Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An amazing read: The Vegetarian Myth

I'm not in the business of telling vegans and vegetarians their diet is wrong. Frankly, I don't care what they put into their bodies as long as they keep their nose out of my dinner plate. You know, do unto others and all that good stuff.

But when I noticed The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability on Tovar Cerulli's list of recommended books the other day, I was immediately intrigued.

The description on Amazon said the book addresses the destructive impacts of 10,000 years of agriculture and explores a more sustainable way of living. That fit right in with one of my favorite topics these days: the notion that both humans and the planet were much better off when we were hunter-gatherers, living off of what the earth gave us. You know, Paradise. Before the fall. The tantalizing life I can see, hear, smell and taste when I'm hunting.

I ordered the book immediately and tore into it as soon as it arrived. Holy moly, what an amazing read!

Author Lierre Keith had been a vegan for 20 years and suffered serious health problems - some irreversible - because of her diet. The book takes us through her process of learning that there is no escaping the fundamental truth that living things must die for us to eat and live. It then explores evidence that the diets of civilization - vegetarian or not - are doing grave damage to the planet and our health.

A lot of vegans hate this book because Keith methodically attacks their worldview, including the notion that their diet does not require sentient beings to be used, harmed or killed. But honestly, I think the book would have been just as riveting without the focus on debunking vegan dogma, because it addresses the foods and beliefs that make up everyone's diet.

Here are the two ideas from the book that I enjoyed the most:

Plant sentience. Keith explores the notion that plants are way more sentient than we'd like to believe.

In The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner presents page after page detailing what plants do. They defend themselves. They protect each other. They communicate. They call out to other plant species, asking them to join in forming a resilient community. They sometimes sacrifice themselves for the good of all. ... Where we use locomotion and opposable thumbs, plants use chemicals. That is the difference between us...

Plants are in constant communication with each other. "Each plant, plant neighborhood, plant community, ecosystem, and biome has messages flowing through it constantly - trillions and trillions of messages at the same time." Any place that roots touch other roots or their shared mycelial network, they can also exchange chemistries, medicines. One plant will send out a chemical distress call. The others respond with precise antibiotics, antifungals, antimicrobials or pesticides to help.

That section alone was mind boggling. If you're a fan of Lord of the Rings, you won't be able to stop yourself from thinking of the slow-to-act but powerful Ents here. And if you're an Avatar fan, the plant communication idea will sound awfully familiar.

What I loved about it is that Keith - using science, not fantasy movies - forced me to think differently about plants and substantially broadened my view of the interdependent life forms on Earth. I definitely want to do more reading on that subject.

The perils of the civilized diet. Keith cites research that finds better - sometimes perfect - health in communities with primitive diets, particularly animal-based diets (and yes, this too pisses off the vegans). She notes that when communities of perfect health begin consuming the refined agricultural products that civilization gives them, they begin to experience the diseases of civilization: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and other degenerative diseases.

She quotes extensively from the research of Dr. Weston Price, who with his wife Florence searched the globe for communities of people with perfect health and studied their diets.

The Prices ... found perfect health in Torres Strait islanders. The government physician for the islanders stated that in his thirteen years among the native population of four thousand, he had never seen cancer. He had operated on several dozen malignancies among the white population of about three hundred. In fact, among the indigenous, any conditions requiring surgery were extremely rare. The indigenous people resisted assimilation, especially to industrial food. They understood that government stores were a danger, and on a number of occasions almost took up violence against such stores. ...

Other doctors have also observed near-universal perfect health of hunter-gatherers. Dr. Edward Howell, a pioneer in enzyme research, reported on another doctor who lived with the indigenous people near Aklavik (northern Canada), stating, "He has never seen a single case of malignancy." One report from a doctor who examined hundreds of indigenous people on their native diets found that 'there were no signs of any heart disease ... No case of cancer or diabetes.' Such observations are common in the anthropological literature and are completely ignored by the medical institutions that control the public health policies of our country.

Keith also spends a great deal of time in the book attacking grain and soy. She makes a compelling case that cultivating these foods has devastated the planet, and eating them has wrecked our health. I don't think Keith ever uses the word "paleo" in her book, but it's clear she has much in common with adherents to the paleo diet, which embraces anything humans ate before the rise of agriculture and eschews most or all that came after it - particularly grains. (If you're intrigued by that diet, be sure to check out Hunt Gather Love, a blog by Melissa McEwen, a New York City hunter who eats paleo.)

