Monday, 25 January 2010

Review: The Vegetarian Myth

Lierre Keith has recently published an enlightening and provocative book called "The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability". The book takes a hard, scientific look at various arguments for vegetarianism and veganism. It also examines many of the moral and ethical arguments for this lifestyle, and asks whether a vegetarian diet is truly consistent with those values. The book is also about a personal journey for the author, who was herself a vegan for many years, and ran into serious health problems on account of this. Finally, it is a call to arms, to defend the planet and the environment, against those who would give it no quarter.

The author takes on vegetarianism in three main sections. The first looks at moral arguments for vegetarianism, including the desire to avoid death and suffering. She agrees with reducing suffering, but by looking more deeply at agricultural methods, and the co-evolution of species, she counters that avoiding death is an impossible (and counter-productive) task. She then tackles political arguments for vegetarianism, including the desire to reduce hunger and improve sustainability. She agrees with these goals, but argues that a vegetarian diet, and the agricultural methods needed to provide it, are entirely in opposition to such goals. Finally she addresses arguments that a vegetarian diet is healthier and more nutritious. Through the use of logic, and extensive reference to scientific studies and trials, she makes some persuasive arguments in favour of an omnivore diet, with a strong preference for meat and other animal products.

The book is more than just a scientific critique, though. The author was herself a vegan for twenty years, driven by idealism and a strong desire for justice and sustainability. During this period she suffered significant permanent damage to her health. She documents her long struggle with ideology on the one hand, and the scientific reality of nature as she truly is, on the other. Though the book covers very serious topics, she manages to introduce a sense of humour from time to time as she talks about her trials and tribulations, especially when learning to grow her own food.

The book is also a call to action. The author takes an unapologetically radical stance and argues that our current economic and social system, even civilization itself, as we have come to know it, is the problem, and needs to confronted and resisted, by all possible means.

Moral Vegetarians
It is important to note that the author goes to great pains to make the point that she is not opposed to the ethics or morals of most vegetarians and vegans. Indeed she shares those beliefs passionately, which is why she adopted such an extreme diet in her own life. Her argument is that ideology has triumphed over reality, and we need to base our decisions on sound science. She says:
What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment. It’s information.
To demonstrate this, she gives some examples of the profound lack of knowledge about ecology and general biology many vegetarians have. She relates the incredible story about a western vegetarian who made a posting on a web forum suggesting that fences be established throughout Africa in order to separate predators from prey. Even worse, he suggested that all the carnivores could eat grass instead (which of course they can't, as the author points out, only ruminants can digest grass). Apparently, fellow forum posters didn't find this outrageous, and many chimed in with their support for this idea. One need only watch the occasional nature documentary to recognize the folly here, assuming common sense is insufficient.

This worldview shows the type of cult-like thinking that some groups can descend into. Of course, predators and prey are all part of a healthy ecosystem. Without the predators, the prey population can explode, which can lead to overgrazing and other problems. It goes beyond that, though, as the author points out, there is not just a food chain, but a food circle. Animal waste, such as manure, feeds plants and helps them grow, which provides more food for animals. Many plants require animals for their pollination, and some animals have evolved to depend on a single plant species for food. And when animals finally die, including us, we feed the soil. Everything is interconnected.

The main problem, according to the author, is the desire by vegetarians and vegans to avoid death. By not eating animals, the theory goes, one is taking the moral high ground and avoiding being the cause of death. Note that in the case of factory farms, there's no dispute, the author agrees completely that these are cruel and unnatural and should be banned. But if we don't eat animals, that means all our food comes from agriculture. This is where the author spends much of her time in this section. She argues that agriculture is the cause of not only massive death, but the extinction of countless species and the general destruction of the natural environment.

For food to grow, of course, we need soil. A small section of soil can contain millions of creatures and thousands of different species, it is not just "dirt". Soil is naturally built up over thousands of years as species die and are broken down and absorbed by tiny creatures. Animals and plant waste, and their remains, all contribute to this. Nothing is wasted. Agriculture means clearing the land of all the native plants and animals so that annual crops can be planted. We humans want annual crops because they produce large seeds that are worth harvesting for food. But by relying only on annuals, we degrade the soil so that eventually nothing will be able to grow, and the land could even turn to desert.

