Dr. Cowan on the Vegetarian Myth
The Vegetarian Myth
Dr. Thomas Cowan
Holistic Family Medicine
Very occasionally powerful, life-changing books are written that give one the palpable sense that “if people would only listen” the world might be a different place. The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith is one such book. In this book Lierre essentially tells two intertwined stories. One is the story of the deterioration of her own health as a direct result of adopting a vegan diet. The second is the related tale of the destruction of our planet essentially as a result of the widespread adoption of agriculture, specifically agriculture based on the growing of grains. Her central premise is that, unlike what we are all led to believe, the absolute worst thing that could ever befall humans or the earth is if we all adopted a vegetarian or, worse yet, a vegan diet. To many, this is such an unbelievable head spinner that they simply will not even be able to entertain the ideas that are presented by Lierre. The ideas, the argument she presents to make her case are powerful, coherent and irrefutable – grains and in fact a grain-based (i.e. vegetarian) diet are literally killing us all.
First, the ecological argument. We are told that the biggest users of fresh water and the most wasteful, ecologically speaking, food we can eat is meat. We are told that if instead of feeding grains to cows to get meat, which is anyway poison for us to eat, we should feed that grain to people thereby feeding at least 30 people with a grain-based diet for every one person we can feed on a meat-based diet. We are told to eat low on the food chain to conserve resources and be ecologically friendly. And, finally and crucially we hear people proudly announce they don’t eat anything with faces as a sign that they are living out their deeply held convictions about social justice. The facts actually tell a completely different story.
Imagine the Middle East 10,000 years ago when the only people living in what we now call Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, etc., were nomadic hunter-gatherer types. This area was referred to as a paradise; it was lush, fecund; Lebanon was the land of the cedar forests. The area between the Tigris and Euphrates was literally paradise on earth. Then came agriculture, specifically the growing of grains. As happens where grains are grown and irrigation is used, the soil began to lose its vitality, the humous layer was lost. The irrigation and the converting of perennial grasses and the animals that live on these grasses to annual crops is akin to mining the nutrients and the fertility out of the soil. Without sufficient animal manure and animal bodies to put nutrients back into the soil, without the annual flooding of the plains that is stopped when irrigation systems are used, the land loses its nutrients, the soil becomes more salty and, as evidenced in the Middle East, eventually, inevitably the land becomes a desert. Lierre describes this process in intimate detail so the reader is left with no doubt that in human history, whenever the transition from perennial grass-based land – alongside naturally flowing lakes and rivers, co-existing with verdant forests – is converted into grain based agriculture, the inevitable result is everything dies. Everything – the plants, the insects, the wild animals and eventually the people.
Think of our own Great Plains. A brief 300 years ago this was a vast territory of perennial grass-based prairie, supporting millions of diverse forms of animals, plants and people for thousands of years. In fact over those thousands of years, the soil, the land that is our only home, was getting healthier and healthier. Estimates show that the topsoil layer of the unspoiled Great Plains was in some places more than 12 feet deep, a vast reservoir of fertility, of health of possibility for seemingly endless life on earth for a multitude of plants and animal beings. Along came grains and their “evil” cousin soya beans (the vegan diet and food processors’ darling). By this time agriculture had become more sophisticated, no more planting grains with sticks and burying fish in the soil, the green revolution. A blink of an eye later in terms of earth time, the Great Plains have become a literal wasteland. The only tall grass prairie left is confined to a few museums, the topsoil is in many places just a few inches thick; the animal and plant species extinctions are estimated between 20 to 40 percent. The human community is impoverished, the rivers are poisoned and the food is not worth eating. A few years of drought and we have a literal dustbowl as the few inches of topsoil left blows out towards California. Some would say this unspeakable tragedy is a result of commercial (chemical) agriculture and that what we need is a return to organics. They are wrong. In fact the first great dustbowl on the plains happened before there even was such a thing as chemical agriculture. No, as Lierre shows, this is the inevitable result of grain-based agriculture. It happens in every circumstance, at different speeds for sure, but in every instance where perennial grasses are converted to annual food crops, particularly grains.
If this wasn’t reason enough for conscientious people to shun a grain-based diet, Lierre spends the second half of the book detailing the negative health repercussions from adopting a grain-based, vegetarian or vegan diet. For those familiar with the work of the Weston A. Price foundation or The Four Fold Path to Healing, this will come as no surprise. What will be eye-opening for many is a detailed chart that compares the physiology of meat eaters with that of herbivores. If you still have any doubts that humans are literally physiologically required to live on mostly an animal food diet, I recommend checking out this enlightening chart. Lierre has done her homework. She references many studies that have been done in the last 100 years documenting the superior health outcomes, the absence of chronic disease, and the total absence of cancer and heart disease in people who eat the food that comes naturally out of a perennially based grass and forest system. What do these people eat? What is the “human” diet, the diet that works back to heal the land? Conveniently it is one diet, called the GAPS diet. As probably more than a hundred of my patients can attest, those who have literally regained their health as a result of the GAPS diet, it is no surprise that the very diet that can heal so many sick people is the very diet that,when applied to agriculture, can heal a “sick” earth.
Get this book, read it, pass it to your friends, especially your vegetarian friends, for as Lierre often says in our current situation, it is not enough any more to just have good intentions. You also have to be informed about what it is you are fighting for.