The vegetarian myth tells us that not eating meat leads to a sustainable diet. But eating plants exclusively will not solve the planet’s problems.
The vegetarian myth assumes animals are bad for the environment, but Buffalo and other grazing animals are a natural part of grassland ecosystems.
PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO/JONATHAN EDEN
I was a vegan for almost 20 years.
I know the reasons that compelled me to embrace an extreme diet, and they are honorable — even noble. Reasons such as justice, compassion, and a desperate, all-encompassing longing to set the world right. To save the planet — the last trees bearing witness to ages and the scraps of wilderness still nurturing fading species, silent in their fur and feathers. To protect the vulnerable, the voiceless. To feed the hungry. At the very least, to refrain from participating in the horror of factory farming.
These political passions are born of a hunger so deep it touches on the spiritual. They were for me, and they still are. I want my life — my body — to be a place where the Earth is cherished, not devoured; where the sadist is granted no quarter; where the violence stops. And I want eating — the first nurturance — to be an act that sustains rather than kills. This is an effort to honor our deepest longings for a just world. And I now believe those longings — for compassion, for sustainability, for an equitable distribution of resources — are not served by the practice of vegetarianism. Believing in this vegetarian myth has led us astray.
The vegetarian Pied Pipers have the best of intentions. I’ll state right now that everything they say about factory farming is true: It is cruel, wasteful, and destructive. But their first mistake is in assuming factory farming — a practice that is barely 50 years old — is the only way to raise animals. In my experience, their calculations on energy used, calories consumed, and humans unfed are all based on the notion that animals eat grain. You can feed grain to animals, but it is not the diet for which they were designed. For most of human history, browsers and grazers haven’t been in competition with humans. They ate what we couldn’t eat (cellulose) and turned it into what we could (protein and fat). But our industrial culture stuffs grain into as many animals as it can. Grain will dramatically increase the growth rate of beef cattle and the milk production of dairy cows. It will also kill them. The delicate bacterial balance of a cow’s rumen may become acidic and turn septic. Chickens get fatty liver disease if fed corn exclusively. Sheep and goats, which are also ruminants like cattle, shouldn’t touch the stuff either.
Not only that, but large portions of the world are utterly unsuited for growing large grain crops. And not just mountaintops in far distant Nepal, but close by in, say, New England. Cows are what grow here. So are deer, in their forest-destroying abundance. The logic of the land tells us to eat the animals that can eat the tough cellulose that survives here.
I think that this misunderstanding about animals and grain is born of an ignorance that runs the length and breadth of the vegetarian myth, through the nature of agriculture and ending in the nature of life. Most of us are now urban industrialists, and many of us don’t know the origins of our food. This includes many vegetarians, despite their claims to the truth. It included me, too, for 20 years. Anyone who ate meat was in denial; only I had faced the facts. Most people who consume factory-farmed meat have never asked what died and how. But frankly, neither have most vegetarians.
Life isn’t possible without death, and no matter what you eat, something has to die to feed you. The truth is that agriculture is the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet, and more of the same won’t save us. Today’s industrial agriculture requires the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems.
I want a full accounting, an accounting that goes way beyond what’s dead on your plate. I’m asking about everything that died in the process, everything that was killed to get that food onto your plate. That’s the more radical question, and it’s the only question that will produce the truth. How many rivers were dammed and drained? How many prairies plowed and forests pulled down? How much topsoil turned to dust? I want to know about all the species. Not just the individuals, but the entire species — the chinook, the bison, the grasshopper sparrows, and the gray wolves. And I want more than just the number of dead and gone. I want them back.
Despite what we’ve been told, and despite the earnestness of the tellers, eating soybeans isn’t going to bring these plants and animals back. Ninety-eight percent of the American prairie is gone, turned into a monocrop of annual grains. Plow cropping in Canada has destroyed 99 percent of the land’s original humus. When the rain forest falls to beef, progressives are outraged and ready to boycott. But our attachment to the vegetarian myth leaves us uneasy, silent, and ultimately immobilized when the culprit is wheat and the victim is the prairie.
