Offered the chance to inherit an extremely lucrative family
business, most people find a way to rationalize saying yes, even if they
face some qualms of conscience about the nature of the business.
John Robbins, who stood to inherit Baskin-Robbins, the largest ice cream
company in the world, said no. After looking closely at the factory farms
of the dairy industry, and studying the health implications of the products
the company was selling, he concluded that he had to remain true to his
conscience. He has not regretted the decision.
Robbins is the author of widely-acclaimed book Diet For a New America
(Stillpoint), in which he deftly blends fact and passion in an attempt
to awaken us to the consequences of our dietary decisions. Nominated for
the Pulitzer Prize, the book takes an in-depth look at the way our society
relates to the animals we eat. From the factory farms where they suffer
in profoundly inhumane conditions, to the heart attacks and cancers caused
by the consumption of their flesh, to the severe and ongoing environmental
damage caused by this system, Robbins pulls no punches in detailing the
uncomfortable truth. His book is disturbing and, for many, life-changing.
Robbins has received over 20,000 letters from readers, thanking him for
having moved them to eat differently and live differently.
Robbins is the President of the EarthSave Foundation, dedicated to the welfare
of all species and the environment.
John Robbins Interview
DR: Gandhi said that "the greatness of a nation can be judged
by the way its animals are treated." How well does the United States
measure up to this standard?
JOHN ROBBINS: Terribly. We treat animals institutionally as if they
were nothing but commodities, nothing but merchandise. In this excessive
commercialization, we end up treating them with tremendous cruelty. One
place where this is particularly glaring is in the treatment of the animals
whose meat and milk and eggs we consume. We don't have barnyards and pastures,
and Lassie and Timmy running around on the family farm anymore. Instead,
we have factory farms, and these institutions could hardly be more exploitive
and involve more suffering if they were designed for that purpose.
DR: Is it primarily greed, or just lack of awareness?
JOHN ROBBINS: It's a combination of both, and also it's a consequence
of institutionalized arrangements that in effect reward organizations and
industries for the very short-sighted "third quarter profit" mentality,
instead of looking at anything from a larger perspective. For example, if
someone does want to run their operation using organic methods of agriculture,
and treating the animals with some minimal amount of respect and consideration,
they are in the very short term at an economic disadvantage, compared to
the people who will do anything to save five or ten cents. So they get pushed
out of business.
We are the only fully industrialized country in the world today that still
implants our beef cattle with hormones. Over 65 percent of the antibiotics
produced in the United States are not used as medicines; they are used as
feed additives on factory farms. They are not used as medicines to cure
a sick animal; they are mixed into every dose of feed from birth to slaughter.
This is because the conditions in which the animals are kept are so unnatural,
and so stressful and so severe, that these creatures would die if it weren't
for the biosecurity that is employed in the form of constant doses of antibiotics.
DR: Europe has banned American meats, because antibiotics and hormones
are routinely fed to our animals. The U.S. government says this is an unfair
trade practice, that the meat is really safe, and the Europeans just want
to keep American meat from competing on their markets. What do you feel
is the real reason for the ban?
JOHN ROBBINS: It would be more correct to say that it is certain
people in the Department of Agriculture, who are spokesmen for the meat
industry. The Secretary of Agriculture under Reagan, for instance, Richard
Lyng, was the former president of the American Meat Institute. We have a
revolving-door policy where our nation's food policies are pretty much controlled
by the meat and dairy industries. The Europeans do not want to start a trade
war with the United States, but they do feel an obligation toward the public
health. They are forced by the science they see, and by the feelings of
their populations, to protect their people from the onslaught of hormones
and pharmaceuticals that are all too often found in animal products.
This brings up the control of our food policies by the industries. Earlier
this year the USDA came forward with an idea to improve the basic four food
groups. They have up until now shown them in a wheel form, which implies
that half of our food intake should be from meat and dairy products, although
it's clear they cause heart disease, strokes, cancers, diabetes, obesity
and general ill health in the population.
