Bonus: Lierre Keith – The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability

Jonathan: Hey, everyone. Jonathan Bailor here with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. I am uniquely excited about today’s podcast because we have a guest who, I think, brings the nuance and the insight that is really important for a very, very specific issue and she is an author, an activist in a small farmer, and her most noteworthy work, at least for this audience, is The Vegetarian Myth. We have none other than Lierre Keith with us. Lierre, welcome.

Lierre: Thanks for having me on, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Well, thank you for being here. Lierre, two things I want to do right from the start is I want to dig into your story, but the thing that most drove me to get you on the show and to share your work was your message. I want to set maybe some listeners’ minds at ease. This is not going to be a show about bashing vegetarianism. We’re saying that you should all eat meat all the time always, but Lierre, what really strikes me about your work and the message that I think you hit on so well and that I struggle with in a different sense is this impression that some people have that eating plants is good and eating animals is bad. It’s really that simple and if you just eat plants, you’re a good person and if you just eat animals, you’re a bad person. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Right?

Lierre: Yes. I was a vegan for 20 years so I have been as far into that world as anyone can be, so I understand the mindset and I understand the arguments. I always like to start by saying that the underlying values of that vegetarian ethic are not at issue. Justice and sustainability and compassion and anything that questions human hubris and human entitlement; those are really the only values that are going to get us to the world that we need. It’s not the values that are the problem; it’s really information. It’s really a vast cultural ignorance about the nature of nature as opposed to the nature of agriculture.

Where do those plant foods come from and what is the damage they leave behind? I think a lot of people are attracted to that vegetarian ethic because it seems very simple. If there is a dead animal on your plate, something suffered and died for you; whereas if it’s just plants, then nothing was hurt and therefore it seems more compassionate. I believed that for 20 years, so I understand what it’s like to believe that, but the truth is a lot more complicated.

I think there are three basic reasons people become vegetarian. One is, that sense of moral rightness, that ‘I don’t want to hurt anything; I want my life to be as compassionate as possible’. The next one would be politically, that there is this idea that if we all only ate plants, there would be enough food for everyone. The third reason is the health issue that many people believe that eating a high-carb, low-fat diet is the way to produce the longest life, the most robust health, and all that. As it turned out, none of those things are true, but if you don’t have more information, they seem on the surface as if they might be true because we hear them from every angle. Certainly when I was 16 and I took up being a vegan, I didn’t have any other information to compare it with, so it seemed like the best thing to do.

Jonathan: Lierre, I want to dig into more detail of your story and your evolution – for lack of better terms – and then where you think we should focus our efforts to best serve those three goals you so succinctly and wonderfully outlined. Before we do that, I want to get your take – and I’m going to be a little selfish here because I want your insights on something that I struggle personally with and that’s the seemingly human characteristic of demanding black and white or having an attraction to the black and white. Let me give you an example of how this works in my little corner of the world. “Hey, Jonathan, is fat good or bad?” “Hey, Jonathan, is protein good or bad?” “Hey, Jonathan, are carbs good or bad?” The answer is, there are good carbs and bad carbs and there are good fats and bad fats. It seems like there are good ways to eat plants and bad ways to eat plants and good ways to eat animals and bad ways to eat animals. Would that be a fair characterization?

Lierre: Yes. I think there are two things going on; one is that, that’s a developmental stage that people go through when they’re young and we’re supposed to grow out of it. We’re supposed to become adults who can actually hold many different ideas at once and try to figure out the actual truth of the world that we live in and we have to make moral decisions and we have to make political decisions, but you need lots and lots of information and eventually that information is supposed to become knowledge. By the time you’re really old, you’re actually supposed to have wisdom. That’s a long process.

