Vegetarian restaurant owner Li Yu believes in the health
benefits of plant-based eating. Zou Hong / China Daily
Former physicist Li Yu runs the city's first vegetarian restaurant.
In 2008, Li Yu embarked on what some may perceive as a rather daunting mission: To convince as many people in China as he can not only to stop eating meat but drop animal products from their diets altogether.
"I am trying my best to succeed," said Li. "I am trying my best."
Li is the owner of a restaurant called Vegan Hut. Tucked away on the second floor of one of the buildings in the Jianwai SOHO Beijing complex, the eatery is the first vegan restaurant to open in China, according to Li.
The cutesy space with modest decor and mint green walls serves a plethora of vegetable dishes with a Chinese twist: Braised eggplant with a succulent soy-tinged sauce; ultra-healthy spring rolls; lotus and tofu wraps; brown sticky rice with a tangy tomato puree.
Almost all of the ingredients are organic. There is no MSG, no salt, no preservatives and certainly no animal products anywhere on the menu. (Unlike vegetarians, vegans follow a strict plant-based diet that prohibits eating anything derived from animals.)
Li, who has a PhD in physics, was working for a telecommunications company in Shanghai when he decided to quit his job and refocus his career on educating people about the impact meat consumption has on the environment.
It was a drastic change but one he says he felt was imperative in order to raise awareness of how human consumption of chicken, beef and pork is destroying the environment.
"We can help save the planet if more people eat less meat," Li said. "That will be very helpful. Eating beef and other animal products has a huge impact on natural resources. Most people don't know that."
The livestock sector is one of the top two or three contributors to serious environmental problems, according to a 2006 report issued by the United Nations.
Not only does raising cattle and other animals contribute to deforestation and strain water resources, it also is responsible for nearly 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, which is higher than transportation, the report said.
"Another thing to mention is if we are talking about the total production of grain in 2008, only 46 percent of grains go to humans while 36 percent goes to livestock," said Li.
"So I calculated that if we eat a plant-based diet instead of feeding livestock, we actually can feed millions of people."
Li is full of facts and figures on the impact our meat-eating lifestyles have on the environment.
He talks about the issues during weekly lecture series at his restaurant or occasionally on university campuses and on local radio and television programs. He is working on several books about being a vegan and how eating vegetables helps the earth.
He is also trying to spread the word about the health benefits of plant-based eating. Vegan Hut offers a special 28-day healthy diet program for those seeking to lower their cholesterol, lose weight or improve their overall general health.
It includes a medical consultation, regular meetings with nutritionists and a full supply of ingredients and recipes for those who take part.
"There are so many benefits," said Li, who completed a special plant-based nutrition course at Cornell University in New York.
"The diet can reduce heart disease, type two diabetes and some types of cancers."
Li says he hopes to open more restaurants in Beijing and someday around China while he continues to promote a meat-less lifestyle to both Chinese and expat audiences. Though it will be an uphill battle, he acknowledges.
"I am just trying to do something meaningful," said Li. "Once we save the planet, I can go back to the telecommunications industry. But we won't have any industry if there is no planet. The logic is very simple."