Peak Moment 191: The vegetarian myth
What we eat is destroying both our bodies and the planet, according to author Lierre Keith, a recovering twenty-year vegan. While she passionately opposes factory farming of animals, she maintains that humans require nutrient-dense animal foods for good health. A grain-based diet is the basis for degenerative diseases we take for granted (diabetes, cancer, heart disease) - diseases of civilization. Annual grain production is destroying topsoil and creating deserts on a planetary scale. Lierre urges the restoration of perennial polycultures for longterm sustainability. [http://lierrekeith.com]
Peak Moment episode 191 Recorded February 20, 2011 Guest: Lierre Keith
Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. My guest today is Lierre Keith, who's a writer and author and radical feminist. Her book is The Vegetarian Myth. I need to thank you, Lierre, for being with us today. Robyn and I have read aloud maybe a handful of books together and yours was one of those few. This has been riveting.
Lierre Keith: Thank you.
JD: Some of the writing is lyrical, it is passionate. But what you are saying is so critical for many of us to hear right now. What I understand you to be saying is that the vegetarian way of eating — which many people are turning to due to climate change and so on — doesn't nurture the human being. It doesn't nurture our bodies and it is destroying the planet. Do I have this right?
JD: So why isn't a vegetarian diet, which sounds like the right way to go — why isn't it good for people?
LK: Well, there's a human template that needs certain nutritional elements, and they are not provided by a vegetarian diet. You can go back four million years to the very beginning of the human race and there is no question that we were hunters. This is what we ate for literally four million years. And it's the reason that we have really big brains. We have the largest brain of any primate and we have the smallest digestive tract — which is to say, "How are we going to feed that brain?" Our brain uses 25% of our energy needs. You are not going to get that out of plants — there is not enough energy. It is quite clear that we must have been eating meat in order to develop brains that are this large. And the other thing that you find in the archeological record is that humans are tall, strong, they keep all of their teeth, and their bones are disease-free until the advent of agriculture. And then suddenly everybody shrinks six inches, they lose their teeth, and their bones are riddled with disease. And then we have a concept — the "diseases of civilization." There is no such thing as the diseases of hunter-gatherers.
JD: Let me back up for a second here. Part of how you got into this is because you yourself were a vegan for 20 or so years? So you are looking at not anything from animals. Right?
JD: So fill us in on that story as well. You were not just looking at this template. Why did you choose to be a vegan?
LK: Well, I started when I was very young, at age sixteen. I had met another vegan. At that age you are very idealistic and impressionable. I was already impassioned about saving the planet and the political concerns regarding oppression. It all comes together when you learn about veganism. You can stop oppressing animals, you can stop hurting the earth and you can feed hungry people — a complete picture. You have a total plan if you just eat this way. And at age sixteen, I had no counter-information and thought it seemed like it made sense.
JD: And it’s wonderful, honorable, laudable – you can do this and it affects much more than just yourself.
LK: Yeah, except that none of it’s true. And that’s the problem. So I believed that for 20 years. The problem was that, of course, I kept accumulating information. I didn’t stop there. And so all of the counter-information that I indeed was gathering, I couldn’t look at. One of the things about being a vegan is that it is not just what you eat. It becomes who you are. And that makes it really hard to examine new information – because it’s a threat. You are threatening ‘who’ you are. So every time I got information that was actually different from what I believed, I had to set it aside. I was living with a tremendous sort of gap in my consciousness, which was really hard. Eventually when I had to give up being a vegan, I was able to examine all of that information and embrace it more fully.
JD: Then there is something in animal meals that we do not get in grains and such?
LK: Well, it is nutrient-dense food. For a start, you get the complete proteins. The problem with protein from plant sources is that it’s wrapped in cellulose. And we have no way to digest cellulose – we’re not ruminants. We have the one stomach and we don’t have the bacteria that can do it for us. So we can’t eat grass. We have no way to digest it. So we can’t get to the protein, which is why it is called ‘poor quality protein.’ It’s not complete. Right away, you have the protein problem. It is not really assimilated by humans. And then there are the fats. There are fat-soluble nutrients that you cannot get from plants – vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K2, vitamin E. You cannot get these from plants as they don’t exist in plant foods.
JD: Not at all?
JD: And they are essential?
LK: They are essential. You will die without them. And they are important for every aspect of human biological function – especially the brain. So you are going to end up with deficiencies. Another problem is CoQ10, which is only available in meat. Heme iron is only available in meat. And then the fat itself is very important. Your brain is almost 80% fat, so you have got to eat fat.
