Stephen Budiansky Math Lessons For Locavores Essays

“Math Lessons for Locavores”

Posted by Harvest2050 on September 12th, 2010 | 0 Comments »

It is logical to think that locally-grown food has less of an environmental impact than food that is grown and shipped across the country or abroad. But New York Times op-ed contributor Stephen Budiansky paints an interesting picture of the reality behind the energy and land use of agriculture (“Math Lessons for Locavores,” New York Times, August 19, 2010).

When it comes to energy use, Budiansky notes that transportation of food accounts for roughly 14 percent of the energy used by the U.S. food system. Fertilizers and chemicals, often targeted by local food advocates, comprise an even lesser amount of the total energy use – at just 8 percent.

Budiansky states that: The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.”Budiansky makes a strong case that the energy investment made into farming is not only a small one, but also one of the best investments we can make for “our economy, our environment and our well being.”

With the Earth’s population rapidly increasing and anticipated to hit 9 billion in the next 40 years, and as more and more people move to urban centers that are not necessarily located near areas of agricultural surplus, streamlined trade and the efficient transportation of food will be more important than ever to meeting rising global demand for food, feed and fiber.

Increasing agricultural productivity is also a major factor, and Budiansky notes how high-yield agriculture has changed the face of U.S. farming: “Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.”

Read the full text of “Math Lessons for Locavores” here.


Until very recently, the terms of what we might call human species right – the perceived, autogenous Recht of our species to appropriate, exploit, torment, and kill other sentient beings for any and all purposes, forever – were seen as natural and immutable, and so went unquestioned [1]. In the late 20th-century, however, an international social movement for animal liberation arose to challenge the terms of this presumed right, suggesting that it is both possible and desirable to forgo enslaving and killing other beings, for our sake as well as theirs. Yet even as that movement struggles to find its way in the teeth of government repression, widespread social prejudice, and an entrenched corporate-capitalist system based in animal exploitation, a group of intellectuals has risen up in determined political reaction against it.  Like those who earlier mocked suffragism, opposed the abolition of slavery, or lifted their pens to decry civil rights for blacks, today’s anti-animal critics would discredit the movement before its critique can gain traction in the wider culture. Despite the shoddiness of their arguments, these critics find credulous readers, not because of the quality or novelty of their ideas, but because their prejudices happen to coincide with the bad conscience of the majority.

The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith, is a recent entry in this new genre of apologia for human empire.  It is noteworthy for showing us that that majority now includes a portion of the radical Left, which has received Keith’s intellectually dishonest book with apparent enthusiasm (enthusiastic blurbs from Alice Walker and Derrick Jensen accompany the book). With the wind of the locavore movement at her back and food writer Michael Pollan as her lodestar, Keith, a radical feminist turned animal farmer, sets out to destroy vegetarianism and, en passant, animal rights. The author’s own vegetarianism almost killed her, she tells us, and unless vegans and animal rights activists are stopped, they are going to destroy the earth. This frankly apocalyptic narrative sets The Vegetarian Myth apart from scholarly critiques of animal rights by philosophers on the Right. The Vegetarian Myth may be many things – a paean to diet fads, a primer on the sins of agriculture, a primitivist anti-vegetarian screed, a Bildungsroman of Keith’s passage from infantile veganism to the “adult knowledge” of the necessity of killing other beings. But as a literary form, its nearest cousin is the millenarian tract. With its determination to divide the world into friends and enemies, its willingness to scant reason and traduce fact to compel the reader to its fevered conclusions, and above all its steely determination to abolish a civilization it deems hopelessly corrupt and wholly evil, The Vegetarian Myth ultimately has more in common with John’s Revelation than with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Apocalypticism in leftist discourse is not new – but the use of apocalyptic rhetoric by an avowed leftist to attack a radical social movement may be.  It is worth examining Keith’s arguments in some detail, if only as a symptom of the overdetermination of some quarters of contemporary leftist thought by capital.

Locavorism and the American Pastoral Ideal

Most of the educated public is by now familiar with the term “locavore.” Dovetailing with the urban guerilla gardening movement of the 1980s, the locavore movement in the US came to the fore of popular consciousness in 2006 with the publication of Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Behind the movement is a well-meaning desire for healthful, ecologically sustainable, socially just, and above all locally grown foods. Locavores favor small farms over big ones, organic and sustainable agricultural techniques, and backyard plots filled with chickens and other animals for DIY slaughter. Some locavores (like Keith) also subscribe to bioregionalism – the idea that we should only, or to the extent possible, consume foodstuffs that are native to our particular biotic region. Eating locally and growing one’s own food is said to build community and encourage sustainable farming practices. Prima facie, the virtues of locavorism are clear. Supporting local farmers, or family-owned farms, makes vastly more sense socially and ecologically than does supporting corporate giants like ConAgra or ADM. Moreover, like its sister Slow Food movement in Europe, locavorism is as much about affirming a communitarian ethos as an environmentalist land ethic.  While locavorism is generally depicted as a progressive or leftist movement, however, that movement is more ideologically ambiguous than it at first appears to be.

