar is Eades-based, as is almost the entire ensuing discussion about diabetes. It’s redundant at this point to talk about how  problematic the Eades are, so please refer back to our previous discussions. Our only guess is that Keith, following the Eades, is attempting to reframe what has otherwise been a very medically useful paradigm regarding micronutrients. Their reframing is not based on anything reliable and seems to have pretty serious bias/ideology backing it.

Claim: Eating a high-carbohydrate diet can destroy your stomach by giving you gastroparesis. Keith knows, because she gave it to herself (p. 159.)

Reality: To back this claim, Keith cites a no-longer-available internet article from her favorite place, the Weston A. Price Foundation’s website. Keith came to this diagnosis with the help of a doctor who works with “recovering vegans”. We haven’t been able to find information that says gastroporesis is caused by carbohydrates, though there is a lot of information about how eating a low-carb diet can help it. These are two different things. In any case, no matter how many times Keith says it, veganism is not interchangeable with a high-carb diet.

Claim/implication: “Before we go even further, do you even know what cholesterol is?” (p162).

Reality: Yes.

Claim: “The Lipid Hypothesis—the theory that ingested fat causes heart disease—is the stone tablet that the Prophets of Nutrition have brought down from the mountain. We have been shown the one, true way: cholesterol is the demon of the age, the dietary Black Plague, a judgment from an angry God, condemning those who stray into the Valley of Animal Products with disease. That at least is what the priests of the Lipid Hypothesis declared, having looked into the entrails of … rabbits” (pp160-1.)

Reality: In her classic manner, and it what some say is the classic manner of the Weston A. Prince zealots, Keith goes on for pages and pages making claims regarding “cholesterol panic” and “supposed” information regarding cholesterol’s dangers that go against literally thousands of thousands of studies and meta-studies from around the world (not just one study done on a rabbit, as she sensationistically states). She makes these claims based on these resources, including, mainly, the highly questionable Anthony Colpo, whose only expertise is in weight training. That’s three or so wildy dubious sources against thousands and thousands of international studies about how complicated cholesterol and microbiology are, how dangerous too much animal-based cholesterol can be (as opposed to the cholesterol that is naturally manufactured in the human liver– if you really don’t “even know what cholesterol is”, here’s a link where doctors explain it to kids), and so much more . We don’t know what else to say. How can throwing all this away, literally not giving it one paragraph of attention in exchange for giving attention to a handful of people who have no expertise, be a reasonable, helpful, or safe move? We can’t go through all these studies and all this counter-information for you here… there’s literally too much. We trust that you’ll do your own research.

“Not to put to fine a point on it but, duh?” -Lierre Keith, p. 161. Wow. Seriously? Classy.

Claim: Vegans don’t get omega-3s (all over the book.)

Reality: There are many vegan sources of omega-3s, including flax seed, pumpkin seed, canola oil, hemp, walnuts, etc. It is easy to, say, buy a bottle of flax oil and put a little in your food, or toss some pumpkin seeds into your salad. Vegetarian supplements are also extremely easy to come by.

Claim: Vegans get no B12 (all over the book.)

Reality: False. Though it is hard to come by in plant foods, B12 is extremely easy to supplement, and many foods are fortified with it (both plant and animal foods). Keith’s resources here are, again, the Weston Price Foundation, highly selective information, and unsubstantiated personal anecdote. She has, again, completely simplified the issue of how people– meat eaters and vegetarians alike– obtain or do not obtain B12. Here is a wonderful article that discusses B12 specifically in relation to Lierre Keith’s claims. Please read it.

Claim: There are no plant sources for tryptophan. This can cause depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and other mental serious problems (see discussions in chapters 1 and 4.)

Reality: False. Tryptophan is found in many plant sources, including potato, banana, wheat flour, sesame, sunflower seeds, spirulina, raw soy, rice, and oats.

Claim: There are no plant sources for saturated fat. This means vegans don’t absorb essential nutrients like tryptophan and fat-soluable vitamins (see discussions in chapters 1 and 4.)

Reality: False. There are so many plant sources of saturated fat. They include various oils, avocado, coconut, nuts, and nut butters. Many nutrition experts say these are actually among the best sources of saturated fat, because they aren’t generally accompanied by the more problematic fats found in many animal products.

Claim: “Listen to your body, reader, a listening that must make your body known to you, less mysterious and more beloved” (p 153.)

Reality: Keith only wants you to listen to your body if it tells you the things she’s telling you. If it tells you something different, you’re stupid and you do not possess an adult mind. We wish we were being flip or exaggerating, but, no matter what you think of her, Keith makes it really clear that this is where she’s coming from.

Claim: Meat is good for you and being vegan isn’t.

Reality: All ethical issues aside: There are bodies upon bodies of research from widely divergent organizations and agencies that vegetarian and vegan diets can be extremely healthy. There are bodies upon bodies of research from widely divergent organizations and agencies that eating meat and dairy can be extremely harmful. There are certain things you should do to be a healthy vegan/vegetarian, like be mindful of your B12 intake. If you’re intent on eating meat, there are lots of things– probably many more things– to be mindful about. Again, there is no way we can go over all of this information. This isn’t to make claims on nature as vegans– if anything, we are trying to get across that all diets are imperfect because evolution and adaptation are imperfect, that there is no one “correct” way to relate to our human bodies, and that lots of people chose veganism for very complicated, valid reasons and execute it in a healthy way.

