Eating to Save the Earth


February 19-20, 2011. We came to the Bay area on Saturday to view the San Francisco premiere of “END:CIV” a documentary by Franklin Lopez based on Derrick Jensen‘s monumental book Endgame. We had taped a conversation with Derrick in December 2010 (to be produced), and found the documentary a solid introduction to Derrick’s big picture perspective on how industrial civilization is killing the planet.

Sunday dawned bright, with sun streaming in the crisp air after an unusually cold storm left a rare frosting of snow across the Bay Area hills. It perfectly reflected the strikingly clear articulation of our guest Lierre Keith, author of The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, Sustainability.

Lierre’s central message is that a vegetarian diet is healthy neither for humans nor for the planet. A twenty-year vegan, Lierre had undertaken this diet to avoid animal cruelty and to help save the planet. She found, instead, that it did just the opposite. The vegan diet trashed her body.

She explained that the humans evolved by eating nutrient-dense meat and animal fats: our large brains (mostly fat) and small stomachs say so. We cannot extract protein from plants like the herbivores — we have no way to break down the cellulose. Plus animal fats are the sole source of important vitamins A, D, E and K.

She cited the work of dentist Weston Price, whose worldwide research in the early twentieth century located some still-extant traditional cultures with “perfect health” — all without degenerative diseases, and with strong bones, no cavities, beautifully spacious mouths and teeth. They had in common a diet based on nutrient-dense animal foods like fish, organ meats, and animal products.

The diseases we’ve come to see as normal — heart disease, cancer, diabetes – were unknown prior to agriculture. They are the diseases of civilization, Lierre said. When humans began eating annual grains, our stature decreased, bones weakened, and the degenerative diseases appeared.

At the same time, agriculture destroys the earth. Nature creates complex polycultures like in a forest or prairie, with many interdependent species of plants and animals building topsoil and much more. Agriculture of annual crops (grains) means clearing the land down to bare, lifeless soil each year  — what she calls “biocide”, essentially an ethnic cleansing.

She quoted Derrick Jensen that “forests precede us and deserts dog our heels.” The fertile crescent of the middle east was once covered with cedar forests so thick you couldn’t see the sunlight. Now, desert. And we’ve run out of places to expand agriculture into.

Lierre said that if we simply got out of the way, stopped the annual clearing, earth would replenish the forests and prairies in a surprisingly shorter time than I expected. Decades, not centuries.

We also touched on factory farming of animals, corporate control of agriculture, overshoot, and population reduction.

Robyn and I have been reading aloud The Vegetarian Myth for the past few weeks, much of it underscoring yet going beyond what we had found to work in our own diets (including our videotaping Shan Kendall’s in-depth cooking classes in Traditional Nourishment.) Lierre has distilled and made accessible important information with directness, passion, and lyrical eloquence.

After we packed away the video gear following this fast-paced conversation, Robyn, Lierre and I shared a meal prepared by our hostess Saba Malik and her family. A chicken curry, grass-fed beef and stewed pastured pork graced the table, supplemented by salad greens, Greek yogurt and nourishing conversation.

Over this deeply satisfying feast, Lierre remarked that for many vegans and vegetarians, their diet is not simply the food they eat. It is who they are, their very identity. And many, like her, have difficulty hearing this information because it threatens their very identity. My hope is that my conversation with Lierre can open hearts and minds towards deeper health for both our animal bodies and the Earth body. []

Watch The Vegetarian Myth (episode 191).



  1. Janaia, thanks so much for all your fascinating interviews and information. I think the main thing that didn’t ring true for me in Lierre’s interview was the impression that vegetarians / vegans ought to be dropping dead like flies if, as she says, humans need to eat meat to survive.

    Other than that, I think she was spot on. Clearly we can’t keep ploughing the topsoil into the oceans and expect to survive. Nor can we keep relying on the input of a finite and rapidly depleting resource (fossil fuel) to sustain agriculture. Unfortunately I don’t see that there’s any chance at all of a happy way out of this. We’re not collectively smart enough, or co-operative enough to voluntarily and painlessly change the entire basis of human civilisation. Even if we were, I doubt there’s a way of getting from 7 billion people to the 1 billion or whatever it is that the planet can sustainably support, in the time we need to do it, without a great deal of human suffering. And that’s without even considering what effects global warming will have.

    Sorry for being gloomy. I worry about what my children will have to live through.

