The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability

| January 31, 2012 | 3 Comments

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability

Part memoir, nutritional primer, and political manifesto, this controversial examination exposes the destructive history of agriculture—causing the devastation of prairies and forests, driving countless species extinct, altering the climate, and destroying the topsoil—and asserts that, in order to save the planet, food must come from within living communities. In order for this to happen, the argument champions eating locally and sustainably and encourages those with the resources to grow t

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  1. A. Perri says:
    1,725 of 1,860 people found the following review helpful:
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    Disappointing, May 30, 2010
    By 
    A. Perri (Durham, UK) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability (Paperback)

    I want to be clear about a few things:

    1) I am a female.
    2) I give the idea of this book 5 stars, but its execution 1.
    3) I have been a radical vegan, a rabid meat-eater and everything in between (currently in the in-between)
    4) I am working on an archaeological PhD on hunter-gatherer diets, subsistence, hunting and transition to agriculture.

    I picked this book up after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals”. I thought it would be interesting to read a different perspective on the vegetarian debate. I found Safran Foer’s book to be much more geared towards the inhumane practices of meat while Keith’s book is geared more towards diet/health.

    I admit that it took a very long time for me to get through this book, for several reasons. I purchased this book hoping to get something out of it. I am not an upset vegan who wants to hate it and I am not someone who bought it knowing Id love it. I was just neutral. There were two main reasons for my disappointment with the book. One minor, one major. First, I found the second agendas (specifically the radical feminism) distracting and unnecessary. I have nothing against the feminist agenda, but this wasnt the place to put it. Second, I found the book absolutely riddled with bad information, faulty facts and just plain lazy research (if you can call it ‘research’). As someone who intensively researches these issues on a daily basis, I found myself underlining items on nearly every page that I knew were just plain untrue or were ‘cherry-picked’ facts slanted to give a certain perception. This is such a disappointment as a really great case could be made for the author’s view if she had only put the real work into researching the book properly. Once you lose the reader’s trust that you are providing factual information what do you have? Ill provide examples:

    1) pg. 140: The author states that “Carbon-13 is a stable isotope present in two places: grasses and the bodies of animals that eat grasses”. She goes on to suggest that since there is no evidence of grass “scratch marks” on the human teeth found, that they must have been eating animals. There are many flaws in this thought process. First, I cant even begin to explain the preservation and degradation issues present in examining three million year old teeth for ‘scratch marks’. Second, carbon-13 is an isotope found in ALL terrestrial and marine plants, not just grass. Finding high levels of C3 or C4 (which are what carbon-13 breaks down into) in human teeth only means that that human was eating large amounts of SOME plant, seed, nut, etc. (not JUST grass) or the animal that ate those. It is not as simple as GRASS OR COW.

    2) pg. 142: The author states that there are no bacteria in the human stomach. This is simply untrue. In 2005 Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering a stomach bacteria that causes gastritis and ulcer disease. There are currently over 130 known stomach bacteria.

    3) pg. 146: The author states a “rumor” authored by RB Lee about hunter-gatherers getting 65% of their calories from plants and 35% from meat. She states that this “simply isnt true”. First, this rumor-spreader is one of the most well-respected anthropological/archaeological researchers in hunter-gatherer studies who edited what is considered THE tome on hunter-gatherer theory, ‘Man the Hunter’. He isnt some random hack. Second, saying those numbers ‘simply arent true’ is simply not true. Hunter-gatherers did and do inhabit a huge range of environments and likewise their diets cover a wide range. Some do follow the 65/35% number. Some eat much more meat. Some eat much less.

    These are only three examples from a span of six pages. This pattern continues throughout the entire book. Fact is the authors ‘facts’ just arent believable (which, again, is a shame because a factual book on this topic could be powerful). She writes as if the anthropological and archaeological evidence she quotes is written in stone, when in fact many of these topics are constantly under revision or not well understood yet. Most importantly, I just believe that writing a book and promoting it as a factual, scientific account of a subject when it is not is doing a great disservice to your (mostly) unknowing readers. If you are not willing to put in the real research effort, write a book that is touted as a personal account and nothing more. Selling flubbed facts to people who are truly searching for answers, inspiration or (insert what you are looking for here) is just bad journalism.