You don’t have to make the same choices we make. We just ask that you will be as critical and objective a thinker as possible, and no matter what your diet, do your own research if you are going to read this book–because a lot of it is straight-up wrong. Lierre Keith is not a doctor or nutritionist and neither are most of her sources! It is necessary and radical to be critical of scientific paradigms, but this by no means equals throwing away carefully established scientific ideas and methods. The following is one of the most critical points we’re going to make in this blog, so we’re going to make emphatic keyboard choices:


This concludes part one of chapter 4 claims and realities. We’re not done yet. For now, here’s a photo of a heart-shaped cosmos-thing:

Notes on meat-capitalism, paleofantasies, & Keith’s weird feminism re: chapter 4 resource analysis

July 23, 2010

Before we continue, some food for thought about our initial chapter 4 resource analysis…

1. Consider the connections between this low-carb, high-meat craze, how much money is made by the kinds of “brand” diets– capitalist business ventures–Keith is referencing, and how meat industries (including “humane farms”) stand to profit from it. Since only about 3.2% of people in the US are vegetarians, and 0.5% are vegans, we’re assuming this question about capitalism and ulterior motives does not pervade the public conversation re: plant-based diets the way it does re: the meat conversation.

2. A lot of the dietary “facts” Keith offers in this chapter, are based in assumptions related directly and indirectly to some kind of “paleo” diet, which Keith assumes (erroneously, if we look back at this article which takes us through the first-hand, peer reviewed sources Keith makes claims on but apparently hasn’t read) is based largely on meat. There is actually very little objective information about the diets our ancestors ate. The evidence we’ve found can only be speculated upon based on best guesses. This is the nature of paleontology– it’s the study of incomplete evidence. It’s an easy science to use, alongside evolution theory, if you’re trying to justify ideology. (Also see discussions here and here about how using the 3Ns– natural, normal, and necessary– is a classic way to couch bias and ideology.)

This New York Times article is worth reading: Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk makes some valuable points about different “paleofantasies”– nostalgia for a non-existent time when humans ate a diet somehow “perfectly” suited to them. Some of her thoughts:

“In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello called ‘paleofantasies.’ She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to nostalgia for the very old days as a touchstone for the way life is supposed to be and why it sometimes feels so out of balance…The notion that there was a time of perfect adaptation, from which we’ve now deviated, is a caricature of the way evolution works.”

“How much of the diet during our idyllic hunter-gatherer past was meat, and what kind of plants and animals were used, varied widely in time and space. Inuits had different diets from Australian aboriginals or Neotropical forest dwellers. And we know little about the details of early family structure and other aspects of behavior. So the argument that we are “meant” to eat a certain proportion of meat, say, is highly questionable. Which of our human ancestors are we using as models?”

This article by Greg Downey builds on Zuk’s and makes some interesting points. That the “perfect” or “noble” savage had a diet “perfectly” in line with nature is, according to Downey, “an adaptionist fantasy”. He states: “Zuk draws on Leslie Aiello’s concept of ‘paleofantasies,’ stories about our past spun from thin evidence, to label the nostalgia some people seem to express for prehistoric conditions that they see as somehow healthier. In my research on sports and masculinity, I frequently see paleofantasies come up around fight sports, the idea that, before civilization hemmed us in and blunted our instincts, we would just punch each other if we got angry, and somehow this was healthier, freer and more natural (the problems with this view being so many that I refuse to even begin to enumerate them). It’s an odd inversion on the usual Myth of Progress, the idea that things always get better and better; instead, paleofantasies are a kind of long range projection of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (‘Things were so much better in MY day…’), spinning fantasies of ‘life before’ everything we have built up around us… So before we start waxing nostalgic about all the health benefits of a Pleistocene diet, perhaps we should remember that our ancestors’ food often came in this nasty packaging which tended to run away, attack them, or just go missing entirely when they were really hungry.”

3. It’s noteworthy, and upsetting, that Keith– supposedly a radical feminist– keeps citing from authors who are in some way proponents of fad diets, weight training, getting thin, anti-aging therapies, etc. We are radicals who see the intersections between animal rights and feminism, and we don’t trust things that come out of the mainstream “diet” industry, or support things that play a role in women hating the way they look. We thought Keith– veganism aside–supported women in this way, too. Why in the world is she giving so much credence and attention to these resources? And how, after all this, does she have the nerve, in other chapters, to a) simplistically critique vegans as eating disordered and b) conveniently reference Naomi Woolf’s The Beauty Myth, a groundbreaking and highly regarded deconstruction of the misogynist diet and beauty industry? For all of the energy she puts towards proclaiming all vegans as anorexics, she conveniently fails to discuss the connections between anorexia and low-carb, high-meat fad diets (whether it’s the atkins, the paleo, the south beach, or any other play on this theme), as well as the connections between low-carb diets, fad diets, long-term lack of satiety, and how this can incite bingeing and purging.

Not to harp on it, but this is doubly infuriating, since Keith and many of her positive reviewers (see “beg” us (see chapter one) to just trust her and give her the benefit of the doubt as a seasoned radical. We thought this was supposed to be a book about radical ecology, agriculture, vegetarianism, and meat-eating. What we find, instead, is a book that is subtly based upon– indeed, permeated with–information from quick-fix diet cures that prey on insecure people, brand-name diets with profit motives, and Atkins-style/”paleo” diet fads that help the both the meat and the woman-hating diet industries profit… and are, by a preponderance of the most reliable medical evidence avaliable, definitley unbalanced and most likely unhealthy in the long-term. All of this is couched in passionate–and patronizing– language about compassion, ecology, liberation, and the ignorance of vegans. She even says “duh” more than once in this book. Throw is kas-laamal, the idea she uses to state that vegans think like children, and it’s really hard to not envision Keith as a domineering, mocking, and psychologically abusive mother.

