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.


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 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.