The author makes a point of distinguishing between plants that live a long time (years, decades, or sometimes even hundreds or thousands of years), and those that live for only a single year. The former are called perennial polyculture. In other words, many different plant species, living a long time, and supporting an ecosystem of many different animal and insect species. Annuals cannot grow in such environments, but they don't need to. They lie in wait, sometimes for hundreds of years, until the coast is clear. Fires, floods, or other natural events will eventually expose the soil, and this is when annuals spring to life. They usually live only a single season, so they must grow quickly, and then discard large seeds that can lie in wait for the next opportunity. They fill a temporal ecological niche, and they also serve an important function. Their roots protect the soil and ensure it is not blown away or carried away by flooding. Their growth also ensures the soil isn't exposed to too much sun for extended periods, which could result in the soil drying out.

But humans want the annuals for their large seeds, so that means we clear the land, plough the fields, and plant the seeds. What happens to the plants and animals that used to live there? On a small scale, they could move elsewhere. On a large scale, they simply become extinct. There goes the idea of agriculture being free of death, the author notes. In many areas, though, agriculture requires more water than is provided by ambient rainfall. This means irrigation, which means damming and diverting rivers. This allows the crops to grow, but leaves entire ecosystems barren and dying as rivers and streams dry up. Yet more species gone. Finally, the soil itself degrades, since there are no new nutrients to feed it, and after a period the entire area becomes infertile, and dries out. The birthplace of Western civilization is in southern Iraq, which textbooks still refer to as the Fertile Crescent. Today, of course, it is only desert.

I can only touch on the topic in this review, but the author's point is clear, I think. All life requires death. Predators feed on prey, prey feed on plants, and soil feeds on all of us. This is natural and sustainable, and it is how ecosystems evolved. Agriculture, though, destroys life in a way that is permanent and unsustainable. In either case, it is impossible to have a diet that is free from death. Vegetarians who believe this may be well intentioned, but they don't understand nature and their arguments are often naive and disconnected from reality.

Political Vegetarians
The author begins this section with the standard arguments I've heard many times myself, and had not really questioned. Meat requires several times more resources than grain, therefore it's unsustainable, and it also generates more carbon emissions. Meat requires more water, more energy, more food, and more land. An order of magnitude more grain is needed to feed animals to produce meat compared to humans just eating the grain itself directly. How can we possibly justify this when many in the world are starving? The stats are convincing, and, despite some small quibbles, essentially accurate. But they start with a false premise, that is, animals should be fed grain. In fact, ruminants, such as cows, evolved to eat grass, not grain, and they cannot digest this properly. Indeed it is actually harmful to them and causes severe health problems. Of course, they are killed and butchered before this becomes relevant, so it's easy to ignore.

I won't go into the statistics, but the author presents some convincing evidence that, given a proper diet of grass, either in a pasture, or within a natural ecosystem, meat "production" (if we must refer to it that way) consumes no more resources than the production of grain, and in some cases, may use less. When you consider that many areas of the world aren't suited to agriculture anyway (which is only possible now because of energy-intensive industrial methods), and many animals have valuable secondary products (such as milk), the ratio can be turned on its head. That's without considering the fact that cows on pastures can build soil, while grain monocrops destroy it.

Animals raised naturally do not require external inputs of water or energy. They feed on what grows within the ecosystem, and they contribute back to it. The water they consume is also expelled and fertilizes the soil. The only source of this water is precipitation, so no rivers have to be diverted. No fossil fuel energy is needed to run machinery or to produce fertilizer. The entire cycle is self-contained and self-sustaining. We are part of this cycle, of course, so we can eat these animals and there will always be more, as long as we do not over hunt. The soil also builds up, which means carbon dioxide is absorbed. When viewed this way, meat looks a lot more sustainable than grain.

This chapter also gets into many of the reasons why grain production is so high, and what impact this has had on world food production, especially in the third world. One of the points made is that in the West, farmers receive large subsidies for growing grain, because it is so cheap that selling it does not provide enough income for them to stay in business. This just means an even larger supply, which depresses prices further. Then, much of this grain is dumped on the third world, at prices that undercut what local subsistence farmers can sell for. So, these farmers abandon the land and move to the cities (or in many cases, commit suicide). So, we have a growing number of urban poor, and fewer and fewer people working the land. This makes it much harder for third world nations to feed themselves, and makes them dependent on the West.

