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EARTHWATCH : Healthy Planet : Eating vegetables cuts cholesterol and can help save the forests and protect the ozone layer.


It's another growing season, and farmers are hoping President Bush will come out against another vegetable. "It did wonders for broccoli," a Southern California farmer told me last week. "Right now, we're a little long on giant asparagus."

You might well ask how a dazzling urbanite like yourself (or myself) could possibly be interested in agricultural market conditions. Recently, I visited the doctor who was incredulous at my cholesterol count. I was alarmed until I realized her surprise was over how low the numbers were, not how high. She asked me what I regularly ate, and after hearing my recitation, she said in a voice tinged with alarm, "Why, you're practically a vegetarian!"

I could go on about the health benefits of eating veggies and fruits, but this is an environmental column, not a health column. So let's talk about the earth's health, not mine.

Environmentally, your veggies play a fascinating role in the world. If you eat more of them, you're helping not just your own health but the planet's. I have read that every person who switches to a pure vegetarian diet saves an acre of trees from being cut every year.

Last week brought alarming news about forest loss. It's far worse--half again as bad as we thought. Fifty million acres going each year. A whole state's worth. Big states like Washington. Meat production is one of the big causes. The harm is threefold. Loss of the oxygen-producing trees, plus the carbon pollution from the burning. Plus--and this is both alarming and disagreeable--the cattle that replace the trees on the land produce digestive gases that account for fully a third of the greenhouse effect (according to both the old and new deforestation reports from the U.N.).

This is not an anti-Burger King tirade, by the way. The minute they offered chicken earlier this year their sales of that sandwich quickly accounted for a third of their business. And McDonald's is now posting notices letting you know how to avoid fat. We have choices, and the fast food people are going along by changing their offerings.

If there is an "enemy" or something "bad," it's inertia or old attitudes. And that's changing. It's already gone so far that people are saying, "OK, so I'm eating more veggies--for my cholesterol--and, if you say so--for the planet.

"But what about the pesticides? When I go vegetarian, do I have to go organic, too?" I discussed this with a Moorpark grower who, you would think, had every reason to turn up his nose at supermarket veggies. I mean his thing is to have you come on his organic farm and pick your own right out of the ground.

He showed me reports of a the State Department of Food and Agriculture study saying that 90% of the fruits and vegetables in the supermarkets are pesticide-free. From 5% to 8% have marginal residue and 2% to 3% enough to be concerned about. But you'd have to stick to eating only that particular vegetable from that farm every day for the rest of your life to get sick.

Tap water with chlorine is more dangerous, according to Berkeley professor Bruce Ames, whose research is the basis of the California anti-toxics ballot initiative. He says the real way to beat cancer is not to worry about pesticides on your vegetables but to eat less fat.

Further, his review of the biochemical reactions of thousands of chemicals we usually ingest suggests that certain of them, directly or in foods, might reduce the onset of cancer. Ames includes Vitamin E, beta-carotene from carrots and green or yellow veggies, Vitamin C and phenols from cabbage.

So, let's hope the President has additional vegetables on his mind. He can do us and our local growers a service by bringing us together often.

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