Chapter 4 resource analysis…

July 22, 2010


Of the 288 citations in chapter 4…

-28 (10%) are from the pop-science, brand-based book The Protein Power Life Plan by Eades & Eades. This book generally talks about low-carb diets like the Atkins. At least they are doctors. But here are some thoughts about this diet and similar diets, from other doctors:

WebMD, a conglomeration of different doctors,views the Protein Power Life Plan, as the authors seem to as well, as one which is largely useful for short-term weight loss. (See Keith’s many discussions in this book about how veganism basically equals anorexia, and feel free to scratch your heads like we did.) They also say that in the long-term, it can be “seriously deficient in important nutrients”. Bonne Brehm, Ph.d and nutrition scientist, writes: “In the short term, the low-carb diets are effective — we see weight loss, improvement in some metabolic functions such as blood pressure, loss of body fat, but their real hazard is that they are nutritionally poor,” she says. “They are low in calcium, low in vitamins C and A, low in fiber. We don’t know if taking a vitamin-mineral supplement is adequate. There are a lot of micronutrients in foods that are not in supplements, including some we don’t even know about yet. We do not have any long-term studies on these alternative diets with the extreme modifications of a nutritionally balanced diet.”

Famed vegan doctor and researcher Michael Gregor is the author of Carbophobia: The Scary Truth About America’s Low-Carb Craze, which you can read for free here. Here, you can also read about how the ADA, AMA, The American Cancer Society, The American Kidney Fund, and The American Heart Association have been warning about the health risks of low-carb, high protein diets for years. Etc.Make of this what you will. Dr. Gregor, in his aforementioned book, also talks about how the Atkins and other high-protein diets have directly profited the meat industries, while dismissing wide-ranging evidence that these types of diets are ultimately unhealthy. Then the Atkins Corporation threatened to sue him because, essentially, he was challenging this low-carb, high-meat industry.

-41 citations are from the book controversial book Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubs who, although he has studied physics and aerospace engineering, is also not a nutritionist or medical doctor. This book is also largely about obesity, dieting, and its relation to low-carb, high-protein diets. See above for other opinions about this diet craze. 6 more citations are from Taubs’ article “What If It’s All Been A Lie?”, so Taubs makes up 16% of Keith’s citations.

-12 citations (4%) are from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook. Sally Fallon, like Keith, is also not a nutritionist, doctor, biologist, or trained in any health traditions. She is a “nutrition researcher” with two college degrees in English, who wrote a cookbook. This book has been criticized in similar ways to Keith’s: “While Nourishing Traditions has over 200 references, many are antiquated, with poor observations. For the most part, the authors reference their own articles and those of other Weston A. Price foundation authors. Only fourteen of the references are from peer-reviewed journals published in the last ten years, and for most of those fourteen, the authors misrepresented what was stated in the articles.” This critique goes on: “Nourishing Traditions… is a smorgasbord of woefully outdated and potential dangerous advice. For example, ‘If you cannot get your family to eat organ meats whens served as such, there are plenty of ways to add them to their foods without their knowledge… Poached brains can be ground up and added to any ground meat dish, as can grated raw liver.’ Even if it were not so clearly known that animal products in general need to be strictly limited in the diet, common sense should tell us not to eat the brains of animals in light of what is now known about mad cow diease and its human equivalent, Cruetzfelt-Jakob disease… Fallon and Enig perpetuate long-held  nutritional myths by referencing the same people who started the myths in the first place.”

-18 citations (6%) are from The Untold Story of Milk by nautropath Ron Schmid. Our friend (see above) Sally Fallon says this is a “fascinating and compelling book”. They publish on the same press. Actually, it is unclear whether or not Sally Fallon has something to do with the publishing and/or editing at New Trends Publishing. Let us know if you figure it out. There are 4 citations from another of his books, Native Nutrition, so that’s 20 citations (7%) from this author. We also feel the need to point out that this Schmid has a brand of various “formulas”, beauty products, anti-aging products, and other things he sells based on his ideas. Look, his shampoo only costs $17.

-32 (11%) citations are from the controversial Against the Grain by Richard Manning, who is a seemingly well-regarded investigative and environmental journalist but also not a doctor, nutritionist, or anthropologist of any kind.

-28 citations (10%) are from The Whole Story of Soy by Kaayla Daniels, who has a Ph.D in nutritional science and “anti-aging therapies”. She has never published a scientific paper. Furthermore, this book has been criticized as a pseudo-scientific–at best– rant that basically serves to uphold the theories of our friends, Sally Fallon and the rest of the Weston A. Price Foundation. In fact, Fallon is the editor of this book (see here, for instance). This org has what many consider to be an unreasonable and unsubstantiated bias against soy. And here’s an interesting review that breaks down the misinformation in Daniel’s book. And believe it or not, not all vegans eat soy or are ignorant to potential problems of soy (see our resources page for info about soy-free veganism), nor is everybody who eats soy a vegan. So even if it were a vaguely reliable source, this book only relates directly to veganism by a dishonest intellectual stretch. Keith cites it anyway in her case against veganism– 28 times.

-26 citations (9.7 %) are from The Great Cholesterol Con: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Cholesterol, Diet and Heart Disease Is Wrong! by unabashed anti-vegan, Anothony Colpo. Colpo is an “independent researcher” and weight trainer and his controversial book is basically about what the subtitle title says. A lot of people seem to think he’s a bit off his rocker. Check out some of the posts he’s made about people who disagree with him, including Keith’s off-cited Eades and Eades. We don’t want to get our health information from someone whose only expertise is in weight training, who has not even the smallest bit of training in medicine or how to interpret the technical language of scientific articles. You decide for yourself.

-4 citations (2%) come from another book called The Great Cholesterol Con, by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick. This seemingly intelligent and in-depth review states:“Although it makes a number of excellent serious points, readers with a background in the relevant science might also laugh at some of the egregious scientific errors in the book and some of Kendrick’s poorly conceived speculations – or at least find themselves scratching their heads.” Again, you decide. Do your own research. Compare Kendrick and Colpo against thousands of peer-reviewed studies about cholesterol.