It starts as a young child with that kind of black and white thinking and that’s a good thing when you’re 10 or 11 because you need to know what the rules are. If you step out into the street, you’re going to be hit by a car; that’s pretty black and white. Of course, children cling to those kinds of rules because they need to know how to survive. Then you become an adolescent and you learn to question all those rules and you go in the opposite direction, but it still is just another kind of black and white thinking because now it’s all knee-jerk. Then you hit 21, 22, 23, your brain is supposed to be finished. You’re supposed to have finally an adult mature brain. Everything is supposed to be wired in together to your frontal lobes. You’re supposed to have some ability to moderate your emotions. At that point, you really need to start to learn to think so that you can absorb that information and turn it into knowledge, but that’s a long process. I think a lot of us fumble along as best we can and it’s not the easiest thing to do, so I get the black and white thinking.

The other problem is that I think people are so overloaded, especially with the economy being so hard and especially if you have children, when do you have time to sit and read book after book, scientific paper after scientific paper, trying to figure out what is the best thing to eat, why is that the best thing to eat, what is going to help my kids the most? I don’t know anybody who has that kind of time. You end up falling back on whatever the culture is telling you at the moment and a lot of that information is just completely wrong. In order to get to better information, it takes a huge time commitment and I think most people just don’t have it right now. We’re in this kind of a bind and that’s why it’s so important to have shows like yours where you’re sort of condensing the information so people can at least get some concept of what you’re talking about, what might be a better way, rather than having to do all that primary research on their own.

Jonathan: Lierre, I think you hit the nail on the head and I certainly appreciate your kind words there. It is this over-stressed, over-taxed, over-everything society where we just run out of space in our minds and we run out of attention and it certainly makes a lot of sense. Lierre, let’s talk about the noble motives which are certainly – there’s no question of the nobility of these motives that often prompt individuals to become a vegetarian or a vegan – and let’s talk about how those are or are not actually accomplished by just globally giving up – simply ‘giving up animals and focusing on plants’. Let’s also include, if the goal is to minimize suffering, how that may or may not actually minimize suffering as it relates to your own personal health.

Lierre: Okay. It’s a way bigger question than ‘what’s dead on my plate?’ The question really is ‘what died to get this food onto my plate?’ You may not see the death directly, but it’s there. We have to understand what agriculture is. We live in an agricultural society, we have for 10,000 years and that makes it really hard to question agriculture. It’s like questioning air or questioning God, it surrounds us everywhere, and it doesn’t even occur to us that this is an activity that humans took up at a certain point in time. Not everybody took it up. It only actually arose in seven different places around the globe. At this point, it’s conquered the world, but what is it?

Well, you take a piece of land, you clear every living thing off it and I mean down to the bacteria and then you plant it to human use. It’s biotic cleansing. You’re taking an entire community of plants, of animals, of microfauna and you’re just destroying them. You’re giving them nowhere to live. It’s mass extinction on a global scale. Right now, 200 species are going extinct every single day mostly because of this activity, ultimately called agriculture. That’s what agriculture is. There’s no way that you can look at an activity that has destroyed 98 percent of the old-growth forests and 99 percent of the world’s prairies and call that ‘friendly to animals’ because it’s mass extinction. That’s not agriculture on a bad day; that’s what it is. You have to clear the land to plant those annual monocrops. It’s the only way you can do it.

Look out the window. Whatever you see, your backyard, your front yard – there’s probably grass on the lawn and if you’re going to plant a garden, what do you have to do? You’ve got to dig up the grass. You’ve got to destroy what’s there. Then you can plant those annual crops – whatever, lettuce or broccoli or corn, whatever you’re going to grow. The land has to be cleared. We all know this on some level, but because most of us aren’t actually engaged in farming, we don’t really have any idea where our food comes from or how destructive this is. To quote Jared Diamond, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he said agriculture is the biggest mistake the human race ever made. He says that precisely because it’s this inherently destructive activity. The moment you start doing it, you are drawing down. You are taking away all those species, the water, the soil, everything starts being destroyed in that region, but the population starts to grow at this exponential level.

