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'
an unforgettable visual, cultural and gastronomic experience

Vegetarianism-the answer to the world's problems

The following is the text of talk by Maxwell G. Lee, elected President of IVU during the congress at Chiang Mai:

A world congress is an opportunity for us to bring to the attention of the general public the importance of the interaction between the various facets of our lives. How we behave towards all life on this planet, how we eat and how we treat the environment are fundamental to the good of the human population. This is often forgotten by humans who only consider their own selfish good and ignore the effects of what they do on the planet and all its inhabitants, human, animals and plant forms of life. Mahatma Gandhi some six or so decades ago suggested "for remaining staunch to vegetarianism, man requires a moral basis." He stated that he knew many non vegetarians who enjoyed good health so another approach was necessary to appeal to people. He went on to state "I think that what a vegetarian should do is not to emphasise the physical consequences of vegetarianism but to explore the moral consequences." When I learnt that Gandhi held such a view I was very happy since it was moral reasons which drew me to vegetarianism at the age of 12 years. In recent time another very strong argument for vegetarianism has come to the fore; the environmental one.

You have already enjoyed a keynote speech by Professor Dr . Art-Ong Jumsai Na Ayudhaya about vegetarianism and the panel discussion on the Global Food and Environmental Crisis on some of the issues we need to address as vegetarians who have a strong concern for the greater environment and the good of all on Earth. Others will give considerable detail about the health reasons for adopting a vegetarian way of life and some will also give good reasons for re-examining the relationship between humans and animals.

I wish to suggest that a vegetarian approach to world problems is likely to lead to a better world and one in which all will have enough to eat, cruelty to animals and humans will be less likely and the environment will be considerably enhanced.

A major argument put forward against vegetarianism, usually by the meat industry, is that vegetarians might lack some essential nutrients. However, when they are tackled about this they usually come up with some comment about lack of iron and possible B12 deficiency. Both suggestions are incorrect if one eats a varied vegetarian diet. Iron is readily available from many vegetarian sources and is absorbed if the right combination of foods is taken. B12 is usually a problem if one lacks what is called the "intrinsic" factor and unable to absorb the B12 and this is just as likely among meat eaters as among vegetarians. Some vegetarians might not have a suitable diet and have problems. However, a vegetarian diet is not only an acceptable one but it is a better one. If a vegetarian diet does any harm, it seems to be taking a long time to do it in my own case since I am now in my 55th year as a vegetarian and 15th as a vegan! One example does not make a case but one's own example can be a great help when arguing the vegetarian case. Gone are the days when vegetarians were on the defensive. Now we know our approach is the better one and we can proudly put it forward and fight for it.

Scientific evidence is constantly being produced to show that vegetarians are less likely to suffer from debilitating and even fatal diseases. In 1997 the Times newspaper reported, as did many other UK newspapers, that the latest report from the COMA committee, which advises the UK Government on medical aspects of food policy warned against eating more than 140 grams of meat per day. Initially it was even more cautious about the amount that might be consumed each day but political pressure caused some revisions of its recommendations. The World Cancer Research Fund equally has suggested caution over the amount and types of meat that one should eat. The food pyramid put forward by many Governments shows a much lower intake of animal foods than vegetable ones. The incidence of many of the more unpleasant diseases such as cancer, heart, diabetes, gallstones etc. are linked increasingly to diet. There is a review article in a recent British Medical Journal by John Cummings and Sheila Bingham on "Diet and the prevention of cancer" (BMJ 1998;317:1636-40). No new data are presented, but some of the conclusions are worth quoting, eg. "A diet high in fruit, vegetables, and cereals and low in meat, fat, and salt, but containing adequate minerals and vitamins, is a good prophylactic for preventing many chronic diseases of lifestyle. Further, a plant based food economy is much more sustainable than one based on livestock."

In an 11 year follow-up study of 1900 vegetarians in Germany, Chang-Claude (1992) found mortality from all causes was reduced by one half compared with the general population. The Oxford University Medical School study of 6,000 vegetarians and a control group of 5,000 meat eaters suggested coronary heart disease may be reduced by 24% in vegetarians and 57% in vegans compared with the general population. Whilst some might question the accuracy of research findings, the volume of research indicating the advantages of a vegetarian diet make it clear that it is not bias but facts which lead to such claims. For health reasons, a vegetarian approach is certainly right and the answer to many world problems.