It first bears recalling that objections to industrialized agriculture have been with us for some time.  In 1934, Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization noted the fallacy of equating mechanization of agriculture and commodification of food with social progress.  While canning and refrigeration make sense, he wrote, “as a means of distributing a limited food supply over the year, or of making it available in areas distant from the place originally grown,” using “canned goods…in country districts when fresh fruit and vegetables are available comes to a vital and social loss.” Anticipating the objections of today’s locavores to excessive “food miles,” Mumford observed that there was “no virtue whatever in eating foods that are years old or that have been transported thousands of miles, when equally good foods are available without going out of the locality” [2].  Public suspicion of corporate agriculture prompted others around the same time to sing the virtues of independent farming.  In 1940, E.B. White gently mocked the “self-sustaining farm,” as he called it in a review in Harper’s of a popular book entitled, Practical Farming for Beginners.  According to the publisher’s blurb on the book, Practical Farming “will be welcomed by ‘an increasing number of American people who, fed up with the pressure of city living, are going back to the land for their livelihood’” [3].   Referring to the book’s author, White wrote, “Mr. Highstone’s book presents a formula for subsistence farming, that is, farming for consumption rather than for profit, farming to produce all one’s needs” [4]. Highstone outlined an animal-based farm economy which fiercely proscribed the feeding of grain to livestock.  “Mr. Highstone will have you buy nothing; and he is very stern about that.  It’s forbidden, and if you start slipping and buy a bag of grain, the whole structure will topple” [5].

But Highstone’s book merely riffed on an age-old theme in American culture. A century earlier, Henry David Thoreau had offered his own version of the self-sustaining “gentleman farmer,” in Walden. Even then, the idea of the self-reliant agriculturist was a hundred years old and already deeply rooted in the American mythology. Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the first to make the American pastoral ideal into a full-fledged intellectual sensibility.  In a letter in 1795, Jefferson tells his correspondent how much he enjoys his withdrawal from public life, which he “‘never liked,’” and how he has returned to his sheltered home “‘with infinite appetite, to the enjoyment of my farm, my family and my books, and…determined to meddle in nothing beyond their limits’” [6].  Remarkably like Lierre Keith, who implies that we should break off all trade with other nations and peoples and even with other bioregions in North America too–she writes that we should consume only foodstuffs found within our own bioregion, which in my case, living in Massachusetts, means dandelions, burdock, and chipmunks, among other delectables–Jefferson tells a correspondent of his wish that the new American states “‘practice neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe precisely on the footing of China. We should thus avoid wars, and all our citizens would be husbandsmen’” [7].

A renaissance of the Jeffersonian ideal of agricultural self-sufficiency can be seen today, in such phenomena as the vogue for local farmer’s markets, the food intelligentsia’s critique of agribusiness (films like Food, Inc. and Our Daily Bread), and in the popularity of FarmVille, the world’s most popular video game (played online by hundreds of millions of digital farmers on Facebook) [8].  At times, the new “urban” pastoralism takes the form of anti-corporate critique.  At other times–or even at the same time–it tends toward the right rather than left end of the political spectrum. Indeed, the locavores’ ideal of self-reliance, suspicion toward cosmopolitanism, and the fetish of the local into some deeply conservative strains in American culture.

First, proponents tell us that the solution to the ills of civilization are ready at hand, and that they can be discovered in voluntarist and individualistic actions whose aim is individual self-reliance. This is, at root, a libertarian vision rather than one of collective political action. Thus, we learn from one recent news report, more Americans are keeping “farm” animals and turning to home-grown killing to last out the economic recession, perhaps “to instill an invaluable sense of self-reliance” [9]. As a sales rep for a large poultry supply company observes, “‘People are buying up guns and chickens and seed….That tells me people are wanting to depend on themselves’” [10].

Second, the organo-libertarian narrative of self-reliance is meanwhile connected to an identity-based aesthetic of self-realization. Food not only tastes better when it is locally grown; being “in touch” with the land bestows existential authenticity on the act of consumption, grounding it in ostensibly unmediated relations with producers. This fetish of the local can drift uneasily toward nativism:  native plants, native peoples, those who belong and those who do not. Even in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson’s local-first attitude coincided with what Leo Marx describes as widespread “pious” popular aversion after the Revolution to European “sophistication, aristocracy, luxury, elegant language, etc.”  This was the period when the slogan “‘Buy American!’” was first heard in the streets, a slogan which signaled “that crude local products were preferable (on moral grounds, of course) to European finery” [11].  More recently, as Vasile Stănescu observes, today’s environmental movement’s emphasis on “the local” at times exhibits “a deeply disturbing strain of conservatism, provincialism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment” [12]. Ursula Heise indeed observes some disturbing historical resonances between the Nazi slogan of Blut und Boden, “blood and soil,” and the contemporary fetish of local ecosystems and an land ethic—a point I return to below [13].  

