Review - Vegetarian Myth

Over 3 months ago now, a friend asked me to read Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth (buy/preview) and to let him know my thoughts (thanks Laurence). It's a fairly tightly written book, so my notes eventually turned into a full-on review, and then I thought, why not put that up on the web to add to the debate?
I enjoyed the book. I think it is correct in almost all of its criticisms of the SAD and our current way of life (and ill-health) in the West. As a vegetarian, I also found the book's critique of vegetarian philosophy and thinking to be, mostly,  constructive and respectful. What follows is my attempt to do two things, chapter by chapter: First, to say where I agree with the book's points. Second, to say where I think the book is either wrong, or making claims that can't be confidently asserted with the current literature.
I am not a nutritionist, so everything in this review should be taken as the opinion of an interested layman only.

Chapter 2
Keith states that she had built her
"whole moral system—and built my whole
identity—on the idea that my life did not require death."
So she was young, and naive, and then realised she was wrong. It's a false dichotomy to pretend that therefore we shouldn't try to be as little destructive and murderous as we can, just because to live, we require death. This is a non-argument. She paints a picture of city-bred vegans unaware of the topsoil's need for animal matter to nourish the plants. Fair enough, those people exist, but they are not the people driving the permaculture movement or reading the Bill Mollison books. If you have an allotment or back garden growing anything more than leafy greens, you know blood'n'bone is needed for healthy plants and a bumper crop. This is a straw man attack.
The same can be said of her account of vegans who want to intervene to end predation in nature. Such people are no more mainstream vegetarians than Jehovah's Witness cultists, with their picture-books of vegetarian lions in the garden of Eden, are mainstream Christians.

The idea that the switch to a grain-based diet came about partly due to the addictive qualities of grain and milk is a strong hypothesis.  On the other hand, the argument that monocropped grasses are a root cause of our current problems is utterly perverse. Keith writes
"This is what agriculture is: you take a piece of land and you clear every living thing off it, down to the bacteria. Then you plant it to human use with a tiny handful of species, often endless miles of a single plant like corn".
True. But in the US, 55% of corn is fed to livestock, so most of the issues flowing from grain monocropping have, as their underlying cause, our overconsumption of animal foods. When Keith states that the march of monocropping cannot be sustainably continued, she is correct, but she misses out that most of the rainforest destruction happens so we can feed soybeans and corn to cattle. The next 35 pages is a litany of the evils the kind of monocropping where annual grasses are grown using fossil-fuel fertilisers and watered by diverting rivers and emptying aquifers - I've no quibble about the effects at all, I just see them primarily as the effects of beef farming, of which grain monocropping is primarily a symptom.
I agree with Keith that permaculture (basically - permaculture and allied technologies anyway) is the way forward for sustainable production of the kinds of food on which we can lead healthy, happy lives.

However, the sentence "Chickens and ducks were the permaculture answer, in complete opposition to the vegan answer" neatly encapsulates a bait'n'switch which I feel runs through the entire book - namely attacks on veganism, in a book with "vegetarian" on the cover. You're either attacking one diet or the other, and there's a world of difference between them (honey, cheese, yoghurt, milk, eggs, butter...) My early childhood  was spent on a working croft on a Northern island off Scotland in the 1970s. Our neighbours farmed, my parents farmed. Our neighbours were omnivorous, and my parents were vegetarian - yet most of the calories in all their diets came from the same sources: Potatoes, eggs and  dairy, mainly (not that the neighbours wouldn't have eaten more meat and fish if they could've afforded to). My point is this: If Keith is arguing for a future based on sustainable permaculture principles, it is disingenuous to pretend vegetarianism doesn't work well: Smallholders only slaughter goats when they stop giving milk, and hens when they stop laying - any other approach is just throwing away calories. If a hen lays eggs for a few years, the potential calories (and etxra protein, EFAs etc) from eating the hen at the end of her laying career is small beer compared to the calories in a few years' worth of eggs - it's a fairly small change in approach to instead feed her body to one of the farm dogs and adopt an (ovo-, lacto-) vegetarian diet for oneself. Again, false dichotomy.

This mixing up of what it means to be vegetarian as opposed to vegan happens too often through the book for it not to begin to seem deliberate. Sometimes the switch happens within the same paragraph, for example on p69: "The only thing standing in the way of true sustainability was their vegetarianism. Because they could easily have been self-sufficient for food. The goats and pigs were already on site, already eating food that actually grows in upstate New York. If they’d bred the does and the sows, and let the fowl reproduce, they would have had a supply of meat, milk, and eggs". [emphasis mine]
How does "vegetarianism" stand in the way of "milk and egg" consumption? It doesn't.

