Carolyn’s thoughts post-book

August 22, 2010

There’s still a lot more coming, and apparently we can’t get our butts together enough to be linear! Keep coming back!!!

For now, I, Carolyn Z, offer my thoughts after a few weeks off to contemplate this book:

1. The mere existence of thriving, healthy vegans and widely successful vegan permaculture undermines all of Lierre Keith’s major theses in The Vegetarian Myth. The rest of my conclusions/afterthoughts are secondary to this.

2. When all’s said and done, this book is a veritable infomercial for “paleo” and anti-carb diets. It leaves no room for questions about dietary racism and classism; the problems of urban food accessibility and peak oil; the problems of overpopulation (she mentions it briefly at the end but offers no useful analysis and doesn’t problematize her theories in relation to it, which would upset everything she’s said); and tons of other problems that complicate what is ultimately a utopian vision, impossible to implement at the large-scale without a massive reduction in the human population– and that’s a whole other can of worms involving first world privilege, capitalism, racism, mass exploitation, and on and on.

3. This book isn’t about vegetarians. The title is disengenuous. The Vegetarian Myth is about vegans. It is unclear why Lierre Keith chose to focus her self-righteous passion on vegans, since we are about 0.5 percent of the US population, and the vast majority of people in the US are meat-eaters who subsist on cornstuffs and other products that Lierre Keith despises. Furthermore, upwards of 80 percent of the corn produced in the United States is used to feed cows for animal agriculture.

4. This book is not even really about vegans; it’s about Lierre Keith’s hatred of vegans. Excuse me for the following, but I’m a psychology nerd and I’ve held off ’til now: The Vegetarian Myth reads as a tortured letter that Keith has projected from her subconscious, as if she can only deal with her flaws (self-righteousness, ignorance, childishness, etc.– everything she charges vegans with) when she sees them in others. It seems Lierre Keith is deeply confused about her life and her own stance towards politics, and seems pathologically anxious/obsessive about her relationship to food-in-general, in a manner that goes far beyond politics. I would consider that much of her projected, seemingly debilitating anxiety about food might point to the fact that she has an eating disorder herself (something else she obsessively projects onto vegans), but I don’t think this is the right forum to get into that loaded discussion. Suffice to say, if it is true, then I implore Lierre Keith to get help for that serious issue, and not misguide the energy of it into valid, crucial food politics. Keith seems to have a really hard time with nuance, with not perceiving the world in reactive extremes– this, literally, developmentally, is what scared children do when they feel traumatized or unprotected. None of this makes her bad– at all. It just makes her human. I don’t hate Lierre Keith; I’ve never met her (though we do live in the same town. Say hi, Lierre, if you see me–I promise not to poo on you. I’m tall and white with a semi-conscious propensity for dressing like Oliver Twist, and I have really bad depth perception and am always walking into things– sometimes I’m hard to miss in that sense.) I just want her to admit that she’s human and that she has disseminated faulty information about issues that literally have to do with life and death. In short, a grounded, integrated person with a realistic relationship to their inevitably flawed human-ness and the difficult realities of a flailing, complicated planet, would not need to write in the manner Lierre Keith does. In fact, it seems they would try to be as accessible and non-judgmental as possible so as not to alienate and insult their intended audience.

5. A critical conversation about the destruction that’s been cause by human civilization and agriculture is necessary. A convenient, paleofantasy-based nostalgia for a perfect time that never truly existed is not. Not only does this paleofantasy reek of biological determinism, which should always be questioned, but it takes us away from present reality, which includes carnism and human privilege. There are significant reasons to believe that these things are a) hugely responsible for much destruction of the planet and b) one more violent, instrumentalist ideology analogous to sexism, racism, etc. Even if you disagree with theories about speciesism and carnism, totally leaving them out makes for a dishonest analysis.

6. Don’t listen to me. Read this book if you want. But no matter what your diet, take this book with a grain of salt. There is, objectively, a lot of misinformation in it. Do your own research. Get some perspective by considering this and other critiques, and by looking into the many complicated vegan analyses that Lierre Keith pays no attention to. We all know not to believe everything we see on TV… the same goes for books.

Advertisements

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 (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.


