I don’t read books about complex problems expecting to find comprehensive solutions. Few books deliver those. I read them to get ideas, understand what other people are thinking about these problems, and learn what additional sources of information are available. In this first installment of When Books About Food Collide, I review two books from my recent recommended reading post: “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer and “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith. Both are very worth reading. Especially one right after the other (your choice of order).
Both books depart from previous writing by the authors, with each having two novels under their belts. While these two books ultimately assert directly conflicting positions, they agree on one thing: industrial livestock farming is morally reprehensible.
Foer compiles a variety of firsthand descriptions, including his own, of the bloody and sadistic horrors that are the standard operating procedures that make possible 99% of the meat we currently eat. Although he recites the increasingly understood environmental degradation caused by animal factory farms, and briefly touches on the common claims of the nutritional superiority of plant-based diets, his main focus throughout “Eating Animals” is his recently-adopted belief that humans killing animals for food is inherently cruel, and therefore wrong. This cruelty is only heightened and perverted as part of our profit-driven, highly industrialized food system.
In addition to his nauseating descriptions of land-based industrial meat production, Foer describes the horribly destructive techniques used to harvest fish, both “wild”–where enormous volumes of sea animals are guaranteed to be “accidently” snagged up and killed by the miles-long lines and nets–and farmed, where the fish are confined in their own fouled water, which promotes the spread of vermin and infection. These sections of “Eating Animals” are powerful, and are reason enough to hope the book achieves a broad readership.
Several flaws and omissions, however, undermine Foer’s effort to preach dietary right and wrong. First, when not describing factory farms or slaughter houses, his writing can become annoyingly flippant and self-righteous. For instance, he describes adopting his adorable-sounding puppy after finding it abandoned on a street in Brooklyn. But the cute puppy images are just a set-up, and are soon followed by a Philippine recipe for “Stewed Dog, Wedding Style”. Get it? He also takes several unfollowed-up-on shots at Michael Pollan, and his very influential book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (My guess is Foer resents Pollan’s using his considerable influence to grant “permission” to eat meat based solely on its importance to eating as a social ritual; plus Pollan wussed out by avoiding the slaughterhouse horrors). These and numerous other little tics diminish some of the authority Foer establishes with his straight reportage of livestock farming and slaughter.
Also, in his several forays into non-factory livestock farms, Foer skips any thorough discussion of the sustainable farming practices being used on these small, pasture-based farms. There is no discussion of closed-loop agriculture, or permaculture, where the grazing of animals and their manure eliminates the need to introduce synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Instead Foer simply reduces the discussion to a comparison between the extremely cruel (factory farms) and the merely cruel (traditional farms).
He also leaves the impression that small, pastured-based farming is doomed to irrelevance, and is therefore not a real alternative to factory farming. He profiles three farms–one poultry, one hog and one beef cattle–that use traditional, non-industrial methods: they keep their animals on pasture, provide feed that the animals evolved to eat, and generally care for them humanely. But both the hog and cattle farm are owned by a larger national company, whose founder, Bill Niman, loses control of the company to profit-hungry investors. The bleak implication is that the profit-driven factory farm machine will stomp out any efforts that counter it.
Foer’s treatment of these alternative farms seems half-hearted, at best. He travels to Iowa (hog) and California (cattle) to visit them. With a few Google searches he could have found many alternative farms closer to his Brooklyn home. New England and Upstate New York are full of them. Maybe he needed the flight miles.
But the most glaring omission in “Eating Animals” is any mention of what Foer actually eats now. Whatever it is, he expects us to presume that it is morally superior to anything involving meat from any source. Like most vegans and vegetarians he likely consumes significant amounts of soy and grains. This makes him a regular customer of industrial agribusiness. Although he clearly would have picked up some knowledge of industrial agriculture from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, he never acknowledges that the growing of those commodity grains and beans is as industrialized as livestock farming, and now almost totally dependent on fossil fuels for synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and transportation. There is no discussion of the fact that the max-yield methods of modern agriculture have destroyed much of our non-renewable organism-rich topsoil. That thousands of native species of plants and animals (many with eyes as expressive as his puppy George) have been driven to extinction so that land can be cleared for growing monocrops. And that formerly wild, life-teeming rivers have been straightened, dammed and drained to irrigate these fields. He can munch his veggie burgers in Brooklyn, but much of the money he buys them with will be going to Monsanto, ADM, Cargill and the rest of agribusiness.
Foer deservers praise (and is getting it) for the vivid descriptions of the horrors of factory livestock farming, and for his additional attention to the destructive practices of seafood production. The more people read and think about these appalling methods of food production, the more they may search for humane and sustainable alternatives. But does he earn an “I’m Saving the Planet” guilt pass? In my opinion, no.
