The Assault on the Plant Based Diet
The Rugged Vegetarian strikes back
by Larry L. Dill
Ever since the rough hewn darling of the American environmental movement, Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang) wrote an essay years ago decrying the wimpiness of vegetarians, I knew we were in for a hard slog. In an essay written as the journal of a trip down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon, Abbey, who for some reason had never read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, took that book along on the trip. Presumably to finally read it. He never finished it he admits. And thus he may have missed that famous line, “I could make a meal of purslane” (the little weed we often discover now growing in the cracks of sidewalks in the urban concrete jungle).
Abbey chose instead to be annoyed on the trip by “vegetarians” who instead of being enthralled by the smell of his bacon and eggs frying over an open fire, chose to eat oatmeal for breakfast instead, thus, to Abbey’s macho mind, breaking the chain with our ancestors who, evidently, to Abbey’s way of thinking, had always had eggs and bacon for breakfast and therefore…(the logic begins to breakdown here)…had delivered us happily and healthily into the industrial age we have all become so proud of.
But wait!…Edward Abbey hated the modern industrial age. So why did he and why do so many of his contemporary protégés, like Michael Pollan (The Omnivores’s Dilemma) and Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable and Miracle) find it necessary to trash vegetarianism as an urban utopian misanthropy when it is actually the rise of the factory farm, corporate farm policy, the gluttonous human quest for beef and bacon and the fast-food nation mentality that is responsible, far more than vegetarians, for so much of the devastation of the American landscape, the Amazon rain forest, and yes, even global warming?
Well, all three of these writers, not surprisingly it turns out, have an answer. We need to return to our roots. Whatever that means.
For Kingsolver, returning to our roots means (if you can afford it on the salaries of a best selling author and a college professor husband) having a little farm in the southern Appalachians complete with mail order chickens and turkeys and a debate about whether or not to buy a pig and fatten it up for that primal back-to-the-land ritual of killing a pet and eating it.
For Abbey, and the much less believable Pollan, getting back to your roots means you actually have to go out in the woods and kill something. Pollan thinks a feral pig killed on private land in northern California where they are presumably a nuisance, fits that bill. With a high powered rifle, of course. Courtesy of your nearest…hmm…let’s see…military-industrial complex?
Vegans are phonies, Pollan contends in Omnivore’s Dilemma, because even the best of all vegetarian worlds requires that huge tractors lumber across the land somewhere out there in Iowa or wherever, killing innocent little mice and other small creatures in their wake just so vegans can have their blessed tofu. Therefore, he argues, since some living creatures are accidentally killed in the course of vegetable production, vegans are dishonest. At least not as honest or as natural or as human as those who hunt down escaped domesticated pigs on private game preserves with high powered rifles.
Are you convinced yet that the vegans are the freaks? Me neither.
The Pollan vision and the Kingsolver memoir both see vegetarianism as hopelessly idealistic, vaguely unhealthy and totally inappropriate for our time. But what time are they living in? It is amazing to me that both these writers seem to think that it is vegetarians who are out of touch with reality. While they, highly educated, upper middle class white elites, think that the enemy to human progress seems to be vegan hippies. Why are the rain forests burning? Why? So that hippies can eat tofu? Do they not realize that first of all most of the tofu is being eaten by cattle so that meat eaters like themselves can enjoy reasonably priced meat? Do they not realize that a completely restructured food economy would make it possible for far more people to thrive on an entirely plant based diet while more of the rain forest could be returned to rain forest? It’s really hard to suppress the rage. What else can a vegan do but reflect on how hard it is to feel marginalized for having progressive beliefs or for just for being different? A little taste of being black or gay or an immigrant. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be a gay black vegan immigrant. But I feel certain that such persons must exist.
Still, there is a movement afoot in western—nay—human civilization to recognize that, with certain minor adjustments, the human diet can, dare we say, “evolve” to a more environmentally friendly, biologically compassionate, aesthetically pleasing and intellectually gratifying level than ever before in human history. Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are respected liberal writers who we have to conclude have either by personal blind sight or personal aggrandizement sold out their vegetarian instincts for the bloodlust of a public eager for a way to keep meat at the center of the American diet.