The author gives many example of hunter-gatherer societies that were able to live sustainably for thousands of years. However, I found it refreshing to note that she does not view these societies through rose-coloured glasses, as many modern primitivists do. While there were many tribes that lived in an egalitarian way, there are also many that didn't. She gives many specific examples of tribes where women were treated brutally, raped and poorly fed. Some tribes practiced infanticide. The author rightly distinguishes gender relations, and social justice, from sustainable practices. You can have a patriarchal society that is sustainable, or an egalitarian society that degrades the environment. The goal is not to model our lives on a past hunter-gatherer society, but to learn what lessons we can from them.

Nutritional Vegetarians
As someone who has never been a vegetarian, I didn't expect the third section on nutritional vegetarians to be as interesting as the first two. I was surprised, however, to find this section both fascinating from a scientific point of view as well as devastating to those making arguments in favour of a vegetarian diet. This section also gave me the "warm and fuzzies" since I generally eat an old fashioned meat, potatoes and salad dinner, with plenty of butter. I also never drink pop (I usually stick with milk) and rarely eat sweets, mainly because I was raised that way. It made me feel good to know the food my parents and grandparents fed me was nice and healthy, just as I had always thought. I also found some of the section quite sad and depressing when I read the stories about people who had caused serious damage to their health or the health of their children, often through the best of intentions, including the author herself.

The author begins by looking at the anthropological evidence. By examining bones and other evidence scientists know that at least since Australopithecines, an early form of human that lived 4 million years ago, we have eaten meat, and we are very well adapted to it. Meat has much more nutrients than plants, and it is much more nutrient-dense. The human brain requires a lot of energy, and it is a diet of meat that allowed our brains to grow to the current size. Our digestive tracts also shrank 60 percent during this period. Contrast this to gorillas, who have small brains and much larger digestive systems. Gorillas, of course, are vegetarian.
Humans cannot directly digest the cellulose in plants. This is why we eat the creatures that can. We get our solar energy third-hand. First, the plants photosynthesize, then other animals eat the plants, and finally we eat them. We've lived and eaten this way for millions of years. Also, plants cannot move to avoid predators, so they protect themselves in other ways, primarily by producing toxic chemicals. This is why we need to cook and process foods such as grain, wheat and potatoes. Cows can eat grass because they have four stomachs, and a long and intensive digestive process. Humans and other carnivores cannot do this.

Until the development of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago, we did not eat these foods. The anthropological evidence also clearly shows that after agriculture was adopted, the size and height of humans declined, due to malnourishment. The bones also show evidence of many new diseases which are completely absent prior to this period. Hunter-gatherers generally worked only about 17 hours a week. Agriculturalists instead have to work very long hours doing back-breaking labour. Their reward for this work is a poorer source of food, less nutrition, and more disease.

Aside from anthropology, the author makes reference to many studies into local indigenous groups, from around the world, during the past century, and they all conclude the same. These groups were generally disease-free so long as they stuck with their traditional food sources. Cancer, especially, was virtually unknown. Once these groups began to become assimilated and eat modern food, however, the rate of disease shot up. One example is the Inuit, who despite getting 80 percent of their food from animals products, did not experience cancer. A 1952 study by Queen's University in Ontario concluded:
It is commonly stated that cancer does not occur in Eskimos, and to our knowledge no case has so far been reported.
We are frequently told by the media that a high-fat diet is bad and a low-fat diet is healthy. However, this is based on just a few studies that were not well-controlled, and where the data was cherry-picked to match the desired conclusion. The author cites study after study, from many prestigious organizations and journals, that completely disprove this. This includes the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, The New England Journal of Medicine, the British Medical Journal and The Lancet. Time and time again, those on low-fat diets were shown to have worse health, and those who ate more fat were healthier and had less incidence of heart disease. The author notes:
In 2006, the American Cancer Society said flat out that “there is little evidence that the total amount of fat consumed increases cancer risk.”
The New England Journal of Medicine has done many studies on breast cancer and diet. Their conclusion: the less fat women eat, the higher the likelihood of breast cancer.
In 1999, another installment was published, and dietary fat was still protecting women from breast cancer. “For every 5 percent of saturated-fat calories that replaced carbohydrates in the diet, the risk of breast cancer decreased by 9 percent.” The National Cancer Institute found the same protection from breast cancer in saturated fat.
In other words, carbs are bad for us, fat is good. It appears as though this is not really a controversial issue within the scientific and medical community, yet in the media, it is a different story. In the rest of this section, the author goes on to provide a mountain of evidence showing that a vegetarian diet, and especially a vegan one, are very bad for our health. She also provides detailed scientific explanations of why this should be, and how it is connected to our biology and our evolution. She also spends a lot of time discussing the growing use of soy and tofu by many vegetarians. These products go beyond being just unhealthy, they are literally poisonous. A lot of detail, as well as some sad stories, paint the full picture.