We’ve made ourselves dependent on an activity that is literally killing the planet and that’s the problem. I didn’t know that at age 16 when I thought that being a vegan was this wonderful, compassionate, non-violent way to live. All I knew was that on my plate, there was no dead animal, so it seemed like the right thing to do; but having that bigger perspective, you end up making very different choices. That’s the moral issue. Is there something dead here? If you’re eating agricultural foods, it’s the entire world that’s been killed for this.

Now, you’ve got the political issue. Here’s this idea that if we all stopped eating animal products, there would be enough grain to feed everybody. A couple of problems with this – we sort of got the cart before the horse on this one. I had this one backwards for maybe 30 years, and this really goes back to Frances Moore Lappe and Diet for a Small Planet, and she did a wonderful thing trying to get people to think about food in a political way, and that’s all to the good. Clearly, she has wonderful values as a person. This is not, in any way, to insult her or trash her. I think she does really good work in the world but she got this part wrong. You have to understand the political economy of essentially the global economy and how it works.

The grain production is not driven by the needs of animal agriculture; they get what’s left over. The problem is that there’s so much left over. In 1950, the world was essentially out of top soil. Agriculture had pretty much run its course around the globe and the major grain-growing regions were played out. There was just no soil left. There was nothing left. What happened then was this thing called the ‘green revolution’, where scientists figured out how to take oil and gas and turn it into usable nitrogen for plants, and then the plant breeders got involved and learned to breed plants that were much smaller, but would produce much larger seed heads. They have pushed these plant genomes as far as they can go. There are not going to be any more breakthroughs on that level. The plants are as short as they can get and they’ve got these absolutely gigantic seeds and we’re done; wheat and rice cannot get any bigger, but it all depends on that oil and that gas, that cheap fossil fuel, to create fertilizer.

In 1950, this whole thing kicks off. There is immediately this huge [Indiscernible 12:31] of corn. It’s a mountain of corn being produced, particularly in the Midwest, here in the United States. It had nowhere else to go. From that moment, it becomes clear in a capitalist economy that if you buy that corn really cheap and you take animals out of their native habitat and put them into, essentially, cities – they’re living on concrete inside steel buildings – so you take them off the farm and you put them in cities and then you feed them all this corn, you can grill meat really cheap because they will get fat really fast. When they eat a lot of corn, it’s the same as when we eat a lot of corn. [crosstalk 13:06] fat. That’s what happens.

Instead of it taking a year and a half to produce a beef cow, you can get it in nine months. That is why, it’s because you’re feeding them the wrong food. The food will kill them. The corn is way too acid for their stomachs. It burns holes in their stomachs. Almost all the beef cows that go to slaughter at this point have blood poisoning, liver poisoning, they’ve got all these problems from eating that corn because it’s not their native diet, but giving them that corn for the last two or three months of their lives, yes, they will grow at an exponential rate. All of this is about the fact that there’s this mountain of corn that had nowhere to go and it made sense economically, certainly not morally, certainly not politically, but economically, it made sense to feed it to those cows. That’s where factory farming came from. It is not the native diet of the cow to eat corn. They’re supposed to eat grass, which is totally different. Right away, it’s got nothing to do with the demands of the cows, it has to do with the demands of this market capitalist economy where fossil fuel underlies the whole thing.

The other side of this is, what about all the poor people in India or whatever, who should be eating that grain? It’s kind of a crazy model because why is it that people in, pick your country, India can’t provide their own food? The reason is because there are six corporations that essentially control the world food supply. It’s just like when Walmart comes to town and they’ll offer way cheaper stuff than your local hardware store can ever do and they drive all the local businesses out of business and now all you have is Walmart and they’ve got this giant monopoly and all of your neighbors no longer have jobs because Walmart put them out and now everybody has to shop at Walmart, and then what do you know, the prices go back up. Well, it’s the exact same model. You’ve got these six corporations that go to places like the Philippines, India, Taiwan – pick your country – and they do what’s called ‘agricultural dumping’ so they can offer food at about half the price that the local farmers can produce it for. They undercut the economy entirely and they have driven literally millions of people off their land and into urban squalor and the reason that the food is so cheap that they bring in is; two reasons. One is, of course, that green revolution stuff, but the other problem, of course, is that they get massive subsidies from the US Government. Ultimately, it’s the US taxpayers that are paying for this. It’s called the Farm Bill every year and what it is is, it’s just income shifting from all of us to these six giant corporations. They get billions of dollars every year because now they can produce it so cheaply, they can go to these poor countries, completely destroy the local economies, and now everybody’s dependent on those six corporations to buy their food. This is not called justice.

