I wanted The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability to be a persuasive, easy read about how vegetarianism is not the panacea it’s been made out to be for our global and personal health. I wanted substantiated facts about the horrors of large scale grain and soy production, a hard core dismissal of the vegetarian myth that all meat production has to be an environmental and moral disaster, and a robust explanation of why a diet rich in high quality animal products is essential to good health.What I got instead was a manifesto, rooted in radical feminism and shattered faith. While facts are in there, they are occasionally poorly researched and sometimes inconsistent. This is a shame because people will surely use that as an excuse to dismiss many of her very salient points.
Lierre Keith was no typical vegetarian. She was a strict vegan, the kind who chose to avoid all animal products for moral, political and environmental reasons, and then constructed some sort of belief system about health that justified it. She’s writing for people like her: the ones who have constructed an entire identity around veganism and elevated it to the status of religion. Tragically, her vegan diet irreparably damaged her health.
Having had the experience of losing my religion, I could relate to her arguments and understand why she took the approach she did to the book. She was writing it for herself, to get through a complete identity shift and come to terms with her experience.
There are people out there who will gain immensely from this book: The people who feel their veganism isn’t working, but have left no room for themselves to take another road. I feel that most vegetarians, though, will get lost and confused by the arguments she spends the most time discussing, because while they are truly the core of most radical vegans’ experience, they are not the core of the mainstream vegetarian experience.
I love that Keith reminds us that no matter what we eat, something dies. The idea that it’s morally reprehensible to kill or otherwise use animals for food is certainly a core belief for many vegetarians, and she is right to put us in our place in the natural world. I appreciate that we need to look at death as a natural part of the cycle of life we participate in, and I agree that all life should be respected.
But launching the book with pages of arguments that plants are sentient and also die when we eat them is far enough from the mainstream to alienate many readers. The catch is, that is an argument which is absolutely necessary for someone who is transitioning from a more radical perspective.
She is right on in pointing out the environmental degradation inherent in monocropping, the importance of farming methods which build soil, and the necessity of animals in such systems. She goes further, to locally produced food… and then further, to say we should return as a species to our species’ former foraging ways… and further, saying we ought not have babies.
Keith rightly debunks the idea that you can be a healthy vegan. While her experience is not representative of every vegan’s experience it moved me to tears. Vegetarian diets, though, are very different than vegan diets. While she did do a great job of explaining how grain and soy based diets do more harm than good, I worry that the extreme nature of her experience may be enough to give vegetarians the excuse to discount the nutritional component of the vegetarian myth.
Ultimately, I agreed with most of the point made in this book, yes, even the radical feminist ones. But I’m the choir… already converted. The book’s title speaks to a broader audience, but I’m afraid the book itself does not.
Here is a quote that exemplifies this basic problem with the book. First she compares The Left to Radicalism, not even mentioning The Right in the equation, then goes on to say:
But personal purity only asks for shopping and smugness. The mainstream version involves hybrid cars, soy milk, soy burgers, and soy babies, and checking off the “green power” option on your electric bill. On the very fringe, there is a more extreme version which offers a semi-nomadic life of essentially mooching off the employed. To point out the obvious: power doesn’t care. Power doesn’t notice the existence of anarchist freegans and it certainly doesn’t care if they eat our of dumpsters.
How many of you identify as “The Left” or “Radical” in the first place? (I’m somewhere beyond left, progressive, libertarian, green, or radical, truth be told.) How many of you can put ten (loved) faces to the words “anarchist freegans” like I can? I’m guessing I’m in the minority here.
The points need to be made. The Vegetarian Myth has its place. But maybe it needed a little more disclosure on the jacket. If you’re up for a holistic, radical, emotional, political approach to the issues, by all means buy this book. However, I believe we need someone to write a more mainstream version.
Have you read this book? What did you think? Have you ever been vegan or vegetarian?