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Veggie Trek, USA

WARNING TO READERS: This dispatch is over 4,653 miles long!!!

Have you hugged a vegetarian today?
Have you hugged a vegetarian today?
There are 15 million vegetarians in the United States of America and the US Trek wants to know why. To solve this mystery, Trekker Neda and I took off from Boulder, Colorado to talk with different vegetarians around the country about why they just said no to meat (and dairy too!). We also asked them what they most want meat eaters (like me) to know about why more Americans should consider a vegetarian diet.


How to avoid being blown off the top of a canyon

For the purpose of this investigation, we requested the help of some of our fellow trekkers and ended up traveling from as far south as San Diego to as far north as Rochester, NY. Here are just some of the stories we gathered during those 4, 653 miles:


Just another stunning view from Neda's and Stephen's cross-country vegetarian trek
Just another stunning view from Neda's and Stephen's cross-country vegetarian trek
In San Diego, we talked with Erica who told us that her decision to become a vegetarian was a physical, not a political one. She was in high school at the time and started to attribute a lot of the lethargy she was feeling to the meat she was eating. Dining out in restaurants or eating food at school without knowing exactly what she was biting into also really grossed her out. She feels that being a vegetarian is a good way for her to be more nutritionally aware. Erica brought to our attention that there are so many hormones and genetically engineered chemicals in our meat "that when you bite into a big juicy hamburger, that's what you're really getting."

It 's true - modified organisms (GMOs, for short) and hormone treatments are taking the food industry in the U.S. by storm. For example, almost one-third of the cattle in the U.S. are injected with the now infamous Bovine Growth Hormone, which is used to increase milk production in dairy cows. This hormone is dangerous because it contains a specific protein that scientists have linked to cancer and is believed to enhance diabetes in people that are prone to the disease (Check out Nick's dispatch about diabetes in minorities!). Despite the inherent health risk involved in consuming genetically altered animals, the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that allows its cows to be treated with the hormone. That translates into 32 million gallons of genetically altered milk that ends up in your ice cream and milk shakes!

That's flat tire Number 4 for Neda's and Stephen's week-long journey
That's flat tire Number 4 for Neda's and Stephen's week-long journey
Why are hormone injections in the U.S. legal when they're not in other parts of the world? Good question. Perhaps it has a little do with what happened in Canada a few years ago. Just as the Canada was about to approve the use of Bovine Growth Hormone in its meat industry, it was revealed that Health Canada was offered over a million dollars in research funding by the American pharmaceutical supplier, Monsanto, to approve the use of the hormone. Could Monsanto have had something to do with the hormone being approved in the U.S. without proper testing?

Though the answer to that is not certain, the main concern that people have about consuming genetically modified organisms is that more studies are required before we can know the full truth about whether or not they are actually safe to eat. Although large food corporations have not yet done it, lots of Americans agree that genetically altered foods need to be labeled so that consumers can know what it is they are, as Erica puts it, 'biting into'. Until that point, people like Erica are safe not eating meat and avoiding the whole issue altogether.

Neda grips the rocks to avoid being blown into the depths of Canyon de Chelly!
Neda grips the rocks to avoid being blown into the depths of Canyon de Chelly!

When we went to Portland, our friend Jen told us that she has been a vegetarian since she was 16 years old and first started to make a connection between the animals grazing on the side of the roads and the meat on her plate. She admits that at first it was hard for her to make the transition, but after she read about what REALLY happens in American slaughterhouses in John Robbins' book, Diet for a New America, there was no turning back. "I don't understand how so many people eat meat and don't make the connection," she told us.

More cartwheels, of course. This time through Arizona!
More cartwheels, of course. This time through Arizona!
The connection Jen is referring to is that more than 90% of the meat that ends up on our plates in the U.S. comes directly from factory farms, where animals (whether they be cows, chickens, horses, rabbits, etc.) are treated as units of production instead of as living beings. Only a few people have actually been able to see the conditions of American factory farms and slaughterhouses firsthand, but it is well documented that animals have to endure an unimaginable life of deprivation, suffering, and torture. Check Neda's dispatch on Fast Food Nation! for more details. According to one vegetarian, factory farming is responsible for one of the cruelest and most extensive holocausts in world history. The majority of the vegetarians to whom Neda and I spoke, like Jen, started refusing to eat meat in order to defend animal rights.


Neda eats a hearty vegetarian breakfast in front of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde
Neda eats a hearty vegetarian breakfast in front of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde
During our stay in this mile-high city, Neda and I visited Shane at the vegetarian Watercourse Café. Shane became a vegan for many of the same animal rights reasons that prompted Jen in Portland to become a vegetarian. A vegan is a person who not only doesn't eat meat but also cuts out dairy products like eggs, milk or cheese. Shane is really upset by the "sheer inadequacy of the food industry to consider the nutritional and emotional needs of animals" and gave up dairy because it comes from the same factory farms that produce our meat. Plus, according to Shane, being vegan means "your food tastes better!"


Next, Neda and I trekked a quick 45 minutes north in order to speak with Sara in Boulder. Sara said that she was a vegetarian for five years but had to stop for health reasons. She, like one of the vegetarians we spoke to in Denver, found that a strictly vegetarian diet wasn't good for her immune system. Becoming a vegetarian is an important choice to make and people do need to be diligent in deciding to alter their diets in such a major way. For some people, cutting meat out of their diets is not the best choice for their body chemistry. According to Sara, although this is true, it's important to find an eating style that can feel healthy for your body and be globally conscious at the same time.

