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Is Vegetarianism a Real Alternative?

Vegetarian -- the word once evoked an image of a puny, pasty-faced idiopath who ate twigs and nuts and had the social appeal of a praying mantis. However, with the shift toward eating smart, leading a healthier lifestyle, and concern for the planet, the enlightened choice is moving towardmust be -- and is -- inevitably a vegetarian diet. The rationale behind this claim is multivariate: a vegetarian diet should be adopted for physiologic, socioeconomic, and philosophic reasons.

Physiologically, we are vegetarians. Irrespective of what human beings have grown accustomed to eating, we have the teeth and digestive systems of herbivores (plant-eaters) not carnivores (flesh-eaters) or omnivores (eaters of everything). We do not have the sharp, tearing teeth or short colon of the tiger or the dog; we are most similar to the chimps and gorillas -- the plant-eaters.

Nor do we have adequate enzymes to digest flesh. Flesh-eaters have an accumulation of approximately five pounds of putrefied flesh in their bowels, and -- to Caesar his due -- it is the flesh-eaters who are the mainstay of the Metamucil/Correctol industry.

On a strictly health basis, a vegetarian diet provides everything needed to sustain and nourish life; in fact, plant foods contain pharmacologically protective agents which are powerful in counteracting disease. On the other hand, a meat-centered diet provides pesticide residues (fifty-five percent as compared to one percent in grains), antibiotic immunity (antibiotics are regularly fed to livestock in this country, but banned by EEC), and contributes to heart disease, cancer, stroke, high cholesterol and many cancers.

We are confronted daily with socioeconomic reasons to consider adopting an alternative way of eating, not the least of which is the terrible world hunger problem. The amount of resources used to produce a pound of flesh to satisfy the meat habit is appallingly wasteful as compared to what can be produced with those same resources if used to produce a vegetarian diet. One and one-third billion people could be fed on the same grain and soybeans used to feed the livestock in this country. Twenty pure vegetarians can be fed on the land that it takes to support the meat habit of one flesh-eater. This means that approximately sixty million people will needlessly starve to death this year -- the same sixty million who could be saved if, for example, Americans reduced their meat consumption by a mere ten percent.

The ecological argument attracts those people committed to eating lower on the food chain. They want to avoid participating in a cultural food pattern that not only wastes but destroys resources, and exploits land, water, air, and energy at a staggering rate. They realize that a plant-based diet is kinder to our fragile environment whose resources are not limitless, but finite and dwindling. They are appalled that trees are being felled at a rate of one acre of trees every eight seconds in this country, and that tropical rainforest species are becoming extinct at the rate of over one thousand per annum -- all attributable to the production of a meat-centered diet -- and they will not be part of that rampant destruction. What about compassion for life? Compassion for life is the one issue unaffected by the price of meat, the methods used to produce it, or the ultimate wholesomeness of meat reaching the marketplace. Where is the intolerance for the abhorrent conditions under which the animals are housed and aversion to the slaughter? If we are to become a kinder, gentler nation, shouldn't we first look to the slaughterhouses: why are so many of the laws governing conditions therein ignored? Mahatma Gandhi once said that you can judge the enlightenment of a country by how the people treat their animals. I shudder to think how we Americans -- an allegedly most advanced civilization -- would fare on that score! Are we so primitive that we believe that animals have no rights and are put here to use or abuse as we see fit? I would wager that a significant number of people would not eat meat if they had to do their own slaughtering and butchering.

By the same token, many people adopt a vegetarian diet because of the aesthetics associated with scavenging (eating the kill of others), and because the eating of carcasses is abhorrent to them. people have pondered and argued for centuries about the morality of killing other creatures for food. For them, it is makes no sense to take life to further it. Their attitude is why kill animals for food when there is such a wealth of alternative foods available.

It makes good sense to follow a philosophy that suggests that humans can live healthy lives while staying low on the food chain and high on the ethical scale. Those who do are likely to be more health-conscious -- and healthier -- than the general public. They are concerned with proper nutrition and whole foods and the state of the planet. For these lay-low, middle ground vegetarians, it is a freely adopted lifestyle. Their diet encompasses a wide variety of foods that celebrate rather than destroy life. They are living their beliefs.

Vegetarianism is not an alternative lifestyle; it is the lifestyle. Historically, humans have primarily survived and thrived on plants. Our evolution is based on a plant-centered diet, with occasional meat supplements. With the advent of the industrial revolution -- very recently in anthropological terms -- came the shift in focus from a grain-based diet to a grain-fed meat-based diet.

Intellectually, vegetarianism is the choice of the enlightened who care about themselves, their planet, and the creatures on it. It is the meat-eating habit that is the fad, and for the sake of the future of mankind and for the planet, I hope a short-lived one.

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