Archive for the ‘The Vegetarian Myth Takedown’ Category

Leave Your Biology Out of My Morality

» August 9th, 2012

I don’t understand why there’s so much rancorous debate knocking about over whether or not humans are naturally omnivores, herbivores, carnivores, or whatever. As Carolyn Zaikowski astutely notes in a comment today: it doesn’t matter. How we behaved in the past—whether determined by biology or culture or both—is never ipso facto a legitimate guide or justification for how we should behave now and in the future.  Why would we ever seek to undermine our moral agency with tepid appeals to biological inheritance?  And by what bizarre rationale does inheritance equal moral certitude?

Much of human behavior has historically been periodically violent and that violence, for complex historical reasons, went unquestioned. Normal. Even praiseworthy. Fortunately, we’ve evolved.  Enlightened cultures today disdain and condemn the kind of gratuitous violence that was once condoned. I’ve no idea if violence has an innate biological explanation—I suppose biology is always a factor to an extent—but the point is moot. Who cares? Gratuitous violence is wrong, whether we’re naturally predisposed to it or not. The same can be said for sexism and racism and, I imagine, virtually any form of discrimination. Simply because it was once standard fare, and may even have a biological explanation, doesn’t mean that it’s right. Morals evolve, too. Thankfully.

Why am I even addressing this question if I find it so useless? Last night I spoke with a prominent vegan activist and we both agreed that perhaps the biggest challenge any activist faces is how to spend one’s time and energy.  This question is a distraction, an academic one at best, and we’d be better off promoting the essential point that unnecessarily exploiting animals for products we don’t need is wrong. It’s not a free choice, it’s not an individual’s opinion, it’s just wrong. I don’t care what biology has to say about it.

The Arrogance of Agroecology

» June 5th, 2012

 

If there’s one agricultural concept that I find particularly indicative of human environmental arrogance it’s the concept of “agroecology.”  Defined as the application of ecological concepts to food production, it’s almost always portrayed as an environmentally sound, and thus more humble, approach to agricultural production. Agroecology is central to holistic farming schemes that insist farm animals are required for the sustainable production of food. It tactfully situates itself in direct opposition to industrial agriculture and, in so doing, assumes the virtuous high ground in discussions of agrarian reform. But I think the whole scheme is based on a fundamentally flawed (arrogant) premise.

My objection to the virtuous portrayal of agroecology begins with a pervasive misunderstanding of agriculture: the idea that it can be seamlessly integrated into naturally biodiverse environments. It cannot. Contrary to popular belief, agriculture by its very nature is an invasive intrusion into preexisting systems. Its inherent aggression is intensified by the inescapably selfish and primal nature of the quest: human nourishment (tragically, often diverted through animals). Although this assessment grates against the agrarian romanticism so many reformers fall prey to, the fact remains: agriculture is harsh. In this respect, writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman–and their followers– for all the good they’ve done, have been less than fully forthcoming about the deeper nature of altering a landscape to make it grow food for billions of people. Or maybe their agricultural lenses are simply too rosy.

In any case, it is within this less than forthcoming–or maybe rosy– vein that the blood of agroecology flows. Conventional agriculture, for all its serious problems, at least acknowledges the gritty reality of agriculture. Read Blake Hurst, an actual farmer, and you’ll get this point.  Richard Manning and Victor Davis Hanson aren’t so bad on the topic either (in fact Fields without Dreams is a masterful book). Or you could go back to Aristotle. He wasn’t so shabby himself.  Anyway, we can, by drawing on these more sober assessments of the nature of agriculture, confront the inherently invasive nature of agriculture and, in turn, work to minimize that invasiveness. The most obvious way of minimizing inevitable invasiveness, of course, is eliminating animals from agriculture. This approach to agriculture is both forthright and humble.

