Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Vegetarian Myth

I recently read The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. I'm not sure what to say about it, but I definitely think it's worth discussing. Written by a former vegan of 20 years, at times it's probably pretty alienating for current vegetarians and vegans (if they can get past the title of course. I found the title slightly embarrassing. Some of my closest friends are vegetarians and I did actually hide the book when they came over. And although it was so well-written that I wanted to read it all the time, I felt very uncomfortable pulling it out in waiting rooms or other public places.)

When I'm reading a book, I often earmark pages I want to come back to for a second look, maybe to quote in a blog post, or to research or ponder something further. This book was so compelling and well-written I think I earmarked every second page. I struggled a bit with her tone, because she did sound patronizing to vegetarians. But her point was that vegetarians already care deeply for their health and the earth; the decision to become vegetarian or vegan more often than not comes from concern for the wider world. But in her view, and she's pretty convincing as far as I'm concerned, that decision is wrong. Vegetarianism will not save the planet and feed its hungry people. Keith also goes into the nutritional side of things, although on this front I was already well convinced. (There's nothing quite like having a malnourished infant to teach you good nutrition.)

She gives evidence of how the human body has evolved for eating more meat than plant matter. And how even if you yourself don't eat dead animal flesh, your soil needs it to grow vegetables. And she also talks about the massive surplus of males that come from dairy and egg production. (An episode of River Cottage touched on how with the veal industry pretty much destroyed by ethical concerns, often male calves are killed within a day or two because modern dairy breeds don't make good beef. This seems like a terrible waste of a life. In that episode, Hugh visited an ethical veal farmer who gives the calves a decent, slightly longer life at least, and I came away feeling like I'm going to consume dairy products, it's only fair to also consume ethically raised veal. Although I haven't yet found a source. I think the same goes for male chicks from modern laying hen breeds. Heritage livestock breeds were often bred to make good meat and dairy or eggs and, depending on the animal, to do field work too, so there was no waste. But modern breeds have been overbred.)

Factory farming animals is wrong in so many horrible ways, but there is another option. Raising animals humanely on pasture improves the soil and converts grasses -- which are inedible to humans -- into human food. Forgive me if I've already linked to this but it seriously blew my mind: raising pastured livestock reverses global warming and desertification. Watch the video about livestock in sub-Saharan Africa. And raising annual monocrops like wheat, soybeans and corn is pretty devastating to the environment. Keith basically blames the last 10,000 years of agriculture and the aggressive and sexist civilization it gave rise to for the dire state of our planet. I found her discussion in this line absolutely fascinating and I couldn't wait to see what she proposed as a solution.

I was disappointed. Perhaps you saw that coming. She didn't really have much of a solution except to eat what grows where you live and to grow at least some of your own food. I think this is sound advice. But she lost me when she talked about the massive die-off of humans that needs to happen to come back to sustainability. I read The Hunger Games at the same time as I started Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, which was a pretty freaky combination. But I would rather do my damnedest to improve things before I or, worse, my kids have to live The Hunger Games.

All that said, The Vegetarian Myth is worth the read. I just wish it offered a better solution and more hopeful prospects.

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