JD: So if we call somebody a ‘fathead’ we are really being accurate?
LK: (Laughing) Yes we are. And that should actually be the highest compliment. It’s not, but it should be! So there are things that you are not getting, but then there are also things that you are getting too much of in an agricultural diet – essentially, way too much sugar. You can call it ‘complex carbohydrate’ if it makes you happy, but at the end of the day, it is still sugar.
JD: Yeah, because the starches that are in grains break down quickly into sugar.
JD: So then, what is wrong with that?
LK: Well, it is way too much insulin. It requires an insulin response. For instance, your brain can only function within a very small range of sugar (blood glucose) variance. So if too much is present, it will create a biological emergency. And then your pancreas has to release all of this insulin which will grab the sugar and sock it away, usually in your fat cells, as fast as it can — or you will die. So it’s an emergency response. And this is not what insulin was meant for. So every time you eat one of these meals, you’re demanding that your body produce that much insulin. Then there is a whole cascade of effects that happen from having this constant blood sugar roller-coaster effect. These include obvious things like diabetes and hypoglycemia but, for instance, others such as cancer. We know two things about cancer. One, is that insulin provokes the growth of cancer cells. And, two, what cancer eats is sugar. So if you put people on an agricultural diet, they are apt to get cancer. This is why cancer is unknown among hunter-gatherers.
LK: Yes. You could read statements about this in medical journals even until the 1950's. Well, we all know that the Eskimos didn’t get cancer! And that’s why. They weren’t eating agricultural foods.
JD: So your book says that the hunter-gatherer peoples not only had no cancer but no heart disease or diabetes as well?
LK: And no auto-immune diseases. All of the chronic degenerative diseases that we are accustomed to thinking of as normal are not normal. There are entire groups of people that never get them. Now those people have been fast-disappearing with the onslaught of industrial civilization but, even a hundred years ago, you could still find them all over the globe. There is a lot of documentation about various imperial armies or navies that were traveling around with doctors who were French, English, etc. The physicians would marvel that the hunter-gatherer peoples had no cancer. No diabetes. Their health was in excellent overall condition. The state of their teeth was as well. Jaws were broad and well-accommodated the teeth. Facial structure was noteworthy in its aesthetics. Over and over, you find accounts that these people still existed. Until the 1950’s, these observations were still being made.
JD: Wow. I think one of the things that really struck me was the work of Dr. Weston Price – the dentist. Tell us a bit about this?
LK: Weston Price was a dentist originally from Canada but who lived in the United States. In the 1930’s, he had been observing for about 10-15 years in his dental practice that suddenly there were children whose teeth did not fit properly within their mouths. They had terrible malformations and all kinds of bizarre problems that he had never seen before. His theory was that this had something to do with nutrition because, at that point, corporate America had already begun to take control of the food supply. The food supply was being flooded with cheap vegetable oils and all of the traditional animal fats were being removed from the diet. Large amounts of white sugar and white flour had also been introduced. He believed that this was why these terrible dental problems were suddenly popping up in young kids. He then decided to test his theory. Weston and his wife Flora, who was a nurse, set out to travel to every continent in the world on which humans lived and find at least one group of people who had achieved ‘perfect’ health. The latter included freedom from chronic and degenerative diseases, freedom from mental illness, ease of childbirth generation after generation (i.e. a woman going into labor and giving birth four hours later)...
LK: Yes, because of the optimal bone structure. And so on every continent, he was able to find at least one group of people that met such criteria (no dental problems, ‘perfect’ teeth, no cavities). He started in Europe and went up into the mountains of Switzerland and found such people. He also went to the outer Hebrides in upper Scotland and found another group of people who were totally free of what he called “the displacing foods of modern commerce.”
JD: “The displacing foods of modern commerce.”
LK: Yes. Eating their traditional diets, these peoples achieved this ideal state of health. The Prices spent years traveling from continent to continent, finding such peoples, and then documenting this. Photography had just advanced to the point that one could actually take pictures while traveling. Another ten years and it this would not have been possible — most of these people would have disappeared; their cultures would have disappeared. But that was the exact ‘moment’ in which photography and the survival skills of traditional peoples ... there was just enough overlap so that he could document all of this.
JD: So what conclusion did he come to?
LK: Well, this is his brilliance – because the macro-nutrient ratios are really different. People living in the outer Hebrides are going to eat something very different than people living in Central Africa.