Pollan calls his cooking of his “wild” pig the “perfect meal.” The stalking and killing of another animal is a “high.” It is “a cannabinoid moment” (as in high on marijuana)! He rationalizes the necessity of the hunt with a quote from the Spanish philosopher, Ortega Y Gasset.
Ortega believed that in hunting we returned to nature because “hunting is the generic way of being a man” and because the animal we are stalking summons the animal still in us. This is atavism pure and simple—the recovery of an earlier mode of being human—and that for Ortega is the supreme, and the exclusive, value of hunting.
Pollan calls animal rights a “parochial and urban ideology…that could only thrive in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world.” But just after he has killed his pig he is faced with gutting and cleaning it (or assisting his guide, actually). To his credit he tells the truth about what ought to have been seen as the collapse, not of the “parochial and urban ideology” of those stupid vegans and animal rights activists, but of his own phoney Ortegan mysticism and wannabe cowboy madness.
I held the cavity open while Angelo reached in to pull out the mass of organs, hoping to save the liver, which had a jagged tear across it. The bullet had apparently crossed the rib cage diagonally from upper left to lower right, tearing through a lobe of the liver. But Angelo thought the liver was salvageable (“for a nice pate”), so he cut it free and dropped it into a Ziploc bag. Then he reached in and pulled gently and the rest of the viscera tumbled out onto the ground in a heap, up from which rose a stench so awful it made me gag. This was not the stink of pig shit or piss but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it. I felt a wave of nausea begin to build in my gut. The clinical disinterest with which I had approached the whole process of cleaning my pig collapsed all at once: This was disgusting.
Now I ask you, who is the parochial and urban ideologist here? This is Pollan’s “perfect meal?” After the chapters dismissing vegans as ideologists and then romanticizing and then being disgusted by and then forgetting the disgust and again being romanced by the urban myth of “the hunt,” I’d about had enough of Pollan. I was walking down main street here in my small town in the southern Appalachians when I spied a book in the window of our little locally owned bookstore. It was a new book by Barbara Kingsolver, whose fan I’d been ever since reading Prodigal Summer a few years ago. But this one was non-fiction and, of all things, all about food and all about southern Appalachia. I knew (or thought I knew) that Kingsolver was vegetarian and would prove the perfect antidote for Pollan’s California cowboy rationalizations. I bought the book and you can imagine my surprise when I found that, intellectually, she had actually moved backward into some 1960’s Wendell Berryian pastoral romance. I knew where she was coming from. I used to live there, too. But things have changed. She quotes Berry as saying, “If I’m going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.” Fortified by Berry’s dreamscape and expanding on Pollan’s convoluted logic, Kingsolver goes on to make the following incomprehensible remark:
I find myself fundamentally allied with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Uncountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie burgers.—are lives plumb wasted. Animal harvest is at least not gratuitous, as part of a plan involving labor and recompense. We raise these creatures for one reason. Such premeditation may be presumed unkind, but without it our gentle domestic beasts in their picturesque shapes, colors and finely tuned purposes would never have had the distinction of existing. To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte’s Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d’Urbeveilles. Next, erase civilization, brought to you by the people who learned to domesticate animals. Finally, rewrite our evolutionary history, since Homo sapiens became the species we are by means of regular binges of carnivory.
Good Lord! Who are these insane vegan revisionists? I don’t know any. I don’t think Kingsolver does either. The one example she gives is of an unnamed “rather young vegan movie star” she sarcastically derides for the admittedly idealistic dream of creating “a safe ranch where the cows and chickens could live free, happy lives and die natural deaths.” How absurd, Kingsolver huffs. But the only difference between this anonymous “rather young vegan movie star’s” dream and Kingsolver’s hero, Wendell Berry’s vision (quoted above), is that after this wonderful life on the farm, you are murdered and eaten by your caretakers. The crux of the difference here, then is the mystical ancestor worship that Abbey, Pollan, Ortega Y Gasset, Kingsolver and, yes, Wendell Berry all share. Here in holy litany, from one of my old Berry books of poetry, is the prayer For the Hog Killing.
Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let its freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.
I gave up on Wendell Berry a long time ago and after 300 pages I gave up on Michael Pollan, too. But I expected a lot more from Barbara Kingsolver. Farm animals, she claims with no hint of irony,, are “human property, not just legally but biologically.” We created them, she argues, to serve our needs.
Just, I suppose, as God created humans to rule the universe and he created the white northern European race (the race of Abbey, Pollan, Kingsolver, Berry, and myself) to rule over Jews and people of color. This assault on the rights of non-human species and its coterminous assault on the ideas and values of vegetarians and vegans who fight for their rights is the modern equivalent of the assault on the civil rights movement where “niggers” were considered feral property and “nigger lovers” were considered to be the enemies of the people. In Europe (and worldwide for that matter) Jews have been viewed not simply as feral property but as a kind of unnatural aberration of the Arian model. Recently in France, just to name one of the more progressive European countries, Muslims are being threatened by the same regressive treatment. Meanwhile, in the US the vigilantes are circling the wagons against the hordes across our southern borders.
But this is all right of course because it is all “natural,” according to Kingsolver, because the “farmers” and the “hog killers”—the true traditionalists of human culture–are the true natural descendants of…what?…the first domesticators of animals?…or…the Garden of Eden, I guess. We need to keep killing hogs and goats and sheep and cows and turkeys and chickens because that’s what our ancestors did. Did I leave anybody out? Oh yea, fish, whales, deer, buffalo and lets not forget indigenous peoples and anybody else we don’t like or whose land we need, or whose oil we want.
Michael Pollan (a journalism professor) and Barbara Kingsolver (a novelist) (neither with any formal training in nutritional science, animal psychology, human history or ethics) have both gone out of their way, in books about food, to make the case that vegetarianism is not “natural” as if “natural” and “moral” meant the same thing. Neither of them seems to understand that murder and rape are as “natural” as apple pie and motherhood. But that doesn’t make them any less abhorrent. Hate is as natural as love. Cruelty is as natural as compassion. You can’t argue that eating meat is moral by calling it natural. Death is natural. But most of us spend our whole lives trying to avoid it.
With this kind of anti-vegetarian intolerance sweeping the country it is not surprising to open the New York Times to an op-ed piece titled “Death by Veganism.” Good Lord! Help me Jesus! The article was prompted by the murder conviction in Atlanta in May of a couple whose child died of malnutrition because he was fed only soy milk and apple juice. The article, by Nina Planck, a writer and promoter of local farmer’s markets, is an artful defense of the traditional omnivorous eating habits promoted by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and their mentor Wendell Berry. Nevertheless, from the outset I suspected the headline, “Death by Veganism,” was not her own. And sure enough, the same article published on Planck’s own web page is headlined “Vegan Babies at Risk.” (a more accurate but still highly alarmist title). In a companion piece on that web site she traces her knowledge of human infant nutrition and the risks of total veganism for infants to anecdotal evidence by an unidentified family physician friend of hers. Basically her essay condemns veganism as an inadequate form of infant nutrition. Planck has no medical credentials and no credentials as a nutritionist. Nevertheless the New York Times thought it not only appropriate to publish her essay but to turn up the hype for the headline by associating all veganism with death.
The nutritional expert testifying for the prosecution in the actual trial of the negligent parents, though, was Amy Lanou, who holds a PhD in Nutritional Science from Cornell University, is a Professor of Health Science at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and is a senior research scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She was a protégé at Cornell of Colin Campbell who wrote The China Study. Here is what Lanou said in a letter to the Times in response to Planck’s op-ed piece:
I am a nutritionist who testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in the criminal trial of the parents of Crown Shakur. As the lead prosecutor in this case told the jury, this poor infant was not killed by a vegan diet. He was starved to death by parents who did not give him breast milk, soy-based infant formula or enough food of any kind.