There’s just no way you can look at this and think this is a model that we should be using, but every time you say, “Oh, people in India should be dependent on the Midwest for their food”, that’s the model you’re suggesting which doesn’t actually make any sense. People know how to feed themselves. They know how to feed their local communities. They need to be left alone to do it. Setting up a dependent model where they have to either sell off their local resources, so things like trees, metal, fish, whatever they’ve got, or sell their labor really cheap, working in sweatshops essentially, and then they have to get the cash, then they can buy the food from the US corporations. I just can’t see this as a model that involves any kind of justice anywhere, but oddly, this is the model that people seem to be suggesting. They really need to think it through a little bit better because I think if they did, they would see that this is not actually the world that they want where people all around the world depend on these six corporations and can’t support themselves anymore. That’s the problem with this ‘everybody could be fed if…’ They’ve really got the cart before the horse on that one.

Jonathan: I think that the way you describe that at the very end, like ‘that’s not justice and when we take a step back and see what that’s doing to the system itself’ is a great way to characterize that. Interestingly, you could use that same descriptor for how this works on a smaller scale with an individual’s biology where, on the surface, there’s this approach ‘plants heal you, animals kill you,’ but when we take a step back and we look at that systemically and we look at that’s actually doing justice to your health and wellbeing, that may not be the case, either. Right?

Lierre: Right. That’s the third reason that people often take up that plant-based diet. Is that we’ve been told now for almost 30 years that if we eat a high-carb, low-fat diet that everything will be fine and that all animal products are the work of the devil and you should never touch them. I did that for 20 years and my health failed catastrophically. I was not a junk-food vegan. I wouldn’t even eat ketchup if there was sugar in it. I never ate white sugar. I never ate white flour. I only ate the whole grains and the beans and all that stuff and it just completely failed.

I’m 48 years old. There’s a whole generation of us now who have already been through this. We tried it, we believed in it, we couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working. I wanted God to be a just God. It seemed like it should work, but it didn’t work. In my friendship circle, I was pretty much the last hold out. I tried and tried and tried and it just kept failing. Most of my friends had already given up on it and then the day came when I had to just say, “I’m going to die if I keep doing this” and I had to give it up.

Then was the long search; why didn’t this work? Where did it all go wrong? It seemed to make so much sense. Then you start investigating the sort of alternate view where you have to start doing research. What is actually wrong with animal products? Why were we told that these were so terrible to eat? It turns out that there is a lot of political clout behind these decisions that the Government makes. There’s a lot of money and a lot of money interests. One thing to note is that the US Department of Agriculture, who came up with that wonderful Food Pyramid – where you’re supposed to be eating, I don’t know, 50 servings of grain a day or whatever – they are not charged with promoting human health. That’s not their job. Their job is actually to sell commodity agricultural foods and that’s what that Pyramid does. It tells everybody to eat wheat and corn and soy and so they’re doing their job, but their job was never to protect our health; their job was to sell stuff that corporate America produced. Right away, we’ve got a problem. That’s the USDA part of it.

Then there’s other branches of the Government that have also come up with that kind of high-carb, low-fat proposal for us and it turns out that that was all very politicized as well. The best book on this, honestly, is Gary Taubes’ book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. He’s got a whole chapter where he walks people through exactly what happened with the McGovern Commission and why they put forward this proposal. The thing that’s most interesting to me was that there were many, many doctors who came forward and said, “You can’t do this kind of experiment on the American public. It will end in disaster. We know that animal foods are protective. These are the foods people have eaten since the beginning of time essentially and to tell them to change when we already have enough evidence that corn oil and whatever vegetable oils do tremendous damage to people’s arteries and hearts – this is such a bad idea. You really can’t do this.”

