book review: Lierre Keith's "The Vegetarian Myth"

Somewhere between my ex-vegan interview at Let Them Eat Meat, the blog Hunt.Gather.Love, and Paleohacks, it was at least once recommended to me that I read Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth.” So, I did.

The author spent 20 years as a vegan. Understandably, veganism became ever nearer and dearer to her identity, but it also ruined her health (depression, hypoglycemia, spine problems, chronic pain, reproductive health issues, etc). Eventually, she came to realize that vegetarianism only apparently resolves the issues that trouble its practitioners: animal welfare, nutrition, and social justice. This book is partially a telling of Keith’s journey. However, the story is filled out generously with evidence to support the conclusions at which the author eventually arrived.

The book has three main sections:

  1. Moral vegetarians: This section dispels the common vegetarian idea that abstaining from animal foods allows you to eat without causing any death. Rather, it is an inescapable fact that all life requires death. Plants have to eat, and even to grow grains the soil must be fertilized either with animal by-products or synthetic fertilizers produced using huge amounts of fossil fuels. Monocrop agriculture is also very harmful to natural environments, ruining soil and water which causes the deaths of many animals. As such, your vegetarian diet is only apparently death-free.
  2. Political vegetarians: This section discusses various political aspects of the eating of animal foods which vegetarians often criticize. For instance, some vegetarians claim that fewer people would be starving if we fed more grains directly to people, instead of to industrially produced animals, and they point to the huge amount of water that it takes to grow a cow. This is misleading, for a variety of reasons. The animals produced for food are more nutritionally dense than grains. And, they are only fed grains due to a perverse history of agricultural subsidies and incentives that makes it cost efficient. But, when raised naturally on grasses, food animals give back nearly as much to the land as they take from it – in stark contrast to the destructive grain crops. Because grains ruin the land, countries need more and more of it, possibly leading to economic exploitation of, or militaristic action against, other countries. And anyway, most alternative vegetarian foods are produced by brands owned by the largest agricultural conglomerates in the world. Vegetarianism, then, is not really the diet of peace and justice that it is made out to be, and it doesn’t really help you to opt out of the oil-fueled, government-assisted food industry. The realities of food production and distribution are much more complex.
  3. Nutritional vegetarians: Keith discusses some ways in which conventional nutritional wisdom has gone wrong. Contrary to the dietary establishment, she argues that a low-fat, high-carb diet is unnatural to humans and unhealthy for us. Special attention is paid to debunking the lipid hypothesis and presenting some of the work of the famous alternative health practictioner Weston A. Price. Keith also discusses the dangers that soy poses to human health, which is of particular interest to current and former vegetarians who often eat soyfoods instead of animal foods.

The whole book is rather depressing, and Keith’s conclusion is pessimistic. She think that the only way to achieve morality, justice and good nutrition is to dismantle the foundational institutions of our current way of life (agriculture, suburbia) and to return to being hunting and gathering locavores.

I really, really enjoyed the book. Of course, it is not comprehensive – what book on those mammoth topics could be? – and I have not verified all of the research myself. But it was invaluable to hear all of these things from someone who understands the pull of vegetarianism and who felt that pull enough herself to learn its pitfalls the very, very hard way. Keith switches effortlessly from educational sections to personal narratives and back again. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but at times I felt myself responding to her prose in that way you’re supposed to respond in church.