In this regard, it is telling that Lierre Keith’s touchstone for the ideal animal farm is Polyface Farms, owned and operated by Joel Salatin, a graduate of Bob Jones University, the right-wing Christian fundamentalist college. Like others on the agrarian right, Salatin has voiced suspicion of foreign workers in America’s fields, and has made common cause with the anti-immigrant movement [14]. While Keith would find such a nativism anathema to her anti-imperialist politics, she seems unaware of the hazards that her agrarian, anti-cosmopolitan proscriptions bring in their train, and tone deaf to the implications of aligning herself in her text with (among others) Salatin, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Mormons. Even Michael Pollan, the intellectual godfather of locavorism, acknowledges the conservative implications of the movement, approvingly citing a 2007 editorial in The American Conservative that dubbed locavorism “a conservative cause if ever there was one” [15].

Destroying Civilization To Save It

While ordinary social conservatives would turn the clock back to the 1950s, however, that’s nothing for Keith, who would like to turn the clock back 10,000-46,000 years.  Whereas hunting was always tied to “the sacred,” she avers, agriculture led to “religious theocracies.”  Leaving aside the fact that a firm distinction between early hunting-gathering cultures and sedentary food producers probably did not exist, Keith’s thrust is that since killing and eating animals is our heritage we ought to honor that heritage by keeping it up.  Would Keith listen to the evil vegetarians, she wonders, or “would I learn the grammar of my great-grandparents, and feed the trees with the bones of animals that lived beside me?” An unapologetic primitivist, Keith asserts that hunting is natural and that animal flesh is “the food of our ancestors.” Lest any of Keith’s readers not get her point, her publisher helpfully posts a colour photograph of the cave paintings of Lascaux on the front cover of her book. Keith refers several times to the paintings, waxing poetic about her desire to participate in the world of the people who created them. What “literally made us human,” she writes, was our hunting of the “megafauna of the prehistoric world, the aurochs and antelopes and mammoths.”

Here, the curious reader might wonder what happened, exactly, to all those lovely mammoths and aurochs. Keith doesn’t say. But the prevailing scientific view is that humans hunted them to quick extinction. In fact, while Keith repeatedly invokes the many inherent virtues and “sacredness” of pre-civilizational hunter-gathering cultures, she fails to ask how good those hunter-gatherers were at managing their ecological “resources.” Jared Diamond helps fill in the blanks:

Beginning with the first human colonization of the Australian continent around 46,000 years ago and the subsequent prompt extinction of most of Australia’s large marsupials and other large animals, every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans – whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean islands, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands – has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill, or else succumbed to human-associated habitat changes, introduced pest species, and diseases. [16]

These and similar grim facts would seem to complicate Keith’s romantic portrait of hunter-gatherers. Presumably this is why she leaves them out. Unfortunately, the pattern of human domination and extermination Diamond describes never ended. Today, technological capitalism has greatly improved the rate and efficiency of extermination, speeding up the grisly business many times over. It is estimated that as many as one in three to one in seven mammalian, reptilian, amphibian, and avian species will be obliterated from the earth in a matter of decades.

Keith romanticizes hunting and animal domestication in part because she sees the alternative—agriculture—as worse than both. Keith blames agriculture for everything that has gone wrong in society from “slavery, imperialism, [and] militarism” to “chronic hunger, and disease,” urbanization, “class stratification… population overshoot… and a punishing Father God.” Like the born-again Christian who discovers that one cannot be a “little” bit saved (nor a little bit pregnant), Keith is adamant that “[a]ny attempt to grow annual crops… will destroy the land.” All agriculture ends “in death.” “Agriculture…is the end of the world” (emphasis added).  Hence Keith’s radical solution to the global crisis:  to reduce the human population by more than 90 percent, and to replace crop cultivation with a virtuous mix of hunting-gathering and small-scale animal husbandry.

On the one hand, Keith writes movingly of the toll that modern mechanized agriculture takes on local ecosystems and on the myriad animal species who live in them. Leaving aside the often exaggerated environmental cost of having asparagus and oranges available at the local supermarket year-round (the energy used in transporting food long distances is de minimus [17]), there is no denying the overall toxicity of modern agriculture.  Agriculture ruins rivers through salinization, dumps nitrogen run-off into the sea, rips the nutrients out of the soil, poisons or displaces millions of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles, and turns once thriving ecosystems into desert wastelands.  Keith aptly describes corporate agriculture is indeed a “war” on the earth, one akin to “ethnic cleansing.” In agriculture, humans “take a piece of land and…clear every living thing off it, down to the bacteria.” As for the animals, they “are killed, often into extinction.” Agriculture is a “catastrophe that never allows the land to heal.”