They actually had to have eight more weeks of hearings because so many doctors came forward and said, “Please don’t do this to the American public.” They didn’t win the day, down it went and instead we’ve been, now for generations, eating this other model and American health has just collapsed, as far as I can tell. I mean, you’ve got diabetes now in 10-year-old children, that was never seen before; the autoimmune diseases are way up; autism – all these things that ultimately have a very strong dietary component.

Anyway, I had to do a lot of research on my own to figure out why this diet had failed me and indeed, I found answers. In my case, it’s too late. Some of this stuff is not reversible. One of the reasons that I’m so impassioned about this is that I really want to stop the next generation of engaged, thoughtful, young people from taking this up before it’s too late because it’s going to end for them in the kind of disaster that it’s been for me.

Jonathan: Lierre, what was your dietary evolution? Obviously, I would imagine you still hold the morals and the values and the inspiration that led you down the vegetarian or vegan path to begin with, but you’re obviously not a vegetarian or a vegan now. How have you changed your life to support those values while not taking this traditional vegetarian or vegan route?

Lierre: There were a couple of things that came together for me. One was in finding out the nutritional information that I needed. We really do need animal products, particularly animal fats. There are some essential vitamins that you simply cannot get from plants and that includes vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and in many cases, vitamin K2. You just can’t get them from plant substances, they don’t exist. Animals need them and plants don’t, so there’s no reason for plants to produce them. Right away, there’s a problem. Then there are all the wonderful things that animal fats will do for you beyond those vitamins. Cholesterol is actually the basic sort of building block of all your cells and without cholesterol, you’d just be a puddle on the floor. It gives every cell structural stability. Your brain is almost 80 percent of fat, so if you’re not eating fat, your brain just isn’t going to function.

We are actually a set of electrical impulses inside a watery environment. That’s our nervous system inside our bodies. Just like an electric chord that you might run outside in the pouring rain, if it doesn’t have insulation on it, it’s not going to work; it’ll short out. It’s the same thing. What coats every nerve in your body is actually saturated fat, so if you’re not eating any cholesterol, your nerves just aren’t going to work. You’re going to get depression, you’re going to get anxiety, you might end up with something like MS where that is just eroding. There are all kinds of ways that saturated fat is just absolutely necessary. The very, very top surface level – the [Indiscernible 23:21] on your lungs, that very last layer that actually does the air exchange is built from saturated fat. Your intestines need a tremendous amount of it. There’s a 48-hour turnover for every one of the cells that line your intestines. Without cholesterol, you can’t do it. There’s just no way to build that many cells. Down the line, all of your hormones are made from cholesterol. That’s the Mother Hormone. If you don’t have any, you can’t make hormones. That includes all your sex hormones – testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and this is why so many women on low-fat diets end up with these tremendous infertility problems. I can speak to this myself. I basically didn’t menstruate for 20 years, being a vegan, and everybody in my vegan world said that was normal, that it was a good thing. It’s insane. Right?

For me, I stopped being a vegan and particularly the soy. The soy is absolutely fingered in this. When I took the soy out of my diet and I started eating broth every day. I went absolutely cold turkey; like, in two weeks, I did all that and I have not missed a menstrual period since. It happened right away. It was instantaneous. Boom. I’m like clockwork now. It was unbelievable. After 20 years. I mean, I had to just sit there with my mouth open, like, “What have I done to myself?” My sister ended up with endometriosis. She was also a vegan for a good long time, 14 years, and that was the soy as well. There are a lot of bad things we can say about soy. What I will say right now is, if you are eating soy or you think soy is a good thing, I’m going to beg you to do some more research on this on your own because soy is a very, very dangerous substance. In fact, there are some researchers who have said, “These substances are drugs, not food.” I really hope people will take that to heart and do more research before they continue to eat them, particularly if they have children. This is really crucial. These are endocrine disrupters and they can do permanent damage to children. Please rethink soy if you’re eating soy.

