The Vegetarian Myth

Hi Everyone!  Here’s a little review of a book I finished recently.  It’s adapted from a short speech I made in Toastmasters:

After 20 years as a vegan, author Lierre Keith sat at her kitchen table, distraught.  Her health was in shambles, and she had just been told by her doctor that needs to eat meat again to heal.  It was an emotional experience for her, but she was at the end of her rope.  She had caved in and bought a can of tuna fish.  Ms. Keith describes this scene herself in her book, The Vegetarian Myth.

I sat at my kitchen table with a plastic fork.  I didn’t use my silverware or my dishes.  I opened the can.  How could I actually do this?  I broke it down into the tiniest steps.  Pick up the fork. Put the fork in the tuna. I was so desperate.  Pain was the inhabitant of my body, and I was only the shadow it cast.  Lift the fork toward you. I had come to the end.  Open your mouth. And I was so, so tired.

I ate it.

I don’t know how to describe what happened next.  ”I felt like I was coming out of a coma,” one ex-vegan told me.  ”It was like being plugged into a low-voltage battery,” another friend said.  I could feel every cell in my body — literally, every cell — pulsing. And finally, finally being fed.

Oh, god, I thought: this is what if feels like to be alive.

I put my head down and sobbed.

Ms. Keith’s journey started at 16, when she decided to become a vegan.  She grew up in the 60s and 70s, looking up to environmentalist icons like Iron Eyes Cody and Rachel Carson. She had rejected the factory farming model for it’s inhumane treatment of animals and the harm it does to the environment.  However, after twenty years with episodes of low blood sugar, an absent menstrual period, and debilitating back problems, her deteriorating health was one of the main reasons she began to question whether or not it was right for her to be a vegan.  In addition, the difficulties of raising her own garden without the use of animal products led her to see the real consequences of her choices.

The most important elements for healthy soil are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium.  You can get all of these things contained in a simple bag of fertilizer.  Simple, that is, unless you’re a vegan.  Lierre Keith read the label on her fertilizer.  There she saw two important ingredients: blood meal and bone meal.  A traditional source for Nitrogen is blood meal or manure, but using these would violate Ms. Keith’s vegan ethics.  She could get nitrogen synthetically, but the fossil fuels needed to produce it would thwart her desire to be ecologically sustainable.  Phosphorus is another problem.  The traditional source of phosphorus?  Bone meal.  The non-animal source?  Sedimentary rock.  But again, this non-animal source has to be mined and transported, which isn’t exactly a green solution.  Finally, to enrich the earth with Potassium you can use wood ash or cover crops, which are both sustainable and from non-animal sources, but this is a moot point without the other two elements of this important trio.

And then there were the slugs.  They would destroy her garden and eat everything that she tried to plant.  She couldn’t use pesticides, again, because of her moral and ecological views.  Her first solution was something called diatomaceous earth.  It’s organic, so at first glance it seems ok.  However, then Ms. Keith found out how it worked.  It kills soft bellied slugs by cutting them repeatedly, after which they die from dehydration.  So that was out.  There were also copper barriers, but that was much too expensive.  Next, the author tried to pick them off herself and release them to the woods, but she was faced with yet another problem.  The whole reason they were in her garden was because that’s where the food was.  If she put them in the woods, she wouldn’t have to see it, but they would die there too.  The solution she stuck with was this: ducks and chickens.  The chickens she brought in ate anything that moved, including the slugs.  Her duck, whom she named Miracle…well, this is how she described what happened, “One bite of bug and she exploded into quacks of joy: this is what I was born for!  The slugs were history.”

This was the beginning of Ms. Keith’s moral conundrum.  Every life form on this earth evolved in a relationship with other forms of life.  There are predators and prey, grazers and the plants that they graze.  What do animals eat?  Either other animals or plants, or a combination of both.  And what do plants eat?  They don’t just get their energy from the sun, they get their energy from us.  Plants essentially eat animals.  And this is what Ms. Keith learned from her garden.  The food chain is not a line, but a cycle.  To put it very simply, an animal eats a plant, it gets eaten by another animal or dies on it’s own, it decomposes and the plants use this material to nourish themselves and grow, and the cycle starts all over again.  The author had accepted a way of life where she didn’t believe that death was necessary to eat.  However, in growing her garden, she discovered that she had been flouting the cycle of life, and of nature, for years.  In order to grow her food, she realized that it begged for the blood of animals.  In order to save her lettuce from slugs, she had to either kill them herself or have her ducks and chickens root them out and do the killing for her.  Every plant and animal has it’s place in nature, and by industrializing our food supply, we’ve removed ourselves so far from this that we have to relearn where each of these plants and animals should go.  This isn’t just something that meat eaters have to examine, it’s something that vegans and vegetarians must keep in mind as well.

Ms. Keith’s book is split up into three sections, “Moral Vegetarians”, “Political Vegetarians”, and “Nutritional Vegetarians”.  The stories I’ve related above are part of her exploration of the moral reasons to be vegetarian in the first part of her book.  In the sections exploring the political and nutritional reasons for cutting meat out of your diet, she challenges the notions that it’s both environmentally sustainable to eat a vegetarian diet and the fact that it will improve your health.

Do I think it’s impossible to thrive and live on a vegan diet?  I’m not completely convinced of that yet, but I thought this book brought up questions that both vegans and non-vegans should consider.  Questions like, how does an annual crop – like wheat, soybeans, or corn – affect the earth differently than a perennial  - like grass, berries bushes, and trees?  What are the environmental effects of having an industrialized agriculture and farmers only planting one or two crops repeatedly?  How does eating soy affect your body?  What are the nutritional effects of removing animal products from your diet?  This is a fascinating book, and I’ve only told you a portion of it.

As a former vegan herself, Ms. Keith approaches the subject matter with brutal honesty, but also compassion.  I admired this greatly even when I didn’t agree with her politics and values, and she definitely lets you know what these are. This is someone who dedicated herself to a way of life and an ideology that she found crumbling before her eyes.  She could have turned away and ignored the questions that kept coming up in her mind, but instead she bravely faced each one.  We should all use her example to be a little more brave and learn about where our food comes from.

More reviews of this book (some detailing more on the political and nutritional parts of the book):
Review by Dr. Michael Eades
Review at Free the Animal (links to his 4 other mini-reviews as well)

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