Publisher: PM Press
My first reaction to The Vegetarian Myth was – ah! this is the book I wanted to write (sort of). A radical approach to food, food production and eating from a vegan perspective (which turns out to be former vegan in this case, but nevertheless) that asks some difficult questions arising from some of the basic moral ideas of veganism, takes into account both the destruction caused by industrial agriculture, and the destruction to our health caused by Western diets, and places itself in a wider anti-civilisation critique. It’s an important contribution to the very fundamental discussion of How do we live? i.e. How do we feed ourselves? i.e. How do we eat???
To put this straight first of all: the book has not made me give up on veganism. Personally, I prefer to eat vegan food, partly due to the way I live (in a city); partly due to the fact my health has been fine so far; and also partly due to my emotional – however not moral – reaction to the idea of eating and using animals. This book contains some strong criticisms of veganism, including concerns over its nutritional validity, but I don’t think giving up veganism is a necessary outcome of this book. In fact, it would be a shame to get caught up in the defence of veganism when reading this; the questions asked are too important to dismiss.
Lierre Keith writes from an informed and eloquent personal perspective. It comes as no surprise that she’s associated with Derrick Jensen, who is the co-publisher. From being a committed vegan, her health problems and moral quandries finally led her to question and discard the ideology that had been a large part of her life, and this book documents this struggle. It’s divided into three sections.
The first part looks at the moral arguments around veganism. It’s a simple truth that death and killing is an inherent part of the natural world. How can this be reconciled with animal rights? Some of these attempts at reconciliation go down entirely absurd paths and are more a symptom of our alienation than anything else. And can humans really live without animals coming to harm in some way or the other? Whether it’s habitat destruction or protecting your vegetable patch from slugs, down to the insects we tread on or the microorganisms we destroy with every breadth – where and how do we draw the line? Is this really a line we have to draw? Lierre suggests an entirely different approach; one based on respect for life but finding our own place in nature and acknowledging our effect on other animals’ lives.
The second part looks at the political arguments for veganism; how this diet decreases our impact on the environment and also is more efficient at feeding the world. I had questioned this myself while I learnt more about industrial agriculture, its massive resource use, its globalised nature and its environmental pollution. Grain-fed animals are definitely high impact – here the argument is true that meat is a far less ‘efficient’ product than grain. However, pasture fed animals can be very low impact, while providing natural fertiliser as opposed to the fossil fuel based artificial fertilisers used in industrial agriculture. Compared to soybean or corn monocrops they come off very well in fact. Grains are our civilisation’s ultimate commodity – high input, storable, requiring machinery and processing to come to our tables, and versatile in their use. The more grain based agriculture, the more fucked we are; whether we feed the grain to animals and then eat them, but also when we eat them directly.
The last part looks at nutritional arguments for veganism and concludes that it’s not a healthy diet that can provide everything a person needs. There are some convincing arguments made, although I have already found a couple of small flaws and could probably find more if I dug deeper – bearing in mind there are tons of entirely conflicting nutritional studies out there, and the whole subject is very difficult to shine a light on. One of the things I was thinking when reading is that people do seem to respond differently to diets. Some people really don’t do well without animal products, whereas I’ve seen others thrive and grow old on a pretty much raw vegan diet. Lierre recounts how good she felt physically when she finally allowed herself to eat some meat. I have eaten meat and then been sick as a dog pretty soon after. I don’t feel the cravings she talks about (apart from occasionally for fish. But oddly enough, only when I am at the seaside). I don’t feel like I’m lacking in anything, whereas she very obviously was. I’m still undecided as to what to conclude from this chapter.
Despite drawing different reasoning for what we want to eat, I do agree with the general conclusions at the end of this book – the personal solution and salvation veganism offers can be a distraction to the collective challenges we need to be involved in. We need to reconnect with nature, we need to dismantle the systems of domination that our lives are based upon, we need to stop industrial agriculture and rebuild top-soil, we need to scale down, massively – in how we live and also in our numbers. This book is honest, radical and thought provoking and despite not agreeing with it entirely I thought it was an important contribution to a debate I have been having with myself.