Jonathan: Lierre, I think the thing that’s really crystallizing in my head and I really appreciate you sharing this information, you are good at speaking, there’s no question. The takeaway and I’m actually curious of your thoughts here – here’s what’s frustrating to have happen in life and I think this happened a lot with the ‘just starve yourself and use stair-steppers and just eat as few calories as possible from any source as long as you just eat a few calories.’ The reason that it is so detrimental is that you have a group of people who will do that. They will try it, they will put their heart and soul into it, they will be hungry, depressed, time-deprived, they are not spending time with their families because they are off at the gym, they also stop menstruating because if you’re eating 1100 calories per day, I don’t care about the source, your body thinks you’re starving, and it doesn’t generate the results they want. They actually end up harming their health and ending up storing more body fat than they ever would have.

The best case scenario is you do something, it makes you feel better and it makes the world better, that’s the best case scenario. There’s another scenario where you do something and it makes you feel like crap, but it makes the world a better place and some people may be okay with that. Then there’s another scenario where it makes you feel like crap and it doesn’t help anyone else. That scenario is just not helpful for anyone. Hypothetically, for the listeners who are vegetarians or vegans, if it is making you feel great, that’s your own prerogative; but if this type of lifestyle is making you feel terrible and you’re like, “But you know what? I’m going to keep it up because my happiness doesn’t matter, my health doesn’t matter; what matters is the sustainability of the planet.” What I think Lierre’s message is, which is so profound, is you might be suffering needlessly.

Lierre: Yes. Honestly, it’s scenario number three. You’re going to hurt yourself and you’re not actually doing any good for the planet. I know that’s really heartbreaking. It took me about a year and a half to get over that because it was so important to me to believe in this and none of it turned out to be true.

Jonathan: I think that’s the key thing, Lierre. If you’re doing this, if for some reason, you do it because you enjoy it – you don’t like animal foods, it’s just that they don’t appeal to you – that’s a different thing; but if you’re doing it for these motivations you’ve described and you’re suffering, I think what we’re saying here and what Lierre is saying is that there may be a better way not only for you to be happy and thrive as an individual, but for you to eat in a way that also helps others to be happy and thrive as individuals.

Lierre, I want to spend the rest of our time together talking about your opinion on if you do have these goals and you don’t want to suffer personally and you don’t want other people to suffer, how should you be focusing your eating efforts?

Lierre: The most important thing you can do is find a local farm, as local as you can find because most people live in cities now, but the closest farm you can find that is grass-based, so their land is covered in what’s called a perennial polyculture all the time. Usually, that means grass. Cows and other animals are meant to eat grass; they are not meant to eat grain. By keeping the land in that perennial polyculture, in that grass, you’re doing an amazing number of things to help the world. You are providing habitat for all kinds of wild animals. There will be small birds, reptiles, mammals, all kinds of little creatures that can live there and whose homes will never be destroyed so they can come back year after year and raise their young in that pasture, in that grassland. It means that the roots of those plants are really, really long and strong. That’s what perennials do, they make these incredible root systems. Annual plants like wheat and corn and soy or whatever, they cannot make a deep root system; they’re not alive long enough. Their whole goal is to produce a seed and then get out of it because they’ve only got two or three seasons to live.

They’re called annuals because they only live for less than a year and their entire goal is to make that great big seed head, but that means that they don’t produce a lot of – they’re not trees; they don’t have time to make wood. All they have is a little cellulose and a stem, this great big seed, and then very shallow roots because that’s all they’ve got time for. By having those shallow roots, what it means is that every time it rains, the rain cannot penetrate down into the deeper layers of the soil because there’s no channel for it; whereas where you have the perennials where you have that grassland, that prairie, the roots are so deep that it can bring the water right down to help refill the water table each and every time it rains. There’s no run-off. Also, by having that really deep root system – and it’s something that’s so crucial to life on earth – the perennial plants are the only ones that make minerals available to the rest of us. They do an incredible thing. Those deep root systems dig down into the rock, the substratum, of our planet and they break up that rock and they draw up those minerals bit by bit and then make it available to everybody else. Without their action, we’re all dead.