So to this extent, at least, Keith is right: the current system of monocrop agriculture, which relies on unsustainable and ecologically fatal infusions of petrochemicals, is broken.  Indeed, the existing global food system is poised on the brink of catastrophe, as agribusiness cannibalizes its own means of reproduction, the biota of the earth. Furthermore, Keith is also right that many vegans (and meat-eaters, for that matter, though Keith doesn’t say so) have no idea how the food on their plates got there, nor that much of the health food market has been cornered by ecosystem-destroying corporate behemoths—e.g. that the leading brands of soy milk are produced by agribusinesses that are owned by such enlightend companies as ExxonMobil, General Electric, and Citigroup. The trouble is that Keith extends her sensible critique of corporate and petrochemical-based forms of agriculture to condemn all agriculture as such – ancient, modern, future.  What she fails to show, however, is that all forms of agriculture are equally bad, or that agriculture leads inevitably to global “biocide.” There is thus a false dilemma built into her argument.

Historical precedent exists for sustainable stewardship of the land.  Dwellers in the Tai Lake region of ancient China have been engaged in sustainable agriculture practices for almost a thousand years, even increasing their yields over time, all without depleting the soil [18]. The highlanders of New Guinea, meanwhile, have been growing crops sustainably for 7,000 years [19].  Much more recently, the postwar experience in Europe and the US with small-scale organic farming shows that agriculture can be both sustainable and practicable – that farmers can nourish and replenish the soil, mitigate most of the harmful effects of clearing the land, conserve fresh water resources, and protect the other species who suffer the effects of agricultural technique. This is not to say that even organic agriculture does not come at some ecological cost, nor that nonhuman beings don’t suffer “collateral damage” from plant cultivation (they do). But it is to say that the choice is not, as Keith argues, between ending agriculture or accepting planetary death, nor between eating animals and the figure of “a starving child.”

Yet Keith is so deeply upset by her own sense of personal “betrayal” by vegetarianism (see below) that she blames vegetarians both retroactively,for the past sins of civilization, and projectively, for the future end of the world.  “Ten thousand years of destroying carbon sinks of perennial polycultures has added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as industrialization, an indictment that you, vegetarians, need to answer,” she writes.  Or again:  “The annual grains of the vegetarians are causing mass destruction.”

This last is a curious phrasing, since vegetarians represent a miniscule percentage of the population and 99% of those annual grains globally are being fed either to meat-eaters or to other animals who will then be eaten by humans.  But it is not enough for Keith to blame vegetarians for the millennial sins of agriculture, she must also evoke the frightening image of a future in which the vegans had their way.  Keith maintains that if the vegans ever had their way, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.  There would be nothing worth saving left on the land mass.  Most species will have long since gone extinct.  Why?  Because vegetarians/vegans would continue the conspiracy of agriculture, rather than returning us to a virtuous mix of hunting-gathering and small-scale animal husbandry.

What is strange about Keith’s entire line of argument is that the international flesh economy is in fact a far greater threat to biotic survival than plant agriculture.  Somehow, no where in the course of her in her 300-page book does Keith mention the fact that of the estimated 40 percent of the planetary landmass given over to agriculture, three fourths of these lands are devoted either to grazing animals for human consumption or growing plant matter to feed them.  The ugly reality is that the rise of factory farming as a way to provide middle class humans with cheap nonhuman flesh has led led to greater and greater demand for meat production, with global production skyrocketing from 71 million tons in 1961 to 284 million tons in 2007 [20].  As a result, animal agriculture accounts for about one-fifth of all gases associated with global warming, the razing of millions of hectares of rainforests in Latin America, the Phillipines, and elsewhere, and the poisoning of watersheds and riverways [21]. Meanwhile, the social consequences of animal production are abysmal. Intensified animal agriculture displaces peasants, poor farmers, and indigenous peoples from their land, strengthens the power of local oligarchs and the military in the Third World, and distorts national economies by making them dependent upon an ecologically unsustainable, violent, export-driven form of development.

Even world elites are worried, nervously eyeing a meat economy that threatens to destabilize the international political order. A special task force of the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and the European Union urges immediate action to offset “the very substantial contribution of animal agriculture to climate change and air pollution, to land, soil and water degradation and to the reduction of biodiversity” [22]. Meanwhile, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged the world’s citizens to reduce – or eliminate – meat from their diets as a way of combating global warming.  Even Pollan, who as an organic foodie wants his local meat so that he can eat it too, nonetheless recommends that Americans observe “one meatless day a week”—the equivalent, he points out, “of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year” [23].  Pollan might have said five meatless days, or even seven.  But no matter. The question is why, in the face of overwhelming evidence that animal agriculture is eating up the planet, endangering human food security and health, and subjecting animals to unspeakable forms of misery, has Lierre Keith written a book calling for the increased consumption of animals as the solution to the global ecological crisis?

