Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth (Lierre Keith)

First, I must state that I was a vegetarian for roughly three years, from ages 20 – 23. I did not eat red meat (or much of any animal products) until this past summer, 2010, when I became aware of the option to buy locally raised, grassfed beef. In no way to I condone feedlot or CAFO animal operations.

Keith opens The Vegetarian Myth stating that “For many of you, it won’t be an easy book to read. I know. I was a vegan for almost twenty years. I know the reasons that compelled me to embrace an extreme diet and they are honorable, ennobling even. Reasons like justice, compassion, a desperate and all-encompassing longing to set the world right” (p. 1). My jaw dropped page after page while reading this book, which I did in September of 2010. It has taken me this long to write the review because checking a bunch of the sources and people she cites throughout the book was a time-consuming endeavor. The book, which is divided into three sections (Moral Vegetarians, Political Vegetarians, and Nutritional Vegetarians), is a book in which it is ok to skip around. She cites research, farmers and other agricultural experts, scientists, and physicians throughout, although I would have preferred more straightforward bibliographic citation style.

This controversial book presents an historical account of the destructive nature agriculture. Agriculture as we know it has led to the devastation of prairies and forests, driven countless species extinct, changed the climate, and pillaged the topsoil. Keith believes that in order to save our earth, we need to procure our food from within our own communities – essentially, she makes the “locavorian” argument: Build relationships with local food producers, and obtain food from them. She also does an excellent job of describing the risks of vegan diets, and makes compelling arguments about how the health of the soil affects the plants, the non-human animals, and of course, us humans.

Here, I’ll present a few of the juicy (read: controversial, fire-igniting) tidbits.

The Fertile Crescent, Keith explains, was indeed fertile at one point in time. In the words of Mark Sisson, “Animals grazed on perennial grasses, pooped out nutrients, and gradually those nutrients would work themselves back into the soil. It was a beautiful, natural life cycle that worked great for millennia.” Now? It is a desert. Mono-crop grain agriculture changed everything – People replaced perennial renewable grasses with annual grains, flooding and riverbeds were forever altered, and animals were cleared from the land. The top soil – which Keith argues is the most crucial measure of the planet’s health – eroded by the foot. Animals provide  key nutrients to soil – and Keith details her voyage to discover what soil needs most to reach health – and in the end, discovers death. Soil, by nature, is healthiest when it both provides for, and receives the remains of, the animals who live on it.

According to Keith, annual grain crops have killed the North American Prairie, in addition to entire ecosystems and millions of animals, bugs, and birds. That soy burger? The machines that harvested and processed those soybeans were essentially oiled with the blood of thousands of organisms. Soy, as a crop, was initially farmed to improve the soil – and not for human consumption. For all intensive purposes, giving a baby a bottle of soymilk is akin to giving the baby a couple of birth control pills. Soy, as we eat it today, may as well be an industrial byproduct – not fit for human consumption.

I’ve provided just a taste of what I’ve gleaned from this book, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts – especially the thoughts of vegans and vegetarians. Thus far I’ve broached the subject with one such person – who sticks to statistics about how much water it takes to feed cattle, how much oil it takes to ship meat. Unfortunately, there was no consideration of how much water it takes to grow rice, and how much oil it takes to maintain a mono-crop agricultural environment… I’ll reiterate – I do not condone the feedlot animal operations described in various books, such as Food Inc, Omnivore’s dilemma, and Eating Animals.