They proposed that instead of showing it as a wheel, they would show it
as a pyramid, with the higher rungs being meat and dairy. In the pyramid
shape, these rungs are actually narrower at the top, so this would graphically
depict that these foods ought not to play that important a role in a person's
Well, the meat industry, the National Cattlemen's Association, the National
Livestock and Beef Board, The American Beef Council, The National Dairy
Council, the American Milk Producers Association, basically the entire gamut
of beef and dairy concerns, raised such an incredible stink about it that
the wiser voices in the USDA just knuckled under, wilting under the pressure.
So we're back to the Basic Four being taught in a way that is profoundly
contraindicated by medical science.
DR: How much of the nutrition education curriculum and materials
in America's schools comes from unbiased sources, and how much is supplied
by the public relations people of the dairy, meat and egg industries?
JOHN ROBBINS: Very little is unbiased. The foremost supplier of the
nutritional materials used in public schools in this country is the National
Dairy Council. When I first learned that, I did not really understand just
how unfortunate this is. I assumed that the Dairy Council was a public interest
council, but it turns out that it's a trade lobby. Its purpose, which is
explicit in its bylaws, is to promote the sale of dairy products. The material
it provides to schools reflects very directly that inclination.
For example, I just saw a coloring book that's distributed by the Dairy
Council to kindergarten through third grade. It's a very nice coloring book,
except that it has some real inherent biases. For example, there's a drawing
of the outline of a man's face, and it says "What did Daddy eat today?
If he had his cheese, color him happy, and draw a smile on his face. If
he did not have his cheese, color him sad and draw a frown on his face."
"Did he have his butter today? If he did, color his eyes blue. If he
didn't, color his eyes red." And it goes on and on, with ice cream,
milk and so forth, so you end up with two pictures. One of this fellow who
ate his butter and his cheese and his ice cream and his sour cream and his
milk, and he's glowing with a big smile on his face. Then there's this other
poor fellow who didn't have his dairy products, and is a mess.
Now there's a message being delivered there. Children, drawing with their
crayons, do not realize that they are being programmed. It happened to all
of us. I can remember when I was a child--I believed in the four basic food
groups as if they came down from Mt. Sinai. I had no awareness that there
were previously seven food groups, and before that there were twelve, and
that the number had been whittled down in Washington, not in response to
advances in health science, but rather in opposition to those advances,
as a consequence of lobbying efforts paid for by the meat and dairy industries,
and enacted on behalf of their products.
DR: Until I was a young adult, I certainly believed that animal products,
as I had been told, provided the best-quality protein, and were necessary
for good health. What does the scientific community, the parts of it not
in the employ of the meat, dairy and egg industries, have to say about this?
JOHN ROBBINS: The largest study ever done in world medical history
on the relationship between diet and health, is currently being completed
under the direction of T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University. He is the
former senior science advisor to the National Cancer Institute, and is probably
the most prestigious authority on the diet/health connection in the world.
His opinion is that the excess consumption of animal protein in the American
diet is the single greatest cause of disease in our time. His views are
reflected throughout the informed medical community. I read every week another
article in Lancet, or the British Medical Journal, or the
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reporting another study showing
the negative health impact of excess animal protein.
In this country, we derive approximately 80% of our protein consumption
from animal products. In those parts of the world where cancers and heart
disease and diabetes are much more rare, the percentage of protein consumption
that comes from animal products is more like 10 percent. We are consuming
animal protein to a terrible excess, and really damaging ourselves in the
process. Protein has become kind of a sacred cow in this country, and so
many of us are afraid of not getting enough that we don't really approach
it in a balanced way, realizing that there are dangers in getting too much.
It's like the old German proverb that says "A man with one watch knows
what time it is, but a man with two watches is never quite sure."