But the agroecologists don’t want that. And this finally brings me to my big bad charge of arrogance. The conventional guys make no pretenses of achieving some sort of mystical balance with nature because they know that ecological systems exceed human comprehension. In this way, as I noted, they’re humble in the face of nature. When I wrote my book on insect control (American Pests–see “Books”), I became acutely aware of the infinite and mind-numbing complexity of the relationship among insects, soil, fungi, enzymes, and plants. We don’t know jack! But agroecologists do not see this. They tend to think in terms of the biological agents they can see, and what they see are plants and animals, and what they conclude is that animal poop is necessary for crop growth.  Get microscopic in perspective and anyone who thinks he can meddle and manage the endlessly entangled nature of an ecosystem is, well, arrogant.

Vegans rarely talk about agriculture. But they should, because there’s a trap that awaits us. And that is the trap of agrocecology, a greenwashed, media-stained idea that insists that we must exploit animals to eat sustainably produced plants.

Vegan Permaculture

» May 24th, 2012

 

What follows was written by a reader of this blog (who goes by CQ) as a comment to several posts having to do with the prospect of cruelty-free agriculture. I thought it would be missed by too many readers as a comment so I’ve chosen to post it as an official entry.  Some fascinating stuff in here. Enjoy       -jm

 

Is a vegan diet that includes grains less violent than the diet of a meat-dairy-and-egg-eater?We’ve been going ’round and ’round that question on various posts in the Eating Plants (now James-McWilliams.com) blog, haven’t we?Recently, I found someone who has been attempting to reduce the harm to animals from grain production down to zero.

Helen Atthowe of Montana is a vegan agricultural ecologist who is behind http://www.veganpermaculture.com and whose writing, photos and videos of her veganic permaculture farm are featured on it. According to Atthowe, humans who eat grain cannot, for the most part, escape causing suffering and death to other living organisms.

Consumer demand for bread, pasta, cereal, crackers and chips, Atthowe laments, has homogenized the landscape into a monoculture of annual grasses—wheat, corn (maize), rice, oats, rye, and barley grains, all called cereal grains. Even organic vegan cheesy puffs use monoculture grains. (Another monoculture crop, soybeans, is a grain legume; livestock are fed almost all the soybeans grown in the U.S.)

This vast production of grain by modern agribusiness inevitably kills many birds, small mammals, and insects. It is also hard on larger wild species, not to mention on the land itself. At present, a typical vegan eats the same grains as non-vegans simply because there are not yet any commercially viable veganic grain production systems. But thanks to the efforts of some dedicated scientists around the world, annual grains grown as single cash crops will not remain the only large-scale option much longer.

Indeed, grains can be grown and are being grown in less disruptive polyculture systems. Polyculture systems, says Atthowe, closely mimic nature’s ecosystems, within which insects, birds, small mammals and other wildlife thrive. These polyculture grains can be grown as perennials, with reduced tillage and hence less disturbance of the organisms who rely on a stable soil system.

For the past 30 years, Wes Jackson, Ph.D., president of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been working on “perennial polyculture” grain production modeled on a prairie system. Jackson is one of eight scientists who authored a three-part series, “Breeding perennial grain crops,” published in the June 1, 2002, edition of Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. In part one, the authors write:

“All of our current grain crops are annuals; therefore, developing an array of new perennial grains—grasses, legumes, and others—will require a long-term commitment. Fortunately, many perennial species can be hybridized with related annual crops, allowing us to incorporate genes of domestication much more quickly than did our ancestors who first selected the genes. Some grain crops—including rye, rice, and sorghum—can be hybridized with close perennial relatives to establish new gene pools. Others, such as wheat, oat, maize, soybean, and sunflower, must be hybridized with more distantly related perennial species and genera. Finally, some perennial species with relatively high grain yields—intermediate wheatgrass, wildrye, lymegrass, eastern gamagrass, Indian ricegrass, Illinois bundleflower, Maximilian sunflower, and probably others—are candidates for direct domestication without interspecific hybridization. To ensure diversity in the field and foster further genetic improvement, breeders will need to develop deep gene pools for each crop. Discussions of breeding strategies for perennial grains have concentrated on allocation of photosynthetic resources between seeds and vegetative structures. But perennials will likely be grown in more diverse agro-ecosystems and require arrays of traits very different from those usually addressed by breeders of annuals. The only way to address concerns about the feasibility of perennial grains is to carry out breeding programs with adequate resources on a sufficient time scale. A massive program for breeding perennial grains could be funded by diversion of a relatively small fraction of the world’s agricultural research budget.” (Go to http://www.landinstitute.org and click the dropdown menu Publications/Science.)