-11 citations (4%) are from an internet article by Ben Balzer that has no citations or references listed!!! The article is about his book, which also seems to be a brand, The Paleo Diet. Ben Balzer is a family physician, but he is not an anthropologist, paleontologist, or biologist. He even gives a disclaimer about his book on his own blog. When I googled Ben Balzer + the name of this article, the only thing that came up was it and a link to Lierre Keith’s website.


-13 citations (5%) are from two books by Julia Ross, The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure. Ross has an MA in clinical psychology and an MFT (masters in family therapy.) So, though not a psychologist (as that requires having a Ph.D and years of research experience, as opposed to clinical psychotherapy training), we’re sure she knows a lot about psychotherapy and mental illness. However, she is not a nutritionist or doctor. Her two books also seem to be some kind of brand. The Diet Cure website tells us, Here you can learn which of the eight key physical indicators is causing your particular problems and get an idea of how to use the book to correct them in 24 hours…You’re also in the right place for an image adjustment. You’ll find the healthy, sensual, immortal beauty of Venus throughout the site. Contrasted with her opposite, she is here as a reminder that a healthy body image is an important part of your Diet Cure.” No thanks, Julia.


The preceding citations comprise 80 percent of Keith’s “substantiating evidence” in this 105-page chapter… a chapter that supposedly makes scientific claims about health, carnism, and veganism, in a book that supposedly does the same. All of these resources are non-scientific or pseudo-scientific; not one is from an academic or peer-reviewed journal. For Keith, they are second-, third-, and fourth-hand sources. At least one of them has no references at all!

At least three of the authors– 20% of citations– are directly involved with the Weston A. Price Foundation, a controversial anti-vegan group. It is noted for its pro-meat, pro-animal fat diet, pro-raw meat and dairy regimen that runs completely counter to, and has been debunked by a preponderance of, modern medical evidence (again, a diet similar to those of the “paleo” and Atkins genres). It’s noted, also, for its zealotry, its intolerance and mockery for views and research that differ from its own, its constant referencing of its own members as “proof” of its theories, and its misrepresentation of the complicated and extensive work of Weston Price. See this resource or some of the above-linked articles regarding this. Or, get a copy of a book or two by these authors and skim through it. On the very cover of Fallon’s cookbook, for instance, it is dismissed as “politically correct” and “dictatorial” to talk about cholesterol concerns.  Many people believe that the hype about soy products being bad for you goes back almost entirely to this organization’s campaign against it.

Even the claims that come from people who have an academic background are written in a journalistic, editorial style, and/or are written about an subject they didn’t study in academia. And most of the information here is from books whose content is about what many people, both lay-people and scientists, consider, at best, silly and counter-intuitive, and, at worst, highly dangerous. Several of these authors are, in fact, marketing “diet brands” for their own profit. Many of the use manipulative, mocking language to suggest that if you disagree with them, you are being aggressive or naive. Perhaps this is where Keith gets her tone from.

We have a lot more to look at in chapter 4, including the remaining 20 percent of citations, a select few of which are peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as the particular ways in which Keith interprets and uses her references. Keep checking back.


Chapter 4: Permavegan Jonathan Maxson’s investigation into Keith’s claims about australopith diets

July 20, 2010

Lierre Keith might be an interesting person with lots of life experience, but is not a nutritionist or a doctor with training in any school of either “western” or “nonwestern” medicine. She is not an anthropologist, palentologist, or biologist. This doesn’t mean she can’t have interests or even write about them; for instance, Chris of this blog has big-time interest in different ways to make pancakes and marathon running; Carolyn loves Bjork and is a huge geek for quantum physics; Alex is really into black metal and LARPing. But none of us (except maybe Alex with the black metal) would never even think to consider ourselves so well-established in the relevant information that we could map an entire history and science of these things. THEY ARE HOBBIES. Paleontology and nutrition are Keith’s hobby. She’s excited about it. We support excitement. But she has no credentials to make the kinds of claims she puts forth in this chapter, and almost none of her resources cited in are first-hand, peer reviewed research. Keith’s chapter 4, on “Nutritional Vegetarians”, arguably has more objective misinformation, much of it potentially dangerous, than anywhere else in the book.

Jonathan Maxson of the wonderful Permavegan Blog, a long-time vegan permaculture student, practitioner, and educator, has offered a critical analysis and much-needed perspective on chapter 4’s opening claims about the diets of our closest human ancestors. He analyzes the direct sources that Keith, it seems, cited only from 2nd and 3rd hand analyses. PLEASE READ THIS IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THE “PALEO DIET” DEBATE.

Does Carbon Isotope Analysis of Dental Enamel Prove Austhralopiths Ate Meat, Thereby Undermining Plant-Based Nutrition? by Jonothan Maxson

According to Lierre Keith – and she is by no means alone in her belief – it does.  Keith’s opening argument against plant-based nutrition in chapter four of The Vegetarian Myth [1] is that our Australopithecine ancestors were eating meat from the African savannah some four million years ago, and that meat consumption played a pivotal role in the evolution of our human brains and bodies.

The first scientific reference Keith cites in support of this assertion is a 1999 carbon isotope analysis of fossil dental enamel by Sponheimer and Lee-Thorp [2], which Keith treats as proof that Australopithecus ate meat.  (For a quick overview of how Australopithecus fits into our long-term evolutionary pathway, see the Wikipedia entry Timeline of Human Evolution).

It is not clear if Keith read the study by Sponheimer and Lee-Thorp herself, or merely read the interpretation of the study advanced by Eades and Eades [3], whom Keith cites as the source of the reference.  Nevertheless, the findings in the study do not, in fact, allow us to draw Keith’s conclusion, as the authors of the paper are the first to admit.  Here is the abstract [2]:

Current consensus holds that the 3-million-year-old hominid Australopithecus africanus subsisted on fruits and leaves, much as the modern chimpanzee does. Stable carbon isotope analysis of A. africanus from Makapansgat Limeworks, South Africa, demonstrates that this early hominid ate not only fruits and leaves but also large quantities of carbon-13 enriched foods such as grasses and sedges or animals that ate these plants, or both. The results suggest that early hominids regularly exploited relatively open environments such as woodlands or grasslands for food. They may also suggest that hominids consumed high-quality animal foods before the development of stone tools and the origin of the genus Homo.