LK: But what he realized, was that ‘it’ was the animal fats in particular – vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin K which had not yet been discovered in the lab. He knew that there was a third nutrient but he did not know what it was. And he has been proven correct. It was vitamin K2. So there were three nutrients, particularly, that were very condensed in these animal foods (animal fats). These animal foods were considered sacred. They tended to be something like raw liver or fish eggs. But the fattiest part of the animal is the most nutrient-dense. Meat is at least 100 times more nutrient dense than vegetable matter. And the organ meats are at least 100 times more nutrient dense than the muscle meat. The latter are the most nutrient dense parts of such foods. Everywhere around the world that he found these healthy people, these were the foods that were most valued. Usually there were sacred ceremonies involved with eating these foods. So, this is what he discovered — the significance of these nutrient-dense foods with their fat-soluble vitamins as well as high levels of minerals. The human body actually cannot absorb minerals without the presence of fat.
LK: Yes. This is one of the problems, of course, with a low-fat diet. It is why you are seeing osteoporosis everywhere. And this is one of the problems I ended up with as a vegan. I had degenerative disease of the spine. I can tell you that this is how I did it and now I understand why this happened, but that is the update on Weston Price. There is some great nutritional information out there. A wonderful group of people have revived the work of Weston Price. His book was actually the basic textbook at Harvard Medical School for years. Then the sugar industry took over and his book was removed from the curriculum. The sugar industry literally said “You can’t do that” and so the book was removed.
JD: Whoa. Well, are we surprised? Not entirely. But it seems to me that the food industry has stolen good nutrition from us. I was raised with the information that you eat low-fat foods and that you eat vegetable fats. This puts a ‘lie’ to that. People are still saying that the way to lose weight is with a low-fat diet. This means that you are starving...everything!
LK: Everything — from your brain on down. People who eat low-fat diets have suicide rates about four-times higher than the average. Not only suicide rates but higher violent death and murder rates as well. So you are not stable when you don’t get sufficient fat.
JD: You said that people around the world are getting something like 80% of their calories from cereal grains with the agricultural diet? And why not? Less carbon is produced, you don’t have all of the cattle emitting methane. This is what I would guess vegetarians are probably saying – that this choice is better for both the planet and for humans.
LK: What they are basing these statistics on is the factory farm model. And I think that we can all agree (anybody with a beating heart) that on every level – morally, ethically, even spiritually – factory farming has just got to go. Factory farming didn’t exist until 1950. And the reason that we have it is because corn became so cheap. So you have to ask about five previous questions to this. Why did corn become so cheap? Well, it was the "Green Revolution." People figured out how to take oil and gas and turn them into nitrogen fertilizer. So when oil and gas were really cheap and abundant, it meant that fertilizer was really cheap. They also did a lot of plant breeding and now, of course, genetic engineering. With all of the plants that were grown, not nearly as much of the cellulosic stalks and leaves were produced but, instead, way more energy was put into producing the grain itself. These are the "Green Revolution" crops. Put that together with cheap fertilizer and, literally, a mountain of corn has been produced since the 1950’s. There was no place else for this to go – it was so cheap. And from that point forward, it made economic sense to take animals away from their habitat – away from farms – and essentially put them in cities where they now live on concrete. Further, they are fed corn which is not their native diet. It kills them. If you are eating grain-fed beef, you are eating a sick animal.
JD: "Corn-fed" beef?
LK: Yes, corn-fed beef. Grain-fed. This is not their native diet. It literally kills them. It burns holes in their stomachs and destroys their livers.
JD: Which is why they are given antibiotics and other stuff?
LK: Yes, exactly. It is the only way that they are going to survive that.
JD: So we are all eating sick meat?
LK: Yeah, we are. And the only way that is possible is because of fossil fuel. So yes, when you do these statistics based on what is happening in the feed-lot, it is going to look like all of these resources go to them. But to back it up one more step, that is not the reason that corn is being produced. It is not because there is a demand for factory-farmed animal products. And this is not an excuse for eating them. But withdrawing from factory-farmed meat will not stop a single farmer from over-producing corn. The reason it is being produced is because there are six corporations that are controlling the world’s food supply. They have a monopoly and are able to drive the price of corn below the cost of production. And this means that every year in farm country these poor farmers have to produce more corn. And they still can’t make a profit so, every year, they have to produce more. And every year there is a bigger surplus, the price goes lower, and the farmers have to produce even more. They are on this hideous treadmill. That’s why there is this mountain of corn. It has nothing to do with the fact that animals are being tortured in factory farms.
