Like so many other small children, I was disheartened when I first learned, from my mother, that we kill animals so that we can eat them. I found that news hard to reconcile with the notion that animals are our friends. I mean, you don't kill your friends and eat them, do you?
But I balked at the prospect of challenging the wisdom of my parents at that age (around three). And I ate the meat my mom cooked for me, and even enjoyed it.
Still, I held a special place in my heart for vegetarians. I admired their willingness to go out of their way to do something to help animals each day. And, one day, as I witnessed the warmth, the affection, and the powerful bond between a dairy cow, (a Guernsey), and her young calf, I thought to myself, "Maybe one day I could be vegetarian."
Another 33 years would pass before that idea became a priority for me. My wife and I, both animal lovers (with two horses, two cats, and three dogs) became members of the Humane Society of the U.S. And, occasionally, we received literature and pictures which showed the conditions on modern intensive-confinement animal farms which produce nearly all of the chickens, pigs, and veal calves that are raised for food in this country.
The pictures showed farms that didn't look like farms. They looked more like filthy concentration camps. And the photos showed that the animals were simply being warehoused and crammed into tiny spaces, with little or no consideration being given to their natural impulses, preferences or needs.
And the more I learned about modern animal agriculture, the more I thought about not wanting to support that industry with my food purchases. So, when my wife mentioned that she had gotten to know a vegetarian couple, I was eager to borrow some literature from them, and did so. I did some library research as well, and what I learned amazed me. I learned that not only is a vegetarian diet better for animals; it's healthier for people and for the planet, as well. The evidence is overwhelming.
The U. S. Surgeon General and National Academy of Sciences, in the 1980's, each did independent studies on all of the nutritional research that had been done in the previous fifty years, and their conclusions were very similar. They pointed out the connection between the typical American high fat, high cholesterol diet and cardiovascular diseases, adult onset diabetes, obesity, kidney disease and several cancers. According to the Surgeon General, 68% of the deaths in this country each year are diet related. And, at the top of his list of recommendations was eat more fruits and vegetables.
By far, the most common killer in this country, heart disease, as with other circulatory problems, is clearly understood to be caused by buildups on the walls of the arteries. These deposits consist of saturated animal fats and cholesterol. Plant foods, of course, are generally low in fat, and they contain no cholesterol whatsoever. So it shouldn't surprise us to see that the world health literature shows that heart disease is virtually unknown in populations with a plant-centered diet. But, interestingly enough, we can see a marked increase in heart disease and other forms of degenerative illness when members of other cultures adopt the American way of eating.
We have known for some time that a plant-based diet can prevent heart disease, but a few years ago, Dr. Dean Ornish's clinical studies showed that a very low-fat vegetarian diet, consisting of only about 7% fat, can actually reverse heart disease. His ground-breaking work involved several groups of heart patients who were placed on a regimen which also included moderate exercise, smoking cessation, group support, and instruction in stress reduction techniques, such as meditation and yoga.
The results showed that, after a year on the program, the narrowed arteries of 82% of these patients had actually begun to open. There was also a control group of heart patients involved, which followed the recommendations of the American Heart Association (which allow up to 30% of the calories to be derived from fat). At the end of that same one-year period, their heart conditions had worsened.
Another key study is the massive Cornell/Oxford/China Health Project. The New York Times called it "the Grand Prix the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease tantalizing findings" The research involved repeatedly monitoring 329 health factors in each of the 6500 participants. Nutritional biochemist from Cornell University, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, who directed the project, mentioned that the collected data strongly suggest that there are dietary links to those diseases already mentioned. And he added others to the list, most notably osteoporosis (brittle bone disease). And Campbell sees the consumption of animal protein, rather than total fat, as the chief culprit in these diseases of affluence.
He concluded that the study shows " that the vast majority, perhaps 80-90% of all cancers, cardiovascular, and other forms of degenerative illness can be prevented, at least to a very old age, simply by adopting a plant-based diet." And he further advises that the fewer animal products we eat, the healthier we will be.
The health and humanitarian issues were more than enough to convince me of what I needed to do in my own life, but I found an equally compelling reason to shift toward a veggie lifestyle when I found out how wasteful animal farming is. On cattle feedlots, 16 pounds of corn and soybeans are used to produce one pound of edible flesh. So, in comparing the resources used to produce meat to those required to grow plants (grains for human consumption), we see a huge disparity. The meat-centered diet requires sixteen times the amount of resources. That means 16 times the amount of land, 16 times the amount of water, 16 times the amount of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and fuel for farm machinery, to mention just part of the waste.
The same sized piece of land that is currently required to feed one person on the standard American meat-based diet, could feed seven people on a totally plant-based diet. So you can begin to see the kind of implications this has for world hunger. A very famous vegetarian by the name of Albert Einstein said something that might help us to put these issues into proper perspective: "Nothing will benefit human health or increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."
It became very clear to me that this information was powerful stuff; something that could make a huge difference for all life on Earth. So I continued to read and attend lectures and conferences on vegetarian nutrition and animal agriculture. And I talked; I talked with anyone who was willing to listen, and to a great many who weren't. And I know now that I made a nuisance of myself. But I had "seen the light."
I gradually discovered (it actually took me about five years) that preaching to people was not an effective way to spread my message. What I was doing was not working! My first marriage had recently ended, and the rest of my life wasn't going all that well, either. So I decided that it was time to stop focusing on others, and work on myself.
I enrolled in a series of personal growth seminars, which were really good. I learned a lot about myself. And one of the best things I learned was that good communication is a lot more about listening than talking. And I got more in touch with my emotions, and discovered the value of listening from the heart, rather than the head. The people we talk with don't always want solutions; sometimes they just want to be heard.
Those same classes also introduced me to meditation and tai chi, which have helped me to relax my perfectionism and be more patient with myself and others. I think that Eastern philosophy has much to offer us here. It teaches us the value of cooperation, which is something of a new idea for competitive-minded Americans. And as we make new choices and move toward healthier and more compassionate lifestyles, it's good to be reminded that we don't need to compare ourselves to others, and we don't need to make these changes all at once. All we need to do is to keep noticing, and to return again and again to our heart's desires. And then our task will simply be to live life more lovingly, more mindfully, and with greater intention than before.
As I continued to learn about myself and about life, it became clear to me that educating and inspiring others about healthier and more compassionate lifestyles was one of my heart's greatest desires. And I thought that my musical, writing, and speaking abilities were a good fit, so I continued to learn about vegetarianism, both on my own, and by attending some of the national veggie conferences. And, at these events, I always felt the most in tune with the speakers who represented EarthSave, such as Dr. Michael Klaper, and EarthSave's founder, author John Robbins.
Robbins' Diet for a New America is one of the most inspiring books I've ever read. In his thorough and extremely well documented Pulitzer nominated work, he turns our attention to the health, ecological, and humane problems that stem from the profound turn that our society, and those developing nations who follow our example, have made toward dependence on animal products for food. And, with a kind and gentle voice, he points to a better way for America and for us all.
Robbins' own life is an inspiration to many. He is the son of the co-founder of the Baskin and Robbins ice cream empire and was being groomed for leadership there. But his was another calling, and he walked away from his ice cream cone shaped swimming pool, and the promise of tremendous wealth in order to pursue his desire to learn how best to promote good health.
Diet for a New America, Robbins first book, which was published in 1987, was so well received that he got 50,000 letters, many of them from people who wanted to know how they could help spread his important message. And that is what led Robbins, in 1989, to form the nonprofit, educational group, EarthSave.
EarthSave's mission is to "promote food choices that are healthy for people and for the planet. We educate, inspire and empower people to shift toward a plant-centered diet and take compassionate action for all life on Earth." There are 29 active chapters across the U.S., and several in other countries, including Australia, Canada, England, and Germany. Most chapters are operated by volunteers, and offer monthly vegetarian potluck meals, which feature a speaker or video.