An objective reading of the abstract, and especially the full text of the article, shows that Sponheimer and Lee-Thorp refrained from misinterpreting the results of their study as direct evidence of meat-consumption by Australopithecus. On the contrary, it is obvious they consider their results inconclusive about the exact nature of the the carbon-13 enriched foods consumed by this early hominid.  Looking exclusively at the isotope analysis, these foods may have been plant-based, or they may have been animal-based.  The authors admittedly lean slightly in the direction of meat, but they are careful to point out that this is only speculation on their part, and that further scientific investigation is required before the question can be settled.

Sponheimer and Lee-Thorp do not claim that bipedalism in Australopithecus was in any way related to the consumption of meat.  Nor do they assert that Australopithecus favored a grassland environment, but they seem equally open to the possibility of a predominantly woodland environment.  Indeed, in a 2008 paper almost ten years later, Sponheimer and Lee-Thorp together with first author de Ruiter [4] found that a predominantly woodland habitat seems more typical for Australopithecus:

Correspondence analysis of fossil assemblages reveals that the abundance profile of A. robustus is most similar to that of woodland-adapted taxa. In addition, fluctuations in the relative abundance of taxa assigned to the broad habitat categories reveal a significant negative correlation between A. robustus and open grassland-adapted taxa, indicating that the more grassland-adapted taxa there are in a given assemblage, the fewer hominins there tend to be.

In the discussion section of this 2008 paper, the authors generalize about the significance of their findings for hominins in general:

The likelihood therefore exists that the hominins were habitat generalists capable of living in a variety of environments, but perhaps preferring woodlands over the less-favored grasslands when conditions were sufficient.

Returning to the question of carbon isotope analysis of carbon-13 enriched foods in the diet of Australopithecus, it is true that in a 1994 paper [5], Lee-Thorp and co-authors lean toward an argument for the omnivory of Australopithecus, but this is tempered in the 1999 paper cited above, and again in a subsequent 2000 paper [6].

The latter paper, titled The Hunters and Hunted Revisited, is particularly intriguing, as it underscores the role of Australopithecus as prey, not predator, in African paleoecology – an understanding that fits rather well with the Australopith’s preference for protected woodlands.

Dart’s beliefs that australopithecines had played an active, leading role (Dart, 1949, 1956, 1957) in accumulating the considerable faunal bone assemblages in the Sterkfontein and Makapansgat Valley sites were overturned when Brain showed that the composition, damage, and state of preservation of the bones were due to activities of large predators rather than predation by hominids (Brain, 1970, 1981). The leopard Panthera pardus was first proposed as the predator most likely responsible for the primate accumulations in particular, an insight which effectively reversed the role of the hominids from that of dominant predator to that of victim (Brain, 1981). Indeed the leopard fang-sized impression in the cranium of a juvenile Paranthropus robustus, SK 54, shows convincingly that at least one hominid fell victim to a leopard.

Following the relegation of the australopithecines as prey rather than active hunters, their dietary niche began to be viewed from the perspective of a rather more chimpanzee-like diet, concentrating on plant foods. The role of more active meat-eater, as hunter or scavenger, was shifted to the shoulders of Homo habilis or early H. erectus (H. ergaster following Wood & Collard, 1999), appearing slightly later in the late Pliocene/early Pleistocene.

Significantly, the results of this 2000 study indicate no increase in the proportion of carbon-13 enriched foods in the diet of Homo ergaster relative to Australopithecus, providing no support for the hypothesis that the diet of Homo ergaster was any more meat-based than the diet of Australopithecus, thereby completely breaking a link in the idea that meat-eating is a distinctive attribute of Homo.

Lee-Thorp and Sponheimer worked together and with other coauthors on several subsequent papers exploring various aspects of this question in further detail [7][8][9][10][11][12].  None of these studies resolves the issue in favor of an omnivorous Australopith hypothesis, but the trend is rather consisently in favor of a plant-based interpretation of the evidence.

One of these studies may be pivotal.  In the 2005 paper Sr/Ca and early hominin diets revisited [9], Sponheimer, Lee-Thorp and their co-authors found that the strontium-calcium (Sr/Ca) ratios in the dental enamel of Australopithecus and Paranthropus were not consistent with the consumption of meat, but with some other source of carbon-13 enriched foods.  In her discussion of carbon-13 and Australopithecine dental enamel, Keith reduces the only other non-meat option to grass, but Sponheimer, Lee-Thorp and co-authors here speculate about two additonal non-meat sources of carbon-13 enriched foods: insects and tubers.

Sponheimer, Lee-Thorp, et al. consider all three of these options, but rule out grass and insects because the low barium/calcium (Ba/Ca) ratio also found in Australopithecus is inconsistent with either grass consumption or insectivory, as the Ba/Ca ratio is generally high among herbivores and insectivores.  Instead, they cite some exciting preliminary evidence in support of the tuber alternative:

We have noticed that among the modern fauna that have the unusual combination of high Sr/Ca and low Ba/Ca are warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus) and mole rats (Cryptomys hottentotus) (Sponheimer, unpublished data), both of which eat diets rich in underground resources such as roots and rhizomes. Thus, the possibility of greater exploitation of underground resources by Australopithecus compared to Paranthropus requires consideration. In addition, the slightly enriched Sr/Ca of Paranthropus compared to papionins might also be evidence of increased utilization of underground resources. Thus, the consumption of underground resources seems to be a reasonable hypothesis to explain the Sr/Ca of South African hominins in general, and the very high Sr/Ca of Australopithecus in particular. Indeed, Sillen et al. (1995) have argued that the consumption of underground resources (e.g., Hypoxis) led to relatively high Sr/Ca in early Homo. Underground resources are not consumed by either Pan or Gorilla to any significant degree (e.g., McGrew et al., 1982). It could be that the consumption of such foods, at least seasonally, was an important hominin adaptation that allowed exploitation of increasingly arid and seasonal environments so inimical to extant African apes (Hatley & Kappelman, 1980; Conklin-Brittain et al., 2002). We stress, however, that the consumption of underground foods is only one possible explanation for the Sr/Ca patterning observed herein.

This reasoning was good enough to get an outside research team to sit up and take notice, and within two years the Proceedings of the Royal Society published an isotopic analysis of the dental enamel in mole rats by Yeakel et al. [13] which supports the tuber alternative, known in the field as the underground storage organ (USO) hypothesis.  Here is the abstract of this important 2007 paper:

The diets of Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus are hypothesized to have included C4 plants, such as tropical grasses and sedges, or the tissues of animals which themselves consumed C4 plants. Yet inferences based on the craniodental morphology of A. africanus and P. robustus indicate a seasonal diet governed by hard, brittle foods. Such mechanical characteristics are incompatible with a diet of grasses or uncooked meat, which are too tough for efficient mastication by flat, low-cusped molars. This discrepancy, termed the C4 conundrum, has led to the speculation that C4 plant underground storage organs (USOs) were a source of nutrition for hominin species. We test this hypothesis by examining the isotopic ecology of African mole rats, which consume USOs extensively. We measured δ18O and δ13C of enamel and bone apatite from fossil and modern species distributed across a range of habitats. We show that δ18O values vary little and that δ13C values vary along the C3 to C4/CAM-vegetative axis. Relatively high δ13C values exist in modern Cryptomys hottentotus natalensis and Cryptomys spp. recovered from hominin-bearing deposits. These values overlap those reported for A. africanus and P. robustus and we conclude that the USO hypothesis for hominin diets retains certain plausibility.

It appears that carbon isotope, Sr/Ca, and Ba/Ca analysis are consistent with a plant-based USO hypothesis, not a meat-based hypothesis.  But what about the overall dental morphology of Australopithecus?  According to Teaford and Ungar (2000) [14], it is

clear that the dietary capabilities of the early hominids changed dramatically in the time period between 4.4 million and 2.3 million years ago. Most of the evidence has come from five sources: analyses of tooth size, tooth shape, enamel structure, dental microwear, and jaw biomechanics. Taken together, they suggest a dietary shift in the early australopithecines, to increased dietary flexibility in the face of climatic variability. Moreover, changes in diet-related adaptations from A. anamensis to A. afarensis to A. africanus suggest that hard, abrasive foods became increasingly important through the Pliocene, perhaps as critical items in the diet….

Interestingly, as suggested by Lucas and Peters (46), another tough pliant food they would have had difficulty processing is meat. In other words, the early hominids were not dentally preadapted to eat meat—they simply did not have the sharp, reciprocally concave shearing blades necessary to retain and cut such foods. In contrast, given their flat, blunt teeth, they were admirably equipped to process hard brittle objects….

In sum, Miocene apes show a range of adaptations, including folivory, soft-fruit eating, and hard-object feeding. This range exceeds that of living hominoids and especially the early hominids. Although studies of shearing crest length have been conducted on only some of the early hominids, all evidence indicates that the australopithecines had relatively flat molar teeth compared with many living and fossil apes. These teeth were well suited for breaking down hard, brittle foods, including some fruits and nuts, and soft, weak foods, such as flowers and buds; but again, they were not well suited for breaking down tough pliant foods such as stems, soft seed pods, and meat.

In summary, the scientific literature as of 2007 – two years before Keith published her book – is substantially in support of a plant-based diet for Australopithecus, and possibly for early Homo as well.  Keith’s reading of the 1999 paper by Sponheimer and Lee-Thorp is completely distorted, and neglects a review of subsequent papers by these very same authors.  In contrast to Keith’s narrative, the evidence suggests our Australopithecine ancestors favored woodlands over grasslands; they were prey, not predators; and they were uniquely adapted to harvest and metabolize tubers and a variety of other plant-based foods – not meat.

For those with a deeper interest in this topic, I would recommend starting with the excellent background on C3 versus C4 photosynthesis in plants provided by Ehleringer and Cerling [15], as well as the full text of the 2007 paper by Yeakel et al. [13] and the 2005 paper by Sponheimer et al. [9], each of which has been made freely available in PDF by the authors.

In my next post in this series, I will examine Keith’s second main evolutionary argument against plant-based nutrition: the expensive tissue hypothesis.


[1] Keith, L. (2009) pg. 140.
[2] Sponheimer, M. and Lee-Thorp, J. A., Science 283, 368 (1999).
[3] Eades, M.D. and Eades, M.R. (2001).
[4] de Ruiter, D.J., Sponheimer, M. and Lee-Thorp, J.A., J. Hum. Evol. 55, 1015 (2008).
[5] Lee-Thorp, J. A. et al., J. Hum. Evol. 27, 361 (1994).
[6] Lee-Thorp, J.A. et al., J. Hum. Evol. 39, 565 (2000).
[7] Lee-Thorp, J.A., Sponheimer, M., and van der Merwe, N.J. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. 13, 104 (2003).
[8] Sponheimer, M. and Lee-Thorp, J.A., Comp. Biochem. Physiol. 136, 27 (2003).
[9] Sponheimer, M. et al., J. Hum. Evol. 48, 147 (2005).
[10] Sponheimer, M., Lee-Thorp, J.A., et al., J. Hum. Evol. 48, 301 (2005).
[11] Matt Sponheimer, et al., Science 314, 980 (2006).
[11] Sponheimer, M. et al., J. Hum. Evol. 51, 128 (2006).
[12] Sponheimer, M. et al., Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 140, 661 (2009).
[13] Yeakel, J.D. et al., Proc. R. Soc. B 274, 1723 (2007).
[14] Teaford, M.F. and Ungar, P.S., PNAS 97, 13506 (2000).
[15] Ehleringer, J.R. and Cerling, T.E., The Earth System 2, 186 (2002).

Chapter 2: What about inter-dependency?

July 17, 2010

What about inter-dependency?

Keith writes in chapter two: “I’ve had it backward all these years. I’m not exploiting them. They’re happy, safe, warm, and fed. I’m the one who’s miserable. Chickens won’t even walk in snow, let alone haul supplies to me. That wet drip sliding down my spine was like a cold jab of reality. Chickens have gotten humans to work for them. In exchange, they take care of us, but not by bringing us water. By providing food—meat and eggs—and a whole constellation of other activities useful for farms.” The ideas here are quite seductively presented, indeed. Stylistically, Keith is a very good writer. But this is another example of Keith making impossible claims. I feel I need to offer another, just as valid, way to frame the above example:

You’ve domesticated chickens and took them as “your own”, without their consent. You are the party with the privilege, weapons, technology, and power to do this. You and this chicken have not had equal hands in creating this. Probably, like most chickens, they were bred for the purpose of being instruments for humans ends. They didn’t ask you for help—you domesticated and took them, which inherently implies use of power—and they didn’t offer help in return. In fact you have no idea what they are or aren’t “asking” because you are not in their world. This is about as anthropomorphic as something can get– yet you reel against anthropomorphism again and again throughout this chapter. The chickens almost certainly, though, didn’t “ask” you to be killed for food; women don’t ask to be raped, slaves don’t ask to be “taken care of” by slave owners, and the fact that slave owners have decided they need slaves doesn’t mean they’ve all of a sudden become a slave too, the moment their slaves need to eat. The dominated party has no power. This above is a dominator-created, self-justifying narrative.

I understand I’m using language here that might be triggering. But if we are really being honest with outselves, I’d say this re-framing is just as valid, if not moreso, than Keith’s– valid enough to honestly consider. Remember, comparisons are not equations; no individual experience of violence can be equated to another, but I believe, if we are to have an egalitarian world, people need to consider the similarities that underlie most types of violence. Keith writes, “Domestication is not human domination.” She is wrong. Why? Because she leaves out “human privilege” here– the fact that a) we have a conscious ability to choose that does not, by any evidence, compare to the conscious abilities of other animals, and b) that we have developed unprecedented methods of power over all life, human and nonhuman– these methods have defined animal farming and agriculture in general. Humanity’s ability to dominate– domesticate– nature is the foundation of all agriculture, and it is a complete deviation from the rest of nature’s relationship to itself. The relationship between nonhumans and humans represents an unprecidented level of inequality and “power over”. We cannot conveniently pretend that we relate to nohuman animals and plants in the same manner that animal in plants in “nature” relate to each other–as Kieth goes on to speak of in the rest of the chapter. Her reasoning here is frightengly analogous to justifications of inter-human domination: Men and women need each other, and their heteronormative gender roles, to survive. Men need women to cook and clean, and women need men to earn the money. Slave owners end up depending on slaves to get the work done. Slaves depend on slave owners for food, shelter, and hopefully, they will not get beaten or killed. The capitalist depends on his workers to produce, the workers depend on the capitalist for a livelihood. Would we, especially those of us who define as radicals, accept this logic in any other situation? Would we insist that these relationships are just and reciporical, instead of calling them out for clearly exploitative and dominator-defined relationships that they are?

This all plays on the myth of the 3 Ns: Natural, Normal, and Necessary. All power-over ideologies have used this myth to justify violence. Slaves and Jews have smaller brains than whites. It’s the white man’s burden- we have to take care of them. Women have smaller brains than men, so they aren’t as smart, and smaller bodies that are not fit for sports and exertion. They’re naturally ruled by their emotions and it’s normal for them to get hysterical, that’s just who they are. Indigenous people are naturally simple and aren’t able to build civilizations. Aryans are naturally a dominant race and are meant to rule the world. Humans are natural hunters. Men have a natural propensity for violence because of their testosterone; it’s normal. They can’t control themselves when they see a woman in a short skirt who is asking for it. It’s just not natural for two men to marry! It’s not natural for people to get sex changes– it’s just not normal! It’s a mental illness! It’s against god’s will! It’s necessary for men and women to be together so they can pro-create. It’s necessary to have cops and armies to protect us. Humans have always been at war with each other, it’s unfortunate but it’s a part of who we are. Domination is just a natural part of life. It’s normal to drive my car everywhere and have a big house… this is just how we all live. Man is naturally higher than all species and is meant to dominate the earth. It’s necessary to eat meat to survive. Cows were meant to be eaten. It’s normal to eat meat, everyone’s always done it. It’s natural to eat meat, our ancestors did it. Look at all the charts we have to prove it. If you’re a vegan, you are a deviation from what’s normal, necessary, and natural– you must have psychological problems, you must be so unhealthy, you must have an eating disorder.

The 3Ns allow us to erase the complicatedness of violence and oppression. They let us off the hook. They’re a quick fix to the existential problem of having choices, agency, and critical thinking capacities. In short, they maintain and protect the status quo, enable it to remain unquestioned.

Chapter 2: What about plants?

July 16, 2010

What about plants?

