International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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23rd IVU World Vegetarian Congress 1975
Orono, Maine, USA


Vegetarianism - the new panacea

Eating meat because we like the caste of it is a poor reason for sending 15 billion animals a year to their death." The speaker was talking to an audience that already agreed with him, the audience at the World Vegetarian Congress, currently in progress at the University of Maine at Orono. It is the first such congregation to be held in this country.

Although vegetarianism has had significant followings in practically every part of the world for centuries, a meat-loving America has yet to pay much attention to it. According to the movement's leaders, however, vegetarianism has recently been culling new converts from among those who conscientiously object to the helpIessness inherent in bigness. These objectors are trying to gain a small measure of control over their lives, beginning with what they put into their bodies.

Immediately apparent at the conference was the fact that its more than 1500 participants were there as much to share their individual philosophies as to hear the movement's world leaders expound on their philosophies. The campus ran heavy with ruminations: "Vegetarianism is another revitalization movement which, like religion traditionally arise when cultures hit periods of stress.”

"The gradual breakdown of society is evidenced by alcoholism, suicide, mental illness and strange cults popping up all over the place, not all necessarily sane."

"When people perceive that structures no longer preserve life, they follow a prophet who comes up with a new structure." 
"Society's disruptive breakdown is a mix-up in values;  we choose a 50 cent an hour raise over staying in and preserving our communities."

Vegetarianism is compatible with ecology's emphasis on the "connectedness and balance of things" A young American participant lamented this country's policy of "economic maximization and growth .  .  . which gets one out of touch . . . “

Although divided according to various diets ranging from non-meat to non-milk, eggs, honey or any animal product, vegetarians are joined by a common dedication to be "in touch" with their bodies. Many say their becoming vegetarians coincided with a new self-respect born of self-control and self-awareness. And they talk of and show great energy.

Dr. Ralph Bircher, director of the world famous Bircher-Benner Nature Cure Clinic in Switzerland, dealt with the energy issue - a major thrust of vegetarianism - on a practical level. Digesting meat and other protein rich foods uses more bodily energy than it produces, said Bircher, whereas fruits and vegetables -. rich in fiber, liquid, enzymes and vitamins, especially in their raw state - don't force organs to expend energy in digestion. An unrelated lecture by another speaker revealed the rationale behind Bircher's advice. When the stomach receives a slug of protein-rich food like meat, it must immediately produce large amounts of hydrochloric acid to break down protein's complex structure. This is a high-energy expending process. Digestion of fruits and vegetables, on the other hand requires significantly less acid production, so is less taxing on the body.

Using phrases like "nutritional economy," Bircher denounced America's over consumption of protein-rich food, the surplus of which is stored as toxic substances in artery walls. He said the overly high consumption of protein is "the basic condition producing most of civilization's diseases."

While less dogmatic vegetarians admit that limiting meat intake to three ounces a day is not "bodily harmful," many purists contend that vegetarianism means no flesh food and nothing of animal origin - eating no honey or gelatin; wearing no wool, silk, leather, fur; using no soap with animal fat; sleeping on pillows without feathers. Vegans adhere to this formidable

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Said Bircher, people are taught that meat "drives up our feeling of strength," when in reality after the initial stimulation of a large steak, a person's energy level lowers while the body copes with the process of digesting that bulk. Even consumer advocate Ralph Nader was quoted as saying, "Our most dangerous missile is a [famous name] hamburger."

Vegetarian literature ranges from what even a meat lover could acknowledge as common sense to quite radical statements that may have contributed to the movement's limited following in this country. In The Recovery of Culture, author Henry Bailey Stevens attributes cancer, soil erosion, nationalism, neuroticism and urbanization to "the terrific wrench of natural adaptation and social purposes" that uprooted man from his garden culture and left him a "flesh eating and war making animal."

One speaker humorously remarked, discussing religion, sex or politics is rarely as threatening as challenging one's diet. He linked this discomfort to the fact that nutrition education Is looked upon by the medical profession as "something someone else should study. We're concerned about how our garments are constructed, yet we unthinkingly and impulsively consume food without regard to its effects on our bodies.”

Vegetarians seem unanimously dedicated to nutrition's cause and effect relationship - that the work you get out of your body is directly proportional to what you put into it. They are trying to challenge unthinking adherence to eating regimens in what one speaker called simply "a rearrangement of prejudices. We've been conditioned to use glom-producing hair dressings instead of correcting the diet deficiency that causes dull hair."

In the metaphor of congress speaker and organic gardener Eliot Coleman, it's like "doing a cosmetic job on an unhealthy plant" rather than correcting the soil deficiency that's causing the problem.

Preparation of a vegetarian menu to satisfy diverse diets was a massive part of the two-year effort of planning the vegetarian congress. However, institutional food is institutional food regardless of good intentions. It may be that eggplant, tahini and tomatoes, prepared by uniformed grandmotherly ladies, is irretrievably altered as it passes over warming water baths and chrome and glass dispensers.  As if to prove vegetarians' raw-food-is-better-than-cooked-food theory, the nut, salad and raw vegetable table was the cafeteria's salvation.

Regardless of personal dietary preference, the vegetarians raise significant social issues in the face of a world food crisis: Why feed grain to cattle when the resulting meat produces significantly less protein than eating the grain in the first place; why perpetuate the slaughter of animals; be wary of becoming so far out of touch with procuring necessities that disaster ensues if the system collapses; or, is man adapting to a niche which is disappearing and, like extinct animals, will man disappear also.

The congress had its fair share of what appeared to be miracle cures to the uninitiated, mere common sense to believers. Among them were accounts of prolonged fasts which cured cancerous tumors, high blood pressure and diabetes; red meat-less diets which cured anemia. Disciples at the conference ranged from newborn to a sprite upper 90's, motivated by reasons of health, ethics, religion, economics or any combination. Speakers with an impressive list of credentials, healthful good looks and longevity were persuasive proof of their diet's validity and their belief in "eating to live rather than living to eat." They warned, however, that Americans have a long way to go in endorsing vegetarianism. At the site of the first World Vegetarian Congress in India several years ago said the speaker, the assemblage was congratulated  .  .  .

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