You really can have too much of a good thing. You can have too much
sunlight, too much sleep, too much food. Certainly you can have too much
protein. Some of the diseases that are correlated with too much protein,
and particularly too much animal protein, are colon cancer, breast cancer,
osteoporosis, all kinds of kidney problems and heart disease. These afflictions
are so common in our culture as to be considered normal, yet they don't
appear with any regularity at all among people who do not consume excess
DR: If recent independent research shows this, why aren't even more
people making the change toward vegetarianism?
JOHN ROBBINS: Because of the concerted effort, and literally tens
of millions of dollars of publicity and advertising, from the companies
and industries that profit from our continuing to trade our forests for
cheeseburgers and heart attacks.
DR: Pope John Paul gave a controversial speech in which he stated
that it was very important not to take the fall and disgrace of Communism
as an across-the-board endorsement of Western-style capitalism. In your
book, you speak of the need for a "deeper bottom line." What does
this mean to you, especially in light of your having passed up the opportunity
to inherit the Baskin-Robbins empire?
JOHN ROBBINS: I was born into a situation where I had a view from
the top of the consumer mountain. This is the mountain that most of us are
trying to climb in this culture, investing our efforts and our time. One
of the things I saw was that it's who you are, and what you do with the
challenges of your life, that determines the impact you have in the world.
It's not how much social status you have or how wealthy you are, it's how
aligned you are with your own spirit that is the key to having the influence
in the world that you would like. I really deeply believe that the deeper
bottom line that each of us meets in our lives has to do with our own sense
of integrity and compassion, and involvement and connection with people,
and indeed with the whole community of life on this earth.
One of the consequences of capitalism and its darker side has been the treatment
of the natural world as a resource to exploit. As a result, we've treated
our oceans like garbage dumps. We've polluted and used up the resource base,
the natural capital of our planet, the endowment from God that sustains
human life. This is occurring at a terrifying rate, absolutely unsustainable.
The shift that I am working for in our society today has to do with seeing
nature as a community, of which we are a part, to which we owe our lives,
and for which we must care if we are going to survive.
If I had followed in my father's footsteps, as I was groomed to do, and
come to run the Baskin-Robbins empire, I'd have looked in the mirror at
a person who had not followed the call of his own conscience, and that price
I'm not wealthy enough to pay. No one can be wealthy enough to pay it.
DR: I found parts of Diet For a New America to be so painful
and upsetting that several times I wanted to just put it away and do something
else. How can we look inhumanity square in the face and not put on blinders
and turn away?
JOHN ROBBINS: I don't know that we can actually face it all without
some denial and coping and psychic numbing. But we do the best we can, and
we move out of the numbness and the programmed avoidance of our feelings
by degree, in stages. Gradually we bring our lives into accord with our
deeper human responses to these things. When we do that, when we make our
lives statements of our feelings, and authentic expressions of ourselves,
then we access a power that's greater than ourselves, that's connected to
the whole web of life.
That enables us to take the next step, of opening our eyes and seeing the
darkness that needs light brought to it. We can only bite off a chunk at
a time, but it's by being true to our wholeness and our spirits, and to
that part of us that deserves to live in a compassionate world, and needs
to express its feelings and its prayers and its caring, that we come into
Actually, that's such an important question that I've written my second
book about it. It's about the whole human and personal struggle to come
into harmony with the situations that we're dealing with here. Just today
I read in the paper that the World Health Organization has raised their
prediction of how many people will be carrying the AIDS virus by the year
2000. They've raised it from 20 million a few months ago, to 30 and then
to 40 million, because it's spreading so much more rapidly, particularly
We see the suffering of the Kurds, the tragedy in Bangladesh. The level
of suffering in the world is so immense that to keep your heart open and
not block the human reality of what is occurring is difficult. It takes
a great deal of compassion, a great deal of sensitivity and a great deal
of self-acceptance to even attempt it, particularly because our society
invalidates our compassion and our caring in so many ways.