    Ill end this review with some facts and encourage any readers (whether you liked the book, hated the book or havent read the book) to always question whether what you are reading is true and to do some research of your own.

    The author cites 207 references in this book.
    62 of those…

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  2. Lucas Rockwood says:
    186 of 229 people found the following review helpful:
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    Vegan Reader Gives 3 Stars, January 31, 2010
    By 
    Lucas Rockwood (Koh Samui, Thailand) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability (Paperback)

    As a vegan (since 2002), I quickly learned that you can’t trust the vegetarians for information as they are just as likely to skew the truth as the Beef or Dairy Boards.

    So I always love to read non-veg writing, and this book was worth reading for sure. Keith has done her homework and has some very interesting insights to share. I usually burn through books in 2-3 days, but it’s taken me a full week to get through this one and I’ve got about 25 dog-eared pages.

    Here’s what was interesting:

    1 – The need to admit that agriculture itself is screwed up and unsustainable (whether veg based or meat based)

    2 – The reality that grains are a pretty bogus basis for a diet.

    3 – The bitter truth that our planet can’t support us, period (veg or non-veg)

    4 – The potential problems with fat soluble vitamins

    (note: if you haven’t read the book yet, the above might not seem that ground-breaking, but seriously, Keith uncovers some new, very compelling stuff).

    Here’s where it was deeply flawed:

    1 – We vegans are so few in numbers, writing a book about us is so uninteresting to most, that it had to became a book about vegetarians (in most countries, they don’t even have a word for vegans, btw).

    But it’s not a book about vegetarians, except in title.

    There are loads of vegetarians, lots of them who don’t give much thought to their diet, and most of whom consume copious amounts of animal products (dairy, eggs). So the Vegetarian Myth is itself a myth that most vegetarians don’t subscribe to. Vegans, yes. We get attacked so often, every vegan I know has had to create a core story to explain “why” (except me… I just shrug and smile). And so it’s no surprise that most vegans catch whatever pitch PETA or John Robbins is throwing their way, and hold on tight.

    But vegetarians are a different group, and it’s (relatively) socially acceptiable in many countries (and I travel a lot) to abstain from meat. And remember, most veggies worldwide actually live/love/worship cows and eat plenty of eggs.

    They don’t dream of a farm animal-less world like the author was looking for (and I too have tried to imagine in the past… not possible, of course). They dream of cows and chickens in Central Park, or a small New England farmhouse where they make their own butter… the Charlotte’s Web thing where Wilbur never dies.

    But in truth, most veggies don’t dream about anything in relation to Vegetarianism as they’ve simply discovered that they feel lighter if they drink milk and skip the beef. Or they read an article about some celebrity that’s a veggie, so they’re trying it out. Or they want to lose weight. Or whatever other (totally valid) personal/religious reason that has little or nothing to do with HUGE issues like sustainability and long-term nutrition.

    With that in mind, much of what Keith is writing about really has nothing to do with vegetarians, just vegans. And the distinction between the two group is huge. And the relevance of that latter (the vegans), is minimal. To call vegans a minority is an understatement… within 10 years, Boeing will come out with a plane that can fit all of us inside. With such a small group, a disconnected and understudied group, it’s nearly impossible to come to any conclusions that are not anecdotal at best.

    2 – Keith spends a lot of time dogging vegans, suggesting their low-fat, low-protein diets make them angry and aggressive. Interestingly, the vocal vegan movement in most cities is almost always run by already-angry types: the punk rockers, the straightedge youth, the outcasts etc. My theory is these kids (most of the vocal vegan community is very young) were already pissed off at life already and then they found out they could be pissed off at EVERYONE about food. Which came first, the anger or the vegan?

