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.

  • vegetarian myth - grazing buffalo
    The vegetarian myth assumes animals are bad for the environment, but Buffalo and other grazing animals are a natural part of grassland ecosystems.
  • Rancher with cattle
    Cattle are grazing animals, too. Grass is a much more natural diet for cattle than grain, and grass-fed cattle produce healthier milk and meat.
  • Irrigation circles
    Growing commodity crops irrigated by diesel-powered center pivot wells is profoundly unsustainable.
  • Tractor in field
    Large-scale monoculture farming is destroying our soil.
  • Fox, hunting
    A fox hunts. In nature, everything has to eat, including plants, animals and microorganisms.
  • Hawk, hunting
    Take a close look at a grassland and you’ll see a wonderful diversity of wildlife, including plants and animals, predators and prey.
  • Butterfly
    A grazing cow could coexist with this meadow. A cornfield would destroy it.
  • Cattle in sunset
    Grazers and grasslands feed each other. Cattle eat the grass, and in the process return organic matter to the soil and increase its fertility.

  • vegetarian myth - grazing buffalo
  • Rancher with cattle
  • Irrigation circles
  • Tractor in field
  • Fox, hunting
  • Hawk, hunting
  • Butterfly
  • Cattle in sunset

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.

9/30/2018 5:26:06 PM

I would challenge Ian to name these one or two of the vegan cultures that predate Christ by 500 years. I think if they existed he would say what they were. The concept of veganism was invented in 1944, and most of the "ancient vegan societies" people like to bring up were not vegan. The traditional Okinawan diet contains quite a bit of fish, the !Kung and Brokpa ate meat, and even the Jains and Ladakh traditionally consumed dairy products. "Vegetarian" Buddhist monks will eat meat so long as it wasn't butchered for their sake, and in fact there are entire butchers that specialize in providing meat to "Vegetarian" Buddhists much like there are elaborate workarounds to allow Orthodox Jews to cheat the Shabbat. To call any of these cultures vegan or even vegetarian is to impose on them western concepts that simply did not exist in those times and places. Besides that, B12 does not exist naturally in most parts of the world outside of animal protein sources. Any such vegan society existing 2200 years ago would not have lasted long.

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!



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