There's a little bit of Donald Trump in each of us, but I think there's
also a little bit of Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa too. But it's the
Donald Trump that makes the headlines, that gets lots of space for acknowledgement
in this culture. But a part of us knows that our real sense of value, our
real sense of meaning, doesn't derive from a financial statement, but arises
from the kind of human being we are. That part of us usually doesn't get
much more than lip service in the mainstream media. Still, I believe there
is something in each of us that aspires and works and longs deeply to live
in a society and a world that strengthens us in our spirits.
DR: Many countries in the Third World, where there is widespread
hunger and starvation, are using large portions of their most fertile land
for meat, coffee, cotton and other export crops. Places like Guatemala and
El Salvador export meat to the US, while substantial portions of their populations
go hungry. How can this actually be happening?
JOHN ROBBINS: Your point about cash crops is certainly crucial. Every
morning from Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia, a 747 jumbo cargo jet takes
off full of meat for Western Europe, at a time when over a million people
in Ethiopia have less than a ten day supply of food. We may see this year
in Ethiopia starvation the likes of which we have never seen before. The
natural resource base in Ethiopia is being chewed up by animals, and drunk
by animals, whose meat is consumed by the overindulgent palates of people
in what I call the overdeveloped countries.
Since I saw the treatment of people, and the consequences to the societies
of Latin America and Africa, of our consumption of coffee, I no longer will
purchase coffee from these areas unless it is organically grown from a cooperative
where I know the money actually goes to the people. Similarly, we import
300 million pounds of Central American rainforest beef into the United States
every year. Meanwhile, the average Central American eats less meat than
the average North American housecat. Virtually all that beef production
is undertaken on land that had been tropical rainforest. It was destroyed
to clear the land to graze the cattle, so we can have more heart attacks.
There is no natural niche for cattle in Central America's ecology. Every
hamburger made from rainforest beef represents the destruction of 55 square
feet of tropical rainforest. So now when I look at a hamburger, I not only
see the raised cholesterol level and the heart attack lurking there, for
those human beings unfortunate enough to eat it. I also see the ground-up
cow and the animal suffering that's involved in the production of that hamburger,
and I also see the tropical rainforest being destroyed.
The lungs of the planet are being ripped apart. And I see the consequences
to our future because of the destruction of the rainforests. As they go,
there is less and less oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere, and more carbon
dioxide. This means an accelerating greenhouse effect, global warming, and
the destabilization of the climate of our planet.
DR: When I lived in Iowa, there were miles and miles of cornfields
everywhere. I was shocked to discover that virtually none of it is for human
JOHN ROBBINS: That's correct.
DR: It's fed instead to cows, pigs, chickens and other animals. What
are the consequences of this?
JOHN ROBBINS: We call the Midwest the breadbasket of the country.
When you fly over it, you see miles and miles of row-crops, growing grains
and soybeans. But they're not growing bread. It's livestock feed. 90% of
the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals, not people. This
process is a very wasteful and inefficient way of producing food for human
beings. It takes 16 pounds of grain, on a national average, to produce one
pound of beef.
One way to look at this is to realize that if the people of the United States
reduced our consumption of beef by 10 percent, that would save enough grain
to feed 60 million human beings, which is more than the number of people
on the entire planet who will die of hunger this year. Another way of looking
at the wastefulness of growing all that grain to feed the animals is to
realize that for every individual who shifts from a standard American meat-centered
diet to a vegetarian diet, an acre of trees is spared.
You see, when the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution of this country,
a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean without
ever setting foot on the earth. This was a very thickly and richly and luxuriantly
forested continent. But over 280 million acres of our original forest has
been cleared, to create land on which to grow cattle feed or graze cattle.
So this is what I mean when I say that we have traded our forests for cheeseburgers.
But the good news is that when we decrease our consumption of beef, we can
then return a great deal of that land to forest, and in so doing provide
habitats for wildlife which would otherwise become extinct. The forests
play an indispensable role in the hydrological cycles of water. They purify
our water. They also hold the topsoil, so we would not lose it at the rate
we are. They also breathe out oxygen, and take carbon dioxide out of the
atmosphere, where it is doing so much damage.
