International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

Eating Well Means Eating Vegetarian
Maxwell G. Lee

IVU General Secretary 1979-1996 and present Deputy President of the IVU

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Maxwell Lee. I'm very happy to join you this afternoon. I'm going to talk about - let me say it in Italian - "Mangiare bene significa mangiare vegetariano." I prefer the translation: "Eating well means eating vegetarian". The previous speaker started off by saying we should defend our diet, while a couple of years ago we had a speaker who told us we needed supplements. In Britain we have had 150 years of vegetarianism and we are no longer defending, we are on the attack. It is the meat industry that has to defend itself now, not the vegetarians whose diet is fully balanced.

First of all I would like to consider some of the problems of meateating and then come to the reports just published in Britain on diet and health. A lot of us have wondered if a diet without animal products could be considered balanced. I must say that when I became a vegetarian, I didn't know anything about diet and health; I was a boy who liked all the things that you weren't supposed to eat, including vegetarian items. I ate them and survived, and have enjoyed very good health ever since; in fact, the vegetable kingdom provides all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats necessary to keep you sound and trim. In developing countries nutrition-related diseases are very much in the news, much more than in the developed world; the problem in the former is a lack of nutrition, whereas in the latter the problem is one of excess.

For some time now, recommendations of what is required for good health have pointed towards fruit, fresh vegetables, cereals, a reduced amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt: all of these guidelines have been in favour of a vegetarian diet. If some vegetarians too have health problems, then this is because they don't have a properly balanced diet. Some years ago there was an uproar over a group in America because their vegetarian children weren't very healthy. It turned out that the problem was caused by the unbalanced diet they were getting. In particular, they were missing out on certain essential nutrients, and so suffering from disorders usually connected with meateaters: heart disease, certain cancers, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, digestive disorders, food poisoning and so on. On the other hand, there are regular outbreaks very much associated with meat, shell fish and so on. Less than a year ago we had a pretty horrific outbreak in Scotland and something like 20 people died as a result of eating meat products from a particular butcher, who was consequently taken to court.

The conclusions we can draw from what I've told you so far are all in favour of vegetarianism, so I would again emphasise that we have no reason to be defensive, since some official reports on the subject show mortality from all causes down 50% compared with the general population, and also a decrease in cardiovascular diseases, thanks to the vegetarian lifestyle. In 1993 another study stated, "The longer the person has been vegetarian, the lower the risk of disease." As a vegetarian since the age of 12, I was very pleased to read that. Among other studies being carried out, let me mention the one from the Seventh Day Adventists, many of whom are vegetarian; they showed that among men from 45 to 64, meat eaters were 3 times more likely to die from heart disease than those not eating meat. In Britain something like 25% of all premature deaths are now due to cancer, largely lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancers. The various components in a vegetarian diet inhibit colon carcinogenesis, since anti-oxidants like beta-carotene and vitamins C and E protect the body against highly reactive molecules: the free radicals, as they are called. What I've just said also applies to hypertension, age-related diabetes, gallstones and so on. Why on earth should we have to defend vegetarianism? It is industry that should be on the defensive, since it spends vast sums of money to try and convince people that they should eat meat and love smoking, although we are well aware that both are damaging to the health.

In Britain we have had various reports in favour of vegetarianism from other associations, especially the ones from COMAF (the Committee of Medical Aspects of Food) and the World Cancer Research Fund. These studies suggest that the development of various types of cancer is closely related to bad diet. In particular, COMAF, which is a British government body, is going to issue a report in favour of what is called the "Mediterranean diet", which I'm sure the Italians and Spaniards are very familiar with. What they are suggesting is to replace traditional meat dishes with a menu putting much more emphasis on vegetables, high-fibre foods, fish and fresh fruit. Sadly the report does suggest that those eating meat should eat a maximum of 140 g per day. Even the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which many of us don't support in Britain because it is in favour of experiments on animals, says in a recent report, "There is definite evidence that fruit and vegetables are beneficial in protecting against a variety of cancers." It also suggests that vitamin and supplements in general, as a cancer preventative, "…are no good, since there is no evidence that they work." Things are moving our way, and they're moving fast. Every time governments - and this is not only in Britain - support our ideas, we make real progress. The meat industry is very much on the defensive; in fact, they are now saying, "Well, we aren't saying that you should eat meat three times a day, but eating meat once a day doesn't do any harm." All we want them to do now is to drop that "once a day".

And now for a subject which has made Britain infamous throughout the world: Bovine Spungiform Encephalopathy, BSE. A stupider thing has never been done in the world: that is, to feed cattle on sheep's brains, while it was known that sheep have had a similar disease called scrapie for several centuries. They cooked up chicken manure and cereals (What a marvellous combination!), boiled it up and fed it to cattle. Now they have got their reward in Bovine Spungiform Encephalopathy, and sadly the human equivalent, Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD), which is a particularly nasty way to die. As with cattle, you begin to lose control of your limbs and thought processes because the brain is no longer working properly, the nervous system collapses and very soon you die. The guilty respond by slaughtering the infected cattle. As a result, we've got a major problem in Britain because they couldn't destroy all the carcasses of the slaughtered cattle, and many have been kept in deep freeze until they can get round to burning them. Getting rid of such vast numbers of older cattle is a massive problem, which is what our government undertook to do to keep the European Union happy and restore public confidence, and we mustn't forget that this operation is costing billions of pounds. Unfortunately, experts are already saying that slaughtering old cattle is not going to put an end to the problem of Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease, because it could return again after 20 years or more. At the moment we have a young vegetarian girl, in her 20s, who is dying of Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease; sadly it is now thought she may have got this through milk consumption. She has been vegetarian for quite a long time.

All this is another attack on the whole animal industry, because if milk is going to be considered a possible source of BSE or Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease, this could turn out to be disastrous for the dairy industry as well. In the meantime, red meat consumption has declined quite markedly as a result of this problem. It would be wrong to think that this is only a British problem, since unfortunately it does exist to a lesser extent elsewhere, particularly in the European Union. I'm sure that farmers in your countries, like ours, if one of their cattle shows signs of not being fit, will rush it off to the abattoir to get rid of it before the animal loses its value. And so a poisoned food chain is maintained. The BSE/CJD problem remains, then, a major concern, and this is not just my opinion, since various scientists in the field share this view. Of course BSE and CJD are by no means the only dangers we face, since every time we use animals for food and/or feed them on the wrong diet, health problems are around the corner. All these aspects lead in my view to the conclusion that if we want to live healthily it's better to be a vegetarian.

There is going to be a conference in London next Tuesday where definitely the World Cancer Research fund report and, I think, probably the COMAF report will be presented and handed out to everyone. This is an appropriate date to get them, since 30 September is, as I said earlier, the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of Vegetarian Society, in Ramsgate, Kent. The COMAF report is the most pro-vegetarian report that I have ever heard of from any government body. The United States also has similar reports coming out, but they haven't been quite as strong as these new reports are. With all the support we now have from these publications, I say to you: don't defend - if you want to do something, attack meateating! Weak arguments are still being put forward in favour of meateating, but some experts who produce this information are actually employed by the meat industry. The vegetarian diet is the diet of the future, and let's hope that future is not long in coming. So I end my talk as I began, by saying, "Eating well means eating vegetarian," and I'm sure you will agree that there is no truer statement.

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)