Your Food Choices Can Change the World: An Interview with John Robbins
“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons.
They were not made for humans any more than black people
were made for whites, or women for men.” — Alice Walker
John Robbins, former heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune, gave up that inheritance because of his refusal to support the inhumane and unhealthy practices of the animal food industry. His Pulitzer Prize nominated book, Diet for a New America, exposes the suffering caused by our country’s food habits, and provides detailed information about how to make healthier, more compassionate choices to foster greater individual, familial, and planetary well-being.
Cat: A lot of people have heard about the production of veal and how horrible that is, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Would you describe for people who have never read your book what else is going on today for animals destined for the dinner table?
John: What’s done to the veal calves is reflective of a mentality that pervades the whole factory farm system today. I’ve seen pigs stacked in tiers in cages, so their excrement drops continually on the heads of the ones below.
I’ve seen a degree of cruelty in the slaughterhouses that’s just unbelievable. I’ve seen calves butchered with their mothers watching. The eggs that we eat today usually come from concentration camp chickens. The dairy cows and the beef cattle are treated like parts on an assembly line.
Then there’s the egg-laying operations. There are “sorters,” people who come onto the assembly line and pick up each chick. If it’s a female, that means it can grow into a hen that lays eggs, so it goes into one place. But if it’s a male—and is therefore economically worthless to them—they toss this furry little creature into a garbage bag.
Gradually the garbage bag gets fuller and fuller until it’s full, so the little ones underneath are suffocating under the pressure. Then they tie it on the top and just take it to the dump, or they burn it, or sometimes they feed the baby chicks alive to minks in mink factories.
It’s so severe today that just about anybody who saw it would be deeply disturbed, but there’s a tremendous effort to keep the veil of denial and repression over our eyes.
Cat: In your book, you compare the animal food industry to Nazi Germany, when the country people knew about what was happening to Jews, but they denied it because it was so horrible.
John: It was so horrible. Hitler’s strategy was that if you tell a big enough lie often enough, people will believe it. People just can’t believe that anyone would lie that grossly! And that’s what we have in the factory farm systems today. They’ll tell you, “Oh well, we have to treat our animals well because we make our profit from them, so it’s in our interest to see that the animals are healthy and happy.” But that’s not true in the slightest.
It may seem illogical, but the fact is that it’s in their interest to see that the animals gain weight fast. And it’s in their interest to use drugs. Those drugs do not produce healthy or happy animals, and they don’t produce healthy food either, because of the residues. The sad reality is that, by and large, the animals we are eating today in America are sick.
Cat: I know a lot of people who know about the cruelty, but who still deny it and rationalize it. What does it take, besides information, for people to stop making cruel food choices?
John: Emotional connection to the information. We all live in this world where we’re just numb. We’ve phased out on life, we’ve disconnected, we’ve basically gone unconscious in major ways. The work of thawing out what has become numb, and regaining our sense of living contact with ourselves and each other, and with the rhythms and the life force of the planet…that is our work today.
Cat: Some people think that as long as they eat “organic” meat and poultry, they’re eliminating the problem. Would you speak to that?
John: If you’re going to eat meat, then to eat eggs from free-range hens and organically-fed beef and so forth is the best way to do it. But first of all, there’s a lot of lying about this.
I live near Santa Cruz, California, and in all the health food stores in this area, you find egg cartons from the Happy Hen Egg Ranch, and there’s a smiling hen with her wings outstretched in a beautiful field. There’s a certain implication in that. And yet the sad truth is that I’ve been to the Happy Hen Egg Ranch near San Jose, and the birds are in cages.
Now, it’s a little bit better than the industry norm. The cages are a little bit bigger than the concentration camp agribusiness cages. But it’s still very, very far from the picture portrayed on the egg carton. That’s the kind of deception we see a lot.
It’s true that animals that are organically fed don’t have the hormones and antibiotics, so that’s an advantage. But they’re killed in the same slaughterhouses and the inhumanity of today’s slaughterhouses is profound. By and large, the way to see to it that your life is a statement of compassion and health is to reduce your consumption of beef and dairy products and eggs across the board.
Cat: Where does the fish industry fit into all this, John?