Neda and I are glad we had the chance to speak with Sara because she raised a very important point about being globally consciousness, especially in terms of land use for meat production. One quarter of the world's land surface is given over to grazing the cattle that humans eventually eat! The effects of such land-intensive grain and cattle production involve the devastation of vast stretches of forests, wetlands and other natural ecosystems and wildlife habitats (the South American rain forest to name one!). The quantity of wastes produced by farm animals in the U.S. is more than 130 times greater than that produced by humans. The run off from these wastes, along with pesticides and fertilizers, eventually contaminate water supplies. Also, the gas that cows emit is one of the earth's largest atmospheric pollutants and one of the main contributors to the Greenhouse Effect (when additional toxic gases in the atmosphere react with the sun and make the earth warm up).

Clearly, human meat-eating habits have a tremendous effect on the planet. Vegetarianism is the best answer to the problem, of course, but eating animals would not harm the environment so much if it were done on a much smaller scale. Fortunately for people like Sara who have tried vegetarianism and found that it wasn't a good option for them, there are ways to access enviro-conscious sources of meat and dairy. Organic and free-range farms where grain is raised without pesticides or artificial fertilizer, and where animals are treated humanely supply certain stores with food for such globally-conscious people.


Way down in the south, Ali told us that she has been a vegetarian for 10 years. She first became a vegetarian after being made aware of animal rights issues, but started to feel like a hypocrite because she still wore leather shoes (made from factory farmed cows) and used 35mm film to take photos (the film is coated in a gelatin made from animal by-products). By that time, however, Ali had already realized that being a vegetarian was just a healthier way to live. "There's just not as much risk," she said.

That's what meat is...dead cows. Blech!
That's what meat is...dead cows. Blech!
One of the risks that Ali referred to specifically was food poisoning. Many Americans die every year from contaminated animal products. Since the 1980's, for example, E. coli has been an emerging cause of food borne illness in the U.S. The bacteria are carried by cows and can lead to kidney failure and other problems. Blech! E. coli is just one of the many types of infections that come from contaminated meat that both looks and smells normal.

The eating of animal products has also been linked to the prevalence of diseases such as heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer. Scientists say that 80-90% of all cancers and heart-related illnesses can be avoided by adopting a plant-based diet!


Vegetable surprise! Jerk tofu, steamed broccoli, and coconut marinated sweet potatoes!!! Neda and Stephen swoon over the versatility of a hearty vegan meal
Vegetable surprise! Jerk tofu, steamed broccoli, and coconut marinated sweet potatoes!!! Neda and Stephen swoon over the versatility of a hearty vegan meal
--> In Rochester, Jacinda told us that she first stopped eating red meat when she learned about the links it had to heart disease in the U.S. However, she gave up all meat after reading John Robbins' book, Diet for a New America (Remember? Jen read this book too!), and realizing that the choice to eat meat has real social costs throughout the world.

People in developed countries like the U.S. consume most of the meat that is produced in the world. However, instead of being eaten by people, the vast majority of the grain that is harvested in the U.S. is fed to farm animals. Did you know that for every 16 pounds of grain fed to cows in the U.S., we only get back of 1 pound of meat on our plates? If people in developed countries moved to vegetable diets from their meat based diets, a lot of grain would become available for the nearly 1 billion humans who are undernourished or starving in the world.

Let's say that starvation in the world is not created by a lack of food, but rather by political problems and a lack of money to buy food. Would that mean that eating meat has fewer social costs? Not really. As countries become wealthier, meat-eating spreads to the more parts of the world (China, for example) and more grain is used to feed animals. If the trend continues, the world would see an even more dramatic reversal in the food chain than has already happened, as animals would begin to outnumber the plants that nourish them. And then what? No more food? Well, at least not for the poor who can't afford to buy it!


Almost everyone with whom Neda and I talked during our Veggie Trek across the U.S. told us that they really wanted people to know that being vegetarian is a really good alternative for people who want to lead a healthier, more socially conscious life. There are a lot of different reasons to become vegetarian (or vegan) and a LOT of people are doing it. Just from our Veggie Trek, we met lawyers, doctors, students, activists, construction workers, and men and women with tattoos who chose vegetarianism for health concerns, moral convictions, environmentalism and taste preferences.

There's more than jUSt salad in vegetarian heaven
There's more than jUSt salad in vegetarian heaven
Americans don't need to think of being vegetarian as giving up something but rather as opening up the door to a whole array of creative food ideas that are more exciting than burgers and French fries. It's actually really easy to be a vegetarian. Once you start looking, there are tons of vegetarian resources, recipe books, restaurants and menus that provide interesting and diverse choices.

I don't know about you, but after reading over this information again and taking a look at those factory farm photos, it seems pretty clear that eating meat has real social, ecological and economic consequences. It really doesn't make that much sense to me to eat meat. In fact (Welcome to a U.S. Trek revelation!), I'm not going to do it anymore.

Are you with me?


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Eat something! It might save your life
Irene - It's a fact. Women rock!
Don't bet on it with fast food companies
Nick - On the road to extinction?
Jennifer - Some people just have "The Healing Touch"
Stephanie - Misunderstood or just insane? Cults in our nation