There’s this great quote, “We owe our entire existence to six inches of top soil and the fact that it rains.” It’s quite true and one of the things in that top soil is, of course, these perennial plants. That’s what they do, they build soil by their action, they make the rain, they make the moisture go down, they bring it down to recharge the water table, and then as the soil dries out, they bring the water back up and make it available to the rest of the community, and then also the action of the mineral keeping the mineral cycle going. Without it, we’d all be dead. There’s just no way. We can’t eat rock, but plants do and they make it available.

If you find a grass-based farm, what you’re finding is an entire however many acres – 10 acres, 20 acres, 100 acres – that’s been restored to that perennial polyculture and all those other functions can happen. You’ve got water recharged. You’ve got building soil, protecting soil. You’ve got the mineral cycle healthy and good. You’ve got all these other plants and animals that can live there. Whatever running bodies of water are nearby are going to be safe and protected as well because that’s what perennials do. The world has been restored in a really primary way and one of the most important things and this, in many ways is, I think, the biggest thing, the most important reason to switch to grass-based farming is that if we even took 75 percent of the world’s grasslands which have been trashed by agriculture – they’ve been actually devastated – but if we could restore even 75 percent of that land mass to grasslands, to those perennial polycultures, we could actually sequester all of the carbon that’s been released since the beginning of the industrial age in about 15 years. That’s it. That’s all it would take.

It’s been this process of ‘destroy, destroy, destroy’ and all we need to do is reverse it and ‘repair, repair, repair’. The planet still has hope if we just got out of the way, if we let the planet be what it wants to be; a grassland or a forest. It’s not too late. This could be done and we don’t need these bizarre high-tech solutions. The planet knows how to do this. This is the basic job of grass is to create top soil and it can be done. Find one of those farms where they’re doing grass-based farming and what you will find is a ruminant, so it’s probably going to be either a cow or a bison and you could come back 10,000 years later and you would find the exact same thing. You would find grass, you would find bison, you would find all these other creatures that are part of the cycle, and the only difference is you’d find more top soil because it would’ve built another few feet of top soil in that time. It’s a perfect cycle, it’s a closed loop.

This is what we participated in for our first four million years on this planet. It’s really only in the last ten thousand years that we’ve become destructive and it was by taking up that activity called agriculture. When you do grass-based farming, that’s really pastoralism. People get confused when I talk about agriculture, like that’s not just any way that people get food. It’s a very specific activity. It involves clearing the land, planting those annual monocrops, and that slow draw-down process; whereas these other ways that people have gotten food which would include things like hunting and gathering, it would include pastoralism, it would include horticulture, which is most people’s gardens, all of that can be done very sustainably.

The best thing you can do is find one of those grass-based farms near you, get your eggs from them, there should be chickens running around on those fields as well, they make an incredible adjunct with the ruminants, they help each other in all kinds of ways. These are symbiotic relationships. For instance, the chickens will scratch the dung, the waste products from the cows, and spread it out because they have that scratching that they do. They’ll spread out the manure and then really crucially, they eat the eggs and the insects that are inside that manure, so they naturally will keep the cows free of disease and parasites just by doing what chickens do. Chickens, ducks, turkeys, whatever. You need some fowl in there to keep the system going, so that’s another thing you can look for. Pigs also play a really great role in a grass-based farm. They have a whole other function where they eat a lot of waste products, the leftover stuff that nobody else will eat. The pigs will eat that and they’ll put it to good use. Our role in all of this as well is we’re apex predators, so our job is to keep the population down to sustainable numbers and that’s what predators do, whether it’s wolves or bears or humans. That’s our role as well. Without the predators, the ruminants will overrun it and in two or three years, you will have nothing but desert.

