Review: The Vegetarian Myth – food, justice, sustainability by Lierre Keith


A few weeks ago i finished reading Lierre Keith’ book The Vegetarian Myth – food, justice, sustainability – a powerful and very angry manifesto against the vegetarian/vegan diet. While I still have trouble digesting some of the information, I have to say, she does a great job collecting lots of facts, that I might already have read somewhere or other, but in their combination these facts form an argument that makes a very strong case.

I have been a vegetarian for 25 years, and as far as health, at least anything to do with food and nutrition, i am doing perfectly fine with this diet. I am fully aware that for some people (very often for women) it is not the most healthy choice to go vegetarian, I remain convinced that it is possible for many of us to eat lacto-ovo vegetarian diets and have no health issues what so ever. This would be a first point, where i disagree with Keith. She argues that this is inconceivable, anyone will start to run into health issues on this diet. If we limit her claim to the vegan diet, i would agree with her. But a smart vegetarian life style, eating local, seasonal food, supplemented with b12 vitamins, enough raw milk products and eggs, no problem.

I still believe, as has been my conviction for the last 25 years, that if more people would move towards a vegetarian diet, this would be beneficial for our planet from an ecological point of view. I would not impose strict vegetarian diets on anyone, but i think to limit meat intake to a few times per week, would help our planets ecosystem. For me personally, even if i wanted to get back to eating meat, i simply could not do it. I gag even thinking about it, the smell of burned meat repels me, the sight of it as well. I just do not like meat nor fish. Nor does my body seem to miss it. So why force myself?

Keith makes a compelling argument that big agriculture is just as harmful, if not more so, than the loathed meat industry. Of course it is horrendous how big agriculture depletes our top soil and how it bases its succes on fertilizer made from fossil fuels. When and if fossil fuels run out, our top soil will turn to dust. After reading her book, soy and corn/wheat are definitely no longer a valid option. This is where here argumentation holds up strongest. From an ecological point of view soy and corn do not make sense at all, the ecological foot print they produce is huge. and many vegans and vegetarians do base their diets on soy and wheat, thus contributing to the negative effects they have on our environment.

Where i have a real problem with her argumentation is when she seems to suggest that the solution would be for everyone to go back to keeping some live stock, to use their manure to build up the top soil and eat the meat. We simply do not have the space for this model to work, the planet is much too crowded. She ignores the green house effect associated with live stock and the water wasted to raise them. But i agree with her that the statistics we often hear quoted by vegetarians, how many calories in grains are used to produce calories in meat, these are based only on meat industry practices, while live stock kept to eat grass would show very different numbers.

So where do i stand? Much less soy. Much less corn (except my dear, lovely, home grown sweet corn). I am still vegetarian. But i would never ever blame anyone for a reasonable meat consumption.

I want to finish by quoting a small excerpt from the book [page 266 -267]:

So if you need your personal fix, here are the three most effective things you can do.

Refrain from having children. That’s far and away the single most powerful lifestyle choice you can make for the planet. Understand there are at least six billion more people than the plant can support already here. I’m speaking as someone who likes children. I’ve got a green card in Narnia [...]. I’ve had the longing that feels like a physical ache. Never mind my mother’s craven lust for grandchildren. Yes, it’s sad, but what humans are doing to the planet, the endgame of ten thousand years of human entitlement, is much worse than sad. The children of polar bears are now starving to death on the shrinking ice. The children of amphibians as a genera are about to go extinct. The nonexistant children of the already extinct flowering plants in Szechuan are gone because humans have eradicated their pollinators. That’s 130 million years of evolution we’ve wiped from the planet. We have to measure our personal longings against the damage to our home and we have to let that damage be real to us, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. It’s hard to do this when our immediate needs are being met: the lights are on, the cupboards are full. Still, that is our adult knowledge now, and our final adult task.

Number two is to stop driving a car. You’ll quickly discover the structural impediments to car-free living. The entire built environment has been rearranged for the demands of the automobile, demands that are completely at odds with the needs of human community. Us Americans use much more fossil fuel than Europeans, not just because we are fixated on our individual entitlements, but because we were foolish enough to let suburbs, with their segregated distances between home, work and material goods like food, become our dominant living pattern. This pattern, with all its immense investment in infrastructure , will collapse as the oil age dribbles to a close. [...]

Number three is to grow your own food. The two thousand miles that your average bite travels has to shrink to walking distance before the oil runs out and the temperature rises any higher. Your backyard is as good as it gets. When you’re hungry enough, your dogs and cats will be replaced by pigs and chickens, and your sterile monocrop of lawn will become a polyphonous and intimate tumble of food. You’ll learn what i did about nitrogen and soul, animals and plants, or eventually be left with dead dust. Teach yourself, your friends, your neighbors: a few of them are nervous. The rest will join soon enough.

That i’ll subscribe.

About Jan Zuppinger

Jan Zuppinger has been writing this blog since 2002. He likes to grow vegetables. He likes to eat them too. He has opinions on everything, but sadly no one cares. Jan Zuppinger is not joking, just joking, he is joking, just joking, he's not joking. *click.