  2. The conversation with Lierre is a wonderful addition to our search for personal truth. It takes real courage to break with one’s convictions, but growth requires that we do that – unless we’re perfect…which we’re not.

    Good, good, good stuff Janaia.


  3. Christopher, Lierre’s point is that it is more efficient to let the animals convert grasses to edible protein in their bodies, since grasses are not digestible by humans. Weston Price’s work points out that the healthiest groups had diets with nutrient-rich foods, both animal and plant sources.

    Lobie, Lierre’s comparison is not between annual grain production and any form of overgrazing. She compares annual grain production (in which all living organisms are scraped off each year for planting and thus topsoil is lost) with perennial polycultures in which soil is built. She probably would consider annual grain production as equivalent to overgrazing: it depletes.

    I expect the Japanese are healthy because of the seafood in their diets as a nutrient-dense food. Grain is not nutrient-dense. Traditional diets in the temperate zones include animal as well as vegetable sources — dairy, lamb, seafood. Again, she is citing the studies of Weston Price, who sought out cultures around the world with the healthiest populations — no degenerative diseases, strong teeth and bones.

  4. Thanks for sharing. Whether it’s Home Energy or Human Energy, diversification and appropriate technology are the way to go. I’m constantly baffled by the urge for people to advocate for single “one-size-fits-all” solutions in a world that only flourishes due to biodiversity. Inuit should be almost entirely carnivorous, while dwellers on Pacific atolls should eat mostly seafood and fruits. Many small scale civilizations have been founded on meat consumption, from the seal to the bison, but all large scale civilizations have been cereal based. The idea that you can switch billions of people from a staple diet of rice or bread to staples of pork or beef is patently absurd. Massive reductions in human population will no doubt occur over time, as most large scale agricultural production and most global food trade is rooted in the ongoing availability of fossil fuels. Cereal grain production is no more destructive of land and forests than are overgrazing by livestock. Humans seem to have a limitless ability to abuse the environment through poor stewardship, whether they are growing corn or raising hogs…or – as is common – using cereal grain as animal feed. The arguments about epidemic diabetes and grain consumption are entirely specious. The Japanese people have spent thousands of years as a primarily vegetarian culture and are among the healthiest and long-lived societies on the planet. Will their health status improve if they all start eating steaks and give up rice and beans? What a laugh! Theories that equate health problems caused by the spread of denatured and processed grain flours and meals with the traditional use of whole grain foods as healthy dietary staples may sell books and trigger debates, but they don’t hold water. People should eat what is appropriate to their region and to their circumstances – if the diet makes them happy and healthy, so much the better. But, in the temperate zones of the real world – not some stone age tribe scenario – diets high in vegetable source foods produce better health outcomes than diets high in animal quality foods.

    And who wants to drink pork beer?

  5. Thanks, Mira. Dan Barber’s talk is very inspiring, and right in line with what Lierre advocates: forget Agribusiness as a model. Use ecology as a model. It has thousands of years of experience. Restore the rich community of life, and we humans will be fed too.

    I love his criteria/question: “how can we create conditions that enable every community to feed itself?” He provides a fine example in the fish farm in southwest Spain — created by re-establishing the wetlands that were once there. They measure their success by having more predator birds, cleaner water, and wonderful fish. Let’s apply that model everywhere.

  6. Reading the article, its comments and also the ten pages in Lierre’s article, not only just remind me that civilisation itself is a myth, or what it means to be civilised needs to be questioned, but also reminds me of this amazing ted talk by Dan Barber:

    I also recalled strict warnings by Ayurvedic doctors to avoid foods that aren’t grown locally, or are out of season.

  7. Thanks everybody for your comments. I am reminded of Daniel Quinn’s comment that “there is no one right way to live.” Perhaps equally, there is no ONE right way to eat (for everybody). Certainly the traditional peoples all over the world eat what works for them – and that varies a lot. But as Llyn said, no traditional peoples were vegetarian only.

    Christopher, congrats on your health! The method Lierre advocates for meat raising is what Joel Salatin does on Polyface farm: they do not raise feed for the animals – they are fed directly on unirrigated pasture grasses. So there is no conversion loss.

    In her book Lierre deplores factory farming of animals as avidly as many of you do. I think that this cruelty was a factor in her choosing to be vegan when she was 14. In her book she lauds the ethical and environmental conscientiousness that leads so many people to be vegetarian. Her book goes deeper, however, into the environmental destruction brought about by a (vegetarian or vegan) diet based on annual cereal (grain) foods.