It may seem cruel in a moment that yes, everybody has to die; but if we don’t die, then there is no room for the next generation. That was a very, very hard thing for me to accept, but no matter what I was eating, something had to die. Honestly, that’s information I should have had by the time I was 4 or 5 years old, but we don’t live in a culture that recognizes that and it was very hard-won for me to come to that. Anyways, grass-based farm. Find a grass-based farm.

Jonathan: The beautiful thing here, Lierre, is we started this show off talking about the pursuit of black and white and we don’t have time to really understand all the nuance and information, but what I hear us arriving at here is actually beautifully simple, in the sense that, if we consider each individual person as an island – which we know we’re not, but let’s just do a thought experiment – the way to propagate the most lasting health and happiness in that individual is to – and this is not questionable, this has been demonstrated clinically and clinically as well as for thousands of generations on the planet – is to eat nutrient-dense animals and plant foods. It’s not about saying ‘this is good, this is bad’.

Nutrient density is the goal and nutrient density comes from both animals and from plants. Interestingly enough, do you know where we find the most nutrient-dense animals and plants? We find them when they are produced sustainably. Sustainably-produced plants and animals are also the most nutrient-dense plants and animals and therefore by pursuing that which is most nutrient-dense and that which would benefit us the most as an island, we are actually serving the greater good as effectively as we can. That’s a pretty awesome cycle in and of itself.

Lierre: Yes, I have to say I found a great deal of solace in that as I came out of my vegan world view. It was really hard and when I realized exactly what you’re saying, it did offer me some sense of healing. I mean, it was so hard. I cried for like a year and a half. I found this other way and I was like, “Okay, so the values are all still there and I can still participate in this repair of the planet and eat this really good food. It’s just going to be different than I thought.” As you said, the underlying values stayed the same, but my framework on top of those values did a tremendous shift and that’s not an easy process.

If people have hung on this long with the interview, I really commend that because, when I was a vegan, I don’t know that I would’ve listened this long. I would’ve been too upset and I would’ve stopped listening. Thank you if you’ve hung on because I know this is really big.

Jonathan: Lierre, I’m an eternal optimist, potentially to a fault, but the thing that encourages me so much about this is – I’ll just say it – I don’t want to live in a world where the only way the world can survive is if humans are sick and suffering. That doesn’t seem to make sense. That’s not a symbiotic system. Humans are supposed to be symbiotic. We’re supposed to exist in a world in which we could continue to exist. It never really resonated with me that the way we have to eat is a way that harms us. The way that heals the planet should also heal the individual and interestingly enough, that is what we’ve arrived at here, that which is best for the planet is that which is best for the individual. It’s not about saying plants are globally good or bad and animals are globally good or bad; it’s about saying the way in which we produce those things is so critical in focusing on quality and sustainability rather than these blanket ‘this is good, that is bad’ serves everyone. Correct?

Lierre: Yes, that’s beautifully put. That’s exactly it and we can be part of that cycle again.

Jonathan: Well, Lierre, I really, really appreciate your time and insights. Everyone, if you want to dig deeper into this, which I hope you would because it is a very important subject – again, Lierre’s book is The Vegetarian Myth and her name, again, is Lierre Keith. You can learn more about her as an individual at That is, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us today. I’ve really, really enjoyed it.

Lierre: Thanks, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Listeners, I hope you found this show as enjoyable and informative and provocative as I did. Remember, this week and every week after – eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.

Jonathan: Wait, wait. Don’t stop listening yet.

Carrie: You can get fabulous free SANE recipes over at

Jonathan: And don’t forget, your 100 percent free Eating and Exercise Quick Start Program as well as free fun daily tips delivered right into your inbox at

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Lierre Keith. Lierre is the author of The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability and while we all know avoiding meat can be totally SANE, Lierre is here to help us ensure that if we do choose to avoid animal products for sustainability reasons, that we’re fully informed.

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability