Having walked away from inheriting the family
business (Baskin-Robbins, at the time the largest ice cream company in the
world), John Robbins was an unlikely candidate to author a book
that would challenge the cultural perception of meat as the quintessential
American food. Published in 1987,
Diet for a
New America (Stillpoint Publishing) revealed just how cruel the animal
food industry is and how unhealthy meat-eating is for our bodies and for
the planet. Diet sold over one million copies and Robbins received
more than 80,000 letters from inspired readers.
The impact of Diet for a New America is difficult to measure. For many animal activists and vegetarians, it ranks alongside Peter Singers’ Animal Liberation as one of the books that compelled them to switch to a plant-based diet. Diet also set the meat and dairy industry on its head, generating a fury of policy statements and PR campaigns.
Robbins’ latest book, The Food Revolution (Conari Press), is as ambitious and all-encompassing as Diet, except it has the advantage of 15 years’ more scientific evidence, making the case for a plant-based diet even more compelling. Robbins recently talked with Catherine Clyne about his new book, the perils of genetic engineering and his hopes for the future.
Have you had any particularly interesting experiences in connection with The Food Revolution since it was published?
Some interesting things have happened. I was on the Michael Krasny show in San Francisco, the radio talk show with the largest audience in northern California. Just the week before, the UN had released their annual development report and media outlets, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, had made it look as if the UN report was quite in favor of genetically engineered (GE) foods, in terms of being an answer for the world’s hungry. I don’t have a positive outlook on GE as an answer to world hunger. Krasny got Kate Raworth, a co-author of the report, to be on the show with me. He thought that would create a contentious debate. Before going on the show, I had read the actual UN report and was amazed because what she had written was so different from what the New York Times and the Washington Post had said. It turns out that bio-tech giant Monsanto had taken a few lines out of her report and put them totally out of context and issued press releases, and the media had picked up on that as if it was an accurate representation of the report. This all became public knowledge during the show when Krasny questioned Kate on what the newspapers had reported; and she said, “I agree with John completely.”
In The Food Revolution, you have all sorts of quotes from representatives of the various industries that you criticize. Have you had any negative reactions from the likes of the meat or dairy industries?
Yes. But you know it’s a very interesting situation. In The Food Revolution I didn’t interpret their words, I quoted their statements on the key issues and tried not to take anything out of context. The meat industry has issued policy statements on issues such as rainforest destruction, meat-eating and cancer, the humane treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, beef production and world hunger, the use of steroids, Mad Cow disease, and so on. I just went right to their Web sites and their public announcements and quoted what they’re telling the public. What are they going to do, be angry with me for quoting them correctly?
In The Food Revolution, I juxtapose those statements with statements from non-profits, scientific authorities, public interest groups and other specialists. If people see back-to-back the statements of industry, which are trying to sell their products, and the statements of researchers and scientists, who are interested in the public interest and welfare, it’s pretty easy to tell who is objective and who is self-serving.
In Diet for a New America I tried to educate people, to lift the veil. And the meat industry has been busy putting it back up [laughs], so there’s this back and forth going on. One of the things that I think makes The Food Revolution such a powerful book is where I quote their efforts to place the veil back in front of people’s eyes. When you see it again and again in their own words, you realize to what an extent it has insinuated itself into your own thinking.
One of the things that I’m trying to show is the reason that those myths are still out there is that we have industries spending billions of dollars a year to keep them alive in our culture, to keep them active in our minds, to keep well-meaning people repeating them without realizing where they came from, without realizing the extent to which they aren’t supported by medical research and are in fact contradicted by scientific data.
Any responses from the biotech industry? You were particularly critical of them.
I am critical, it’s true, particularly of one company—Monsanto. Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy, but this is an extraordinarily powerful company. Today, they are involved in a $50 million ad campaign through the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which is designed to convince the public that genetically engineered foods are safe—safe for public health and for the environment—and a key part of the ad campaign is to convince the public that it’s an answer to world hunger.
There are 100 million acres planted in commercial biotech foods, also known as transgenic crops, in the world today. Virtually all of this is in three countries: the U.S., Argentina and Canada; most of that—three quarters—is in the U.S. The rest of the world is saying “no” to it—Africa, Asia, Japan and Australia are saying no; Europe is saying no big time. Of those 100 million acres, about 75 percent are planted in crops that are genetically engineered to be resistant to weed killers, primarily RoundUp, which is Monsanto’s number one herbicide. That means that farmers can spray as much of this weed killer as they want onto the fields without killing the crop. In order to make this technology commercially viable, the Food and Drug Administration had to triple the allowable residues of Roundup on the foods we eat.
So out of 100 million acres, not a single acre is planted in crops that have been engineered with any characteristics that you would incorporate into crops if your intention was to alleviate world hunger, characteristics like producing greater yields or being able to grow in marginal soils or tolerate drought. Their batting average is basically zero for 100 million in terms of alleviating world hunger. Then they put out a $50 million ad campaign telling the American public that alleviating world hunger is what they’re all about. It’s deceitful.
The Europeans and practically everyone else are rejecting genetically engineered foods, but Americans seem to be lost in the dust in that respect. What do you think it’s going to take to make people wake up to this issue in the States?
I think we’re starting to wake up. There are just these media campaigns that keep us asleep. I think people are sick of being sick. They’re tired of having corporations shove foods down their throats without telling them what’s in them. In a recent poll, 50 percent of the American public said that they’d never eaten genetically engineered food. In fact, two thirds of the foods in our supermarkets today contain genetically engineered ingredients. People don’t realize that they’re eating it because it isn’t labeled. But as they realize it, they’re pissed. When polled, 90 percent of the American public say they want labeling. It’s very hard to get that high a percentage of Americans to agree on anything. I think that if they knew the bona fide scientific risks that are involved in GE foods, it wouldn’t be 90, it’d be 100 percent.
One of the reasons that the Europeans are so opposed to genetic engineering is that, as a rule, their food cultures are part of their identity, part of who they are as a people. How and what they eat are extensions of and expressions of their history, a way of connecting to their communities, lineages and cultural identities. It’s very rich in that way. And they don’t want it tampered with for trivial reasons. Here, we’ve developed a food culture that is basically a fast-food nation. Baskin Robbins and McDonald’s are everywhere and they’re the same everywhere. People who are still connected to their native cultures can sense the damage in that.
The main thrust of your book is about how switching to a plant-based diet can solve a lot of the world’s problems. The GE issue aside, how do you think people are going to change their unhealthy eating habits? Americans aren’t exactly running to change their diets.
You know, a lot of people are experimenting. In the last few years, we’ve seen different diets become very popular, like the Atkins and Zone diets, and, more recently, the blood-type diet. Although I don’t think very highly of some of those diets, the fact that people are willing to try speaks to me of the level of dissatisfaction. They know that what they’re eating isn’t working for them.
I think that there is a revolution going on—people are revolting. The situation is revolting. The foods that Americans are eating are grown with poisons, for the most part. Animal products are dependent on the massive and unnecessary suffering of tremendous numbers of animals and they are produced using a level of resources that profoundly depletes the capacity for future generations to feed themselves. It’s polluting the biosphere, it’s generating tremendous amounts of toxic waste, it’s really completely unsustainable and inhumane.
With The Food Revolution I’m trying to help people realize that there is an alternative, there is a way that we can feed ourselves that is healthier for all of us. A plant-based diet gives the outcomes that people are trying to get when they try these popular diets. You can actually get those benefits—greater health, less disease, a fitter body and so forth—and do so in a way that is in harmony with the planet and with our desires and prayers for a better future. We don’t have to choose between what’s good for us and what’s good for the world. It turns out that what’s truly good for us is truly good for the others too.
It used to be that everybody knew that meat was healthy; now, more and more people know that a vegetarian diet is healthier. People are saying: “I’m a vegetarian too—I don’t eat meat, I just eat it a couple times a week.” [laughs] I mean, people want to be on the bandwagon and that’s good thing, because that’s how social forces shift. Whether we’ll shift in time is a big question, but the shifts are happening.
Since writing and researching Diet for a New America and now The Food Revolution, have there been changes in your optimism/pessimism about the human spirit and the trustworthiness of business and government?
My trust in the corporate agenda to do the right thing by the planet, its communities and our society is pretty negligible now. Food is where my expertise is and that’s what I can speak about. When food is treated just like any other commodity something tragic happens. Food has to be recognized as a basic human right. For example, we produce huge amounts of grain in this country, the vast majority of which is fed to livestock, while every two seconds somewhere on Earth, a child dies of starvation. To me, that’s obscene. And yet we’re exporting that: McDonald’s is opening up restaurants hand over fist throughout the developing world—promoting this unhealthy diet that Americans have developed as the symbol of our prosperity. I don’t think the answer to world hunger is McDonald’s in Ethiopia.
But I have a lot of faith in the human spirit. I look around and I see the forces in our world that would bring disaster, but I look inside the human heart and I see something that loves and cares, and wants to see the world become a more beautiful, healthy and happy place. I find that in every human being. One of the powers of the food revolution is that it’s a way that people can express their caring and make their life statements of compassion; and there’s something very powerful in that. For example, since I wrote Diet for a New America in the late 1980s, the consumption of veal in the U.S. has dropped 62 percent. That’s not because veal has become less tasty, it’s because people have realized how cruel veal production is. Diet for a New America played a role in that; so did the campaigns by a lot of people educating others about how much misery is involved in veal production. A drop of 62 percent in a little over a decade is a very substantial thing. What I want to see in the next decade is people taking the next step and realizing that what’s done to veal calves is really representative of the meat industry as a whole.
When I wrote Diet for a New America, the phrase “factory farming” was not used much in this culture. I would use it and, at first, no one would know what I was talking about. Now, polls show that 70 or 80 percent of the American public are opposed to factory farming. That’s a very high percentage. There has been this shift where people realize: Whoah! We don’t have Bessie and Lassie running around in family farms anymore. We have this mass-production, assembly line, profiting system of meat production, and the animals’ needs are totally denied and there’s no attempt to even meet their needs. They’re immobilized, usually in cages barely larger than their bodies. The degree of cruelty is so obvious, so intense when you see it. You don’t have to be an animal rights activist or a vegetarian to be appalled by it because it’s so extreme. The American public has a great capacity for denial. Most of the public is quite content to have the veil comfortably placed over their eyes, but when we lift the veil, what they see is so repulsive—and it’s something that they’re eating three times a day—there’s a part of them that just says No! Then they hear about Mad Cow disease and E. Coli, and it’s clear that the very conditions that are so abominable to the animals are also producing food that’s dangerous and unhealthy for people. Not to mention tremendously destructive to the environment. At a certain point, people revolt.
But there are also people who, in spite of having the veil lifted, never change, like your experience with your friend Mike, who constantly chided you for being vegetarian and flaunted his meat-eating in front of you, although he was aware of the health benefits of a plant-based diet. It’s something that many of our readers have to face: watching loved ones literally eat themselves into the grave. What advice would you give to people in this predicament?
You know, it’s very sad: Mike died. At a certain level, we do what we can to be examples of love and caring and health, and to use our lives to influence others in a positive direction, but people make their own choices and we have to respect that and love them anyway. One of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said over and over again that meant so much to me was that you should never let your opposition to someone’s actions get in the way of your relationship to their soul. In other words, you might oppose what they’re doing, with your life and even, in his case, your death, but you still see them as children of God in some sense, that in their being is the sacred or the divine or the essentially human. If you withhold your love from them, withhold your compassion and your empathy, if you withdraw and become bitter or judgmental of them then you lose something that’s precious; there’s an opportunity in this situation that you lose. Who knows when people will change?
If people that you know are making unhealthy choices and experiencing the consequences, you hurt with that, you know that it wasn’t necessary, and you think God, could I have done something different, if I’d been more informed or more something, could I have saved them? And you know, I couldn’t save Mike. There are people that really are going to do what they’re going to do, and I think what we need to do is love them, bless them and move on. Let them go and go to where people want to hear what we have to say.
What about dealing with those faceless entities, for example, Monsanto? It’s hard to sit back and just direct mindful loving-kindness at them.
In my book I talk about this friend who actually said to me that the executives that run Monsanto “just need to be loved.” I said, “Well yeah, the people at Monsanto need to be loved—every human being needs to be loved—but this corporation that’s doing so much damage needs something else: it needs to be stopped.”
I recently met a board member from Monsanto, a very influential and wealthy man, and I had quite the heated discussion with him. What I learned from that discussion—to my amazement—was that he didn’t know the whole truth about what his company was doing. It occurred to me, God, do they lie to their own board members? Or do they just give them a very limited picture? He actually said to me at one point, after I told him something that his company was doing, “If that’s true, I’ll quit the board.” Well, it is true.
It’s one thing to deal with someone one-on-one and try to create change that way. But sometimes massive corporations don’t respond at all or dismiss the claims of activists, which makes people angry and frustrated. How can people get around that wall? What can they do with those feelings of frustration?
This is a difficult thing to do, but it’s important and useful to put yourself for a moment in their shoes. Let’s say you’re an executive of one of these companies, and you’re hearing that there are activists who are leveling criticisms. One of the things you want to know is what kind of people they are. You have a way of stereotyping people really quickly in order to dismiss them, because if you can do that, you’re off the hook. But if they aren’t targeting you personally and it’s the policies they want to change, then you don’t feel so threatened. When people feel threatened or attacked, they tend to recoil and get very defensive, they tend to get hardened—when I say “they” I’m referring to me too—none of us are at our best when we are terrified.
I don’t mind exposing the individuals who are in fact making the decisions that are causing so much harm, but I would want to be very judicious in that type of action and be sure that it’s the person who has the power. I look again to Dr. King for some learning. His emphasis on nonviolence was very critical, and yet it was not shared by many other leaders. There’s still a need for ahimsa in our actions in the way we try to change things.
In The Food Revolution, you look at the impact of meat eating from many angles: animal suffering, environment, health, and world hunger. Although relatively similar, these issues, which are basically movements, seem quite separate, with each group having its major sticking points with the others (for example, animal rights people having a problem with environmentalists who eat meat; environmentalists who feel that animal rights people don’t get the bigger picture of species extinction; advocates talking about food as a human right but not promoting a plant-based diet). What would you say is the major issue that could bring all of these groups together to bring about the most effective change?
When I was a kid I used to look at those ‘connect-the-dots’ puzzles. First, you were given just this page full of dots and it looked very random and chaotic and you had no sense at all of what picture might emerge. The fun of it was in connecting the dots and lo and behold, there was a picture that integrated the dots to a pattern that had some meaning, beauty and wholeness to it. It was very simple: just go from one to two to three to four; and yet, the net result was something beautiful.
I think that today, a lot of the problem is that the dots aren’t connected so we’re looking at this page of life and we’re seeing something that looks random and chaotic and it’s very easy to feel divided in dealing with this. Someone says, “the problem’s over here” and someone else says, “no, it’s over here!” You’re a dot and I’m a dot, and the environmental movement is so many dots and the animal rights movement is so many dots. When we connect with each other as caring people, take each other’s hand and realize the common denominator that unifies us, that’s when we really move into our power—as a movement and as individuals. That’s when we find each other as supports. We’re part of a whole picture and we need to see each other that way—as allies rather than competitors. That is why it is so important to connect the dots between these issues, and show how they are all interrelated.
In relation to that, what sort of connections do you make to the growing antiglobalization movement?
A lot of them. What happens with food in relation to globalization is that it becomes an instrument of division between people. It’s used as an instrument of oppression. It becomes something that’s sold across boundaries throughout the world, and then the land, energy, labor and food resources of a given area are exploited. Globalization is leading toward a world food market in which the rich control all the world’s food resources. When the food resources of the world are shunted into meeting the desires or indulgences of the world’s rich, at the expense of basic human needs being met for vast numbers of people, this is a deep human tragedy.
So, how did we get here?
We have an economy that’s built on extracting resources and converting them into consumer goods, and doing so in an incredibly effective manner. If you wanted to convert forests to toilet paper, we’ve got the best system for that [laughs]. But if you wanted to save forests, we don’t have a great system for that. In years past when there seemed to be infinite numbers of forests that were replenishing themselves, the economy perhaps made some sense then. But the lifestyle that Americans have dreamt about and aspired towards is absolutely impossible on a global level. The capacity of the environment to absorb the wastes that we’re producing is completely overstretched. Some of those wastes are so toxic and long-lived that they represent threats to the viability of the planet to sustain human life.
We’re right now in the midst of the sixth great wave of species extinction that’s ever been on this planet and it’s the fastest of them all. It’s absolutely clear that this particular one is not caused by a meteorite from outer space, it’s caused by a two-legged animal who fancies him- or herself to be the pinnacle of creation. When one sees that, one becomes very humble. And that is good, because this humility is the antidote to the arrogance out of which we’ve tried to dominate and control nature and done such a great job at harming things.
What’s in store for us?
One way or the other, we are going to become humble. You know the roots of the word humble are the same as the roots of humus, as in the Earth. Our humbling means bowing and placing our foreheads on the Earth, returning to our connection to the planet and to all of its creatures, and its infinite love for us. We were born nursing from our mothers and then we come to nurse from the Earth itself. The Earth gives us food, it provides for us, but we’ve been treating our mother with indifference at best, if not disdain. And that’s not sustainable. So many people are waking up to this—everybody knows that the environment is deteriorating rapidly. Almost everybody knows now that factory farm production of animals is just hideously cruel.
We as a people bestow legitimacy on certain things. With furs and with veal, we’ve been removing legitimacy fairly effectively. I think that factory farming is beginning to lose legitimacy. Of course, the industries that profit from it are fighting to restore that legitimacy and putting tremendous amounts of money into it, but that legitimacy is being withdrawn—despite their efforts. That’s a wonderful thing because with that removal, we are starting to restore legitimacy to organic, local and sustainable forms of agriculture. This means plant-based diets, living and eating lower on the food chain, closer to the Earth with respect and gratitude for the Earth itself, and rejecting the dominating mentality. This is part of the human spirit awakening that I think is wonderful; and it is both fun and a privilege to be part of this wave of awakening that’s taking place.
Cases of The Food Revolution are available for activists at half-price. Single copies and smaller quantities are also available at a discount. To order or to read more about the book, see www.foodrevolution.org. In 1989 John Robbins founded EarthSave, a nonprofit organization that promotes food choices that are healthy for people and the planet. Now with nearly 40 chapters, visit www.earthsave.org or call (800) 362-3648 to learn more.
EarthSave is launching a New York City Chapter on Thursday, September 13, with a vegan dinner featuring EarthSave president Howard Lyman. 6:30pm at Brownies, 74 Trinity Pl., 2nd Fl. Call (212) 696-7986 for information.