More striking still is Keith’s proposed remedy for what supposedly ails us.  Put simply, her millenarian vision would have us destroy civilization in order to save it. Hers is an anti-cosmopolitan vision of a Cro Magnon political economy of Jeffersonian “husbandmen” growing their own food and living off the grid.  She neglects the fact that human beings have been trading with one another for as long as we can remember—that aboriginal hunter-gatherers in what is now Australia, for example, traded with crop-growing farmers in the Torres Strait Islands for thousands of years.  Trade is one of the aspects of the human condition that we cannot, and indeed should not, do without. When we trade goods, we also trade knowledge, culture, and experience.  Keith would seemingly drive humanity into self-imposed isolation, since it follows from her position that we should also not trade with other countries or regions, either.  Instead, we would be reduced to stay at home hunters and chicken farmers with little need to interact with or have contact with a wider world.

No where does Keith offer us any clues about how society is to function, or whether it would or should have such modern conveniences as electricity or printing presses. Nor is it clear, if we are all to be animal farmers, how the other labor of the society is going to get done, or who is going to do it. What about other commodities?  If it is not “sustainable” to get our food from outside our own bioregion, how can it be sustainable to get our clothing, our metals, our minerals, or anything else from another region?  Presumably we must all clothe ourselves in deerskin, blow our own glass, and trade in our lightbulbs for tallow candles.  As E.B. White dryly observed of the agrarian vogue of his time:  “The life of self-sufficiency in this 20th century is the dream of persons with a nostalgic respect for early American vitality and ingenuity.  It conflicts, temperamentally, with modern ways” [24].  The same is true, but in spades, for Keith’s vision, which seems as far removed as Mars as the basis for a practical politics of social change.  For while it is possible to imagine humans one day forgoing their pork chops, chicken wings, and offal, it is unlikely that many of us would want to live in a world without pasta or the infinite varieties and textures of bread, rice, or any of myriad other harvested foods we which form the basis of our cultural identities.  Falafel, enchiladas, pirogies, tempeh, spaghetti, risotto, collard greens, injera, corn bread—it would all have to go.  We would also have to bid farewell to champagne brunches, Manischewitz on Passover, wine on the beach, or grabbing a cold beer after work.  (Hops and grapes come from crops too.)

What then would Keith have us eat?  Like Keith, I live in Massachusetts. I therefore have my choice of moose, deer, salmon, squirrels, cod and—since locavores fiercely defend the autochthonous ideal in farming, except when their stomachs get the better of their arguments–dairy from non-native cows and flesh and eggs from non-native chickens and pigs.  To add some spice to my diet, I might also avail myself of edible native plants and fungi, including cattails and lichen.  But ordinary spices, even humble black pepper, which comes from Vietnam and India, would presumably have to go.  We would also bid farewell to bread, corn on the cob, oranges, grapes, coffee, tea, and just about everything else.  (Forget sugar, chocolate, sweets of any kind too—the consistent locavore has to eschew those things too, unless she happens to live in Haiti alongside some wild sugar cane.)

While Keith blames vegetarianism for imposing such “strict” dietary requirements that it leads to eating disorders in women, next to her vision of bioregional carnivorism veganism seems as richly decadent, varied, and morally permissive as French cuisine.  Keith depicts vegetarians as fascistic, controlling, and unnatural in its stringency and moral discipline.  But her proposal is far more radical and austere (so much for vegans as ascetics) [25].

Vegetarianism Will Kill You

Sensing perhaps the logical and evidentiary weaknesses of her claim that universal vegetarianism would destroy the world, Keith shifts ground.  Not only is vegetarianism bad for the planet, she writes, it is also physically incompatible with our biology as hominids.  Eating animal flesh is not only preferable to a plant-based diet, it is biologically compulsory.  This specious line of argument leads to a certain incoherence in Keith’s narrative, since the scientific consensus that Homo sapiens is biologically omnivorous. While Keith once or twice admits that we are omnivores, she seems not really to understand what that means.  Omnivores have evolved bodies that enable them to eat, and live on, either plants or animal flesh (or both). Keith’s position, though, is that a plant-only diet is not compatible with the biology of our species.  Or to put it plainly, she argues that we cannot live without meat.  However, if that were true, we would be obligate carnivores, not omnivores.  Obligate carnivores like cats and sharks cannot survive on plant matter alone; omnivores can.

Does Keith really believe that we’re carnivores?  Only once does she let slip a reference to “carnivore stomachs like our own.” Keith otherwise avoids explicitly saying that humans cannot live without meat.  But she doesn’t need to.  Carnivores who don’t eat meat get very sick and eventually die.  Cats, for example, need the flesh of other animals in order to get taurine, an essential amino acid; and without taurine, cats will develop cardiovascular, immunological, and digestive problems.  Similarly, Keith argues throughout her book that if deprived of meat, we too inevitably develop catastrophic health problems and die prematurely. The Vegetarian Myth in fact reads like a laundry list of all the fatal, near-fatal, and just plain ugly diseases and illnesses that a vegetarian diet supposedly brings in its wake.

Keith links vegetarianism with “illness and exhaustion,” hypoglycemia, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, tooth decay, eating disorders, sugar cravings, fertility problems, depression and anxiety, cessation of endorphin production, endometriosis, schizophrenia, Multiple Scleroris, and much more. Vegetarianism “is not sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body. To put it bluntly, it will damage you.” Vegetarianism, she writes, can “never… provide enough protein, fat, fat soluable vitamins, or minerals” for the human body. You will put yourself “at tremendous risk for cancer, especially the kinds that kill,” have inflammation “everywhere,” destroy your thyroid and your stomach.  “Your hair will dry out, thin, and your skin may get so dry it hurts” and “you’ll be cold.” Meanwhile, “a diet of soy, wheat, or corn will result in massive malnutrition…and…death.”  Vegetarianism “is not sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body.  To put it bluntly, it will damage you.” Keith describes meeting vegans who look like cancer patients, with “a noticeable C curve in their posture.” Keith concludes: “This is what will happen if you eat vegetarian…for any length of time.”  As for parents who would impose vegetarianism on their hapless children:  “Here’s what you’ll do to your kids:  neurological damage that could well be permanent.”

Keith does not bother to provide any scientific evidence for any of these and other claims concerning the health dangers of vegetarianism.  Instead, warning her reader away from the epidemiological literature on meat and plant-based diets, Keith turns to personal anecdote and invective. When not ridiculing vegetarians ad hominem, Keith, a former vegan, begs them to quit before it’s too late, because “I destroyed my body” and “you don’t want to end up like me.” Veganism almost killed her. During the 14 years she was vegetarian and vegan, she writes, she became very ill.  She “felt sick, nauseated, and bloated” and exhausted all of the time. She stopped menstruating and her dry skin peeled off in flakes. She suffered “cold and exhaustion” and gastroparesis.  She also underwent an “emotional collapse” as a result of not eating meat. Worst of all, in the ultimate violation of her dignity as a predator, Keith reports that a Chi Gong master she consulted breaks the news to her that she has no Chi.  Vegetarianism killed her Chi.  No wonder that, encountering a group of vegetarian permaculturists, Keith exhibits the visceral reaction of a former POW suddenly encountering an enemy brigade:  “They couldn’t make me go back….I’d done enough damage to my body—my thyroid, my joints—by eating the inedible.”

Sounding at times like a vampire or a werewolf, Keith describes being filled with strange, primordial “cravings” for flesh (Pollan similarly compares the desire to eat meat to the desire for sex).  “I was hungry all the time.  All the time.” When she finally gives in to those cravings, it feels like “coming out of a coma.” She even compares the experience to being freed “from a prisoner of war camp.” Dining with a young woman still in recovery from veganism, the two women laugh out loud, “happy to be alive.” “Oh god…this is what it feels like to be alive.” Echoing the advertisements of the meat industry, Keith writes that meat is “real food,” filled with “real protein and real fats.” Pleading with other vegetarians to quit before it’s too late, Keith writes, “you don’t want to end up like me.” Even switching to a meat-centered diet hasn’t been able to undo the damage.  Keith must now live “in life-altering pain for the rest of my days because I believed and believed in veganism.”

Of Keith’s many horrifying afflictions, and they are legion, the one that has condemned her to the most physical agony and emotional hardship has been her degenerative disk disease.  Because of vegetarianism, she says, her spine now looks “like a sky-diving accident.” However, here as in the case of all the other afflictions Keith blames on vegetarianism, Keith offers no scientific or other evidence to support her claim.  Since a search of the scientific literature turned up nothing on a link between vegetarianism and disk disease, this reviewer got in touch with the man who wrote the book, in this case literally, on degenerative disc disease. Dr. Robert Gunzberg, a senior researcher at the Brugmann University Hospital in Belgium, has spent his entire professional life studying the causes of degenerative spinal disorders and treating patients afflicted with them.  One of the handful of world authorities on the subject, he is also the chief editor of an authoritative book-length treatment of the subject.  When queried about Keith’s claim, Gunzberg sent the following clipped, unequivocal reply:  “There is absolutely no link between degenerative disc conditions (better than ‘disease’) and vegetarianism” [26].