Another type of perennial polyculture, forest farming, is being practiced by New Forest Farm in Richland County, Wisconsin. The 100-acre property has been converted from annual monoculture crops (commodity corn and soybeans) to a “food forest” growing fruits, nuts, berries, asparagus and other woody perennials. Although New Forest Farm grows some annual grains (wheat, rye, barley), they are inter-planted within the tree crops. [For a look at a 2,000 year old oasis food forest found in the Morocco desert, see http://www.ecofilms.com.au/2009/10/13/2000-year-old-food-forest-in-morocco. Other films on food forest permaculture are here:http://www.ecofilms.com.au/category/permaculture/food-forests

Then there are perennial wheat breeding experiments. They began in the early 1900’s, when USDA scientists began making crosses. Since then, scientists from the USSR, the University of California, Montana State University, and the Rodale Institute have worked with perennial wheat. For many years, none of these efforts could compete economically with annual wheat production. First-year yields of perennial wheat reached 70%-to-80% of annual wheat, but in successive years yields declined. More recently, however, some promising work on competitive perennial wheat has been done by the aforementioned Land Institute as well as by Washington State University (WSU) and Michigan State University (MSU).

At WSU, for example, Stephen Jones is currently testing several varieties of better-yielding perennial wheat. These plants live between two and five years, producing a seed crop each summer. This seed contains more protein and more micro-nutrients than annual wheat, and its quality is similar to that of annual wheat. In some cases, unfertilized perennial wheat yields have been reported to be equal in some instances to soft white annual winter wheat, harvesting 20 to 35 bushels per acre.

Rice is another candidate for perennialism. From 1995 to 2001, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) developed perennial rice cultivars to reduce erosion on the steep slopes where upland rice is often grown. Plant populations from IRRI’s breeding program were distributed to cooperators in China, where perennial rice breeding efforts continue. Masanobu Fukuoka, who passed away at age 95 in 2008, grew rice in Japan with no tilling, weeding, or spraying for insects and diseases. Yoshikozu Kawaguchi grows rice in Japan with no tilling, no spraying for insects and diseases, and minimal weeding. Atthowe is working on refining Fukuoka’s methods for small-scale grain production at her farm in northeastern Montana; she reports she has had some success.

Moreover, native perennial grasses are being studied for food production. In fact, Atthowe is harvesting grain from a perennial grass called Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides) for human food. Indian ricegrass is a native dryland prairie bunch grass. A cultivar of this native grass, Rimrock, is being produced, milled, and marketed under the trade name Montina. Yields vary between 250 and 500 kilograms per hectare, but improvement through breeding may be possible, says Atthowe. In short, Atthowe declares, “we do not have to produce grains in monoculture. We can design agro-ecosystem farms that enhance species diversity and respect wild areas and species.” Leaders in this field are the Wild Farm Alliance of California and Gary Nabhan of Arizona. Atthowe has done some work in this area, too, which she tells about on her site veganpermaculture.com.

Of course, it isn’t only monoculture grain production that kills birds, small mammals, and insects. Large-animal and small-animal producers deliberately kill “rodents” and insects in order to pass public health inspections. Predators, such as coyotes, are murdered at an alarming rate to protect the cattle, sheep, chickens, and other livestock on small farms and homestead livestock operations. Large livestock production, in particular, homogenizes native plant landscapes into permanent pastures. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 data, livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet.

Then there is the violence of killing the animals that become food for humans. At Animal Visuals, Mark Middleton published data in October 2009 showing that a plant-based diet kills the fewest animals. In this study of eight food categories, when one million calories of grain is produced for direct human consumption, 1.65 animals die. When the same amount of grain is produced for humans to eat the flesh of chickens, 251.1 animals die. The other two categories of food that vegans eat, fruit and vegetables, cause the deaths of 1.73 and 2.55 animals. The consumption of (dairy) milk, pork, beef, and eggs kills 4.78, 18.1, 29.0 and 92.3 animals, respectively (see http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc).

