, July 07, 2009
(view all comments by davidscottlevi)
If I say that this book saved my life, I risk only slight exaggeration. After suffering with asthma for thirty years, I've now been completely free of it for over six months (btw, I got an advance copy... obviously, the book just came out). My last trip to the emergency room was only two years ago. I was on two maintenance medications until I read this book. I had already weened myself off a third, but multiple attempts to get off the other two met with failure. I was more than a little intrigued when I came across the part where Ms. Keith describes how the lectins in wheat can cause and/or intensify inflammatory diseases, including Crohn's Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma. I decided to make a few changes in my diet, including cutting out all grain. Right around then, I ran out of my asthma meds, so I decided to hold off on calling in new ones. I never needed them. Having nearly died of asthma more than once, I cannot say how grateful I am to Lierre Keith. I was not on the brink of dying of asthma, but it certainly was awful, and might eventually have killed me.
Aside from my remarkable recovery from asthma, I found the book enlightening, moving, and a great read. Keith makes, in my opinion, a sound argument that agriculture itself is inherently destructive. Note that she defines agriculture, appropriately I believe, as the monocropping of annuals (i.e. endless rows of wheat or corn or soy or whatever). Indigenous humans planted seeds tens of thousands of years before the "agricultural revolution," perhaps even before we were homo sapiens. But planting seeds here and there, encouraging the growth of desired plants, encouraging permacultures of diverse perennial plants, fungus, animals, and microorganisms all intertwined, is all quite different from seizing a given piece of land, clearing every living thing off of it (a euphemism for killing every living being), and then planting rows of annuals (usually grains) on the exposed and dying topsoil. That is agriculture. And while there are relatively better and worse ways of doing it, it is fundamentally and universally unsustainable. This is why agricultural societies expand... to take over new land and resources to exploit as they draw down what they already possess. Compounding the problem, they, for readily identifiable reasons, promote rapid population growth (for slaves, soldiers, police, bureaucrats... oh, and did I mention soldiers?). This is why they create myths of apocalypse. Since the inception of agriculture and civilization, the culture has been driving headlong into apocalypse, no deities required. Topsoil needs to be covered, and it needs a diverse community of life forms to live on it and in it, each contributing nutrients, structure, and protection. Clear the land for agriculture and it will eventually die unless it is reverted to a polyculture based on perennials. The wind and rain will erode it. The monocrops will strip the nutrients. The sun will bake it. Riverwater for irrigation will introduce trace mineral salts that will build up and gradually sterilize it. Any of these factors would suffice to kill the land, but together they make the inevitable all the more inevitable. Look at the "Fertile Crescent," the cradle of agriculture. Not so fertile these days. The same thing happened in Greece. The same thing is happening in the USA. The Dust Bowl should have been warning enough. Only now, with synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, chemical pesticides and herbicides, 2/3's of the topsoil and groundwater stripped from the Great Plains, a human population of nearly seven billion, 100-200 species going extinct every day, a couple hundred major "dead zones" in the oceans (mostly at the mouths of rivers churning out fertilizer and pesticide runoff), and the planet on the verge of runaway global warming, the stakes are rather higher.
Lierre Keith is a beautiful writer, careful researcher, passionate and compassionate advocate for the disenfranchised (human and non-human), brave iconoclast (arguing, very effectively, that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol can actually be good for you--if they're from pastured animals--and are precisely the kind of stuff we evolved to eat), and unflinching opponent of the systems that are destroying life on this planet, including extractive agriculture, most especially in its industrialized form.
Michael Pollan has reached a very wide audience, and while I wish all those Pollan readers would pick up this book, I doubt that most will. Pollan has done great work exposing the insanity of industrial agriculture (including industrial "organics"), and has been a great promoter of small-scale, local farming, especially based on rotational grazing, the sustainable model Keith advocates, too. What Pollan lacks (in his bestselling books, at least) is a cogent political, social, or historical analysis to help us understand our ecocidal food production system in an appropriate context. He also offers no call to actively oppose, let alone dismantle, the ecocidal system, seeming content with encouraging niche markets for enlightened consumers. Frankly, with the planet dying, that is just not enough. If Pollan is this generation's Wendell Berry and Derrick Jensen is this generation's Edward Abbey, Lierre Keith finally links the two strands, showing beyond any shadow of a doubt that the very foundation of civilization as such, and most especially industrial civilization, is a method of food procurement that is insane, ecocidal, and really, really dumb. And it sure isn't making us happy or healthy either.
Vegans, vegetarians, please read this book. Ms. Keith was a vegan for two decades, and hurt herself badly with her diet. Vegan and vegetarian diets are not the responsible, sustainable, or even animal-friendly choices we've been trained to think they are, least of all when they are based on grains and soy, as they usually are. Of course the worst food out there is meat and animal foods from feed lots. Ms. Keith hates these as much as anyone. She is not advocating that anyone eat such poison, such misery.
This is one of the three most important books I've ever read (for what it's worth, Jensen's Endgame and Bly's Iron John are the other two). I cannot recommend it more highly.