Why then is Keith claiming, in a book published by an anarchist press, that her illness was caused by vegetarianism?  Perhaps she is granting herself a special epistemic privilege concerning her own medical condition.  However, it is one thing for me to give a first-person phenomenology of my experience as someone with Alzheimer’s Disease, say, and quite another for me to claim in print that my illness was causedby my excessive TV-watching or my penchant for cold showers.  Even more troubling would be for me to turn around and claim that others who watch too much TV or take cold showers put themselves at grave risk of developing Alzheimer’s.  But here is Keith: “But take my word:  you don’t want to end up like me.”  She adds:  “Please….I’m not too proud to beg.”  But blaming the onset of her illness to vegetarianism is a form of post hoc ergo propter hoc—the fallacy of claiming a causal relationship between two unrelated phenomena due merely to their coincidence in time.  Degenerative disk problems trouble millions of meat-eaters, but that doesn’t mean that eating meat caused their problems, either.

In fact, both the American Dietic Association and the Canadian Dietic Association have found that “vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” [27]. Moreover, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that vegetarians are significantly healthier as a group than meat-eaters, while meat consumption has been positively correlated with colorectal cancer as well as cancers of the prostate, breast, ovaries, and so on.  Keith herself cites a study showing that Seventh-Day Adventists, the largest population of vegans ever studied, live longer and “have lower rates of ‘hyptension, diabetes, arthritis, colon cancer, prostate cancer, fatal CHD in males, and death from all causes’” in comparison to the non-vegan population. By this point in her book, however, Keith has been arguing for more than 200 pages that living on a vegan or even vegetarian diet is biologically impossible. How, then, can it be that these vegans are not only not dying from excruciating diseases, but are actually healthier than the rest of the population? She writes: “comparing Seventh-Day Adventists to the average American is absurd, because they are also forbidden to drink alcohol and coffee and they aren’t allowed to smoke. They eat substantially more fresh food and substantially fewer doughnuts. Of course they’re healthier.” But whether or not the extraordinary health of the Adventists is partly due to their not drinking liquor and coffee is irrelevant:  Keith has acknowledged that people living for years on a vegan diet are far healthier than the meat-eating mainstream. Keith thus refutes Keith.

Lacking any scientific evidence to support her contention that a vegetarian diet is unhealthy or indeed incompatible with our biology, Keith turns instead to personal invective and anecdote.  To prove that veganism causes dementia, Keith tells us that she personally knows “a number of vegans with serious memory problems” and includes two pages of dialogical burlesque between herself and a vegan “friend” who appears to be a mental incompetent.  But if the personal is political, for Keith the political is, well, personal.  This is an author with some serious score-settling to do.  Writers embark on a particular work for all sorts of reasons, but the surest and least complicated way to start and to sustain a narrative is revenge.  And vengeance is what fuels The Vegetarian Myth.  Having been brow-beaten for years by one too many members of the “vegan police,” Keith is determined now to let them have it. Not only does vegetarianism lead literally to the end of the world–worse, it produces insufferable vegans. Veganism is “one part cult, one part eating disorder,” she rails.  Of “self-righteous” vegetarians, Keith writes, “you know the tone:  smug and precious and self-satisfied.”

We do know the tone, and regrettably it is on every other page of Keith’s book.  Like other evangelicals, Keith’s certainty is as absolute and unwavering as the Word.  She cannot betray ambivalence or doubt.  And though she begins her book saying that, in contrast to the self-righteous, childlike, ignorant vegetarians and vegans she knows all too well, those who ply books filled with “hellish descents into factory farms and their righteous weighing of grain,” she will proceed with an economy of forgiveness and generosity, she abandons the cause on the very same page, mocking vegetarianism for its “so life-affirming and ethically righteous” claims, and vegetarians for embracing “those oh so eco-peaceful grains and beans.” Animal rights fanatics feel compassion “for the creatures that…tug at your heart and conscience,” while ignoring the subjectivity of microbes and plants.  Echoing her intellectual hero, food writer Michael Pollan (who dismisses vegetarians in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as “puritanical,” “urban,” and “parochial” [28]), Keith dismisses animal rights activists as full of “arrogance and ignorance.” “I know it’s an emergency,” she says, addressing vegans.  “I know it as much as you do, okay?  But you don’t have to kill yourselves or each other.” “Are you listening?” she demands.

After hundreds of pages of this, Keith finally reaches for her revolver:  nutritional determinism.  “You know the type I’m talking about,” she writes—“aggressive, rigid, on a hair trigger, and in a constant state of rage.  That’s what happens to a human with a brain deprived of protein and fat.” Only once does Keith disappoint her reader and it is here, when she neglects to raise the possibility that her own aggression, ideological ridigity, and ceaseless rage, on vivid display throughout this work, are themselves symptoms of the deprivations suffered by her own brain during her lean years in the vegan wilderness.

There is precedence for Keith’s all-knowing, mocking, sarcastic tone.  It was the same tone readers heard in the first pronouncements of Christopher Hitchens after he had been re-born as a Neocon in 2001, the same tone that marked the early writings of disaffected militants of the Old and New Left like Irving Kristol (a former Trotskyist) who leaped ship once the movements of the 1960s fell apart to land in the bosom of the ascendant Right.  The God that failed.  Once burned, twice shy.  Or as Scotty remarked on the old Star Trek,“Fooled me once, shame on you.  Fooled me twice, shame on me.”  Well, this much we know:  Lierre Keith won’t be fooled again.  Once a true believer in the vegan cause, she is now determined to expiate her past sins by trash-talking the cause she once committed herself to body and soul.  But preserved in the bitter amber of that political self-awakening is the same dessicated self-righteousness and smug certainty of old.

