The Satya Interview with John
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 worlds hungry. I dont 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 its a very interesting situation. In The
Food Revolution I didnt 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 theyre telling the
public. What are they going to do, be angry with me for quoting them
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,
its 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 theres 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 peoples
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 Im 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 arent
supported by medical research and are in fact contradicted by scientific
Any responses from the biotech industry? You were particularly critical
I am critical, its true, particularly of one companyMonsanto.
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 safesafe
for public health and for the environmentand a key part of the
ad campaign is to convince the public that its an answer to world
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 thatthree
quartersis in the U.S. The rest of the world is saying no
to itAfrica, 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 Monsantos 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
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 theyre all about. Its 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 its going to take to make people wake
up to this issue in the States?
I think were starting to wake up. There are just these media
campaigns that keep us asleep. I think people are sick of being sick.
Theyre tired of having corporations shove foods down their throats
without telling them whats in them. In a recent poll, 50 percent
of the American public said that theyd never eaten genetically
engineered food. In fact, two thirds of the foods in our supermarkets
today contain genetically engineered ingredients. People dont
realize that theyre eating it because it isnt labeled. But
as they realize it, theyre pissed. When polled, 90 percent of
the American public say they want labeling. Its 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 wouldnt be 90, itd 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. Its very rich in that way. And
they dont want it tampered with for trivial reasons. Here, weve
developed a food culture that is basically a fast-food nation. Baskin
Robbins and McDonalds are everywhere and theyre 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 worlds problems. The GE issue aside,
how do you think people are going to change their unhealthy eating habits?
Americans arent exactly running to change their diets.
You know, a lot of people are experimenting. In the last few years,
weve seen different diets become very popular, like the Atkins
and Zone diets, and, more recently, the blood-type diet. Although I
dont 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 theyre eating isnt working for them.
I think that there is a revolution going onpeople 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. Its polluting
the biosphere, its generating tremendous amounts of toxic waste,
its really completely unsustainable and inhumane.
With The Food Revolution Im 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 benefitsgreater health, less disease, a
fitter body and so forthand do so in a way that is in harmony
with the planet and with our desires and prayers for a better future.
We dont have to choose between whats good for us and whats
good for the world. It turns out that whats 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: Im a vegetarian tooI dont eat meat, I just eat
it a couple times a week. [laughs] I mean, people want to be on
the bandwagon and thats good thing, because thats how social
forces shift. Whether well 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 thats 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, thats obscene. And yet were exporting
that: McDonalds is opening up restaurants hand over fist throughout
the developing worldpromoting this unhealthy diet that Americans
have developed as the symbol of our prosperity. I dont think the
answer to world hunger is McDonalds 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.
find that in every human being. One of the powers of the food revolution
is that its a way that people can express their caring and make
their life statements of compassion; and theres 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. Thats not because veal has become less tasty, its
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 whats 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. Thats a very high percentage. There has been this shift
where people realize: Whoah! We dont 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 theres no attempt to even meet their needs.
Theyre immobilized, usually in cages barely larger than their
bodies. The degree of cruelty is so obvious, so intense when you see
it. You dont have to be an animal rights activist or a vegetarian
to be appalled by it because its 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 repulsiveand its something
that theyre eating three times a daytheres a part
of them that just says No! Then they hear about Mad Cow disease and
E. Coli, and its clear that the very conditions that are so abominable
to the animals are also producing food thats 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. Its 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, its 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 someones actions get in the way of your relationship to their
soul. In other words, you might oppose what theyre 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 thats
precious; theres 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 wasnt necessary,
and you think God, could I have done something different, if Id
been more informed or more something, could I have saved them? And you
know, I couldnt save Mike. There are people that really are going
to do what theyre 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?
Its hard to sit back and just direct mindful loving-kindness
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 lovedevery
human being needs to be lovedbut this corporation thats
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 discussionto my amazementwas that he didnt
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 thats
true, Ill quit the board. Well, it is true.
Its one thing to deal with someone one-on-one and try to create
change that way. But sometimes massive corporations dont 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
with those feelings of frustration?
This is a difficult thing to do, but its important and useful
to put yourself for a moment in their shoes. Lets say youre
an executive of one of these companies, and youre 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, youre off the hook. But if they arent targeting you
personally and its the policies they want to change, then you
dont feel so threatened. When people feel threatened or attacked,
they tend to recoil and get very defensive, they tend to get hardenedwhen
I say they Im referring to me toonone of us
are at our best when we are terrified.
I dont 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 its 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. Theres 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
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 dont 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
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
I think that today, a lot of the problem is that the dots arent
connected so were looking at this page of life and were
seeing something that looks random and chaotic and its very easy
to feel divided in dealing with this. Someone says, the problems
over here and someone else says, no, its over here!
Youre a dot and Im 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 others
hand and realize the common denominator that unifies us, thats
when we really move into our poweras a movement and as individuals.
Thats when we find each other as supports. Were part of
a whole picture and we need to see each other that wayas allies
rather than competitors. That is why it is so important to connect
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. Its
used as an instrument of oppression. It becomes something thats
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 worlds food resources. When the food resources of the world
are shunted into meeting the desires or indulgences of the worlds
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 thats 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, weve
got the best system for that [laughs]. But if you wanted to save forests,
we dont 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
were 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.
Were right now in the midst of the sixth great wave of species
extinction thats ever been on this planet and its the fastest
of them all. Its absolutely clear that this particular one is
not caused by a meteorite from outer space, its 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 weve tried
to dominate and control nature and done such a great job at harming
Whats 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
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 weve been treating our mother with
indifference at best, if not disdain. And thats not sustainable.
So many people are waking up to thiseverybody knows that the
environment is deteriorating rapidly. Almost everybody knows now that
production of animals is just hideously cruel.
We as a people bestow legitimacy on certain things. With furs and with
veal, weve 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 withdrawndespite their efforts. Thats 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 thats 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