International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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Congress Logo 33rd World Vegetarian Congress
Chiang Mai, Thailand, January 4 - 10, 1999
'Vegetarianism is the Way'
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Asian Taste for Meat Grows
An independent news report

.c The Associated Press

By DENIS D. GRAY

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (AP) -- Vegetarianism, long practiced in Asia, is now under threat as never before, with traditional staples like lentils and rice rapidly being replaced by fatty fast food.

The result is a sight on the streets of Thailand not even imagined a generation ago: overweight youngsters stuffing themselves with hamburgers and chicken legs from American fast-food franchises.

Even in the veggie superpower India, where plants and dairy products make up some 80 percent of the diet, millions are ``sitting on the dietary fence,'' said Jashu Shah of The Vegetarian Society in Bombay.

``Young Indians are taking their cue from Western media -- not real Western people. So they've come to think that to smoke, drink and eat non-veg is modern and fashionable,'' Shah said during the recent congress of the 110-year-old International Vegetarian Union.

While Indian gurus once went West to convert carnivores, Shah and others say Western vegetarians should now come East to set examples.

``Vegetarianism is spreading in the West and the next century will see a massive growth,'' says the union's deputy president, Maxwell G. Lee. ``It would be a great tragedy if it stopped or even regressed in its natural birthplace, Asia.''

Lee said that in Britain, about 4 million people were vegetarians and another 17 million had cut back on red meat -- a number of these because of the scare from ``mad cow'' disease, which was found in British cattle.

More Western Europeans were shunning meat, especially in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Vegetarian groups are even sprouting in Eastern Europe, where not long ago it was hard to order a decent salad, and in some African countries.

Many North Americans also are turning to a plant-based diet largely for health concerns. Almost daily, they're reminded of how fruits and vegetables can help fight cancer while eating meat heightens chances of heart disease. Many people also choose vegetarianism because they oppose the slaughter of animals for human consumption.

The Asian Vegetarian Union, a newly launched vegetarian group based in Bangkok, plans to start similar groups in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea, where none exist.

In China, where bean curd was first produced some 2,000 years ago, McDonald's outlets now outnumber vegetarian restaurants in Beijing.

In Japan, meat generally went untouched a century ago. Now, meat is steadily being chosen over the traditional diet of vegetables, rice and fish, according to the Japanese Vegetarian Society.

Health and ethics aside, producing meat is far harder on the planet, the union says. Land used to cultivate a vegetarian diet can feed 10 times as many people as land being used to raise animals for a meat-based diet.