    Keith also suggest that most vegan are clueless and don’t look at the entire big, global picture. This, I’m afraid, it the gospel truth. But there are a growing minority of us who know EXACTLY what’s going on – environmentally, socially, nutritionally – and we continue not because we’re ignorant, but because (a) we’ve figured out how to eat plants in a way that makes us exceptionally healthy even without meat (it’s not something you figure out intuitively by-the-way), and (b) we feel that someone needs to play this role right now in the world. You could call this ideological, but I think it’s just reality. The yin to the yang…

    And finally, the true narrative of the book is one of self rejection, not self discovery. Every quality in stereotypical vegans that Keith now so clearly despises – their self-righteousness, their anger, their suffering – all of those qualities are so clearly her own qualities (and probably her greatest gifts if positioned…

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  3. Joan Howe "joanhello" says:
    239 of 296 people found the following review helpful:
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    A few caveats, August 22, 2009
    By 
    Joan Howe “joanhello” (Northampton MA USA) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability (Paperback)

    I’m not going to summarize the book. That’s been done well in earlier reviews. This is just a description of some of my issues with the book.

    The author interweaves her deepening political and environmental understanding – looking at the whole picture and realizing that pretty much everything in the supermarket, not just the meat, is produced by methods that make the world a crueler, more polluted and, worst of all, less sustainable place, and that to avoid contributing to the problem calls for much more radical solutions than merely leaving the animal products out of your diet – with her own story of worsening health on a vegan diet followed by recovery when she began to eat meat again. This is where my first caveat comes up: she implies, without coming right out and saying, that her vegan diet was also a low-fat diet. I have also been vegan for long periods of my life (although never the decades that she logged) and it was only during the last one, from 2004-2006, that I experienced the slight beginnings of the back problems she describes. No coincidence: that was the one where I went low-fat as well as vegan and actually lost my ability to digest fat. Fortunately I got an accurate diagnosis promptly, got nutritional therapy to regain my ability to digest fat, and lost the back pain within a year. In the latter half of her Nutritional Vegetarianism chapter, she devotes several pages to challenging the demonization of dietary fat by the mainstream medical community. Nevertheless, she continues to attribute her health problems mainly to lack of meat rather than lack of fat.

    With my newfound understanding of the necessity of dietary fat, and in the context of my ongoing involvement with the radical food movement, I realized that if you want to be healthy and live in a temperate climate you can either be a locavore or a vegan but not both because temperate-climate plant foods just aren’t fatty enough. Lierre Keith has chosen to stay in Massachusetts. Therefore this woman, so tenderhearted that she went through an extended moral agony over whether and how to kill the slugs that were eating her garden to the ground, now looks for what the radical diet community calls the happy meat, sustainably and humanely raised, not part of the factory farm system. In arguing for this choice, she digs deep into several technical subjects: ecology (with a particular emphasis on species extinction and habitat destruction for croplands), evolutionary biology, nutrition, anthropology, geology. I find her sources and her use of them pretty solid except for the last one. She really does seem to think that petroleum is dead dinosaurs and she considers genuinely possible that bogus theory that “[i]f all the methane is released from the melted permafrost…the planet [will be] hotter than Venus [and] there won’t even be bacteria left; yes we can kill the planet.” I wish someone had told her that there have been a few periods in the history of the Earth when all the permafrost was melted and the methane presumably released from it and there were enough bacteria to leave traces in the fossil record, not to mention descendants including ourselves. On the other hand, she seems to know the anthropological record pretty well and is admirably free of Noble Savage fantasizing. She acknowledges that a number of sustainable traditional societies are nevertheless, by our standards, profoundly unjust, particularly to women. If you idolize the Australian Aborigines and want to continue doing so, don’t read this book.

    As the book goes along she begins to weave in her other concerns, the ones on which her career as a writer is based: radical feminism, racial equality, the peace and justice movement. She also introduces, without actually naming it, the Peak Oil hypothesis: that we really are facing societal collapse on account of declining petroleum production within fifty years, and it’s time now, while we still have the resources, to start preserving what we can of our culture and our values.

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