    Llyn wrote: “If the land that was used to grow food for livestock were converted to growing grains for direct consumption of humans, it would solve a lot of problems.” It would solve some and create others — like destroying topsoil, draining aquifers and desertification? Lierre’s proposal is that, rather than scraping that soil annually, humans return to the perennial polycultures of the grasslands and forests — with millions of living beings in the soil, and animals grazing those grasses, like the buffalo did, or perhaps cattle now, and humans eating those animals.

  8. Vegan for 11 years, at the top of my health and haven’t been sick for as long as i can remember.

    The Veggy Myth book in question here is full of blaring contradictions. The simple fact is that if you want to feed a cow to convert the growing time to meat you are losing the conversion. EVERYTIME, if you use your land to grow feed, and raise animals you are losing EVERYTIME. Over growing food to be eaten directly.

    People like this theory (of Vegetarian Myth) because it fits what is the social normal and gives them an excuse to continue their life style they know is more destructive than eating a vegetarian or vegan diet. But Please don’t say that the science is good, because the facts don’t support her “Theory”. I am sure that Lierre Keith loves the idea because it is making her rich.

  9. Hi there –

    I’m aware from research I did in my twenties that there are no known indigenous cultures that are completely vegan. All consume some kinds of animal protein. Most, however, eat flesh only in moderation and at times of celebration when a whole hunted animal is consumed at once, in a feast. Not daily, or three times a day…

    There are many, many examples of people who have lived much of their lives as vegetarians – quite healthily. Helen (89 years old) and Scott Nearing (100) and Einstein and George Bernard Shaw being some of the famous ones.

    Chris and I do feel quite strongly about being vegetarian for ecological and ethical reasons. The environmental devastation being wrought by the meat industries is deplorable and, we cannot condone eating animals that are, in effect slaves and commodities – even if grass-fed or “free-range”. On the scale that “organic” meat is raised, chicken-lives are still a far-cry from the happy, bug-scratching, pasture-yard pictures that the packaging would have you believe in. Even if a cow is raised on grass, his death for human consumption is still inevitable – it’s not as though he could escape his fate and live a long, natural life like the deer or other wild game.

    When you say “She also points to agriculture, especially annual cereal grass crops, are destroying the earth,” you make it sound as though human consumption of cereal grasses are the source of the earth’s destruction. What do you think they’re feeding the cows, pigs and chickens? If the land that was used to grow food for livestock were converted to growing grains for direct consumption of humans, it would solve a lot of problems. Not to mention the toxic waste of the poop from the livestock causing dead zones in our water-ways, ground water and river deltas. etc. etc.

    Lastly, there is so much more that goes into determining a person’s health than diet alone. We can think of many, many examples of people who disprove this as a direct one-to-one correlation. People who follow all the “right” rules for healthy eating and exercise, and who come down with cancer or succumb to Epstein-Barr etc; and those who go against all the dietary and exercise rules and are solid and fit and functioning well into their nineties. You can always find evidence to support whatever theory you have about health and diet. We believe that one’s unconscious beliefs have more to say about your health than anything pre-determined by diet or other habits.

    Love Llyn (and Chris)

    P.S. Here are a few links Chris found that outline some of the devastating impacts of meat-farming and consumption.

  10. What about the environmental impact from industrial animal farming? What about the the land space it takes to feed all those animals?
    Still learning.
    Full on veg for 2 yrs.
    Best I have ever felt.
    Not against eating meat. I do it to support my wife. Eating meat makes her skin break out. Especially seafood. Lactose intolerant.
    keeps me from eating McDonald’s

  11. Becoming vegan has been the best decision I have ever made – for health, for kindness. I love animals. Give me carrot and my conscience and a b12 tab. Peace.

  12. Lindsay, grains are so cheap now because we the taxpayers subsidize them. In the documentary “King Corn” you learn that the only way corn farmers are making it financially is the government (taxpayer) subsidies. If those subsidies were removed, I think that local foods like pasture-fed animals would become far more affordable.

  13. Vilhelm Nilsson says:

    I just discovered this book as well.

    I also trust she is really on to something. I’ve also experimented with many different types of food lifestyles,but this one of going back to local organic meat and dairy feels like i’m really coming home in a way. I’m coming closer to my food. I can actually visit the farms where the animals are kept and that gives me trust and a deeper relationship with what I put on my plate and the life that is feeding me.