So we have had this backwards for about 30 years. And the people who originally wrote books about this did not understand it — because they’re not from Nebraska. So it looks like this makes sense but it’s not accurate. And I have to say that this is the one part of the vegetarian myth that bears no relation to reality. Some of it is at least true to a certain extent – but this is completely wrong. And then the other half of this is “Well, if you eat like this then you will feed the hungry people.” It’s not true. Instead, it is just like Wal-Mart. We all get this concept. Wal-Mart comes to town, it sells everything really cheap, it drives all of the local businesses out – and then it has a monopoly. Well, this is the same model. When I say that there are six corporations that control the food supply, this is not a metaphor.
JD: This is literal!
LK: This is for real.
JD: This is very scary.
LK: They control everything. They can go to places like Mexico, the Philippines, and other small countries and do what is called "agricultural dumping." This is what causes starvation. It drives the local farmers off of their land. They cannot compete. And, as groups like OXFAM explain, American corporations can sell their grain at half the price that local farmers can produce it. So farmers are driven off of their land into urban squalor. And this is what is causing world hunger. The last place you want to put those cheap commodities is near chronically hungry people because it is destroying these local economies the world over. Again, we have this part of it backwards.
JD: It’s kind of crazy. And it is not truly feeding people.
LK: Yes. We have this other problem which is that agricultural societies are always on overshoot. And that would include the current situation. Agriculture is drawdown.
JD: Talk about agriculture. Why is that even not healthy?
LK: All right. You have to understand what agriculture is. In brute terms — you take a piece of land and clear every living thing off of it. And I mean everything, right down to the bacteria. Then you plant it to human use. So this is biotic cleansing. We all know what ethnic cleansing is.
JD: It is like genocide.
LK: Yes it is. But it is all of life. Biocide.
JD: I remember you were saying that there is something like a million different organisms in one tablespoon of earth?
LK: Yes. And that is what we kill when we do agriculture. So, in nature, you have a few different templates – but it is all the same idea. There are a whole bunch of different plants that live for a long time, communicate with each other, and form a community – with the basic goal of creating more life. The way that they do this is by creating soil because soil is the basis of land life. So all of that material, whether trees or plants or whatever, they are protecting the soil from exposure — their roots literally hold it in place. And then there are all of the other biological functions of the bacteria and micro-organisms. They degrade the dead matter and make the nutrients available again for the plants to draw back up. Another thing about plants (at least perennial plants that have very deep root systems) is that they draw up the minerals that make life possible through their roots from the rock that is our planet. That is the basic sort of template for life on earth. All of these plants are working together to create more soil. The problem with agriculture is that it wipes out all of those plants and you are only planting one or two plants instead. And these are annuals, not perennials, so they are short-lived.
JD: You keep wiping these off every single year.
LK: Every year. This is a war! This is why Iowa alone uses the energy equivalent of 4000 Nagasaki bombs every single year.
JD: In fertilizer?
LK: Yes – and in other kinds of energy use. You need those big machines to get out there and clear the land. The world does not want to be a mono-crop. Nature does not recognize this as a living system. And she does everything in her power to repair that wound.
JD: I remember thinking about how the ‘Fertile Crescent’ isn’t fertile.
LK: It's a desert. There were cedar trees so thick that sunlight never touched the ground. This is part of my favorite Derrick Jensen quote — he said that “forests precede us and deserts dog our heels.” That is the path of agriculture around the globe. We have hit the end. We have no more continents. We have been out of soil since 1950. The human race is at the cliff. That is probably the main reason that I wrote this book. The people who care the most are environmentalists. Even of them, I would say that the most impassioned people are the vegans. The values are not the problems – justice, sustainability, compassion. We have the right values and we've got the passion to institute them. But the vegetarian/vegan diet – we have been pointing in the wrong direction for 30 years. And I want people to understand the real damage that is being done to this planet and what it is going to take to repair it. We are going to have to give up agriculture if this planet is to have any hope.
JD: How can we give up agriculture and still feed the 7 million of us?
LK: Nothing we can do is going to feed the 7 million. So the question is – are we going to have a soft landing or are we going to have a crash? If we could get all of the institutions that rule the planet on board, we could have a soft landing. This would not be that difficult. The problem is that I don't see the evidence that we are going to do this. I think that the privileged are going to hang onto this [the status quo] until the very last moment. And I think that things are going to be very ugly.