The World Health Organisation produced a study on "Diet. Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases" in 1991. It reports a panel of experts was given the task of assessing the strength of evidence linking dietary factors to the development of chronic diseases and to issue advice on prevention. The experts concluded that "repeated and consistent findings of an association between specific dietary factors and a disease suggest that such associations are real and indicative of a cause-and-effect relationship." It went on to document the alarming consequences of dietary changes in developing countries which are now experiencing a universal and spontaneous shift towards the "affluent" diet. "Even modest increases in prosperity are accompanied by major changes in dietary patterns and a dramatic increase in the incidence of diet-related disease." In its final section, the report states "Farming policies that do not require intensive animal production systems would reduce the world demand for cereals. Use of land could be reappraised, since cereal production for direct consumption by a population is much more efficient and cheaper than dedicating large areas to growing feed for meat production and the dairy industry." The report foresees a world more akin to that we as vegetarians seek; one well on the way to being a vegetarian world. Although developing countries increasingly aim to produce animal feed or increase animal production, and cut down their forests to provide the land, it is difficult for westerners to criticise such practices since we long ago did the same to our forest cover. However, the environmental impact of such practices is considerable and disastrous for both the human future and the very lives of the animal inhabitants of the forests that are being decimated. A country like Thailand has considerably reduced its forest and continues to do so. We can only appeal to our hosts to work to reverse the trend. If developing countries wish to follow western practices, it would be better if they could follow those that are not detrimental to the environment and the future of life on Earth.

In order to produce more animals economically western agriculture has turned increasingly to intensive methods of animal production and drugs to reduce the incidence of disease as well as growth promoters to encourage animals to grow to a marketable size more quickly. Antibiotic use is causing an increase in resistance of some diseases to them. The European Community is considering a ban on the use of some antibiotics in animals. The use of tetracycline and other important antibiotics in livestock farming has risen by as much as 1,500% in 30 years and penicillin by 600%. The problem is compounded when animal waste and residues find their way into water courses. It contains nitrates, antibiotics, hormones, parasites, heavy metals and pesticides. Often water is taken from the polluted rivers for human consumption and not all the residues are extracted prior to its use. In Britain the biggest cause of water pollution is meat production with the waste of some 700 million creatures ending up in the water supply. In Western Europe it has been suggested that there three tons of animal waste for each human Some years ago there was a report of some men in the USA developing enlarged breasts. It was found that this was due to them eating beef from animals implanted with female growth hormones! Ammonia evaporating from animal manure has been identified as a contributory factor in acid rain pollution. One might also mention the effects of billions of cattle etc. producing methane which adds to the "greenhouse" effect. Water deficiency is a major problem in many areas of the world but animal production continues although it can use up as much as 80% of the world's water supplies. Both for environmental and health reasons, it is evident that the vegetarian approach offers a more promising future for humans and animals. These practices are bad for the world and all its inhabitants.

Whilst chemicals are used a great deal in vegetarian food production, the incidence is somewhat less but still a problem that is being addressed by some approaches to organic food production.

Animals can suffer in a way that is not so different from human suffering. Intelligence is not a human prerogative and we now know that some animals are quite close to humans when it comes to intelligence. Many animals have their own social systems which we might not fully understand or appreciate but they are important to the animals. As knowledge grows of the degree to which animals can suffer as a result of their use by humans, it behoves us to reconsider our relationship with them and question how far we are morally justified in interfering in their lives. Dominion over the animals should not mean abusing them but treating them as our younger brothers and sisters who need care and respect. A vegetarian future will need to address such matters. Mahatma Gandhi stated: "The world has enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed." Albert Schweitzer looked to the interrelationship of all life when he said of the world: "To help life reach full development, the good (person) is a friend of all living things."

For all the reasons stated, and many more, we need to consider the future of the world. As vegetarians we offer a future of hope for all life on Earth. People will need to change long-standing dietary and agricultural habits, but this is happening anyway, and happens all the time. Anyone of my age or older has seen many changes in diet and agricultural practice during their lifetime. A vegetarian world will be a vegan one since it will be uneconomic to produce animals for milk, eggs etc. The meat is part of the animal economy. New foods are showing the way and providing vegetarians and others with exciting and satisfying choices. We now deplore slavery and cannibalism. A vegetarian future will take the next step and move away from animal abuse and exploitation. Vegetarianism offers the world a future full of hope and promise. And finally, to quote from the Bhagavad Gita:

"Who sees the separate lives
Of all creatures of the Earth, -
Of men and birds and beasts
And of the worms that creep,
And the fish that swim in
the watery deep, -
Who sees them all united
In the Spirit,
The One Eternal God, -
Sees them brought forth from Him.
His hidden depths, -
He sees indeed!"