Keith goes on to link the ascetic/denialist current within the vegan movement to the decidedly non-immanent attitude of Western Christianity. I can see that makes sense. On the other hand, humans, as part of nature, are both decidedly omnivorous and decidedly wide-ranging - living everwhere from raft-villages in the Bay of Bengal to the middle of the Sahara desert and the West coast of Greenland, via the lush jungles and prairies of other landmasses - all with decidedly different relative abundances of meat, fish, fowl, fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, and (since domestication, anyway) grains. As such it seems to me almost as irrational as breatharianism to argue that we can't safely vary our diet. One look at our dentition is enough to see that we are generalists, when it comes to food choices (note - later in the book, Keith tries to argue that our dentition and digestive processes indicate we're designed to have a similar diet to dogs. I feel there is a fair amount of selective anatomical comparison in this section too).

Later in the chapter Keith implies that only a childish morality tries to evade responsibility for death.
I think she is right, but then she tries to tie all vegetarian dietary choices to this childish attitude:
"a vegetarian ethic will fail to produce a sustainable culture"
What rubbish. Traditions such as Jainism have 3,000 years of thoughtful avoidance of direct causation of death as a reasoned life-choice. Vegetarianism doesn't have to involve kidding yourself that you're outside nature's red-in-tooth-and-claw food web - it can mean choosing to minimise direct personal responsibility for deaths, especially of higher animals. For example: Yes, drinking milk means that male cows will die, but compared to the proportion of a male cow's 430 pounds of edible meat in a quarterpounder, a 200ml serve of milk in a glass is only 1/20th the proportion of a dairy cow's 4,800 litre milk output from one lactation cycle. You can halve that again as 1 calf in 2 will be female (and therefore not sent to the slaughterhouse) meaning that, gramme for gramme, milk consumption directly causes the death of around 1/40th as many cattle as eating beef. On a well-run permaculture farm, good uses can be found for the muscle-power of a proportion of the male cattle too - running waterpumps or presses, pulling carts and so on, which takes the proportion down to something like 1/50th, and reduces fossil-fuel dependency at the same time. Keith herself argues passionately that decisions in this area are about practicalities and not moral absolutes, and I agree. I am pleased that my practical life choices should kill 1/50th as many higher animals as beef eaters' choices.

The final part of chapter 2 deals with the need to remove sentimentality from the debates about animal and human behaviour. I think I agree with every single point Keith makes in this section. No quibbles. In particular, I think her point that the act of consuming any given category of food leaves the consumer with the moral burden of living in such a way that the source of the food consumed remains sustainable is a powerful, unanswerable argument.

Chapter 3

Keith opens the chapter arguing that critics of factory farming should be careful not to confuse criticising factory farmed and prairie NPK-monocultured  meat with criticism of meat generally. I mostly agree, and I have no issue with people choosing to eat meat farmed in a more sane, sustainable way.

She moves on to discuss the necessity to grow food that is appropriate to the locale it's grown in, and in particular discusses Northern New England (the American one, not the Australian one). To me there seems to be a big contradiction here. First, she argues that we can't keep growing corn, and feeding it to cattle. Then, she argues that if the cattle were raised on grass instead of corn, the water requirements per kilo of beef would fall from around 5000 litres of water to around 60. She correctly points out that the grain is grown unsustainably in the midwest. Artificially irrigated, and then trucked miles using fossil fuels. However, she doesn't explain where the calorie shortfall is going to come from when we take away all the head of cattle currently grown with those grain calories - a quick glance at the size of the so-called grain states on a map of the USA will show you that some increases in output in the rolling grasslands (from a shift to permaculture-type farming, say) is not going to make up the enormous shortfall.
"animals integrated into appropriate polycultures destroy nothing"
Beautiful sentiments, but not a recipe for the coming 100 years as we try to get from 10 billion people down to a sustainable number without famine or genocide.

Keith's next target is the corruption and distortion in the food market caused by vertically integrated food-combines like ConAgra having congress in their pocket. Again, not much to argue with here - that's a prime cause of the mess the planet is in, and the mess our Western diet is in. I'd argue that to unpick the mess we're in though, you have to solve the problem from the opposite end than where Keith starts from: You can't turn off the tap of cheap, subsidised animal food until people are eating less meat (55% of corn feeds animals, remember). Therefore, reduced meat consumption has to come first, and re-engineering the farming of animals and plants second. Otherwise it's a choice between famine or genocide when you take those fossil-fueled calories out of the equation.