A Personal Journey
Throughout all the arguments and scientific data, the author tells her own personal story of how she came to learn these facts for herself, and what they meant for her life. She tells the story of how at a very young age she felt a deep connection to nature and was already concerned about how humans were damaging the planet and the life on it. She was appalled by the suburban sprawl in which she lived. Vegetarians and vegans had a simple message, and a simple answer. She embraced this and became a vegan. 

Some of the most moving parts of the story are when the author talks about her growing awareness of the health impacts of her diet. She talks about being tired all the time, and needing to rest frequently, and then seeing pictures of healthy native people with perfect teeth, right to the end. She mentions the terrible realization that she has done these things to herself, and that must have been a truly bitter pill to swallow. Denial is a very strong defence mechanism, and a painful one to overcome. In another section she talks about how she would sometimes collapse in a heap on the floor if she couldn't find her keys, as a result of a chemical imbalance caused by her diet. These are certainly difficult things to talk about, but she makes it quite clear that one of her goals is to help others who are in a similar situation. She hopes that others can learn from her mistakes.

One thing I find interesting about the author's story is that after twenty years of being a vegan, though a more and more reluctant one towards the end, she took the brave, and rare, decision to update her beliefs to match reality, rather than modifying reality (at least in her mind) to match her beliefs. Yet she also held to her core morals and values. Vegetarianism might not be the answer, but the question remains the same: How do we save the environment, and stop those who seek to destroy it?

A Call to Arms
The analysis presented in this book is clearly not intended solely as an academic exercise. Nor is it an attempt to persuade the intended readership to change their political beliefs. A lot of effort has been expended on convincing those who already agree with the author's general position (protection of the environment) to re-evaluate their beliefs. Without an understanding of how nature works, and the impacts of human activities on it, any efforts to protect the environment will be ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst.

The author points out that lifestyle changes, or consumer choices, are never going to save the planet. Buying a hybrid car, or changing lightbulbs, is not going to make much of a difference. The author does suggest three things we can do at a personal level, however. First, she suggests not having children, because there are already too many people and we are over carrying capacity. Second, get rid of your car. Instead of buying a hybrid, walk, bike or take transit. The third suggestion is to grow your own food. Even this won't be enough, but this is a good starting point.

The author's main argument, though, is that the focus needs to be on organized political resistance. Without challenging power, and fundamentally changing how we do things, and how our society is organized, nothing significant can truly be accomplished. She suggests that if we cannot be directly involved in this work, we should at least provide support to those who are doing it. This is clearly a radical call, but given the state of the world, it is hard to find much fault in it.

While I am already fairly educated in environmental matters, I learned a lot from this book. For those interested in sustainability, it provides some essential information. For those who may not be interested in politics, it is also very valuable from a health perspective, and can hopefully help people to improve their health and the health of their children. Taken as a whole, though, it is a pretty big wake up call. We are being challenged to re-examine much of what we have been taught growing up, and much of what many of us simply take for granted.

I think one of the main strengths of the book is its focus on science over ideology. The scientific method is the only method we know of that can lead to reliable and verifiable facts about the world, or in other words real knowledge. But science can only tell us what is not what should be. Without accurate information, we cannot develop effective strategies. But we also need morals and ethics to tell us where we want to go. We create our own values, and it is we who decide what is right and what is wrong, and what is important and what is not. Justice and sustainability require both moral commitment, and scientific understanding. This book supplies both.

I highly recommend this book for anyone concerned about the environment, and the world our children and grandchildren will live in. It is also clearly targeted at those interested in vegetarianism or already living that lifestyle, and I would recommend anyone in that category to set aside their preconceptions and give the book a chance. You can get more information about the book and the author at her website.

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