John: Well, for a while we have been treating our oceans and rivers like garbage dumps, dumping our sewage in there along with radioactive materials and pesticide runoffs from farms. The result is that we have contaminated and polluted virtually all the earth’s waters. Fish tend to collect and concentrate the water’s pollutants in their fat, so the result is that we don’t have any unpolluted fish anymore
Also, we are fishing today with ships that use huge drift nets that haul fish out by the metric ton, along with everything else that’s there. That brings up the tuna industry, which kills so many hundreds of thousands of dolphins. The tuna industry notes that the majority of dolphins killed in the nets are babies and females. They don’t talk about why that is, but I want to explain why.
The infant dolphins get very, very confused when they’re caught in these nets, and they don’t know how to escape. The males get out. The females can get out and sometimes do, but they will often return on purpose, even though they can see ahead that the other ones are getting round up—they know it’s death. But they return in order to join their babies.
They come and stay with their babies, huddled right next to them to the death, singing to them the whole time—singing this achingly beautiful and haunting song that you would never forget once you heard it. These animals are capable of great compassion, great sensitivity, and great feeling. And we’re grinding them up so our tuna fish can be a quarter cent cheaper per can. It’s abominable.
When people in general rise up and say, “I’m not going to feed myself from such suffering,” then we will have a change in consciousness, and then public policies and corporate policies will follow. I think the basic social institution, in terms of social change, is the human heart.
Cat: How about conscious parents who want to stop using animal products, but their kids say that they want to eat like other kids. Would you offer them some support?
John: EarthSave International has some books that are available for raising kids, from pregnancy on. Also, read Diet for a New America because there’s a lot of reassurance there about the way to raise kinds in a healthy manner. You know, children are very sensitive to animals. They love their dogs, they love their cats, and they know that their animals are part of the family.
Just because the animal can’t talk doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel and doesn’t think, sense, love, and care in its own way. This is true about the animals we call “pets,” and it’s true about the animals we call “dinner.”
When children make the connection between that slab of bacon and a pig, when they realize that a hamburger is a ground-up cow, when they break through the web of denial about these things, they’re often quite willing to change.
Cat: How about people who say they “need” meat? What about the protein myth?
John: Well, the idea that we need animal products to be healthy and to get enough high-quality protein used to be believed in medical circles. But this has been totally disproven by the avalanche of medical research in the last twenty years.
The original research was actually done on rats. It was found that rats grow faster and get bigger with a certain amino acid balance that is very similar to that found in eggs. Meat is close to that amino acid balance, too. But you see, we’re not rats!
Rat mothers’ milk, interestingly enough, is 47% protein. Human mothers’ milk is only 5% protein. Our protein needs are obviously vastly less than that of a rat, or for that matter, that of a cow.
In fact, our human mothers’ milk is one of the lowest, perhaps the lowest, of any mammal’s, in terms of protein. That is because our young are young for a long time. When we do eat a high animal-protein/high animal-fat diet, some pretty tragic things happen.
Up until World War II, the average age of menarche—that’s the onset of menses for girls—was about 16 or 16-1/2. Throughout recorded history, it’s been very close to that figure. Today in the United States, it’s 11-1/2.
We know that the sooner a girl enters puberty, the more likely she is later on to have cervical cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and some other really major problems, including osteoporosis. We also know that it’s a psychic tragedy for a young girl that age to be suddenly capable of reproducing, to be thrust abruptly into a level of experience for which she’s really not prepared.
However, there’s a direct relationship between this trend in women and the consumption of excess animal protein, excess animal fat, and the hormones used in livestock production. I think this trend is a tragedy.
The situation in the United States is that there are about thirty million people suffering seriously from diseases caused, or at least significantly contributed to, by an excess of protein. On the other hand, there are only about ten to fifteen thousand people suffering from protein deficiency diseases.
Cat: How about the B-12 argument against vegetarianism?
John: If you are a strict vegan—that is, you don’t eat any dairy products, eggs, meat, or fish—then it is appropriate today to take a B-12 supplement.
Cat: Would you talk a little about the direct relationship between America’s standard fast-food hamburger and the decimation of our rainforests?
John: A few years ago [editor’s note: this interview was done in 1990], a group of social activists called the Rainforest Action Network, investigated the problem to find out whose hand is really on the machete and the chainsaw and the matches that are destroying the world’s oldest and richest ecosystems.
They ended up boycotting Burger King, because they discovered that the driving force behind the destruction of the tropical rainforest is America’s beef consumption habit, and a lot of rainforest beef ends up in the fast food burger chains.
Now today we have McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s and Roy Roger’s and Hardy’s and all the rest of them steadfastly denying that they use any rainforest beef. But there’s a technicality involved.
The minute that beef sets foot on the dock in New Orleans, it is technically “U.S. beef.” So they can look as innocent and honest as Oliver North himself as they pledge allegiance to the fact that they only use U.S. beef, when the reality is that we import 400 million pounds of Central American rainforest beef into this country every year. The Meat Importers Council itself states that most of that beef ends up in fast food burger chains.
The Foundation of Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., estimates that every fast food quarter-pound hamburger containing rainforest beef—and that appears to be a goodly percentage of them—represents the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical rainforest.
Interestingly, they also calculate that with that 55 square feet of rainforest destruction, there’s also the emission—per hamburger—of 500 pounds of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas escalating the global warming trend.
Now, to put that in perspective, the average American gas-guzzling car pollutes the atmosphere with its own weight in carbon dioxide every year. That’s about 3000 pounds. Obviously, that level of pollution is not a good thing.
But when you realize that there’s 500 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution from every quarter-pound of hamburger, you realize that you save the atmosphere more carbon dioxide by not eating seven hamburgers than you would by not driving your car for an entire year.
Cat: In these days when California is talking about diverting water from the Northwest, would you talk about a simpler solution?
John: People have a right to be angry when they’re told to conserve water: don’t wash your car, don’t take showers, don’t flush the toilet some of the time, and various other things. Now, these actions do conserve water.
However, the point is that we’re asked to take these personal actions toward conservation, when over half the fresh water used for all purposes in the entire country is used to produce beef—to produce a food that’s high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease and cancer, and which exacts a high ecological toll. It turns out that you save more water by not eating one hamburger than by not showering for a month.
The U.S.D.A. reports that it takes 2500 gallons—that’s ten tons of water—to produce a single pound of feedlot beef today. And Newsweek stated that the amount of water that goes into the production of a single steer could float a U.S. naval destroyer.
Cat: In your book, Diet for a New America, you talk about how the livestock population of our country consumes enough grain and soybeans to feed five times our population.
Then you quoted an Overseas Development Councilman who said that if Americans reduced their meat consumption by even 10%, it would free 12 million tons of grain, enough to feed all of the 16 million people who die from starvation each year.
What if tomorrow, all animal food production—organic as well as factor style—was suddenly a thing of the past? What would that look like?
John: Well, we’d have the opportunity to return to forest all the 280 million acres in the United States that was original forest, which was cleared to create land on which we currently grow cattle or feed cattle.
Those trees would absorb the carbon dioxide building up in he atmosphere, slow down the global warming trend, and give us oxygen. With all the cattle gone from the feed lots, we’d have much less methane in the atmosphere, which would also slow down both the global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.
We would have no need for the tremendous amounts of refrigeration and freezing that we now employ for our meats, and that would mean less chlorofluorocarbons, which would spare the ozone layer and the global warming trend as well.
We would have much less need for the tremendous amounts of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers we currently use to grow so much cattle feed, and that would mean less acid rain, less acid fog, and less oxides of nitrogen precipitated into the atmosphere from synthetic fertilizers.
It would mean less toxic chemicals in the biosphere itself, in the food chains, and in our bodies. Our bodies would be healthier without the assault of saturated fat and cholesterol in animals products. We’d have relative immunity to the degenerative diseases of our times. We would also be able to feed everyone on the planet, due to the amount of grain no longer necessary to feed livestock.
Also, it would mean much less animal suffering. As a result, I think this would lift something from our collective emotional energy field. Something would be released in our common hearts that we may not even know about now, because we’ve become so used to feeling that weight. I think the cries of animals in the factory farms and in the slaughterhouses are heard in our hearts, even if we don’t always realize it.
I like to think that someday people will look back upon our time and say, “Thank God we no longer feed ourselves from the bodies of animals whose lives have been torture! Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t do that anymore!” It will be like how we look back on slavery now and say, “Thank God that’s over!”
I think we’ll someday look upon the factory farm system of producing beef—and maybe all animal eating—as something that humankind passed through on its way to learning about living according to the laws of love and health.
This interview was originally published in The New Times (July 1990) and updated in May 2017.
John Robbins is the author of Diet for a New America, Reclaiming Our Health, The Awakened Heart, May All Be Fed, and other books. He is also the founder of EarthSave International.
For more information about John and his work, please visit his website at www.johnrobbins.info.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).