Chapter 4

Perhaps a core part of this debate comes down to convictions about the percentage of calories in the paleolithic diet likely to have come from large animal sources. Personally I'd go for a very, very low percentage for much of our evolutionary history, but I think this is an open question within a wide possible range. Keith states that:
"from the moment we stood upright, we’ve been eating large ruminants."
This is technically true, but I don't believe they formed much of our diet very often. I fully accept the argument that hom sap's large brain probably came after a switch to a nutrient rich diet. I'm unconvinced that red meat from large animals was a large part for a large period of time though (I may be confused about the current consensus, but best I can make out, we know there was some hunting, and some scavenging, but we're not entirely sure how much of either). I actually agree with the the book's breakdown for animal/plant calories of paleo humans (approx 65% from animal sources, 35% from plants) - but I suspect that insects, small crustaceans, rodents, small lagomorphs,and other very small prey made up a very great deal of that, on average, over time.  The preponderance of evidence for large animal hunting may be there because those animals' bones (esp. femurs) are big enough to lay down a fossil record.

In this chapter, Keith is adamant that people fail to thrive on a vegetarian diet. My (purely anecdotal) experiences over a lifetime of having mostly vegetarian friends, and many vegetarian acquaintances, agrees closely with that from - that roughly 4/10 people thrive in the long term on a vegetarian diet, and roughly 6/10 experience a decline in health. As that article says - " If there is one thing modern genetics is showing, it is that people can vary considerably in certain respects. Especially given the evolutionary transition that the species has been in the midst of since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, you would expect there to be more variability at this time."

The next topic is grain consumption. The science here seems pretty clear. Whether omnivore or vegetarian, we should eat grain only as an occasional treat, not as a staple. Again, no quibbles. Vegetarians who base their diets on a staple of grain, and eat much of it with sugar (though STILL doing better than people following the SAD, probably mostly due to a reduction in trans-fats) are generally likely to develop a range of unpleasant syndromes in mid life.

Keith goes on to say that:
"Heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are all caused by the insulin surges that grain and sugar demand."
True, but I'm convinced that meat consumption has also had a role to play in the increase in diseases of the circulation that have become our number one killer in the West over the last 50-100 years. The dietary train wreck in the USA since the 1950s includes, amongst other changes, annual  chicken consumption increasing from 21 kilos to 87 kilos per person, and a catastrophic fall in the average quality of the chickens' diet and lifestyle ( they eat too much of that 55% of corn that's grown for livestock, and too few bugs and too little grass and weeds).

I'll pass over the paragraph in which she asserts that "insulin surges" are a serious health concern, and then immediately goes on to say that long-chain carbs are just as bad for you as sugars.

I am convinced by most of Keith's arguments against the link between consumption of cholesterol and CHD. I'm not sure I'm missing out on much in the fat department as an ovo-lacto vegetarian though, as long as I have eggs from local bug-eating chickens, ghee for my frying and butter in my soups, creamy yoghurt with my desserts, and sheep's paneer cubes in my curries - this here vegetarian is getting plenty of animal fat and animal protein from sheep, chicken and cow sources. In short - this is not a valid criticism of a varied and sensible ovo-lacto vegetarian diet.

Later in the chapter, Keith argues that the vertically integrated food combines have an interest in switching our diets towards cheap grains because that's where the big profits are, and because they're the easiest commodities to store, ship, and process. That is all true, but the excluded/reduced sources of nutrients go way beyond meat: They include my ovo-lacto standbys of eggs and butter and milk and cheese and yoghurt; they include all the lost cultivars of fruit and vegetables replaced by the ones easiest to chill and ripen in a dark room with ethylene gas; they include the "awkward" nuts like walnuts that require bees to polinate the trees every year, and are difficult to protect from rot and fungus; they include the sprouted and fermented foods (grains, seeds, and legumes, sauerkraut) driven out of our diet by ubiquitous refrigerated storage and shipping, real honey (as opposed to the strange yellow liquid in supermarket plastic bottles that comes from beehives fed on sugar solution) and many other classes of foods which our grandparents routinely ate but we do not. In short - I think it's unreasonable to jump from the premise that the food cartels have an interest in distorting our diet (and have succeeded in doing so to our detriment) to the conclusion that the lion's share of the damage done is due to a reduction in consumption of animal foods. I wouldn't discount the effects of that reduction, but would be willing to bet on a more important role for our reduced intake of greens and vegetables, a switch towards shorter-chain carbs, and the reduction in nutrition across all food categories that goes hand-in-hand with long supply chains, centralised distribution networks, cold storage,  pasteurisation, homogenisation, UHT treatment, irradiation and freeze-drying, and finally, the trans-fats which displaced some of the animal fats (by which I mean that, for example, displacing some of  those dietary animal fats with coconut oil instead might have had no noticeable effect).

