A Review of The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability by Lierre Keith
For Lierre Keith , growing her own food led toward eating meat for the first time in 20 years. As a vegan -someone who doesn’t eat meat, eggs, or milk- she wanted to refrain from killing any creature. But eventually, the slugs that invaded her lettuce patch taught her that whether it’s in your back yard or in the California Valley, somebody has to die in order for you to eat.
Through learning about the more than one million living organisms in a tablespoon of soil to the land cleared and rivers diverted for annual monocrops, Keith began her journey toward a more whole understanding of sustainability and her place in the world. Since soil needs the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that comes either from the blood, bones and manure of animals or from fertilizers made from fossil fuels, she was pressed to make a choice to embrace the web of life or distance herself further from it.
The organic garden she created came to include chickens who eat the insects and grubs, and cows that fertilize the land. Combined with perennial polyculture, (plants that come back year after year and whose roots help keep the soil and its nutrients in place) the result was plentiful food and topsoil being created instead of destroyed.
Keith underscores the point that in regards to food security, soil quality is of utmost importance. Because of the damaging effects of industrial agriculture, the topsoil in North America used to be 12 feet deep, but now it can only be measured in inches. Soil needs to eat too, and without animals or fossil fuels which are not sustainable, it becomes dust, unable to support life. “More of the same won’t save us,” she responds to those who advocate a vegetarian diet dependent on grains and monoculturally farmed vegetables.
Approaching the reasons to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle from moral, political and nutritional perspectives, Keith thoroughly explains common misconceptions such as that rather than taking up grain that could feed hungry people, factory farming of animals was made possible with the invention of synthetic fertilizers. Thus, with their function of fertilizing fields obsolete, animals weren’t needed on farms anymore and were put into feedlots. “And then the truly bizarre began to make economic sense: the mountain of corn that the US produced had nowhere else to go but into animals.”
Though heavy on the dark details of the effects of industrial farming, maybe they bear repeating for those who haven’t already read ten books outlining how close we are to the apocalypse. However, it’s in writing about the nutritional aspects of vegetarianism where Keith hits closest to home, describing her own experience with depression, joint degeneration, menstrual cycle imbalances, and hypoglycemia. Here, there are also many eye-openers, such as that cholesterol and saturated fat have zero correlation to heart disease, but are in fact needed for nutrient absorption and serotonin production. She makes it clear by in-depth research how, on the physical plane, a vegan diet can result in a long list of health imbalances such as worn out insulin receptors, bone and joint degeneration, inflammation and unnamed low-level pain, thyroid strain, aggression, depression, and stomach and skin problems. What could have been more emphasized is that everybody's body is different, so that some people can live for years as vegans and feel fantastic, while others like Keith notice their health go down the drain while they hang on to their ideals and underlying emotional and/or spiritual imbalances.
A touchy subject to begin with, the discussion of vegetarianism is intensified since many vegans or vegetarians tend to make not eating meat part of their identity. This book addresses what has become something of an unassailable belief system: that if we only eat vegetables and grains, or only fruit, or even if we become pure enough to exist on air, the world would be a better place -animals would suffer less, people would be healthier and no-one would starve, the earth wouldn’t be dying, the human race would be more evolved.
Courageously calling out for co-operation, of joining forces for a just and sustainable world, The Vegetarian Myth is much more than a book about food. “…In order to save the world we must know it, and the vegetarians don’t, not any more than the rest of the civilized, especially the industrially so,” writes Keith. “We can dominate or we can participate, but there is no way out.” Offering detailed analysis and no easy solutions, this book is in a sense a much-appreciated education in the basics of life for most of us who live distanced from our food supply and have no idea that, for example, cows get sick from eating grain because their stomachs are naturally designed to eat grass.
Of the many vital messages that The Vegetarian Myth brings, perhaps the most fundamental is “Listen to your body.” Doing so requires hearing beyond addictions and what anybody says you should do, and accepting, not punishing, oneself. Starting with welcoming the nutrients and energy of food into our bodies with appreciation, gratitude, and reverence for the energy, water, land and life that contributed to produce it –slugs included- we may begin to achieve the dream of a harmonious world.
You can preview The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability on Google Books.