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:

PLEASE DO NOT USE THIS BOOK AS A BASIS OR GUIDE TO MAKE DIETARY CHANGES! INSTEAD, READ ALL YOU CAN FROM THE MOST DIVERGENT AND OBJECTIVE SOURCES POSSIBLE! IF YOU CAN, FIND DOCTORS YOU TRUST, WHETHER “WESTERN” OR “HOLISTIC” OR BOTH– ASK ABOUT THEIR EXPERTISE AND TRAINING AND THEIR PARADIGM. DON’T JUST SEEK OUT PALEO-DOCTORS IN ORDER TO VALIDATE YOUR INTEREST IN THE PALEO-DIET, FOR INSTANCE.

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:


Carolyn reads chapter one: part two

July 15, 2010

Claims about health
Page 9: “But I’m also writing this book as a cautionary tale. A vegetarian diet—especially a low-fat version, and most especially a vegan one—is  sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body. To put it bluntly, it will damage you. I know.” She goes on to talk about her negative experience with veganism, in terms of health. Here we go. Once again, Keith just “knows” and expects us to just trust her (after she’s repeatedly insulted us no less.) But once again, personal anecdote cannot be substituted for fact and, once again, the healthiness of different kinds of diets is an issue that, in the most “objective” of scientific communities, is up for serious debate. If you do a simple google search right on “human as omnivore”, you will find innumerable amounts of information regarding this complicated debate.

Suffice it to say, vegans can be healthy or unhealthy or somewhere in between. Keith’s bones, stomach, and other various parts were unhealthy, and no one should have to go through that. She was also depressed and anxious, which all of us can relate to. But again, she offers no evidence that this was related to veganism or not. I don’t doubt that her experience of feeling better when eating meat is true for her, but again, it becomes an argumentative fallacy since it leaves out the possibility of third party or extraneous variables. Any apathetic, hungover undergrad who has to get up at 8AM to go to Research and Statistics 101 knows that correlation does not equal causation. In regards to mental health, Keith does state the following: “And now I know why. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. And 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, which is necessary to make your neurotransmitters actually transmit.” But there are plenty of plant sources for saturated fat. Furthermore, it is straight-up untrue that tryptophan is hard to come by in plant sources. This is another fallacy often argued against veganism: that just because there are lots of animal sources for certain nutrients, there are no plant ones, or that the plant sources somehow have a different “type” or quality of said nutrient. Untrue. She seems unreasonably determined to blame her problems on veganism, as in the statement “if end up with cancer in my reproductive organs, I’m blaming soy.” Additionally, she is falsely equating veganism with soy conspumtion. Here, I offer a couple potential third party variables that could account for her health problems: familial health history/genes, being an angsty and hormonal teenager, being an unhealthy person in regards to food, the HPV virus which many people get through sexual contact and can lead to reproductive cancers, and environmental factors like pollution and toxins (never underestimate the unknown when it comes to this issue- for instance, my high school was built on a superfund site!)

Additionally, because veganism is a non-mainstream diet that even doctors and nutritionists don’t know much about (to be liscenced in the US, they must be educated under the USDA “food pyramid” model, which is largely based carnism and meat industry politics) it is easy to assume that veganism is the source of health problems when something goes wrong. Let me reinforce that I understand veganism can be unhealthy, if executed badly—like any diet. But Keith’s argument here is again based on assumption and anecdote and offers basically no scientifically or ethically valuable, solid information as to the healthiness of either a vegan or carnist diet.

For my part, the following things aren’t “proof” either, but can maybe give some needed balance: This guy’s not unhealthy. These people might be totally marginal in their own way but they don’t exactly apply to the stereotype Keith paints. For what it’s worth, their problematic politics admitted, the Amerian Dietary Association has done extensive research and concluded that one can be perfectly healthy on a vegan diet. On the other hand, people with adult-onset diabetes might die soon soon for reasons that are, by most educated guesses, in some way related to meat consumption; and it’s common knowledge that eating meat is often related to heart attacks. These are extremes and my guess is most of us fall in the middle, animal products or not. As a vegan, my personal belief is that most diets, so long as they include a balance of protein, fats, essential nutrients, and micronutrients, can be healthy—even a carnist diet. But I think all this could be beside the point. Vegans argue that humans are “natural” plant-eaters, carnists argue the opposite– both, largely, to support their ideologies. I do not use health arguments when advocating veganism for all these reaons. I think the controversial and unresolved question of health is often a distraction from the ethical issues issues that are almost impossibly hard to reconcile. Because of their difficulty, many of us throw these out the window altogether, but that doesn’t make them go away: I’m talking about issues regarding the domination, killing, and keeping captive of individual sentient animals.

We will talk about many more erroneous health claims when we explore TVM’s specific chapter on health.

Oh, Lierre…
Finally, page 11: “If I’m questioning your lifestyle, your identity, you might feel confusion, fear, and anger while reading this book. But take my word: you don’t want to end up like me. I’m asking you to stay the course, read this book, and explore the resources in the appendix. Please. Especially if you have children or want to. I’m not too proud to beg.”

Let me just say that, since a very small percentage of people are vegan, most of the beings in my life– my family, my partner, my house mates, my beloved feline and canine friends, many of my most respected human friends, professors, and mentors– are vegetarians or carnists. I do not get angry with them (the human ones) when they want to explore veganism me, when they are curious or critical. In fact, I love them very much and see them as complicated, compassionate people struggling with innumerable complicated questions. We have very calm conversations. Just this week I had two. They tell me why they eat what they eat, and I tell them why I’m vegan, and generally we are both the better for it because we respect each other and are having real dialogue in which we are assuming the other is coming from their best place. Maybe you don’t believe me, Lierre, because it doesn’t sound like this was ever your experience. But your experience is not the objective truth nor do you get to make sweeping claims about veganism because you were a vegan for two decades. This doesn’t give you extra “points”. This book, while completely complicating carnism (fair enough—meat eating is complicated), is framed with little to no respect for the various complicated theories and practices of veganism. It’s a one-sided polemic that leaves no room for reasonable dialogue. Vegans are literally written of as ignorant children, and that’s the end of it. What are people who disagree, or just want to engage in critical conversation, supposed to do with this? We have been defined and written out of the argument from the start. To me, this is a scary tactic that doesn’t deserve a place in radical debate. In the language of anarcho-feminism and some brands of ecofeminism, this tactic arguably enacts a patriarchal paradigm of “power over” as opposed to egalitarian one of “power with” and “power to”.

But you’re right, I’m angry reading this. I’m sure I have defenses I’m not conscious of; I am an emotional person known for having my fair share of knee-jerk emotional reactions; also, I identify very strongly as a vegan. (It seems most people who have conscious food politics identify very strongly with them, because they dictate a lifestyle… Lierre, you can’t possibly believe you’re exempt this?) But could you consider that my anger might be because you just made an extended analysis of my ignorance, my childish mind, and my lack of information? That you’ve erased those who disagree with you and literally do not see us as equals? Perhaps you are being as patronizing and self-righteous now as you, yourself, claim to have been when you were vegan? We’re eleven pages in, and already I feel no reason to give you, Leirre Keith, the benefit of the doubt. But I want to be fair and finish the book; after all, I consider myself a nuanced and open-minded adult, even if you don’t. Will you look past your own nose and hear us out in return—or at least respect us as intellectual equals? Will you consider a very valid critique of your research methods? Will you consider that there might be more than one “way”? Will you consider that veganism might exist beyond your personal experience and practice of it– that it is multitudes more complicated that you are painting it? Because that flavor of openness really where we have the potential to come together and start figuring things out. We have lots of things to come together on. I want to be in solidarity with you and your friends. I’m not too proud to beg.


