The Planet Doctor
The University of California, Berkeley and Laney College in in San Francisco are only six miles apart. But it took Dr. Gregory Schwartz, Ph.D a total of 21 years to get from the first school to the next. No, he didn’t crawl. But his road from student-athlete at Cal to professor at Laney was one that required a worldwide tour.
Gregory Schwartz used sports and his own academic achievements to find his way to the Golden State to study and play football at the University of California, Berkeley. Once he graduated, Schwartz made a stop for a year playing professional football in Europe. While his career was short, the experience ignited an appetite to travel that he soon began to satiate. “I traveled to 40 countries and saw a lot of different lifestyles,” said Schwartz.
Through athletics, Schwartz knew how to keep himself in the best shape possible. As he traveled more, Gregory Schwartz became fascinated with not just other cultures, but especially how different cultures interact with food. This led to receiving his Master of Science in Geography and Sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and eventually, completing his Ph.D. in Political Ecology. Looking back on his education, Schwartz said, “My studies have led me to look at how we grow food, how we produce processed foods, and how it affects us.”
It was now 20 years ago that Gregory Schwartz, a man whose family has operated a Nebraska dairy farm for five generations, did the unthinkable: he became a full-fledged vegan. “I came from a very athletic family and I was a big meat eater and didn't really even fully understand what organic was. But I started to change because I just didn't feel good. I noticed that my athletic performance improved. Because of eating cleaner, I got leaner and just felt better,” said Schwartz.
(Gregory in 2004 during one of his many research trips)
The Complexities of Veganism
While becoming vegan, Dr. Gregory Schwartz had what he describes as a “spiritual awakening,” where he felt that a non-vegan lifestyle was contributing to industries that polluted the planet and, often cruelly, exploited and took the lives of animals. “People say there's really three general angles [for veganism]: (1) you do it for the planet, (2) you do it for your health, or (3) you do it for the animals. I do it for all three.” As Schwartz traveled the world, he got to see first-hand how our planet’s health is a direct result of our actions.
“I took so many bus rides in my travels through burning rainforests, looking at all this deforestation,” said Schwartz. “That's when it really hit me. And I had this awareness of the planet and I said, ‘We have to manage this differently.’ It really overwhelmed me and I decided I was going to devote my studies to this issue.”
Gregory’s approach to veganism doesn’t define him, though. “Being vegan is one tiny drop. But I want to help influence others not necessarily to be vegan, but to understand the impact of their diet choices. That's all I want to do,” said Schwartz.
How Can Diet Improve Athletic Performance?
There’s been a misconception for years that in order to be an exceptional athlete, you can’t possibly thrive through a vegan diet. Dr. Schwartz has some helpful insight on this issue. “Old ideas die hard. Some of the strongest people in the world are vegan. And some of the strongest animals in the world are vegan, too. Different bodies react differently, so veganism is not for everybody. But moving in that direction is definitely good for the planet and I think it's good for our souls.”
(Dr. Schwartz after one of his intense daily exercise routines)
Dr. Schwartz doesn’t want veganism to be pushed down anyone’s throats or made to feel bad for not pursuing such a lifestyle, though. “I've been a teacher for a long time. And I know that to just force feed someone a perceived extreme view is not going work. Veganism, in itself, is often seen as extreme. I would argue, though, that killing 50 billion animals a year is also extreme. It just depends of perspective,” said Schwartz.
Schwartz knows that becoming vegan takes patience, and a full-on commitment to shedding everything in your life that isn’t vegan suddenly can spell personal disaster. “If the total effort involved becomes onerous, then we bail. I want to make it ideologically and logistically easy for people, and I want to give solid information so that people can make an informed choice,” noted Schwartz.
Preventing Catastrophe Through Food
Dr. Gregory Schwartz’s concern for the consumption of animals could not be more relevant and a legitimate concern than it is today as the human consumption of animals gave way to the world’s worst pandemic in over 100 years. According to the World Health Organization, “All available evidence for COVID-19 suggests that SARS-CoV-2 has a zoonotic source.” This means that the virus was first transmitted from an animal to a human. It is widely accepted that patient zero was infected through the consumption of meat from the exotic animal trade. Schwartz believes that scaling back on meat eating can have positive effects, not only on the prevention of pandemics, but especially on climate change.
Schwartz believes that if we change our course of action towards our approach to climate change, we can make this world habitable for thousands of years to come. Gregory Schwartz explained why to adopting a plant-based diet is a step in the right direction. “If everyone were just vegetarian, we would save the planet. For example, cows are a huge source of CO2 emissions and the methane is just terrible for our environment. If we change how we eat and change how we produce our food and energy, we will save the planet,” said Schwartz.
The Need for Preventative Healthcare
Dr. Schwartz is by no means an opponent of the wonders of western medicine and its necessity in healthcare. But he is also aware America’s relationship with western medicine, which all too often focuses on the symptoms rather than the cause. “I’m certainly happy that Western medicine exists. Antibiotics are incredibly important when you need them, but often, they're much over applied. If you get a broken arm or you need heart surgery, we need Western medicine. I just think that we rely on drugs way too much,” said Schwartz.
Gregory Schwartz knows that the best bet to make society healthier is a greater focus on preventative healthcare and all too often, healthcare is focused on reacting to an ailment when it arises. “I think preventative healthcare is incredibly sustainable. I just think we need to offer incentives,” noted Schwartz.
The incentives he’s referring to include government programs like SNAP (food stamps) allow for the affordable purchase of organic vegetables and fruits, and for insurance companies to cover alternative treatments like massage therapy and acupuncture. As Schwartz reminded us, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Health is not just limited to a healthy immunity system or properly functioning organs. Schwartz acknowledges just how important mental health is to our overall wellbeing, too. Schwartz said, “We need to look at physical health as a contributing factor to mental health. For example, there’s a debate about how much of your serotonin is produced in your gut. Serotonin makes you feel good and affects your mood. When we shift into different spaces mentally and even spiritually, it makes our way of being not only more accessible, but more harmonious with who we are.”
Gregory Schwartz and His Bright, Green, Organic Future
Dr. Greg Schwartz epitomizes brightness in a dark world and his third book, Bright Green Future, is a reflection of that. “I wrote it with my great co-author Trevor Cohen and it's really a response to the gloom and doom about climate change. We want to show hey every crisis has challenges, but it also has massive opportunities. And let's look at it that way. And so we profiled people who are subscribing to that,” said Schwartz.
(Gregory on a recent trip to Mount Diablo in Northern California)
To keep our future as bright and green as possible, it’s imperative that we start at the soil. One message that Schwartz wanted to leave readers with is the importance of farming organically. “By farming organically, we don't kill the biota in the soil and we don't kill the bacteria that help sequester carbon. There's more carbon in the soil than there is in all the trees on Earth. And in the atmosphere. So that's a huge upside of treating our soil right. Human beings, up until relatively recently, have been organic farmers. It's not strange, it's not new, and it's not different. It is our nature. Buying organic products and growing organically is the most natural, healthy thing we can do.”