Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Vegetarian Myth

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and SustainabilityThe Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability by Lierre Keith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important book with an unfortunate title. Keith has some pretty rough feminist axes to grind which occasionally cloud (though also occasionally enhance) her message as it regards our food supply, but what she has to say about the way we eat is important for ANYONE to hear. You can absolutely feel her passion as a "recovering vegan," and the pain it causes her to denounce something she once so passionately believed in. I don't like the title, because my fear is that vegetarians/vegans will look at it and discount it immediately (as you can see from the "reviews" from vegetarians/vegans who haven't even read/finished the book), and omnivores will look at it and think there's no message there that they need.

She does tend to go on a bit, but the message boils down to pretty much this: There is no opt-out of the food chain; we're all part of it, like it or not. There is no plant life without animal contribution and death, and vice-versa. The only way for our planet to keep feeding its inhabitants into the future is if we abandon the industrial agriculture model we've adopted. Monocropping of non-native species is killing our planet, and darn quickly. We're starving ourselves with our ever-increasing focus on genetically modified cereal grains and soy. The only sustainable way to feed ourselves is to do it on a small, local, native scale that includes animals (remove animals from the equation and topsoil vanishes). There's really nothing to argue with there.

I absolutely believe in the tenets set forth in this book (no big shock to anyone who knows me), and go out of my way to find local, organic sources for 100% pastured, grassfed meat and dairy. I buy produce from within 100 miles of my home almost exclusively. I invest in healthy fats, raise free-range chickens for eggs and meat, etc. I won't go so far as to absolutely denounce vegetarianism, but I do believe that it has to fall under the same guidelines: local, sustainable, native. While I really didn't discover anything "new" to me in this book, it certainly drove home the urgency of the locavore movement in ways that Pollan, Kingsolver, et al did not. This book has a bit of a desperate tone, because we're facing a desperate situation. I very much recommend this book to anyone who eats. Take Keith's angsty, patriarchy-hating melodrama (I couldn't say I disagreed with her points, and Heaven knows the patriarchy needs some hating, but it was just disruptive in this context) with a grain of salt if need be. The message is worth indulging her a bit there.

I was first made aware of this book in a blog entry by Dr. Michael Eades, in which he tells of Ms. Keith being the victim of a terroristic attack at a reading, and bought it partly in support of her in the face of that treatment. I'm glad I did. I'm also glad I'm not her, because this is a woman (I'm sorry, "womyn?") operating under extreme anxiety a lot of the time, it seems. But then, maybe we should all be feeling that pressure--we don't have much time to put things right.

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  1. I think the idea that people must eat meat to save the planet is laughable, but that's the vegetarian in me. :-)

    Personally, I have no problem with people eating meat if they wish. The problem I have is more related to what you're talking about... The Big Meat Industry. America's ravenous demand for cheap beef, pork, and poultry has resulted in heavily subsidized companies that operate on a massive scale with little regard to the environment or well-being of the animals they raise. So much toxic feces is created by the Big Meat industry that our planet is being irreparably damaged. Gigantic lakes of feces are created which leak into the water table and poison the land.

    I am for repealing government subsidies to the meat industry. Then, small local farms can afford to compete on a level playing field (since their operations are usually sustainable, they can use the feces as fertilizer or dispose of it in a way that doesn't destroy the earth). And since a hamburger would cost $12 instead of $3, people would eat more reasonable amounts of the stuff so we aren't having to raise gross amounts of livestock to satisfy it.

  2. I agree 100%. And like I said, I wouldn't denounce thoughtful vegetarianism (veganism is another matter, but that's me), as long as it's done like all diets should be: local and sustainable and ethical.

    I am totally in favor of the complete dismantling of industrial agricultural models, for meat, dairy, and all crops. It's horrible, every bit of it. The subsidies in place are just encouraging the proliferation of food that is unhealthy, cruel in its production, and killing the planet. I live in one of the most fertile, amazing parts of the country, and all I see as I drive the interstate are corn, soy, and rice, because that's all it's profitable to grow. It's a crying shame, as are battery hen egg-laying operations, industrial poultry houses, cattle in feed-lots, pigs in farrowing crates, and on and on.

    You hit the nail on the head with your economic model, and I'd extend it to produce. Yeah, an organically-grown head of broccoli or bunch of kale from a LOCAL farmer might (at first, anyway) cost more than a box of corn flakes, but when you compare the nutrient density of the products, you're still getting a WAY better deal with the real food.

    Even vegetarians can improve their own health and that of the planet and the welfare of animals by choosing eggs from PASTURED hens (don't be fooled by the "cage-free" tag the government is allowing on packages--it's meaningless), and dairy products from 100% pastured, grass-fed animals. When you get your butter from a grass-fed cow, it becomes a freaking HEALTH FOOD, full of medium-chain fatty acids, antioxidants, etc.

    Support your local farmers, the ones who do things right, regardless of what you eat. Grow stuff yourself. Raise some of your own animals, even a couple of laying hens, if you can. We can make a better world. The way we're going, there isn't going to be enough topsoil left to support the planet's population for much longer at all, whether people are eating meat or not.

  3. I would add that Dave is absolutely right about the effect that paying what properly-raised and humanely processed meat is worth has on consumption. Our entire consumption cycle changed when we went to grassfed meats and dairy. It does cost more, and we're not exactly swimming in income. So you become much more thoughtful about what you're preparing. Casseroles that I used to make with two pounds of ground meat are now made with half that much, but stuffed with chopped spinach, chard, broccoli, etc. NOTHING is wasted. Instead of being thrown out, fat is rendered and used in cooking other dishes--which is OK, because now it's GOOD for us. Bones are saved for making rich, nutritious stocks and broths. Everything is used.

    Same is true for plants, though. Instead of cheap junk like pasta and mashed potatoes, we have several varieties of squash, cauliflower, etc. Instead of just eating the broccoli florets, now I peel the stems with a paring knife and cook them as well, and they are delicious, and double the bang for our buck (thanks, Alice Waters!). Again, nothing is wasted. Tops, peels, and ends of things like onions, garlic, celery, and carrots are tossed into a freezer container until there's enough to make soup stocks and broths.

    When I evaluate my overall grocery bill for the month, I'm not actually spending much more than I used to. I am, however, making much more use of what I buy. There's hardly ever even anything for a compost heap!