I decided to read The Vegetarian Myth (Lierre Keith, 2009) after running across it in several blogs that I read. I was kind of reluctant to read it, though, since I normally dislike manifesto-like writings. I finally ILL'ed it last week, and read it during the last couple days of my bout with the flu/cold that put me out of work for a few days.
This book's basic premise is to refute the notion that becoming a vegetarian/vegan is a valid way for humans to save the planet. The author, who lived most of her life as a radical, feminist, vegan lesbian, managed to ruin her own health through her diet. Subsequently, she has been living now as a radical, feminist, non-vegan lesbian, and is healing herself slowly. She wrote this book to outline the major lifestyle shift in her decision to start eating meat again.
The book is divided into three big chapters, each of which refutes the arguments of a particular brand of vegan: the nutritional vegetarian (who believes that being a vegetarian is more natural for human bodies), the political vegetarian (who believes that vegetarianism will save the planet), and the moral vegetarian (who believes that "meat is murder"). While this organizational strategy is effective in marshaling her arguments, the length of the chapters and the total lack of any subheadings left me floundering at times in the structure.
Keith's answer to all of the vegetarians listed above is more or less the same. She says that all of the different kinds of vegetarian persuasions are based on data that originates in feedlot-style meat, mono-crop, grain-based farming, and Big Ag (a la Monsanto). According to her data, if humans were to engage in foodshed eating and eliminate the enormous, government-subsidized mono-cropping, we'd be both healthier and in a better position to save the world.
Now. This is a delicate subject, a fact to which Keith is not immune. Having spent 20 years of her life in which being a vegan was a major part of her identity (not just a diet, she's quick to point out, but her true sense of her self), she is sympathetic to the idea that her book may come across as offensive. In fact, this is one thing I enjoyed about this book: I was expecting the fervor of a convert, which I found, but it was tempered by her deep understanding of what makes vegetarians tick, so it was missing a certain degree of stridency that I was expecting.
[Not that this sympathy has got her far. Apparently she's lost friends and even received death threats, the irony of which is almost too much to process...death threats from the "meat is murder" crowd?!]
It seems to me that this book's most violent critics miss Keith's crucial point, which I'd like to restate because it's a strong one. In reacting defensively to a perceived attack on their dietary choice, the critics don't see this: no amount of planting corn and soybeans and wheat is going to feed the world. All it will do is continue to destroy grasslands and wetlands. Corn and wheat and soybeans don't constitute a balanced diet, either, so the starving people will continue to starve.
Keith's two-pronged approach to saving the planet is this: eating locally and sustainably, and severe population control. (The second prong is the one that doesn't get much press, but is obviously necessary too.) Whether you agree with her dietary choices or not, you can't ignore her main point.