The Vegetarian Myth

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.

| June/July 2010

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.

Factory Farming is Not the Only Way

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.

Considering Entire Ecosystems

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.

9/22/2017 1:04:58 AM

People eating A LOT less would help everything! It's just not necessary to eat all the food we eat especially calorie-dense fast food! We are unable to work off the calories which causes obesity, straining the health care system! Find other reasons to live than eating!

9/22/2017 1:04:53 AM

People eating LESS would help everything!

8/21/2017 9:38:24 PM

I would argue that most respondents here have missed the salient point made by Keith in the excerpt given here; in order for a life to live, another life-whether animal or plant-has to die. There is no getting around that. But it is more than just one life. Every animal eaten has the ability to procreate a certain number of offspring, just like every plant has the same ability. However, most plants create more offspring on a yearly basis. A cow needs two full years of growth before producing one offspring in her third year. Most plants in a three year period produce many times that (not by themselves, of course, even if they are biennials; their seed(s) figure into this type of equation). So if one kills and eats a cow, one is taking only one life in the short term (1 1/2-2 years), but several in the long term. With plants however, one is taking many times more lives than that in both the short term and long term (I am weak in math, but one could calculate out the numbers). Every seed contains within itself the essentials for creating a new life; thus, when one throws a cup of rice into water and cooks all the grains, think of how many potential lives one is killing. Just because mature grains do not make audible sounds and bleed red blood has little bearing on the fact that one is killing many lives to sustain one life. Thus, when one is a vegetarian, one kills many more lives than when one is an omnivore or a carnivore. This argument holds true whether one eats rice, wheat, apples, peaches, etc. One also causes a certain amount of stress to plants by harvesting non-ripe seeds; i.e. cutting heads of broccoli, picking green beans or snap/regular peas, etc. There is a great deal of recent research that documents plants abilities to react to any situation that threatens its ability to reproduce, whether it is a human harvesting a part of it, or a bug eating a part of it, a mammal eating part of it, etc. In such situations plants send out alarms signals that are taken in by fellow plants, both of the same and different types. Recent research has also proven, for example, that trees "talk" to each other, in particular trees of the same type. They tell each other where certain nutrients are located, where certain areas to avoid are located; alarm bells go off when danger of an type happens and that information is transmitted. As I indicated at the beginning, life needs to die in order for live to live. What needs to happen then, is that this process needs to given respect. The ancient people's knew this, which is why they had various rituals to acknowledge the process. How many people today do the same? Such an attitude has little to do with being religious, or being spiritual, but rather acknowledging we are but one part of a whole and we have our part to play.

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