People get upset when you talk about population. But we don’t need to be upset. There are really only two reasons that we have overpopulation. One is global capitalism and the other is patriarchy. What we know about people’s reproductive lives is that, when they are poor, they have more children. And when women cannot control their own fertility, they have more children than they want to. The number one thing you can do to reduce the birth rate is to teach a girl to read. When you give women just a little bit of empowerment, then they can control their reproductive lives. So we are all going to have to be feminists to save the planet. Oh gosh, what a shame. And we’ve got to stop the rich from stealing from the poor. So we’re going to have to be against global capitalism. A lot of these are things we should be doing anyway.
LK: Justice should call us to these. But if we could do those things, indeed, the birth rate would drop pretty quickly. We’re all going to die one day. We just need to reproduce at less than replacement levels.
JD: So what you are describing is a decline – that is the soft landing.
LK: That’s the soft landing.
JD: Then, meanwhile, we need to shift our agriculture from these huge crops of annual grains — to what?
LK: My slogan is – repair, restore, rejoin. So we have to repair the forests and the grasslands. We have to restore the animal cohort that should live there. My big passion right now is the grasslands of North America – the prairie. We need to restore the prairie. Now, I’ll walk you through one scenario here. Given enough rainfall, in a lot of areas, you can take one acre of land and you can do two different things. On that acre, you can wipe everything off of it, drive everything away, kill all life down to the bacteria (the tiny micro-organisms that make all life possible). You can then plant it to corn and dump a whole bunch of fertilizer on it. Much of that fertilizer is going to run off and take the topsoil with it into the water. The fish and other life in the local river will be killed. The water table will keep dropping. The trees will be gone too, as they cannot reach the water. You are basically looking at a desert at some point. With that acre of corn, you could then feed the grain to tortured animals living on concrete. At the end of that year, you will have produced two cows for human consumption.
JD: Two cows.
LK: Or on that acre, you can leave it alone. You will still have all of the prairie life that should be there – all of the mammals, all of the reptiles, all of the birds. Everybody gets their habitat, which is their home. They get to live there. Leave the grass alone. The cows will eat the grass. So all of the animals and all of the plants are part of a living community. You could then come back in 10,000 years and the only difference would be – a few more inches of topsoil. So it is a closed-loop system. The rivers are in good shape, the water table stays the same. Life is good! And at the end of the year, you have two cows that could feed the same number of people. So one way kills everything, the other way is a system that could go on forever. Because it’s not a system, it is a living community. So these are our choices.
JD: What a comparison, what an image. Whoa!
LK: We took 60 million bison in this country and turned them into 40 million tortured cows. And we destroyed the continent in the process. It doesn’t even make any sense! But this is the insanity of industrial civilization.
JD: In our last two minutes, how can people find you?
LK: www.lierrekeith.com. You can get my book and all of this information is there.
JD: I want to say [holding The Vegetarian Myth] that this should be required reading for every human!
LK: Thank you.
JD: For people who are starting to eat in a new way, for environmentalists, and for people concerned about the planet – you have woven together a community. Like the land community that you talk about, you have woven together the bigger picture which includes political and economic considerations in addition to how we can feed ourselves. This is beautiful. What do you see that is hopeful? That is moving in this direction?
LK: If we took 75% of the world’s trashed rangeland, we could restore it from agriculture back to functioning prairies — with their animal cohorts — in under fifteen years. We could further sequester all of the carbon that has been released since the beginning of the industrial age. So I find that a hopeful thing because, frankly, we just have to get out of the way. Nature will do the work for us. This planet wants to be grassland and forest. It does not want to be an agricultural mono-crop.
Look up "Chernobyl" online. People have not been living there since the [nuclear] accident. What has been happening is an incredible return of life. There are plural packs of wolves at Chernobyl now. All of these rare animals and birds have returned. So which is to say, in a really scary way, a nuclear disaster is better for the planet than civilization. Because it took all of the people away. Well, I shouldn’t say all of the people. Do you know who is still there? The old women. There were old women who refused to leave their land. And they are not hurting anything! So you have the old women and the animals. That is who is there.
JD: I love the picture.
LK: The healers, the grandmas.
JD: Thank you. You’re one of them — an honorary healing mother! This has been enlightening. You are watching Peak Moment Television for locally-reliant living. My guest is Lierre Keith, the author of The Vegetarian Myth. Read it. And join us next time.