Many Vegetarians and Vegans will avoid Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth” based solely on its title. Those who dare to enter will find their life’s guiding philosophy under withering attack until the final page. The author, a self-described recovering twenty-year vegan, boils with rage at the ways she believes the vegetarian way of life in general, and veganism in particular, destroyed her health, and promote the continuing destruction of the natural world. Yet somehow in all her energetic arguments, there is compassion and genuine concern for the true believers. As she states repeatedly, she was one of them for 20 years, and clung faithfully to each of the movement’s tenets. She blames nobody but herself–specifically, the toxic combination of her yearning to live a kind and compassionate life, and her total lack of knowledge of how nature works.
Keith organizes her arguments into separate thrusts, taking on each of the three pillars of vegetarian philosophy: the moral, the political and the nutritional. It is in the first thrust, in which she critiques the moral justification for avoiding animal death of any kind, where “The Vegetarian Myth” collides head-on with “Eating Animals”. Foer is exclusively concerned with animals as sentient individuals, each with sensory, emotional and some cognitive faculties analogous to those of humans. He sees killing animals as a brutal and biologically unnecessary act of violence.
Keith sees this view as naive and self-centered. Most importantly to her, it’s a distraction from the real tragedy: the world-destroying extermination of natural ecosystems caused by the plow. Foer focuses on the individual animal, whose intelligence and personality, in the case of a hog, rivals your beloved family dog. He vividly describes the scene as a hog is prodded to its gory slaughter. To Keith, this is a too-easy pander to human emotion. But appreciating the tragic death of a community teeming with living things (most of which are microscopic), such as a native prairie, requires knowledge of nature’s complexities. That is knowledge she simply did not possess during her two decades as a vegan. And she believes that most vegetarians and vegans, especially those who, like she did, adopt this position as adolescents, also lack this knowledge.
In her attempt to fill this knowledge gap, Keith spends a lot of time describing the wonders of topsoil, and its importance as a non-renewable resource. Any ethical agriculture must preserve topsoil, or is by definition unsustainable. She asserts that this is only possible by having animals graze on the land, but only in quantities that the land can support. And without culling the herds and flocks, as happens in nature through predation, a chain of degradation will occur: the animal population will explode, vegetation will be stripped clear, rich topsoil that took thousands of years to form will wash away quickly, and many of the animals will ultimately die of starvation. Managing this pasture-based system is the essence of permaculture, the only truly sustainable, and therefore ethical form of agriculture, in Keith’s view.
Turning to nutrition, Keith attacks the common presumptions of the superiority of a plant-based diet with particular ferocity. She believes her veganism caused malnutrition, which in turn led to degenerative spine disease and a host of related maladies. She does not provide readers much medical support of these claims of causality. But I find her general nutritional arguments well-researched and documented. Those readers who have spent any time immersed in the “diet wars”, will recognize Keith’s position as aligned with the low-carb camp. She focuses particularly on three topics: the weakness of “The Lipid Hypothesis”, the danger of insulin resistance caused by excess carbohydrate intake, and studies that seem to show negative effects of ingesting large amounts of soy. She reminds us that traditional Asian cultures typically ate only small condiment-sized portions of soy products, not the slabs of tofu common in vegetarian and vegan diets.
Ultimately, the non-mainstream dietary philosophies of both books run smack up against the twin towers of burgeoning world population, and the political, economic and religious power structures that benefit by keeping it that way. Foer never states that solving the world’s food-related problems is a goal of his book. Rather, he has made an individual decision to refrain from eating animals. He makes a strong case that industrial meat production is immoral based on his descriptions of its practices, but I do not believe his broader statements about the superiority of his position in terms of sustainability and economic justice are supported in “Eating Animals”.
Keith is more blunt about her goals: she titles her final chapter, “To Save The World”. She believes that the march to unsustainability began 10,000 years ago with agriculture itself, and accelerated with the rise of fossil-fuel-powered industry. At a population of 6.8 billion and growing, we are well past “overshoot”. Her prescriptions reflect the vision of the self-described radical that she is: 1) don’t have children; 2) don’t drive a car; and 3) grow your own food. By definition, a radical perspective is all or nothing. No incremental tweaks or individual lifestyle changes will do. Where her approach has value is in it’s emphasis on group action, and building communities centered around common interests. But in the end, Keith’s approach is analogous to Foer’s: she has made an individual decision to go completely off the grid and raise all of her food sustainably. But this solution is clearly not globally realistic. Both books leave us with disturbing knowledge about the consequences of our eating habits, yet are full of valuable insights and research.
The No Meat vs. Humane Sustainable Meat debate will, and should, rage on. With a hat tip to Civil Eats, here are some recent skirmishes that began with a New York Times oped written by Nicolette Hahn Niman, wife and business partner of Bill Niman, mentioned above, defending the pasture-raised meat position, countered by Helene York in the Atlantic, followed quickly by Niman’s rebuttal. No simple solutions, but very important issues to engage with. Neither of the books reviewed here settle the issues, but I strongly recommend them.
Cross-posted at La Vida Locavore.