Well-planned vegan diets are healthful for pregnant mothers and their infants, as well as for older children, according to a large body of scientific research. Contrary to Ms. Planck’s assertions, there are healthy plant-based sources of docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA; calcium can be absorbed about as readily from soy milk as from cow’s milk; and soy does not inhibit growth.
Studies have found that vegan children are within the normal ranges for weight and height, and I personally know vegan mothers and vegan children who are healthier than many of their omnivorous peers.
What I love about Amy Lanou, besides the fact that she is from right here in my own neighborhood, is that she makes no judgments in her letter about the guilt or innocence of the parents. Her expertise, at least in public, is human nutrition. And she is unequivocal in her belief that a well planned vegan diet is not unhealthy for infants or adults. The mythologization of primitive cultural traditions by Pollan, Kingsolver and this op-ed writer, Nina Planck (who is a professional event planner specializing in farmer’s markets) is at the heart of a very new and disturbing reactionary movement in American culture.
“ Factory farms are bad. Vegan’s are bad. We serious organic meat-eaters are good.” It explains a lot about why the quasi vegan Whole Foods founder John Mackey is afraid to stop selling meat in his grocery stores.
What’s next? Are vegetarians going to be rounded up and force fed fois gras because it is “natural” the way the geese are rounded up and force fed grain in France because it is traditional? Tradition? Tradition is bunk!
Barbara Kingsolver doesn’t seem to think that animal rights activists, vegetarians or vegan nutritionists know anything about anything outside the insular urban enclaves where they all presumably live in a tofu bubble..
Well, what about Jane Goodall, then? Would Kingsolver consider the world’s most famous animal rights activist a naïve romantic living in an ignorant urban enclave?
With a PhD in ethology from Cambridge University, a lifetime of field experience studying animal behavior in Africa that began under the tutelage of the famed anthropologist, Louis Leakey, Goodall has concluded that many non human animals have consciences, emotional complexity and individual personalities that rival our own. In Harvest for Hope, her 2005 book on human agriculture, the chapter called Becoming Vegetarian begins with this oft quoted phrase from Albert Einstein:
Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
Many people believe that meat is necessary for good health. The opposite is usually true. First, humans do not have the right kind of anatomy for frequent heavy meat eating. There is a difference in the length of the intestines of carnivores and herbivores. Carnivores have short intestines (about the length of their bodies) and are able to pass the non digestible portion of their food quickly through the body before it starts to putrefy. Herbivores need more time to get the nutrients from the vegetable matter they eat and so have long intestines (about four times their body length). Humans have long intestines, too, so that flesh may sometimes stay for much too long in our guts. In other words, the human species does not have the physical attributes of the carnivore—and that includes ripping, slashing teeth and claws.
On child nutrition, Goodall says this:
Some parents worry about children becoming iron deficient, since many people rely on animal products for their source of iron. But researchers have found that even vegan children (who don’t eat any animal products, including eggs or dairy) can absorb enough iron if they eat plenty of vitamin C—rich plant foods along with a variety of beans, nuts and seeds. Studies in the U.S. and U.K. also show that children raised on vegetarian and vegan diets appear just as healthy and normal as children who eat meat.
And on the environmental impact of meat eating, she offers this food for thought:
It is estimated that between one third and almost half of the world’s harvest is fed to animals to fatten them for human food. In the United States, 56 percent of farmland is dedicated solely to the production of beef. In the U.K. about 70 percent of agricultural land is used for growing food for animals. So many animals are eaten in Europe, Japan, and other parts of the developed world that there is no way enough food can be grown in each country. The grass and grain needed to fatten the animals eaten as meat in Europe requires an area seven times the area of the European Union.
For this level of meat consumption to be maintained, European farmers must buy corn and other animal fodder from other countries. This is destroying the Brazilian rain forest, where vast tracts of virgin forest are destroyed each year not only to create pasture for cattle, but also for growing soy beans or corn, a great deal of which is shipped to Europe and Japan to feed their animals.