Until animal-friendly, economically viable grain production systems become more widely available, vegans do have choices. They can limit their intake of grains, including processed foods that contain grains. They can also grow veganic grains on their own plots of land. That’s what Robert Monie does. Retired from a local community college, Monie, a vegan who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, has experimented with no-till and low-till approaches on a micro scale, both in his backyard gardens and in tiny, shared garden plots on land worked by Vietnamese farmers. Monie says the term vegan “does not mean total absence of animal or insect content. It means the least animal or insect content we can practically achieve.” He believes that “vegan farmers will have to be brave, because they are setting out on uncharted waters that will require great innovations to help them arrive at their destination.

“Vegan farming and a large-scale shift to vegan diets will not be business as usual,” he notes. “It will require growing methods never tried on a large scale, such as perennial grains, forest farm polycultures, and living mulch turnovers of the kind pioneered by Fukuoka and Kawaguchi in Japan, but without the chicken manure Fukuoka used. “The shift from standard farming—even of the organic kind—to vegan will be as radical as the shift from fossil fuel energy sources to renewables like photovoltaics and will probably require technical expertise of the same order that has gone into research and development in solar energy,” he adds.

It is true, admits Monie, that “no one will know the extent to which cruelty in farming grains and vegetables can be reduced until numerous vegan commercial farms have been set up to try these new methods. Farming is, above all, a practical art, so there can be no a priori answer. “Nor,” he says, “can we expect ‘tradition’ to come to our aid. Tradition—that is, cultural patterns that we’ve been indoctrinated with and that we tend to fall back on— tells us we must plow the field, manure it with animal droppings, and eat animal flesh.

“As Thoreau remarks in Walden, tradition has it that animal food is necessary to build strong bones, and yet the ox, having never heard this tradition, ignores it, eats plants, and builds stronger bones than those of any human.” So, based on the research done thus far, it appears that the question “Is a vegan diet that includes grains less violent than the diet of a meat-dairy-and-egg-eater?” can be answered “yes.”It will become a even more emphatic “yes” as polyculture perennial grains become ever more economically viable and are increasingly marketed to a public eager to minimize their footprint on the earth and improve their relations with earth’s nonhuman inhabitants.

Grains may become the ultimate harmless vegan food. Veganic cheesy puffs, here we come!

“The Vegetarian Myth” Myth, Part II: Questionable Citations

» May 6th, 2012

Carolyn Zaikowski’s deconstruction of Leirre Kieth’s The Vegetarian Myth has generated a lot of interest from Eating Plants readers. Here’s another installment, which I find as rigorously argued and well-researched as the first Zaikowski sample that I posted. In a recent e-mail exchange I had with Zaikowski she noted that her work had a way of deeply angering people. Sounds to me like she’s doing her job as a writer and activist. Enjoy, and thanks again to Carolyn for sharing this wonderful work with us.

 

Chapter 4 resource analysis…

Of the 288 citations in chapter 4…

-28 (10%) are from the pop-science, brand-based book The Protein Power Life Plan by Eades & Eades. This book generally talks about low-carb diets like the Atkins. At least they are doctors. But here are some thoughts about this diet and similar diets, from other doctors:

WebMD, a conglomeration of different doctors,views the Protein Power Life Plan, as the authors seem to as well, as one which is largely useful for short-term weight loss. (See Keith’s many discussions in this book about how veganism basically equals anorexia, and feel free to scratch your heads like we did.) They also say that in the long-term, it can be “seriously deficient in important nutrients”. Bonne Brehm, Ph.d and nutrition scientist, writes: “In the short term, the low-carb diets are effective — we see weight loss, improvement in some metabolic functions such as blood pressure, loss of body fat, but their real hazard is that they are nutritionally poor,” she says. “They are low in calcium, low in vitamins C and A, low in fiber. We don’t know if taking a vitamin-mineral supplement is adequate. There are a lot of micronutrients in foods that are not in supplements, including some we don’t even know about yet. We do not have any long-term studies on these alternative diets with the extreme modifications of a nutritionally balanced diet.”