I've got to say this aspect of the book really challenged my infatuation with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, because I love grains. I've long said that if civilization collapses in my time and plunges us all back into the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, one of the things I'd miss the most would be bread. But if Keith and the research she cites are right, perhaps we'd all be better off without it.

I had learned about the potentially harmful effects of industrially farmed food - starting with Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and continuing with the movie FOOD, Inc. - long before I discovered Keith's book. But Keith expanded on those works with breadth and detail. And while I'm not inclined to purge grains from my diet anytime soon, Keith's book left me feeling that my diet rich in wild game, unapologetically in love with animal fats and filled with locally grown produce is putting me on the right track.

One of the things I love about this book is that it's clear Keith has done a great deal of research into her topics, and hundreds of footnotes tell you exactly where she got her information. Of course, I'm well aware that research can be flawed, and even when it's not, it can be cited misleadingly or selectively. So the key question here is how seriously can we take Keith's assertions?

The answer is that I don't know. There were several spots in the book that set off my B.S. detector. In one section, for example, Keith praised Weston Price's study of the communities of perfect health because "(h)e wasn't distracted by the variations in macronutrients or by differences in basic food stuffs." But earlier in the book she had criticized researchers who didn't control for variables. Sounds inconsistent to me.

The problem is that I haven't been able to find a thorough critical analysis of the book, and I sure don't have time to do one myself.

A group of vegans have started a website to debunk the book, vegetarianmyth.com (and yes, Keith totally blew it by not registering the domain name of her own book). But the site is incomplete - it primarily addresses Keith's assertions that relate directly to veganism.

And aside from a San Francisco Chronicle story about Keith getting pied by masked vegans when she was speaking at an anarchist book fair earlier this year (seriously - I couldn't make up something that weird), I haven't been able to find any mainstream coverage of this book at all, much less any coverage that would look at it critically.

That said, I still recommend it. It's not as crazy as Paul Shepard's The Tender Carnivore & the Sacred Game, which advocated eating proteins synthesized from petroleum and offered an advanced hunter-gatherer utopia in which women wouldn't be allowed to hunt big game. But it's every bit as thought provoking.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I’m glad you enjoyed the book so much, Holly!

Like you, I haven’t seen or done a thorough analysis of Keith’s research and arguments. And there are parts of the book that just didn’t resonate for me. But I, too, found it very thought-provoking.

Given my own journey, I found it particularly interesting to read Keith’s account of how she came to terms with the fact that, as you put it, “there is no escaping the fundamental truth that living things must die for us to eat and live.” That was clearly a tough step for her, as it was for me.

I look forward to reading others' thoughts and comments here…

SimplyOutdoors said...

I'm very intrigued by book - even more so after reading about it here, and also seeing it mentioned on Tovar's blog.

I'm very curious about the plant "communication". Although I still would not even begin to compare them to human beings, it still intrigues me that they do have a pretty efficient communication/defense system.

Great stuff, Holly. It's posts like these that keep us on our toes, and make us think.

I love that!

Holly Heyser said...

Thank you! There's even more interesting stuff in the book than I could cover in this small post. And there's a fair amount of stuff in the book that doesn't interest me. For example, Keith is a radical feminist, and I'm pretty much not a radical anything, so the radical elements of the book didn't resonate with me.

But there was another thing that really did, and it was just a couple sentences leading into a big section on plants: "Whether life on earth is one organism, and whether all of it is conscious, are ultimately spiritual questions. I don't think the answers can be argued, only experienced. And I've had my experiences. I know what I believe. I'm not asking you to agree with me, only to observe."

I loved that, because as I explore and define my own spirituality - as an empty vessel, so to speak, raised in an atheist family - this notion of oneness is what I keep coming back to. I also especially liked the closing line in that quote - I appreciate it when people don't try to cram their version of the truth down my throat.

SimplyOutdoors said...

It is a phenomenal thing when one can be persuasive, and make us think, but not shove their version of what they believe down our throats.

I'm definitely going to have to pick up this book, and try to fit it into my schedule.

Good, good stuff!

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Yes! "I'm not asking you to agree with me, only to observe." How much we could gain from putting that sentiment into practice, concerning diet and so many other things!