Goodall’s book is called Harvest for Hope because she believes that the progressive organic farming methods being introduced around the world today (the same organic methods championed by Kingsolver and Pollan) are a step in the right direction and she devotes much of her book to the importance for human health and the environment of sustainable, chemical free farming. But as the quotes above indicate, Goodall (who became a vegetarian late in life) is equally clear about the importance of vegetarianism as the only rational road to the future of life on earth.
When I was boy I spent many summers on my grandparents’ “sustainable,” “organic” farm near Granbury, Texas. They would not have known the meaning of either of those terms. They just called it a “dirt” farm. I herded cattle there, baled hay, gathered eggs, slopped hogs, dug potatoes, picked peas, beans, corn, peaches and plums, cantaloupes and watermelons, tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers and squash. I loved every minute of it (well, except for the hoeing) and ate like a horse all summer. My grandparents did the best they could to raise their own food and feed their own family. My grandfather tilled the soil on foot behind two mules and a plow and my grandmother slaved away over a stove in her kitchen all summer in the Texas heat (without air conditioning) canning bushels of vegetables. They killed chickens, butchered calves, smoked hams, and fished for catfish in the nearby Brazos River until they were well into their eighties. They were proudest, I believe, that they had not only survived the Great Depression, right there at the edge of some of the hardest hit regions of the “Dust Bowl,” but that, as they said many times, “We were poor, but our children never went hungry.” I know first hand that their grandchildren never did.
I expect that my grandparents would consider vegetarianism a queer idea, maybe even a dangerous one. I have no illusions about that. But it is also true that they knew little about human nutrition other than that “you just need to eat everything on your plate.” My grandfather told me in the summer of 1960 that though he’d been a life long Democrat, he could not vote for John Kennedy because he was a “nigger lover.” I was an “idealistic” high school student back then. And I loved my grandfather very much. But I knew he was wrong about civil rights. And I told him so. He didn’t say much, as I recall. He just thought, I suppose, that I was a little naïve about the way things were in the world.
Well, of course, in many ways I was naive. I knew nothing back then, for instance, about sexual love or marriage. I knew nothing about raising children, then. And I certainly knew nothing about vegetarianism or animal rights. But as the years have past it is easy to see that times change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Hopefully, you learn and you grow. Hopefully you become more compassionate about whatever is considered the “other” in your traditional culture. Tradition is not all bunk, as I said earlier in anger. I cherish the memory of many of the traditions I grew up in.
But the views expressed about vegetarianism and veganism by the likes of best selling authors, Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver (in their new books) and even in the old poetry of Wendell Berry, who in many ways was just a better educated and more articulate version of my grandfather, seem to me now clearly as wrong headed as my grandfather’s racism was.
I believe my grandfather was a good man. I believe Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan are good people, too. Their writings are thoughtful and filled with journalistic truth, poetic vision and ethical zeal (not to mention some good humor and some good recipes). But good men and women can be wrong. Even, sometimes, unconsciously arrogant in their error. We can all be wrong. Our myths, our beliefs, our ideological prejudices are like gardens that must constantly be tended, lest they be overtaken by the noxious weeds of social intolerance, political demagoguery, even fascism.
Barbara Kingsolver, like the red baiters of the McCarthy era, seems to think that if vegans had their way they would take away her freedom to read books like Charlotte’s Web. What Kingsolver ought to be doing, I think, instead of assaulting vegans, is looking again at the real message of the storybook, Charlotte’s Web, she so highly prizes. Whether E.B. White was a vegetarian or not, his classic children’s book raises interesting questions about whether or not animals have souls. Or whether, as a matter of fact, even humans do. More specifically, his story raises questions about the efficacy—the wisdom, really—of continuing on the traditional anthropocentric path of assuming that everything in the universe is here to serve human beings. Neither vegans, vegetarians, nor animal rights advocates want to ban books like Charlotte’s Web, Barbara. We just don’t want to eat Wilbur. Is that too much to ask?
Larry L. Dill