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.

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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.