Until 1978, I was a "meat and potatoes" person. My mother would be sure to prepare my favorite dish pot roast, whenever I came to visit with my wife and children. It was a family tradition that I would be served a turkey ‘drumstick’ every Thanksgiving. Yet, I not only became a vegan, but I now devote a major part of my time to writing, speaking, and teaching about the benefits of veganism. What caused this drastic change?
In 1973 I began teaching a course, "Mathematics and the Environment" at the College of Staten Island. The course uses basic mathematical concepts and problems to explore (connect dots to) current critical issues, such as pollution, resource scarcities, hunger, energy, population growth, the arms race, nutrition, and health. While reviewing material related to world hunger, I initially thought that the problem was mainly due to the world having more people than it was able to feed. Reading Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe helped me connect the relevant dots. That book made me aware of the tremendous waste of grain associated with the production of beef at a time when millions of the world's people were malnourished. In spite of my own eating habits, I often led class discussions on the possibility of reducing meat consumption as a way of helping hungry people. After several semesters of this, I took my own advice and gave up eating red meat, while continuing to eat chicken and fish.
As I continued to consider dietary factors I saw more and more connections. I learned that a major factor behind the epidemic of diseases that afflict so many people is the prevalence of animal-based diets. I also learned that the vast majority of animal abuses, well over 90 percent, occur on factory farms.
As I learned more, I was increasingly attracted to vegetarianism, and on January 1, 1978, I decided to join the International Jewish Vegetarian Society. I had two choices for membership: (1) practicing vegetarian (one who refrains from eating any flesh); (2) non-vegetarian (one who is in sympathy with the movement, while not yet a vegetarian). I decided to become a full practicing vegetarian, and since then have avoided eating any meat, fowl, or fish.
Since that decision, I started seeing connections between the production of animal products and many of the environmental problems that threaten humanity. I learned that the raising of billions of farmed animals (almost 60 billion in 2008) is a major factor behind soil erosion and depletion, the rapid loss of biological diversity, water pollution, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats and many more environmental problems. In an increasingly thirsty world, during what some are calling “the century of drought, animal-centered use up to 14 times as much water as vegan (completely animal-free) diets. In fact, every environmental problem is worsened by animal-based agriculture.
More recently, I have been connecting dots between ‘livestock’ agriculture and the greatest current threat to humanity: global warming. While most people are still unaware of it, a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” indicated that animal-based diets cause the emission of more greenhouse gases (18 percent, in CO2 equivalents) than all the cars, ships, planes and all other means of transportation worldwide combined (13.5 percent). Making matters worse, that same UN report indicates that the number of farm animals is projected to double in 50 years, and the increased greenhouse gas emissions would negate the effects of positive changes in other areas, making the avoidance of the worse effects of global warming very difficult, if not impossible.
Besides learning much about vegetarianism's connections to health, nutrition, ecology, resource usage, hunger, and the treatment of animals, I also started investigating connections between vegetarianism and Judaism. I learned that there are many connections that people are generally overlooking and, in fact, that the production and consumption of animal products violate six basic Jewish mandates (with slight modifications, this analysis can be adapted to other religions, all of which are based on compassion, justice sharing and other positive values):
1. While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.
2. While Judaism forbids tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm animals -- including those raised for kosher consumers -- are raised on "factory farms" where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
3. While Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord’s" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, and other environmental damage.
4 While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources.
5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.
6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.
In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
One could say "dayenu" (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.
In addition, the first biblical dietary regimen (Genesis 1:29) is strictly vegetarian, actually vegan, and the Messianic period is also imagined as a vegetarian one, based on Isaiah’s prophecy that the wolf will dwell with the lamb … the lion will eat straw like the ox … and none shall hurt nor destroy on all of God’s holy mountain (Isaiah 11:6-9). Hence the two ideal times in the Jewish tradition are pictured as vegetarian periods.
To get this message to a wider audience I wrote a book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, which was first published in 1982. (Revised, expanded editions were published in 1988 and 2001.)
I gradually moved toward veganism and became a practicing vegan in 2000. Increasingly, as I learned about the realities of animal-based diets and their inconsistency with Jewish values, I have come to see veganism as not only an important personal choice, but also a societal imperative, an essential component to the solution of many national and global problems.
I have been spending much time trying to make others aware of the importance of switching toward vegetarian or, preferably, veganism, both for themselves and for the world. I am currently president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and editor of its newsletter, president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, director of Veg Climate Alliance, a Councilor for the Vegetarian Union of North America (VUNA), a board member of the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) and a patron of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society (JVS).
In efforts to spread vegetarian messages, I have appeared on over 100 radio and cable television programs; had many letters and several op-ed articles in a variety of publications; spoken frequently to community groups; given over 40 talks and met with four chief rabbis and other religious and political leaders in Israel, while visiting my two daughters and their families. In 1987, I was selected as "Jewish Vegetarian of the Year" by the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and in 2005 I was inducted into the North American Vegetarian Society's “Hall of Fame.”
To help people connect the dots and become aware that a major societal move to vegetarianism, and preferably veganism, is an essential part of helping shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path, I produced the funding and was the associate producer of a one-hour documentary entitled “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” In striving to get the movie to as wide an audience as possible, we have given away over 20,000 DVDs and have placed the entire movie on You Tube and other web sites. It can also be seen at ASacred Duty.com, with versions also with subtitles in eleven foreign languages.
I have always felt good about my decision to become a vegetarian and more recently a vegan. Putting principles and values into practice is far more valuable and rewarding than hours of preaching. I feel strongly that my spirituality, sensitivity and compassion have been enhanced by my dietary shifts and my efforts to share information with others. When people ask me why I gave up meat and other animal products, I welcome the opportunity to explain the many benefits of veganism.
Recently, I have noted signs of increased interest in vegetarianism, and a growing number of people are concerned about dietary connections to health, nutrition, animal rights, and ecology. Yet, consumption of animal products seems to be increasing even as evidence increases that this is contributing to an epidemic of diseases and to global warming and other environmental threats that are moving the world rapidly toward a potential unprecedented catastrophe. So there is much that still needs to be done to get people to see that their diets and other lifestyle choices are having. My hope is to be able to keep learning, writing, and speaking about veganism, to help people connect dots between animal-centered diets and many of today’s crises, helping to bring closer that day when, in the words of the motto of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, "no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's holy mountain." (Isaiah 11.9)
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and over 150 articles located at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) at www.JewishVeg.com, Director of the Veg Climate Alliance at www.vegclimatealliance.orgs, President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) at www.serv-online.org, and can be contacted via President@JewishVeg.com.