Next up is Soy. Keith states it's pretty dangerous, and I agree. The figures for age of menarche in the US over the past few years are terrifying, and they seem to be firmly correlated with soy consumption in infancy and childhood. Again, no quibbles - soy foods should be an occasional treat, definitely not a staple.

Later in the chapter, we get to:
"Hypoglycemia is...hard to avoid as a vegetarian unless you live on eggs and cottage cheese"
I have two problems with that. First, many reputable nutritionists recommend eggs as a staple. They are what I (and most Turks, Lebanese, Iranians, Iraqis...) have for breakfast every day without the tiniest chance of getting bored (boiled, poached, fried, as omelette , as menemen... and maybe once a week, as a treat, in cheesy pancakes - and I have duck eggs when I can get them too - they make an amazing stir-fry). Second, it really isn't that hard to get enough fat and protein from eggs, butter, cheese, nuts (including nut butters, almond meal etc), yoghurt, seeds and seed-butters (such as pinenuts, tahini), avocadoes, coconut oil and cream, and so on, to stave off hypoglycemia. If you're eating an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet and getting low blood sugar issues, then you're either not trying very hard to ensure adequate dietary fat and protein, or you're falling into the "sugar spike" trap and gorging on junk food or piles of oversweet fruit, then crashing, different only in degree from SAD victims' issues after feasting on doughnuts and coke, or chicken nuggets bound together with the colonel's secret (syrupy) sauce.

Keith states on p.242 (her footnote 296) that if you compare Mormons with 7th Day Adventists, the Mormon lifespan is longer (the two faiths/cults have basically the same diet and lifestyle rules, except SDAs are ovo-lacto vegetarians, whereas Mormons are omnivores). I couldn't find her quoted sources, nor could I find an article I remember reading which came to the exact opposite conclusion from a meta-analysis based on the same SDA longitudinal study compared to a Mormon sample.

Chapter 5

I agree with Keith's description of our agricultural history as "a path of no return", and the fact that 80% of calories humans consume come from "carbon acres", i.e. nonrenewables, means we have little time to fix things. The book, unfortunately, seems to dance around actually providing concrete suggestions for "getting there from here". Having described the fix we're in, anything other than a roadmap that gets humanity from the imminent population peak, down to a sustainable population (be it 0.5M or 2M humans) is a cop-out. Instead we get vague adverbial phrases like:
"We could ease into energy descent while holding on ferociously to justice, compassion, and the concept of universal human rights."
This is nothing more than hand-waving. Personally, I'm convinced that the way forward is to reduce meat consumption, and convert the acres which that reduction frees up to something approaching permaculture, which would allow us (a few years down the track) to improve the nutrition of those currently subsisting on annual grains. I don't see an equivalent roadmap from Keith anywhere in this book.

I'll pass over the section that deals with the links between the patriarchy and diet/agriculture - that's another blog in itself. Keith makes many good points, but they seem at best weakly related to diet choices.

I agree 100% with Keith's characterisation of the required organisation to effect change in the area of diet and consumer choice being founded in "materialism...radicalism...understand[ing] oppression as group-based harm", and with the close link between the environmental destruction and lived individualism in the liberal-with-a-capital-L sense of the word. I also agree that breeding as little as possible and driving as little as possible are the biggest things we can do individually. Most of all I agree with and respect her attitude of "looking her food in the eye" - as a vegetarian, I have no quarrel with such omnivores, only with those who like their meat sanitised in a supermarket polystyrene packet.

Conclusion: Almost 100% of Keith's statements about what has to change in our agricultural practices seem unarguable. Almost everything she says about fringe veganism is also very difficult to argue with. On the other hand, I see no conflict between her vision and a varied (but locally based) ovo-lacto vegetarian diet, in almost any temperate to tropical geography, so the book's "Vegetarian Myth" title seems a) offensive, and b) deceptive. I also found the constant ground shifting between veganism and vegetarianism deceptive and confusing.
The greatest weakness though, is that the book skips over the hard part - how do we reintroduce good proteins and fats (and even some good carbs) into our diet, while cutting back on what she calls "carbon acres" and switching away from annual grains, to get our population down to something sustainable(0.5M? 2M?) in the time remaining to us (3 generations? less?) without famine or genocide? I can see no roadmap that doesn't start with much reduced meat consumption.