DR: When I was in chiropractic school, my classmates and I were stunned
to learn in class one day that the "normals" on blood tests such
as cholesterol, are determined by statistical averages rather than by what
is needed for good health. Thus, the "normal" American cholesterol
level will quite likely result in a heart attack. China's "normal"
is at the far low end of America's scale. What is your advice on how we
should interpret health statistics? How are these abused by vested interests?
JOHN ROBBINS: Another example of that is the RDA's, the recommended
daily allowances. Those are not determined by the amount of each vitamin
that is optimum for health maintenance, but by the average amount of consumption
of these nutrients in the American diet, a diet which is laughable from
any larger perspective.
We live in an interesting time, when people who consume a diet and make
food choices that predispose them to heart disease and cancer, strokes and
diabetes, that involve a great deal of suffering, that are ecologically
unstable and unsustainable to the point of being insane, are considered
normal. Whereas people who make life choices and food choices that are compassionate,
healthy, light, conscious, and aware, are considered weird.
DR: I have a question on one specific choice people feel forced into.
Most American women fear osteoporosis, and many are advised to increase
their calcium intake to avoid it. What have the most recent studies shown
about the causes of osteoporosis?
JOHN ROBBINS: That the amount of calcium you take into your body
is of minimal importance, and that the main lifestyle factor is protein
consumption. If you want to get osteoporosis, eat excess animal protein.
Vegetarians have much lower rates of osteoporosis than their meat-eating
counterparts, in every culture in the world. There are some other factors
that contribute to osteoporosis: lack of exercise, excessive phosphorus
in the diet (from cola drinks and meat products).
The reason animal protein causes osteoporosis, (and this includes dairy
protein, by the way), is that animal proteins are acid-forming. The body
then needs to buffer the amino acids from these proteins with minerals,
and the mineral of choice is calcium, which it draws out of the bones to
provide an alkaline substance to neutralize these acids. You end up excreting
this calcium in your urine on a daily basis when your diet is high in protein,
particularly animal protein.
The result is that over a period of time, you deplete your body of its store
of alkaline minerals, and particularly calcium. Your bones become more brittle
and fragile and porous, and one day you sneeze and crack a rib, or ride
over a bumpy road and crack a tailbone, or fall down and break a hip. Osteoporosis
is a very serious disease.
The Dairy Council is constantly advising women to drink more milk, eat more
cheese and eat more ice cream as a remedy or preventive for osteoporosis.
Under the situation of medical understanding today, which clearly and with
very little controversy substantiates that the cause of osteoporosis is
not lack of calcium in the diet, but rather excess animal protein in the
diet, for the Dairy Council to send this message to American women is criminal.
DR: Perhaps over the next generation the truth of the matter will
become far more widely known than it is now. Can you tell us a bit more
about your new book?
JOHN ROBBINS: After Diet For a New America came out, I received
over 20,000 letters from people who were basically saying that the book
changed their lives. One of the things that I realized is that because the
information is so emotionally charged, and deals with very basic issues
of our lives, it is difficult to stay open and balanced and whole in dealing
with these things. One unfortunate consequence is that we see a syndrome
I call "Vegetarian Evangelism," where people try to change a lifetime
of eating habits overnight. Not only that, they want to change everyone
else's eating habits overnight.
There are very deep emotional issues involved in our diets, and we have
associations to our food choices and to our life choices that have very
profound multidimensional implications. The effort to learn how to live
in harmony with nature, for a lot of us it's a new struggle, and we are
doing it in a culture that doesn't reflect our values or our spiritual nature
in a wider sense. I wrote In Search of Balanceas a guide and as a
process of exploring my own struggles with these issues. The transformation
that is needed to heal ourselves and the life support systems of the planet,
is a transformation in the depths of human consciousness.
Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor, writer and musician who lives in Virginia
Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time
to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health (A.R.E. Press),
and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Alternative
and Complementary Medicine. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©1995 Daniel Redwood, D.C.