However, no book review would be complete without a few criticisms:

  • Animism: Keith argues that humanism is morally bankrupt, leads to exploitation of the earth and its creatures, and must be abandoned in favor of an animist ethic. I think this is crazy. I don’t believe that humans have souls, let alone rocks, and I can’t accept any moral worldview that promotes disregarding important moral differences between beings (consciousness, capacity for reason, etc). It’s easy to see why animist cultures did a better job of respecting the environment – they thought that they could actually wrong it in some way. As such, the environment placed moral demands on them, rather than mere demands of self-interest in producing food. But I don’t think there’s anything about humanism that’s inconsistent with more sustainable practices; Keith’s understanding of humanism seems like a caricature in this regard.
  • Masculinity: Keith thinks that the cause of exploitation of the earth, among other forms of exploitation, is a kind of masculinity (not to be confused with biological maleness) that is obsessed with dominance and power. I’m not really sure what this adds to the book, other than making its main points look more radical than they really are. Keith is an anti-pornography kind of feminist, so actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the masculinity stuff figures more prominently into her thinking than the book suggests. I’m not really interested in this form of social criticism and don’t know what legitimacy or value it has.
  • Technology: Keith repeatedly worries that the human population has grossly overshot the carrying capacity of the earth, and she is condescending toward those who hold out hopes for technology that will solve the problem. I think this condescension is quite unwarranted, considering that her proposed alternative is radical, grassroots political action. Why think that technology is so much more unlikely to fix things than some people holding democratic meetings in a basement somewhere? It’s this obsession with old ways of life (and old spiritual practices, like animism) that really turns me off to many environmentalists and other social critics.

All in all, though, a more than worthwhile read. I would especially recommend it to anyone who has spent time as a vegetarian, and to anyone who has a currently or formerly vegetarian family member or friend.

9 Comments

  • Excellent review, it seems like you covered all of the major angles here.

    One thought – it still seems like there is plenty of room for a moral vegetarian to argue, even if it turns out the vegetarianism is not actually death-free. Given current farming practices, you simply cannot avoid the deaths that come as result of agriculture. But you CAN avoid supporting the slaughter of animals for human consumption on top of that. So a vegetarian diet may not be death-free, but at least it avoids *some* needless death and suffering – and arguably is at least a step in the right direction, even if much more needs to be done to actually resolve all of the concerns that motivate moral vegetarians.

    On the nutritional point, I think the sorts of arguments Keith makes are pretty legitimate, especially against veganism. It seems very, very hard to be a healthy vegan. I think a healthy vegetarian lifestyle is probably much more easily attainable, but as you say, you have to watch out for things like over-consumption of soy products.

  • You’re definitely right – there is some room to be vegetarian on the grounds of reducing, not eliminating, animal suffering.

    Probably *everyone* can’t be vegetarian, though (so the proselytizing veggies will be unhappy), and here’s why: growing things requires fertile soil, and your choices are either synthetics requiring fossil fuels, or animal waste & remains. Assuming you care at all about the environment, synthetics are out, and we will run out of them eventually anyway. So you need animal waste & remains. You can buy those from an animal farmer, but *someone* has to be farming. And farms are typically unsustainable when they don’t involve some killing, although it can be humane.

    Another thing is that, if we got away from the grain and non-indigenous crops that ruin the land and moved back to grasses, there wouldn’t be many vegetables to eat at all, and we don’t really need for there to be. Instead, ruminants like cows have awesome digestive systems that turn cellulose into stuff we can eat – meat & milk – and actually build up topsoil as they produce waste. And, importantly, these cows and other animals would be pretty happy. The only people who should have a problem with killing them humanely are not the welfarist veggies but the ones who think killing is inherently bad/wrong – and, Keith would say, they just need to come to terms with the cold hard fact that the food chain is really a cycle and that we all must taking turns eating and getting eaten.

    A healthy vegetarian diet should probably be low in grains and soy and fairly high in fat (from full fat dairy & eggs, NOT from refined vegetable oils which are terrible). And, as every vegan who thinks vegetarians are inconsistent will tell you, producing dairy products and eggs also involves killing: cows must be kept pregnant in order to lactate (–> veal), and both worn out layer chickens and male chicks are of no use (–> they’re all put down).