The vast majority of people in the United States don’t grow food, let alone hunt and gather it. We have no way to judge how much death is embodied in a serving of salad, a bowl of fruit, or a plate of beef. We live in urban environments — in the last whisper of forests — thousands of miles removed from the devastated rivers, prairies, wetlands, and the millions of creatures who died for our dinners. Many inhabitants of urban industrial cultures have no point of contact with grain, chickens, cows, or — for that matter — with topsoil. We have no idea what nourishes plants, animals, or soil, which means we have no idea what we ourselves are eating.
What’s looming in the shadows of our ignorance and denial is a critique of civilization itself. The starting point may be what we eat, but the end is an entire way of life, a global arrangement of power, and with no small measure of personal attachment to it. I remember the day in fourth grade when Miss Fox wrote two words on the blackboard: civilization and agriculture. I remember because of the hush in her voice, the gravitas of her words, the explanation that was almost oratory. And I understood. Everything that was good in human culture flowed from this point — all ease, grace, and justice. Religion, science, medicine, and art were born, and the endless struggle against starvation, disease and violence could be won, all because humans had figured out how to grow their own food.
I believe that agriculture has created a net loss for human rights and culture: slavery, imperialism, militarism, class divisions, chronic hunger, and disease. “The real problem, then, is not to explain why some people were slow to adopt agriculture, but why anybody took it up at all, when it is so obviously beastly,” writes biologist and author Colin Tudge. Agriculture has also been devastating to the other creatures with whom we share the Earth, and, ultimately, to the life support systems of the planet itself. What is at stake is everything. If we want a sustainable world, we have to be willing to examine the power relations behind the foundational myth of our culture. Anything less and we will fail.
Questioning at that level is difficult for most people. In this case, the emotional struggle inherent in resisting any hegemony is compounded by our dependence on civilization, and by our individual helplessness to stop it. Most of us would have no chance of survival if the industrial infrastructure collapsed tomorrow. And our consciousness is equally impeded by our powerlessness.
I don’t have a “10 Simple Things …” list for you because, frankly, there aren’t 10 simple things that will save the Earth. There is no personal solution. There is an interlocking web of hierarchical arrangements — vast systems of power that have to be confronted and dismantled. We can disagree about how best to do that, but do it we must if life on Earth is to have any chance of surviving.
I have stopped fighting the basic algebra of embodiment: For something to live, something else has to die. In that acceptance, with all its suffering and sorrow, is the ability to choose a different way — a better way.
Consider the cow, a prey animal that has evolved to do one thing exquisitely: take cellulose — ubiquitous grass — and turn it into mass and motion. Like all members of a healthy biotic community, the cow produces food for someone else. Her manure feeds soil, plants, and insects. The mechanical action of her hooves and her teeth helps the grasslands stay diverse. Her digestive processes free up nutrients — and not just for her, but for the whole community. Her body will become a meal for predators, scavengers, and degraders of all sizes. Life is ultimately a cooperative process, unitary in its goal: more life.
The grazers need their grass, but the grass also needs the animals. It needs the manure, with its nitrogen, minerals, and bacteria. It needs the mechanical check of grazing activity, and it needs the resources stored in animal bodies and freed up by degraders after animals die. The grass and the grazers need each other as much as predators need prey. These are not one-way relationships. They are not arrangements of dominance and subordination.
In his book Long Life, Honey in the Heart, Martin Prechtel writes of the Mayan people and their concept of kas-limaal, which translates roughly as “mutual indebtedness, mutual insparkedness.” Pretchel writes that “the knowledge that every animal, plant, person, wind, and season is indebted to the fruit of everything else is an adult knowledge.”
This is a concept we need, especially those of us who are impassioned by injustice. The only way out of the vegetarian myth is through the pursuit of kas-limaal, of adult knowledge. If we choose to live in tune with nature, we won’t be exploiting each other by eating. Instead, we will only be taking turns.
This viewpoint is excerpted from The Vegetarian Myth (PM Press, 2009). While we expect that not all of our readers will agree with all of the ideas expressed in this opinion piece, we think it's an interesting and valuable perspective on food and farming that we hope will spur further discussion. We invite you to comment below. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS
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