There are now many books out on the benefits of a plant-based diet, but it is likely that none has impacted so many people as John Robbins' widely read Diet for a New America (Diet), this writer included. In late 1995, I made the switch to a vegan diet five years after reading Diet, Robbins' first book. Although I was slow to make the change to a completely plant-based diet, the compelling and comprehensive nature of Robbins' arguments played a very significant role in my decision. Robbins was the first writer I came across to effectively make the case that plant-based food choices could have far reaching effects not only on one's personal health, but on the health of the planet and its creatures. It helped too that Robbins life story is so compelling.
As the groomed heir to the Baskin-Robbins CEO position & heir to his father's fortune, Robbins walked away from both to pursue his own calling. He has led a life vastly altered from his ice-cream centered childhood and its great expectations. Add Robbins ability to story the true nature and beingness of animals that happen to be raised for food (cattle, chickens, pigs), and in turn contrast this nature with the inconceivably cruel conditions of the modern factory farm, and I was won in spirit, if not in action, immediately. It is as though my heart was broken and opened at once.
When Diet was released in 1987, the word vegan had been heard by few ears, vegetarians were still somewhat of an anomaly, factory farming was unknown by almost everyone, organic foods were still considered fringe, and Mad Cow Disease had yet to come to light. A lot has changed since then. In a sure-footed response to those changes, Robbins' latest book, The Food Revolution (to be released July 2001) revisits the groundbreaking work of Diet for a New America, and offers readers a timelier tome.
To a significant extent The Food Revolution is a well-researched counter to the misinformation and attack the animal products industries have made toward plant-based eating since Diet was released. Yet Robbins offers so much more than that. The Food Revolution is a fork warrior's call for a deeper understanding of the links of what we eat to many of the most profound problems of our world - hunger, global warming, animal and human rights, deforestation, rampant violence, cancer and heart disease, corporate control of our food supply, limitation of resources such as water and arable land, pollution, to name but a few. In his introduction Robbins says,
"I have written The Food Revolution to provide solid, reliable information for the struggle to achieve a world where the health of people and the earth community is more important than the profit margins of any industry, where basic human needs take precedence over corporate greed."1
One method Robbins uses to bring conflicting views to light is to juxtapose contradicting quotes under an "Is that So?" heading. For example he will have a quote made by someone in the meat or other industry followed by a quote from someone more likely to have the public interest at heart, not profits. The difference of view is often so stark that it leaves the industry spokesperson looking comically absurd:
Is That So?
"We must be eternally vigilant to guard against those who would undermine confidence in the health benefits of eating meat. If meat-eaters have higher blood pressure, it's from the stress of having to defend the perfectly reasonable desire to chow down on a thick sirloin against the misguided and intrusive efforts of the food police." - Sam Abramson, CEO, Springfield Meats.
"Blood pressure fell within hours of starting the (very low-fat vegan diet) McDougall Program. Twenty percent of the people were on blood pressure medications the day they began the program. In almost every case the medications were stopped that day. Yet the blood pressure dropped (significantly) by the second day. This data is from over 1,000 participants at the McDougall Program at St. Helena Hospital in the Napa Valley of California." - John McDougall, MD
Another format Robbins uses to provide evidence is titled: "What We Know." Under this heading, Robbins references medical or other research in distilled statements of facts that support whatever contentions he is making in the surrounding narrative. (See Side bar.)
What We Know
Gallons of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez: 12 million Gallons of animal waste spilled into the New River in North Carolina on June 21, 1995, when a "lagoon" holding 8 acres of hog excrement burst: 25 million Fish kiled as an immediate result: 10-14 million Fish whose breeding area was decimated by this diseaster: Half of all mid-east coast fish species. Acres of coastal wetlands cloased to shell fishing as a result: 364,000
Still it is the narrative that is the heart and bulk of this book, and Robbins is particularly effective when he is telling a personal story. I liked none better than his visit with a seemingly hard-hearted pig farmer who was never the same after meeting John Robbins. Nor was Robbins:
"I consider myself privileged to have spent that day with him (the pig farmer), and grateful that I was allowed to be a catalyst for the unfolding of his spirit. I know my presence served him in some way, but I also know, and know full well, that I received far more than I gave."
The pig farmer tale reveals much about the spirituality of Robbins and his mission. But it also lends itself to charges of sentimentality and "New-Agey", assessments Robbins' critics have made in the past. While I can agree Robbins is often a romantic, even sentimental writer, frankly it appeals to me on that level. Maybe its because romanticism is so counter-intuitive to the harsh realities of factory farms, degenerative disease, and environmental degradation - realities that Robbins devotes a lot of unromantic ink to. Maybe it is because his early life is such a storybook of enormous privilege turned 'round to service. Yes, I think even this romanticism is authentically Robbins. It comes out of who he really is, and it gives me hope for the future.
The Food Revolution is divided into four parts: Food and Healing; Animals; Our Food, Our World; Genetic Engineering
The first three parts revisit those issues Robbins first brought together in Diet for a New America. In persuasive detail they cover the three cornerstones of the case for a whole-foods, plant-based diet - vastly improved health, compassion toward animals, and the well being of our planet. For those who have read Diet this will be familiar ground. Still, even those readers are likely to find The Food Revolution an excellent and informative refresher. Robbins provides distilled, up-to-date information on these topics with sections on such things as food-borne illness, preventing cancer & heart disease, and a critique of the highly popular high-protein diets.
The last part on Genetic Engineering is an entirely new subject in Robbins writing. When Diet was written, the health and environmental threats of genetically-altered crops was not yet an issue. In fact, not a single genetically-modified seed had yet been commercially planted. This year 63% of the soy crop and two-thirds of the corn crop in the US will be planted with transgenic seeds. Robbins now warns of this rapid adaptation of genetically modified organisms (GMO's) as the opening of a "Pandora's Box." He joins with millions around the world as a deep skeptic of the GMO industry, and related US regulatory policy. Robbins unique contribution to this criticism is that he illuminates the extensive links between GMO's and the animal products industry. He points out that, "ninety-five percent of the soy meal grown in the United States, and almost that high a percentage of corn, are used as livestock feed." And it isn't just the animal feed.
"The animals themselves are being genetically engineered. The goal is to produce cattle, pigs, and chickens that are 'better suited' to the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of factory farming. Agribusiness dreams of pigs as large as hippopotamuses but as docile as slugs, and featherless chickens that won't need to be plucked and never peck."
Robbins contrasts this bed of horrors with another and much more hopeful agricultural trend Ð the rapid rise of organic farming and food production.
"By the turn of the millennium, more than 17 million acres worldwide were planted with organic foods...the number of acres dedicated to organic farming was ten times what it had been only ten year previous."
So which Food Revolution is Robbins referencing in his title? Is it the dominant corporate trends that are leading toward greater concentration into factory farms, and toward Monsanto's dream of 100% GMO foods; or the less pervasive, but still fast growing movement toward organic and plant-based food choices? Well, perhaps Robbins means to suggest that this is a revolution that each of us has the power of the folk to decide.
1. This and all quotes in text of article are taken from THE FOOD REVOLUTION by John Robbins, copyright 2001.
By Larry K. Fried