    I did find it difficult to eat healthily as a vegan. All of the best fat and protein sources are ruled out. To get enough calories from veggies, you’d have to eat pounds and pounds of them, so you basically have to eat grains and rice. I have kind of unstable blood sugar, and it gave me alot of trouble with hypoglycemia. Fortunately, I didn’t do it long enough to cause any serious problems, and it was worth it because now I am interested in, and more knowledgeable, about nutrition and food issues.

  • Jason Treit wrote:

    I think you’re right that contemporary moral vegetarianism (willfully) undercounts the minimum flesh-and-bone inputs of a diverse, scalable vegetarian diet, compoundingly so if we include eggs, dairy, and enough flesh provisions for those whose diets require them in the calculations.

    This “inescapable fact that all life requires death”, though, does not place every life in the path of every other, nor preclude moral discrimination. Killing something in order to eat its body for pleasure is a different kind of violence than killing something as an expected cost of meeting another need. You could seek a quantitative moral parity between the two (if the numbers supported it), but the qualitative difference would stick. Which is why I predict a shift in allegiances away from veganism as a magnetic ideal and towards a spectrum of promoted choices that provably reduce in-vain animal suffering across diets.

    Anybody read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals yet? The NYT extract was very good.

  • Hi Jason, thanks for stopping by.

    I totally agree with this: “This “inescapable fact that all life requires death”, though, does not place every life in the path of every other, nor preclude moral discrimination. Killing something in order to eat its body for pleasure is a different kind of violence than killing something as an expected cost of meeting another need.” And I like this – “a shift in allegiances away from veganism as a magnetic ideal and towards a spectrum of promoted choices that provably reduce in-vain animal suffering across diets.”

    Of course, the book says alot more about the “life requires death thing,” and I was only extracting a main point. I would highly recommend that you read it. I have “Eating Animals” on my to-read list, have seen it come up on some other blogs I read. So maybe I will review that sometime.

    The moral and nutritional arguments for and against veg*nism can be discussed separately but really are inextricable, because the defensibility of eating animal foods will depend in large part on whether they are nutritionally important/irreplaceable or not. So it’s not clear how much animal food consumption will fall under “eating for pleasure.” Vegans think none, paleo people think ALOT. And, as I’m sure you know, nutrition is one of the most divisive and controversial topics around!

  • Jason Treit wrote:

    Nutrition sets the boundaries of the debate, true, which is why each moral disposition is so eager to push them. I’ll put Keith’s book on my reading list.

  • J Clements wrote:

    “Killing some thing in order to eat its body for pleasure is a different kind of vio lence than killing some thing as an expected cost of meet ing another need. ”

    Who but Hannibal Lecter only kills in order to eat for pleasure alone? How can you separate need from pleasure here? Are we smearing violence and its connotations (human violence) with slaughter?

  • A few responses:

    You say you think that humanism has what it takes to offer up solutions to the world’s problems. I’ll identify a few global problems: poverty and famine, hunger and lack of clear water, men’s violence against women globally, whites’ violence against people of color globally, and genocide, on-going of Indigenous peoples.

    Explain to me please what tools in humanism’s kit will allow for these social/political/ethical matters to be resolved.

    Thanks.

  • I meant to add this:

    You are a patriarchy-denier, it seems. Why? What’s missing from the evidence that men rule the political/economic worlds?

    What is it about gross disrespect against women and harassment and degradation and violation of women that doesn’t spell “a problem with men’s aggression and entitlements to use and abuse women as they see fit”? Where do you find female supremacist societies against which to “balance” the reality of male supremacist ones. Where is your evidence of this happening for millennia?

    The same for white supremacy. Where, in mixed race societies, are there Black supremacist societies where Blacks rule whites and have for centuries?

    You stating you don’t accept something, and referring to it as the author’s bias, doesn’t mean it isn’t your own bias creeping in and obfuscating social truths.

  • […] rapid voluntary depopulation (as predicted or recommended by others concerned with sustainability, such as Lierre Keith), how are we to deal with the brute fact that life as Berry endorses simply cannot be had by all or […]

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