Famed vegan doctor and researcher Michael Gregor is the author of Carbophobia: The Scary Truth About America’s Low-Carb Craze, which you can read for free here. Here, you can also read about how the ADA, AMA, The American Cancer Society, The American Kidney Fund, and The American Heart Association have been warning about the health risks of low-carb, high protein diets for years. Etc.Make of this what you will. Dr. Gregor, in his aforementioned book, also talks about how the Atkins and other high-protein diets have directly profited the meat industries, while dismissing wide-ranging evidence that these types of diets are ultimately unhealthy. Then the Atkins Corporation threatened to sue him because, essentially, he was challenging this low-carb, high-meat industry.

-41 citations are from the book controversial book Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubs who, although he has studied physics and aerospace engineering, is also not a nutritionist or medical doctor. This book is also largely about obesity, dieting, and its relation to low-carb, high-protein diets. See above for other opinions about this diet craze. 6 more citations are from Taubs’ article “What If It’s All Been A Lie?”, so Taubs makes up 16% of Keith’s citations.

-12 citations (4%) are from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook. Sally Fallon, like Keith, is also not a nutritionist, doctor, biologist, or trained in any health traditions. She is a “nutrition researcher” with two college degrees in English, who wrote a cookbook. This book has been criticized in similar ways to Keith’s: “While Nourishing Traditions has over 200 references, many are antiquated, with poor observations. For the most part, the authors reference their own articles and those of other Weston A. Price foundation authors. Only fourteen of the references are from peer-reviewed journals published in the last ten years, and for most of those fourteen, the authors misrepresented what was stated in the articles.” This critique goes on: “Nourishing Traditions… is a smorgasbord of woefully outdated and potential dangerous advice. For example, ’If you cannot get your family to eat organ meats whens served as such, there are plenty of ways to add them to their foods without their knowledge… Poached brains can be ground up and added to any ground meat dish, as can grated raw liver.’ Even if it were not so clearly known that animal products in general need to be strictly limited in the diet, common sense should tell us not to eat the brains of animals in light of what is now known about mad cow diease and its human equivalent, Cruetzfelt-Jakob disease… Fallon and Enig perpetuate long-held  nutritional myths by referencing the same people who started the myths in the first place.”

-18 citations (6%) are from The Untold Story of Milk by nautropath Ron Schmid. Our friend (see above) Sally Fallon says this is a “fascinating and compelling book”. They publish on the same press. Actually, it is unclear whether or not Sally Fallon has something to do with the publishing and/or editing at New Trends Publishing. Let us know if you figure it out. There are 4 citations from another of his books, Native Nutrition, so that’s 20 citations (7%) from this author. We also feel the need to point out that this Schmid has a brand of various “formulas”, beauty products, anti-aging products, and other things he sells based on his ideas. Look, his shampoo only costs $17.

-32 (11%) citations are from the controversial Against the Grain by Richard Manning, who is a seemingly well-regarded investigative and environmental journalist but also not a doctor, nutritionist, or anthropologist of any kind.

-28 citations (10%) are from The Whole Story of Soy by Kaayla Daniels, who has a Ph.D in nutritional science and “anti-aging therapies”. She has never published a scientific paper. Furthermore, this book has been criticized as a pseudo-scientific–at best– rant that basically serves to uphold the theories of our friends, Sally Fallon and the rest of the Weston A. Price Foundation. In fact, Fallon is the editor of this book (see here, for instance). This org has what many consider to be an unreasonable and unsubstantiated bias against soy. And here’s an interesting review that breaks down the misinformation in Daniel’s book. And believe it or not, not all vegans eat soy or are ignorant to potential problems of soy (see our resources page for info about soy-free veganism), nor is everybody who eats soy a vegan. So even if it were a vaguely reliable source, this book only relates directly to veganism by a dishonest intellectual stretch. Keith cites it anyway in her case against veganism– 28 times.

