According to the 2014 Meat Atlas of the Friends of the Earth and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, only a small percentage of people in the world – and many for different reasons – are defined as “vegetarian” of which there are nearly half a billion.
In the U.S., four percent of men and seven percent of the women are defined as vegetarians. In India, where there are religious reasons guiding a cruelty-free diet, 31 percent of the population is considered vegetarian. In Europe, vegetarians are an estimated ten percent of the population. Worldwide, vegetarians total 375 million.
The roots of vegetarianism
Although supposedly a modern trend, vegetarianism in the West has very ancient roots. Many of the early Greek and Roman philosophers, including Plutarch, Pythagoras, Seneca and Porfirio, followed a meatless diet as a refusal of animal sacrifices to the gods and out of respect for living beings.
A cultural movement
Luminaries such as Leonardo da Vinci and Descartes were vegetarian: first, out of awareness of the suffering of animals, and second, because it was believed that a diet without meat was healthier one. However it was not until the nineteenth century, with the opening of the Vegetarian Society in Great Britain (1847) and in the USA (1850) that a true cultural movement was born. Originating in France in 1845, from the Société des Animaux Protectrice, it was already in existence in England, Holland and Bavaria.
Vegetarian by faith
A quarter of India’s population – Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists – believe in reincarnation and the practice of non-violence, and therefore follow a vegetarian diet. Jain monks are so compassionate towards all living beings, even the smallest of insects, they sweep them out of the way so as not to tread on them.
Vegetarian for the planet
Another reason for bringing about a change of diet is respect for the environment born from an understanding of the damage to the ecosystem caused by the intensive rearing of cattle, pigs, chickens and hens for egg production. According to a study by the WWF, to produce one kg of beef steak, it takes 15,500 liters of water and 70 percent of the world's fresh water used to grow plants as fodder for livestock.
The reasons that drive people to embrace a meatless diet are varied and, last but not least, there is love for animals. Those who are vegetarian demonstrate the sincerest form of empathy towards others and reluctantly eat those that must die because of them. A famous phrase is attributed to writer George Bernard Shaw who said, "Animals are my friends, I do not eat my friends." It is the motivation that drives people to change their diet: so as not to inflict suffering on creatures that do not hurt you.
Those who stop eating meat may do so simply to stay healthy. According to medical science, too many meat-based foods increase the risk of cancer, while excess protein from meat damages the kidneys. A carnivorous diet may also encourage the onset of cardiovascular disease, increasing the proportion of lipids in the blood. The medical field however argues that eating meat counteracts anemia because it contains the type of iron more absorbable by the body, and doctors agree in saying that those who decide to choose a vegetarian diet must compensate with proteins of high biological value such as those found in legumes.