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 Interviews with People Who Make a Difference: That All May Eat  
 
Interview with John Robbins
   as interviewed by Daniel Redwood DC

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 diet.

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 animal protein.

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 that balance.

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 in Africa.

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 consumption.

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 redwoods@infi.net.

©1995 Daniel Redwood, D.C.
   
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 About The Author
Daniel Redwood, DC, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College - Kansas City. He is editor-in-chief of Health Insights Today (www.healthinsightstoday.com) and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the......moreDaniel Redwood DC
 
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