Carolyn reads chapter one: part one

July 14, 2010

My veganism

Hi, I’m Carolyn Zaikowski. For my part, save some teenage self-righteousness that’s become a more and more complicated analysis as I get older, I see veganism as a way to minimize destruction and death–not eradicate it. I do not deny the fact that death and destruction exist, which is something Keith states about vegans in several different ways. I fully understand the destructiveness of agriculture– this is a point on which Keith and I agree (and even the most “humane” farming, especially if it involves animals, is quite destructive.) I understand the politics of peak oil, permaculture, bioregionalism, local farming, soy production, industrial vegetable farming, etc. I’m not an expert, but I have been studying these issues for 15 years. As a result, I try my darndest to both eat vegan and local, as much as is possible. My goal is to minimize, in obtaining my food, the use of both animals and plants, in an attempt to balance my political and ethical concern for both individual animals and whole species. As a resident of the Northeastern United States, I have not found this diet impossible by any means. Challenging in some ways, certainly; requiring compromises sometimes, of  course, especially in the winter. My diet is ethically imperfect as any diet is, due to the unfortunate state of the planet. Keith’s is imperfect too. But she doesn’t earnesly admit it, which is a shame, because this creates a tone that distracts from some of her really important and critical points about the destruction caused by agriculture.

I rued the day in college when I had to take a research methods and statistics class, thinking, how will this ever be useful to me? I am a radical! I believe in direct action, not abstract math or “quantifying” human behaviors! I believe in the validity of complicated emotional information, not just cerebral logic–I am proud of my right-brain! Science is elitist and patriarchal! I never thought that one day, years later, I would come across a context in which I’d be so glad that I had learned about the most basic research methods and argumentative fallacies.

Are there ignorant vegans? Of course! Are there ignorant carnists? Of course! Ignorance is a trait that cuts through human life, far beyond dietary choices. Especially when consumer capitalism is brought into the equation, we see horrifying patterns in food production across the board. But, while it is entirely possible to eat an environmentally irresponsible diet as a vegan, it is not the fault of veganism, as a philosophy, that some vegans are self-righteous or do not have information about ecology. Just as, for better or worse, there are lots of reasons why people eat meat, there are lots of reasons why people are vegan, and there are lots of ways that people are vegan. Not all of us– maybe even not most of us, though I can’t say for sure, since there are no numbers– fit into the convenient stereotypes Keith paints. If we’re going to assume, then it is probably safe to say that most vegans, like most humans, have extremely complicated beliefs, lifestyles, emotions, and general ways of relating to the world.

Self-righteousness, fallacies, , “kas-limaal”, and erasure of vegan permaculture
My distaste and surprise at Keith’s arrogance and tone is solidified on page 5, when she posits that vegetarians have the minds of ignorant children, while people like her have the minds of integrated adults: “The only way out of the vegetarian myth is through the pursuit of kas-limaal, of adult knowledge. This is a concept we need, especially those of us who are impassioned by injustice. I know I needed it. In the narrative of my life, the first bite of meat after my twenty year hiatus marks the end of my youth, the moment when I assumed the responsibilities of adulthood. It was the moment I stopped fighting the basic algebra of embodiment: for someone to live, someone else has to die.” I begin to wonder why I should read this book, since it feels extremist and insulting in tone, and I haven’t been convinced to trust it, or her.

I can’t find any information on “kas-limaal”, a concept Keith refers to in one way or another throughout the book. I do not speak the language, but a simple google search shows many hits that refer to the word only in regards to Kieth, and one or two that refer to the book she quotes it from. My library search engine yielded no results. In a different spelling, “k’aslimaal”, I’ve found, refers to the name of Guatemalan organization who says that the word means “life” or “rebirth”. I haven’t read the book that Keith gets her information about “kas-limaal” from, but it is written by a Native American with roots in New Mexico and Canada, who moved to Guatemala and was initiated as a Mayan Shaman. I don’t doubt it’s a concept; but for what it’s worth, and considering the rest of sketchy information in Keith’s book, I think a little skepticism and our own research regarding Keith’s interpretation of “kas-laamal” could be useful.