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

P.S. If anyone wants to read a mini-version of the book, Keith has a new article in Mother Earth News: http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-community/the-truth-about-vegetarianism.aspx

Cheryl Hargraves said...

The parts about the plant communication is very intriguing to me. I know it isn't the type the book talks about (or is it?) but I was telling my husband just last night that I think my somewhat dying cilantro plant specifically sent branches out in one direction to cover my parsley plant (which is now thriving since it's received that bit of shade).

I'm going to check this book out, and then give it to my son to read. He's 20, and I think he'd really enjoy this.

Holly Heyser said...

Buhner's Lost Language of Plants is definitely next on my list - I'd love to learn more about them. And I love being pushed to think beyond the Star Trek norm of other life forms having two legs, two arms and a head - we need to understand life can be meaningful without looking like us.

Matt Ames said...

Hmmmm... I'm wondering if the vegan's who pied Keith used whipped cream pies? (typically the filler of choice when preparing such projectiles) Wouldn't that be hypocritical?

Josh said...

Matt, she should have yelled, "you used butter! This is delicious!" Unfortunately, Holly here told me they spiked it with cayenne pepper, so it burned her eyes.

Holly, this does sound like an interesting read for sure. I will defend the Star Trek here and say that there were other types of life forms beyond the funny-forehead people. I believe they include an oil slick and a couple of crystals that could talk. Also, tribbles - nobody can forget tribbles.

Holly Heyser said...

There was another big globby thing too. But that was in the original Star Trek. Aliens in the newer (and more prolific) versions were remarkably anthropomorphic and bipedal.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a trekkie but I do remember the horta.

I will go get a copy of the Vegetarian Myth. Except for the radical feminist hooey, it sounds fascinating.

My husband has been reading as many of the studies that he can get his hands on for the book "Good Calories Bad Calories" by G. Taubes. One of the studies that showed eating meat is hard on your kidneys was done sometime in the 1930's, if I recall correctly. In the study, they were giving rabbits high doses of protein. There were conclusions made about protein in our omnivorous diet based on forcing protein on an herbivore. The thought of such things makes me angry, and the misuse of the information in the following years makes it worse.

As to the stuff on plants. When I stand in my row of snow peas and pick the pods, I thank the plants and promise to plant some of their children. I don't know quite why it feels so right to do this. It has been a few years since I read The Secret Life of Plants by P. Tompkins. I suspect the ideas are similar in The Lost Language of Plants.

My arguement to vegetarians for a long time is that they eat they things that cannot run away from them. Although I suppose the same could be said of factory farming.

Thank you for you fine blog and the book reccommendations, and givingme room to write my little ramblings.


Holly Heyser said...

"My arguement to vegetarians for a long time is that they eat they things that cannot run away from them. Although I suppose the same could be said of factory farming."

Wow, well put, Jean.

So when are you going to start your own blog? Seems to me you've got lots to say!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Holly, but no blog for me. You will just have to put up with my erratic posting here. Even with my current employment status, it seems I have too many irons in the fire.

I think the first sentence of the quote came came from an arguement with a "starch-itarian". You know, the folks who don't eat meat, don't like vegetables, but eat lots of pasta, etc.

I would not use this arguement with someone like Hutchinson, who has come to a way of life though the hard work of making deliberate choices. I have uesd it as more of a counter to the people who flippantly condemn me for the way I have chosen to live my life.

Okay, that was enough. Back to cleaning the garage.

Michelle S said...

I should buy lots of copies of this book and take with us on our Hunt.Fish.Feed tour to hand out! Thanks for the review, Holly.
And I, too, talk to my plants. Sometimes sing. I believe they can hear me. Odd, I know.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Hey, Michelle! Talking to plants (or animals, stones, etc) only sounds odd in our modern cultural context. In other cultures, it's entirely normal.

And, in the broad context of human history, the oddest-sounding creatures of all are us modern people...including how (don't) relate to nature!

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

That would be "how WE (don't) relate to nature."

Anonymous said...

I am reading the book now. It will probably take me a few weeks to digest it. She has interesting ideas but she also seems as if to move merely from one conspiracy theory to a new conspiracy theory. Not too crazy about what I see as man hating, either, but I will keep reading.


Holly Heyser said...

Hey folks, Cork Graham has done an interview with Lierre Keith, which you can listen to here. The MP3s are at the end, one interview in four pieces (when one stops, click on the next).