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PREFACE to A Vegetarian Sourcebook 


"Why should I become a vegetarian?"

People will adopt a vegetarian diet for any number of reasons: because they want to get closer to God; because they want to lose weight; because they donít like the taste of meat; or because everyone else in their commune is vegetarian. But in sorting out the good reasons for becoming a vegetarian, I have found that vegetarians generally fall back on three arguments, based on nutrition, ecology, or ethics. These arguments are:

A vegetarian diet is more healthful than a meat-oriented diet.
A vegetarian diet is more efficient in its use of natural resources such as land, water, and energy.
A vegetarian diet does not require the suffering and death of innocent animals.

All of these reasons for being a vegetarian contain important truths. All of them, however, require intelligent discussion and sometimes important qualification. This book aims to provide the information which such intelligent discussion requires.

What is Vegetarianism?

A vegetarian is one who abstains from all meat, fish, or fowl, in any form, with or without the addition of dairy products and eggs. Vegetarians live primarily on a plant food diet; some vegetarians, undoubtedly the majority in the United States, consume dairy products and eggs; others abstain from all animal food and rely entirely on plant foods.

The kinds of vegetarians usually distinguished are the "lacto-ovo-vegetarians," who eat dairy products and eggs in addition to plant foods; the "total vegetarians" (sometimes known as "pure vegetarians"), who eat plant foods but no animal foods; the "vegans," who abstain from animal food and animal products of any kind whatsoever (like leather, wool, etc.); and the "fruitarians," who live on fruit, nuts, and seeds. In the United States, the lacto-ovo-vegetarians are by far the largest vegetarian group, though the vegans seem to be the most articulate and outspoken. The exact number of fruitarians is not known, but it must be quite small. And there are endless distinction within these categories. Some people are vegan except that they eat honey; others drink milk but donít eat eggs. In 1943 there were an estimated 2Ĺ - 3 million vegetarians in the United States; more recently, this figure was estimated at about 7 million, roughly 3% of the population. Obviously, any discussion encompassing all the different types of vegetarians will be quite difficult. When dealing with the various issues, the author has presented the evidence as objectively as possible, allowing the chips to fall where they may respecting the advantages and disadvantages of various vegetarian diets. In doing so, the author has perhaps stepped on some vegetarian toes. So be it.

Existing discussions of vegetarianism vary considerably both in point of view and in quality of material. Impassioned but uninformed defenses of vegetarianism are counterbalanced by equally impassioned and equally uninformed attacks on vegetarian ideas. To complicate matters, there are some ambiguous concepts that do not clearly fall on either the vegetarian or the nonvegetarian side of the line.

Probably the most abused of these notions is the concept of "natural foods." There is a lot of talk about natural foods today; and many people feel that we would be better off if we returned to a diet that omits the many unnatural ingredients found in supermarket foods. But just what is a "natural food"? And what do natural foods and natural diets have to do with vegetarianism--if anything? Vegetarian thinkers since Plutarch have asserted, for a variety of reasons, that it is not natural to eat meat. Non-vegetarians often deny or belittle the importance of such contentions. We need to consider these issues in more detail.

The "Natural Foods" Controversy

For most people, natural foods are foods which occur in nature, as they occur in nature, without human intervention. Unfortunately, this way of thinking about "natural foods" is quite confused, and a quick trip to your local grocery or health food store will demonstrate that.

Products that contain animal fats or refined vegetable fats will be labeled "natural"; after all, fats of all kinds occur in nature. Products containing sugar will also be called natural; and it cannot be denied that sugars of all sorts also occur in nature. Livestock animals raised without being stuffed with antibiotics are described as organically grown. What sense can we make of this concept of what is "natural"?

This concept also ignores the other side of the coin: some foods that are artificially produced, processed, and manipulated by humans may be quite wholesome or appropriate to eat. Since the beginning of agriculture, humans have bred certain strains of wheat and other plants to create entirely new species, or new kinds of old species, which are moire productive agriculturally. Must we reject these foods as "unnatural" because they would not occur in nature independent of human existence? And what about cooking? Must we abstain from eating potatoes and beans because they do not occur in cooked form in nature and would be inedible if they were not cooked? What about vitamin supplements? Not everyone likes to take them; but is taking such manufactured supplements necessarily bad?

The definition of a "natural food" as a food which occurs in nature ignores two things. First of all, humans are themselves part of nature and may actually manipulate nature in ways which are beneficial. Second, many poisons and unwholesome foods occur in nature without any human intervention. The deadly hemlock that Socrates drank, for example, would qualify as a "natural food," since the hemlock plant occurs in nature. Clearly, we need a new definition.

What are we talking about when we say "natural foods"? What we really mean are foods that are appropriate for humans to eat.

If we want to know what a natural food is, we must ask: Does it cause disease and death? Does it squander available resources? Does it increase the amount of suffering in the world? These are the questions we should be asking, and they are precisely the questions we are not asking. It is these questions which this book will examine.

The Ethical Basis of Vegetarianism

A diet that can lead to heart attacks, cancer, and numerous other diseases cannot be a natural diet. A diet that pillages our resources of land, water, forests, and energy cannot be a natural diet. A diet that causes the unnecessary suffering and death of billions of animals each year cannot be a natural diet.

The principles of ethics come from our own nature. The term "ethical vegetarian" usually means a vegetarian who does not eat animals out of compassion for them. But there is an ethical component in the nutritional and ecological reasons for becoming a vegetarian as well. Is not the impulse to preserve oneís health an ethical impulse? Is not concern for the earthís resources an ethical concern?

The demands of ethics and the demands of nature are closely intertwined. It is natural to want to preserve health; it is natural to want to preserve the earthís resources; and it is natural to feel sympathy for animals. It is in these natural feelings that we find the ethical basis of vegetarian thought.

The author is himself a vegetarian, and believes that practically any nutritionally adequate vegetarian diet is more healthful, more economical, and more ethical than the typical Western diet, emphasizing meat, fish, and fowl. Meat consumption is destroying our health, our natural resources, and the lives of innocent animals. The contrast between this destructive diet and a vegetarian diet is the story which this book tells.



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