Onward. Here is one of her first examples of fallacy: “I’ve heard vegetarian activists claims that an acre of land can only support two chickens. Joel Salatin, one of the High Priests of sustainable farming and someone who actually raises chickens, puts that figure at 250 an acre.” In the text, the former point is based on literal heresay, with no citation. The latter point, however, has one, which is an unfair way to argue. She goes on to spend pages talking about her negative experiences with vegans on internet message boards. She is actually using anecdotal evidence from message boards—and she doesn’t even tell us which ones, or who was talking. I hate to be a hypocrite and make assumptions myself, but I really think that most reasonable, curious people can understand why this does not equal reliable research. For instance, just now I googled “anti vegetarian” and found a facebook message board called Anti-Vegan Action Group upon which someone wrote: “since i’m in idaho for a year, i’m really picking up on my meat-eating, and it feels great – just like dennis leary said…vegatarians say, ‘you know, you eat red meat and it stays in your colon for ten years.’ GOOD! I paid for it, i want it there! anyway, i put a nice 3 inch steak on the grill for prob under 5 minutes last night and it was delicious. i like it bloody.” Most writers would never refer to this genre of source in a book that is touted as scientific and expected to be taken seriously. This is not even allowed on Wikipedia. Keith does not, as she could have, wrestle with the abundance of centuries of highly regarded first-hand research and accounts of innumerable theories and practies of animal rights, welfare, liberation, and abolitionism, from Pythagorus and ancient Greece, to Peter Singer and Henry Spira, to the intersection of feminism and anti-vivisectiion movements during US First Wave Feminism, to Mahatma Ghandi, to modern anarchists and ecofeminists, to sects of all the major religions. In chapter 2, she speaks generally about facets about humanism and the animal “rights” movement, but again fails to wrestle with, debunk, or cite complicated theory. Literally, all of her claims about animal rights theory and practice are unsubstantiated. In over two hundred references, she cites one– one!–pro-vegetarian resource, Diet For A New America by John Robbins. I (sort of) apologize for being flip, but if this is not a dubious and wildly biased “scientific” research style, then I have fourteen arms and twelve nipples. I recently finished writing a critical master’s thesis, and I never would have earned my degree if I had not considered the research and theory that challenged my thesis. There is a reason for this– it makes us more honest and gives us a deeper understanding of the issues.

Keith becomes very up front about, literally, how stupid she thinks her readers are when she states: “So, on the theory that many readers lack the knowledge to judge this plan, I’m going to walk you through this.”

Here’s some more of her selective information: “Because without grazers to literally level the playing field, the perennial plants mature, and shade out the basal growth point at the plant’s base. In a brittle environment like the Serengeti, decay is mostly physical (weathering) and chemical (oxidative), not bacterial and biological as in a moist environment. In fact, the ruminants take over most of the biological functions of soil by digesting the cellulose and returning the nutrients, once again available, in the form of urine and feces. But without ruminants, the plant matter will pile up, reducing growth, and begin killing the plants. The bare earth is now exposed to wind, sun, and rain, the minerals leach away, and the soil structure is destroyed. In our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything.”

This is the beginning of a discussion– grazers as necessary to keep soil healthy– that is one of the major themes throughout the book. In some ways this is right, in regards to how some grazing works. But what she leaves out here is significant: Humans have evolved many ways to renew topsoil with no or minimal non-human labor: crop rotation, companion planting, ley farming, composting, using human waste, green manure, and other ways, plus possibilities for the future. In farming, there is no necessary connection whatsoever between renewal of topsoil, sustainable farming, and grazing animals– there never has been– let alone killing them or using their products. In part, it seems, Keith makes these kinds of claims because she is invested in making a case for a return to prairie-style living, which we will get to later. But vegan permaculture is an established practice all over the world, in all kinds of climates. Keith’s claims about this impossibility, which she makes throughout the book, are a complete falsehood. I simply do not understand why Keith has not only erased this possibility, but this actuality.

Furthermore, grazers in the wild are much different from grazers in domestication, who have been constructed for centuries to be of human use, by various forms of domination, and kept in captivity. There’s no way, really, to know if or how we can compare them, their bodies, or their effects on the earth. But is my opinion that, if we are radical and looking to alter a paradigm, we must consider this wide-spread form of domination that is animal agriculture. Let’s, then, touch upon the phrase “in our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything”, which is an absolute falsehood. I am a great believer that emotional appeals and emotional information can be valid, useful, and based in reality. But this appeal is little more than a hyperbolic emotional reaction, not connected to any substantiated claim that is suitable for holding up a theory supposedly based in science. “We’ve killed everything” is an unfair, simplistic emotional manipulation, and it doesn’t admit to its own basis in biased ideology and knee-jerk polemics.