    Thanks Janaia for finding Lierre and interviewing her. I’m looking forward to seeing the clip very much!

    Also I would highly recommend you look into the work of Daniel Vitalis if you’re not already familiar with him. He’s on to the same thing and the wholesomeness of a holistic food lifestyle. Check him out on Facebook or on his own site.

    Thanks so much everyone who is bringing this topic to the table.

  14. Thanks for doing this!

    As a supporter/friend of Lierre, Derrick and Saba, it’s a treat to see them here and hear the story of your encounter.

    I read ‘The Vegetarian Myth’ as soon as it came out, and it reinforced all Lierre had been saying over the years and more so, a really powerful, valuable read.

    I lent it to another fellow Permaculturalist who had been a vegetarian for 18 years. It took 4 months to get the book back as he devoured it, read it 3 times, and said it was”the most radical book I’ve ever read!”

    Looking forward to the both your conversation with Derrick and this one here too!


  15. I had all sorts of health problems in my 20s, and a holistic doctor had me tested for food intolerances (after traditional doctors had put me on all sorts of drugs for my various ailments…). Surprise, gluten (wheat) was the culprit (I had everything from joint paint to chronic acid reflux to headaches and acne), and my problems cleared up when I started avoiding it (I have cheat meals now and then, and I can always tell when I’ve been cheating too much because symptoms will flare up again).

    I ended up reading all the Paleo Diet books when I was learning about my problems, and I think that’s the healthiest diet out there. I was never able to stick to it for long, but I do try to treat grains as junk food and not something to be consumed with every meal. I’m always a little suspicious of dairy, too, since lactose-intolerance runs in my family.

    I have always wondered about the feasibility of feeding the world on something like the paleo diet, given the costs currently associated with buying healthy organic fruits and vegetables and free-range grass-fed meat and poultry. Since grains are (currently) cheap, it’s a lot cheaper to live on Ramen Noodles and Fritos.

  16. The act of eating is to consume something else that was once living. We must do it in a way that honors not only the being who’s life we’ve taken, but also ourselves and the earth.

  17. I too am reading The Vegetarian Myth – the latest in diet theory books of my 40 years of eating experiments (starting with vegan/macrobiotics in 1969)

    My adult life has been a continuous conscious food relationship…vegan, raw foodist, vegetarian & finally as an omnivore. In the last 10 years – using only local, organic fresh & seasonal foods – I conclude that Lierre is truly on to something. I have been teaching nutrition & cooking from a “Whole Earth” perspective for a few years now & will continue to enlarge the message as it becomes clearer.

    I am blown away by the intuitive & scientific basis for her theory. I am positive that we are never going to be able to eat so many grains & be healthy. The diabetic explosion is just around the bend (up to 50% of your youth will be diabetic in a few years) and the small homestead version of our future planet & life saving permaculture just does not include much land for grains & similar crops – for just 2 reasons. Well, it is laid out pretty well by Lierre, Lester Brown and many others. Read the book before commenting.

    I do not entirely agree with some of her sources & stats, and that can be argued if one wants to spend time that way.
    OVERALL, My formal education as a nutritionist & my own life experience as a health consultant draws only a few conclusions that differ from the over-all argument laid out in The Vegetarian Myth.

    Many thinks to all who are bringing this message out &…home.

  18. jmy, there’s not enough land for the agricultural diet, either. If you read her book, you’ll find out that we’re using up the topsoil (and freshwater supplies) due to agricultural practices, so there’s not enough land for the grains-based diet.

    David, the planet doesn’t seem to agree with you: desertification wherever we have agriculture. In Lester Brown’s newest book “World on the Edge”, he says mankind has pushed civilization to the brink of collapse by bleeding aquifers dry and overplowing land to feed an ever-growing population, while overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Desertification.

    To you both: I’d be interested in your response about the planetary effects after you read her book.

  19. Not enough land for her diet

  20. Well I think I will just keep my vegetarian lifestyle and tell Lierre Keith, sorry it didn’t work out for you, its the best thing I have done for my life, body and planet.


  1. […] I don’t feel bad for eating meat, and yet I still apologize—that I come across a provocative interview with author and former vegan Lierre Keith. Sitting down with Janaia Donaldson of Peak Moment TV, she explains the think… Read the full […]

  2. […] feel bad for eating meat, and yet I still apologize—that I come across a provocative interview with author and former vegan Lierre Keith. Sitting down with Janaia Donaldson of Peak Moment TV, she explains the think…Read the full […]

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