-26 citations (9.7 %) are from The Great Cholesterol Con: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Cholesterol, Diet and Heart Disease Is Wrong! by unabashed anti-vegan, Anothony Colpo. Colpo is an “independent researcher” and weight trainer and his controversial book is basically about what the subtitle title says. A lot of people seem to think he’s a bit off his rocker. Check out some of the posts he’s made about people who disagree with him, including Keith’s off-cited Eades and Eades. We don’t want to get our health information from someone whose only expertise is in weight training, who has not even the smallest bit of training in medicine or how to interpret the technical language of scientific articles. You decide for yourself.

-4 citations (2%) come from another book called The Great Cholesterol Con, by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick. This seemingly intelligent and in-depth review states:“Although it makes a number of excellent serious points, readers with a background in the relevant science might also laugh at some of the egregious scientific errors in the book and some of Kendrick’s poorly conceived speculations – or at least find themselves scratching their heads.” Again, you decide. Do your own research. Compare Kendrick and Colpo against thousands of peer-reviewed studies about cholesterol.

-11 citations (4%) are from an internet article by Ben Balzer that has no citations or references listed!!! The article is about his book, which also seems to be a brand, The Paleo Diet. Ben Balzer is a family physician, but he is not an anthropologist, paleontologist, or biologist. He even gives a disclaimer about his book on his own blog. When I googled Ben Balzer + the name of this article, the only thing that came up was it and a link to Lierre Keith’s website.

-13 citations (5%) are from two books by Julia Ross, The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure. Ross has an MA in clinical psychology and an MFT (masters in family therapy.) So, though not a psychologist (as that requires having a Ph.D and years of research experience, as opposed to clinical psychotherapy training), we’re sure she knows a lot about psychotherapy and mental illness. However, she is not a nutritionist or doctor. Her two books also seem to be some kind of brand. The Diet Cure website tells us, “Here you can learn which of the eight key physical indicators is causing your particular problems and get an idea of how to use the book to correct them in 24 hours…You’re also in the right place for an image adjustment. You’ll find the healthy, sensual, immortal beauty of Venus throughout the site. Contrasted with her opposite, she is here as a reminder that a healthy body image is an important part of your Diet Cure.” No thanks, Julia.

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The preceding citations comprise 80 percent of Keith’s “substantiating evidence” in this 105-page chapter… a chapter that supposedly makes scientific claims about health, carnism, and veganism, in a book that supposedly does the same. All of these resources are non-scientific or pseudo-scientific; not one is from an academic or peer-reviewed journal. For Keith, they are second-, third-, and fourth-hand sources. At least one of them has no references at all!

At least three of the authors– 20% of citations– are directly involved with the Weston A. Price Foundation, a controversial anti-vegan group. It is noted for its pro-meat, pro-animal fat diet, pro-raw meat and dairy regimen that runs completely counter to, and has been debunked by a preponderance of, modern medical evidence (again, a diet similar to those of the “paleo” and Atkins genres). It’s noted, also, for its zealotry, its intolerance and mockery for views and research that differ from its own, its constant referencing of its own members as “proof” of its theories, and its misrepresentation of the complicated and extensive work of Weston Price. See this resource or some of the above-linked articles regarding this. Or, get a copy of a book or two by these authors and skim through it. On the very cover of Fallon’s cookbook, for instance, it is dismissed as “politically correct” and “dictatorial” to talk about cholesterol concerns.  Many people believe that the hype about soy products being bad for you goes back almost entirely to this organization’s campaign against it.

Even the claims that come from people who have an academic background are written in a journalistic, editorial style, and/or are written about an subject they didn’t study in academia. And most of the information here is from books whose content is about what many people, both lay-people and scientists, consider, at best, silly and counter-intuitive, and, at worst, highly dangerous. Several of these authors are, in fact, marketing “diet brands” for their own profit. Many of the use manipulative, mocking language to suggest that if you disagree with them, you are being aggressive or naive. Perhaps this is where Keith gets her tone from.