The Baltimore chapter, which I started, along with my wife, Ginny Robertson, five years ago is going strong. We have potluck lectures at our home in Lutherville on the second Saturday of every month, which usually attract thirty or more attendees. We ask people to bring a vegan dish (that means it contains no animal products such as dairy, eggs, or gelatin). We chose, like many of the other EarthSave chapters, to make our events vegan because an ever-growing portion of the vegetarian community aspires to the vegan ethic, which is to cause as little harm to life as possible. And, with the increasingly mechanized and corporatized dairy and egg industries, it is becoming harder and harder to find humanely treated animals.
But EarthSave is far from being a club for vegetarians. We make a special effort to welcome anyone who would like to learn a healthier way of eating. Some of our attendees are just looking for another healthy recipe or two to add to their weekly routine, and that's just fine. In fact, that's a very worthwhile goal. EarthSave's focus is on a direction, not perfection. And I think that there's a great lesson in that for all of us who yearn for a healthier, more compassionate world.
My point is that the improvement that could be achieved for our world through the absolute purification, or perfection, of every vegetarian or near-vegetarian is miniscule compared to the good that would be served by just a 10% average reduction of meat consumption. In fact, it is estimated that such a reduction could actually free up enough land, water, and other resources to feed one hundred million people, which is the approximate number of those who are threatened by starvation.
So we at EarthSave Baltimore go on with our work. We welcome many new people to our events, including many non-vegetarians. Our volunteers notify 200 people by phone, and another 300 by e-mail for all events. The potluck meetings offer free literature, a bookstore, and a library for members. Also featured are awards for the favorite dish of the evening. The lecture topics usually involve either vegetarian nutrition or the psychology of making lifestyle changes. Those who attend the events tell us they find them enlightening, inspiring, and fun.
I also enjoy providing free EarthSave information for attendees at various fairs, and frequently offer my services without charge as a public speaker. I really appreciate the opportunity to inform people about the power of our plates.
As I look back, I can see that my decision to go vegetarian and, a year later, to go vegan, were huge steps toward bringing my actions into alignment with my beliefs. And what it took for me, more than anything else, was information that served as a reminder, and helped me to get in touch with what I already knew on a very deep level; vegetarianism was and is a wonderful way to acknowledge my connection with all of life. And in so doing, I affirmed for myself that I'm not alone. I'm not separate as I once thought. We're all in this life together, connected and supported in ways that we've hardly imagined.
Shifting toward a plant-centered diet is a powerful, powerful way to love this planet and all those who share it. Perhaps it could be your way.
You may contact Don Robertson for speaking engagements at 410-252-3043, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please use the same number to be placed on the monthly call or email list for potluck lecture notices. EarthSave's national website is www.earthsave.org.
The most useful books for my work on this paper were Diet for a New America; (1987), and The Food Revolution; (2001), both by EarthSave's founder, John Robbins. Each covers the relationship between diet and the three major areas of health, ecology, and humane concerns.
Information on the plight of farm animals came from those same two very useful volumes, as well as many other sources. Two helpful books were Old McDonald's Factory Farm; (1989), by C. David Coats, and Animal Factories; (1980), by Jim Mason and Peter Singer. One of the most interesting books in this group is by the former farmer and cattle rancher, turned vegan, Howard Lyman, who gives us insider's information on humane conditions as well as the use of chemicals in animal agriculture in his book, Mad Cowboy; (1998). Mr. Lyman is the man who started a firestorm when he discussed the risk of Mad Cow disease on the Oprah show in 1996. Literature from several nonprofit, educational, animal advocacy groups such as Farm Animal Reform Group, PETA, Animal Sanctuary, and the Humane Society of the United States was also helpful.
The single most useful volume on vegetarian nutrition and health that I found is The Vegetarian Way; (1996), by Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, and Mark Messina, PhD. A position paper on vegetarian and vegan diets, from the American Dietetic Association was also useful. John McDougall, MD, director of a very successful hospital dietary program, is the author of many very useful, best selling books on the connection between diet and health, most notably The McDougall Plan; (1983). Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple;(1987), by Michael Klaper MD also gave me a lot of good solid health information as did, believe it or not, The Complete Idiot's Guide to being Vegetarian; (1999), by Sazanne Havala, MS, RD, FADA. One other book that I used in putting this paper together was Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease; (1990), by Dean Ornish, MD.