In chapter 2, Keith begins to write about an ongoing theme: vegetarians’ supposedly biased attitude towards vegetable life: “…if we’re extra eco-righteous, we throw the seeds on the compost heap, where time, heat and bacteria kill them. One goal of any good compost scheme, after all, is to kill any lingering seeds. None of this is what the tree had in mind. The tree isn’t offering sweetness out of the goodness of its heartwood. It’s striking a bargain, and even though we’ve shaken hands and collected, we aren’t carrying through on our side of the deal. There’s a glaring anthropocentrism in this argument, which is strange coming from people espousing a specific politic of animal liberation…Why are we humans allowed to take without giving? Isn’t that called exploitation? Or at the very least, stealing? Fruit isn’t, as claimed, ‘the only freely given food.’ The point of that fruit is not humans.”

She leaves this out: The point of animals is not humans, either. That animals have been held in captivity as farming instruments/food production is not what those animals had in mind. If farmed animals had not been constructed by centuries of genetic selection, and subtle and violent domination to make them docile, they would most likely never chose to be on those farm. If the gates, cages, crates, or whatever else were not there, do we honestly think those animals would stay? That they would asked to be bred generation after generation as instruments in captivity? Any reasonable person knows that the answer to this is a huge “no”.

She writes: “If killing is the problem, the life of one grass-fed cow will feed me for an entire year. But a single vegan meal of plant babies—rice grains, almonds, soybeans—ground up or boiled alive, will involve hundreds of deaths. Why don’t they matter?” The comparison between the death of sentient beings, and the death of plant, grain, and legume matter, is a disingenous one. Vegans do not have a simplistic idea of this, as Keith won’t stop asserting; on the contrary, vegans admit to and try to wrestle with how complicated the reality of sentience is, instead of throwing the issue out the window or genralizing sentience into absurdity, just because they can’t find a perfect solution. Plants and animals have wildly different interests, different mechanisms of life, and differently functioning bodies. There is, effectively, despite a couple of pop-science books about the issue, no scientific proof that plants feel pain or have awareness similar to that of sentient beings–especially intelligent mammals, who have complex nervous systems, emotional brains (limbic systems), and complicated pain mechanisms. Keith uses one of these pop-science books, The Language of Lost Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner–who, like Keith, is certainly interesting but is not a biologist, scientist, or any other kind of academic or researcher with the credentials to make claims on science–as her resource for almost her entire discussion on the possibility of any kind of “plant sentience” that might resemble animal sentience. Citations 115-141 in this section are all Bruhner’s book, with three exceptions that have to do with secondary points.

This sentience is the objective difference that complicates the question of animal and plant death. In certain situations, not all deaths are equal, in that they do not embody the same processes, results, or implications. Consider this comparison (and remember that comparisons are not the same as equations): To get an abortion, to destroy a fetus, is not the same as killing an autonomous, born human. Most radicals– and Keith is a radical feminist– understand this critical differences between the death of a fetus—a parasitic organism that lives, but is dependent on its autonomous, born, adult host, and at most stages is probably incapable of feeling pain— and the death of an autonomous, fully developed human. Nobody is excited about abortion, but pro-choice people understand its complicated and necessary nature, and inevitability of having to chose between types of “death”. (I put this in quotes only because some pro-choice people consider abortions a necessary death, and others don’t consider abortion a type of death.)

The point is, humans inevitably choose between types of destruction– we certainly do not disagree with Keith on this point, and we’re glad she talks about it. But in terms of food, this is not the same as having a flippant disregard for plants. As a vegan, I’m attempting to find the solution that offers the least unnecessary human destruction. There is physically felt torture and pain involved in carnism, and this need not be inevitable, we need not add it to the endless pile of unnecessary destruction we’ve already caused. “What about plant life?” is one of the classic fallacious arguments against a vegan diet, one which distracts from the issue of the individual sentient animal by trying to equate the conditions of different life forms. To assert or imply that we “overlook” the deaths of plants because we focus on the supposedly more important deaths of animals, is a bit like saying that all genders won’t have true equality until male-bodied people can get abortions. It’s an irrelevant framing of the issue, a distraction from and unwillingness to deal with the issue’s complicated realities.

At the end of the day, the “what about plants” issue can be overridden by the fact that, no matter what you feed your farmed animals, no matter what your method of farming– even if it’s animal-based permaculture– these animals we force into agriculture are involved in the “hundreds of deaths” of plant beings, too. Even the most sustainable farms use large amounts of energy and water keeping and feeding farmed animals, where they could be growing sustainable plant-based crops and using non-animal methods to keep topsoil healthy instead. In fact, “humane” and “grass-fed” farms often use more than double the amount of land than “industrial” ones. The general erasure of this fact is one of the major myths about grass-fed farming. And there’s no way around the fact that raising cattle is the leading cause of global warming, surpassing all combined forms of transportation in its production of methane and other greenhouse gasses. At no point in this chapter does Keith give attention to the rabid destructiveness of animal agriculture– no matter what the type, large or small farms, grass or grain. Because animals need to eat if we are to eat them, then there is no way around the fact that a carnist diet—any type of carnist diet— destroys more plant and animal life than a vegan one. When we eat animals, we are eating/killing plant and animal life at the same time. This does not seem like the most useful or skillful way to minimize human impact on the planet, given the workability and possibilities of sustainable, local vegetarian agriculture. Keith does not want to see the fact that vegetarian permaculture is even possible. Her only “proof” of this is a personal anecdote about visiting one unnamed psuedo-vegetarian farm community that she insultingly, and without evidence, claims was filled with “anorexic” vegans who she has diagnosed with all of her own supposedly vegan-caused health problems.  See our “Busting myths-Vegan permaculture” page for actual information about vegan permaculture.

Another way to put it: Industrial vegetable farming is awful and unsustainable in lots of ways. Industrial meat farming is worse. Permaculture might be part of our solution. Vegan permaculture is more sustainable than animal permaculture. For every animal-based farming practice, there seems to be a more sustainable plant-based one.