The Ethics of Eating Meat

It is not enough for Keith to claim that we are biologically obligated to eat meat, she also wants to convince us that eating other animals is morally permissible.  But here a word is necessary about Keith’s approach to the moral philosophy of animal rights.

Arguments over whether and under what circumstances it is ethical to kill other animals go back to ancient times.  The first person to call himself a philosopher (literally, “lover of wisdom”) was Pythagoras, in the sixth century B.C.E., who advocated  vegetarianism to his followers, apparently for ethical as well as metaphysical reasons.  Many other philosophers and critics, in both the East and West, have made the case for ethical vegetarianism in the centuries since, and some religious groups (some Buddhists and the Jains) have had a vegetarian or predominantly vegetarian lifestyle for over a thousand years.  By the 19th century, both ethical vegetarianism and animal rights, topics which had been debated in Europe already for more than a century, became the subject of carefully sustained philosophical defense by such figures as Henry Salt, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Percy Shelley, Max Scheler, and Leo Tolstoy, among others [29].  However, it was not until the 1970s that the idea of animal rights as a total critique came to the broader public’s attention.  The publication of philosopher Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975 is generally seen as the turning point in the creation of the contemporary movement for animal rights.  Since then, hundreds of other scholars, from dozens of different fields of study–philosophy, sociology, women’s studies, political science, anthropology, psychology, literature, critical legal studies, and so on–have written in defense of animal interests [30].  Scholars have pulled back the veil on the social construction of our relations with other animals, including the complex ideology of “meat” itself.  Scientists in the interdisciplinary field of cognitive ethology have meanwhile demonstrated that other animals are capable of modes of consciousness, reasoning, and emotional complexity far beyond what anyone suspected, including feats of memory, sense perception, and spatial reasoning that in some cases surpass our own.  Finally critical theorists have drawn attention to the myriad ways in which human social domination—the domination and killing of humans by humans—is historically derived from, modeled on, and based on technologies of, the human control and domination of other animals.

I rehearse all this simply to highlight Lierre Keith’s response to what is now an extensive, well-established literature exploring practically every dimension of the history, cultural ramifications, social construction, and ethical problems with our treatment of other animals, including eating them.  Confronted with a mountain of carefully reasoned philosophical and scholarly work, from Continental philosophy and theology to radical feminism and Marxism, Keith simply ignores all of it. Let me be clear:  Lierre Keith has written a book-length treatment of animal rights and ethical vegetarianism which ignores everything that has been written on the subject over the last century and beyond.  Instead, The Vegetarian Myth is the kind of book that eschews the philosophy and sociology of human-animal relations for best-selling diet fad books like Protein Power and The Dark Side of Soy.  Keith goes on for pages about “the cholesterol myth” and includes a two-page chart comparing the teeth, gall bladders, colon size, etc., of dogs, sheeps, and humans, all in order to prove that humans are not “meant” to eat a vegetarian diet, but rather a meat-based one. In so doing, Keith falls back on the locavore version of intelligent design, conflating an accidental natural capacity with immanent teleological purpose. We learn, for example, that cows and other animals brought to the Americas for ruthless exploitation five centuries ago “all have the lives they were meant to have”; meanwhile, “we [humans] are built to consume meat.”  Yet the fallacy of this line of reasoning is not hard to see. Looking down at my hands, for example, I see vestigial claws – “nails.” In evolutionary terms, claws served many useful purposes, including self-defense. But the fact that I retain the ability to use my vestigial claws to gouge out the eyes of my neighbour does not therefore mean that I am entitled to do so. Similarly, whether or not our bodies are capable of digesting animal parts has no ethical significance. We can also digest human flesh and bone in a pinch (and many have, through the centuries), but that fact is a poor excuse for anthropophagy.

The rub of the problem in The Vegetarian Myth and with arguments defending our consumption of other animals more generally is that they inevitably turn on one or another form of the naturalistic fallacy.  Keith unfurls her own idiosyncratic version of the fallacy in three stages.  First, she sets up the straw argument that the ethical vegetarian position rests on the mistaken belief that humans are biological herbivores (rather than carnivores or omnivores).  Keith then “refutes” the position by piling up facts that we are not ruminants and “showing” that our bodies are capable of eating meat.  Finally, she argues from the fact that we have evolved the ability to digest animal flesh to the normative position that this capacity makes it morally permissible to eat meat.  In other words, Keith like other apologists for human domination, justifies the killing of animals on grounds that doing so is natural.  As Pollan quips in


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