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Part I: John Robbins
Groomed to follow in the footsteps of his father, John Robbins chose a different path for himself, becoming a social activist and fierce advocate for plant-strong diets and compassionate living. John Robbins is the author of The Food Revolution, Diet for a New America, Reclaiming Our Health, Healthy at 100 and The New Good Life. His life and work have been featured on the PBS special Diet for a New America, and he has won numerous awards for his pioneering work, including the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award, and Green American’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He lives with his family in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
LISTEN to an earlier interview on June 30, 2010 with John Robbins on IT’S ALL ABOUT FOOD.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Here we are, October 9, 2012. I wanted to let you know that during the month of October, which is vegetarian awareness month and also a lot of other things, it’s also the fundraising month for Responsible Eating And Living, the non-profit that I founded. I just wanted to let you know about it: you can visit the website responsibleeatingandliving.com, go to the donate button, and read our “REAL appeal” to find out what we’re up to and how you can help. Also, you can send me an email at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. Okay? Now let’s get to the program today. We have a couple of great guests and I want to start with our first, John Robbins – groomed to follow in the footsteps of his father, he chose a different path for himself, becoming a social activist and fierce social advocate for plant-strong diets and compassionate living. John Robbins is the author of Food Revolution, Diet for a New America, Reclaiming Our Health, Healthy at 100, and The New Good Life. His life and work has been featured on a PBS special (Diet for a New America), and he has won numerous awards for his pioneering work, including the Rachel Carson award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian award, the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He lives with his family in the Santa Cruz mountains, and we’re going to talk about his newest book – No Happy Cows. Hi John.
John Robbins: Hi Caryn, glad to be here with you.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, I’m glad to hear your voice. Okay, so let’s talk about this latest book. One of the things I love about your writing is you can talk about some of the worst, most horrific things that are going on in this planet today, and yet you do it in a voice that is so inviting and so calming and so full of compassion. I don’t know how you do it.
John Robbins: Well, I think I learned that when you shut your eyes to reality, you invite destruction. We somehow have to find a way to keep our eyes and hearts open to the anguish that’s taking place in our world if we’re going to respond to it in a healthy way and a positive way and a productive way. And if we don’t do that, if we go into denial and just shut down in the face of things – it’s tempting to do that, but if we collapse, it’s really not acceptance, it’s resignation. We become diminished, and we aren’t able to respond. And I think there is within each of us a desire to somehow use suffering and use the difficulties that are part of our world and part of our lives to become stronger people and to become capable of resilience and creativity and to reply to what goes on that needs to be changed. I’m here really to support people in finding ways to transform the anguish, the difficulty, the suffering, into positive action.
Caryn Hartglass: Well you’ve been very good at that and I don’t even know if you have the idea of how many people you have actually touched and how many seeds you have planted to do this positive action. Throughout history there have been people that have been speaking out about what humans do to other people and other life on earth, and there have always been these great humanitarians risking all kinds of things just to get this information out. I think in our decade, or our century, you are definitely one of those people that they will write about in the future about really stepping up and spreading this message in such a powerful way.
John Robbins: Well thank you, Caryn. I do agree with you, there have been people in history that have spoken for and represented the oneness of life, the interdependence of life, that we aren’t so separate from one another as we are often taught to think. But I think now, the survival of our civilization depends on not just a few people being spokespersons for our interconnectedness, but a lot of us realizing that is an essential fact of our lives, and finding ways to act so that that awareness can spread and develop and emerge into ever-more people. It really needs to become the central organizing force of our society.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s talk a little bit more about No Happy Cows. I think everyone should pick this book up; it’s really easy to read, it’s got lots of articles in here but they really get to the core of what’s going on in the world today. So the first thing I want to talk about, is when people talk about eating plant foods versus animal foods, the old-fashioned question has been forever, “Where do you get your proteins?” But there have been other questions that have popped up since then, and a big one is this controversy around soy, and you really did a pretty good job of analyzing soy. I thought we might talk a little bit about that – why has soy become such a demon food in some people’s minds?
John Robbins: Well, it has been demonized. And there are, of course, people who are allergic to it, but there isn’t very many. What actually has happened are two things that have made soy problematic: one, is that almost the entire soy crop in the United States today is genetically engineered. It’s Monsanto, round-up-ready soybeans. If you’re going to buy a soy product, you need to get it organic or else it’s going to be – without being labeled as such – genetically engineered. The extent to which our soy crop has become genetically engineered is just overwhelming, other than the organic. So people are having reactions to soy products that they didn’t used to have. The truth is that it isn’t the soy product itself, it’s what we’ve done by genetically modifying the soybeans that is creating these many fold kind of disturbances. Secondly, as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve isolated the soybeans – we’re processing them in all kinds of ways – and we’re isolating the protein and we’re texturizing it, and we’re doing things to it, and we’re taking the oil out of it, and we’re processing that oil, and we’re refining that oil and putting it into things. It’s a cheap product, it’s subsidized by the government, because most of our soy product goes to livestock feed. So it’s heavily subsidized by those interests that want the meat industry and the dairy industry to be able to buy cheap feed, namely cheap soy. So, as it becomes very cheap and is used all over the place and all our processed foods are full of isolated, processed, genetically modified soy ingredients. And people are having reactions to this; people are having responses in their digestive tract, in their immune system, in their respiratory system, they’re having auto-immune response. It’s creating havoc.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s hard to pinpoint the one thing, because people eat so many different things that have all kinds of manufactured foods in them.
John Robbins: It is, it is very hard. But the fact remains that organic whole soy products are fine. And yeah, you don’t want to eat anything but them; you’d be an idiot if you ate nothing but broccoli. But soy is a healthy food. For most of us, a shift from meat and dairy products and eggs as our primary source of protein, including some soy, organic soy products, is one of the healthiest steps we can take. So, the demonization of soy has some grounds, but there is a way to circumvent the difficulties, and that is to buy whole soy, and organic soy products. And then you don’t subject yourself to those problems.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s so many things going on that really make people confused and concerned about our food system and how it’s connected to lobbyist and corporate interest and how it’s not connected to our own personal health. I just wonder how is it we were fortunate enough to get the organic certification, and people argue that there are problems with that too, but at least we know if something has the organic certification label that it’s not genetically modified. We got one little label in there.
John Robbins: Yes, and we got that because a lot of people worked very, very hard for that. And there’s been a lot of efforts to water it down, to dilute it, erode it, to include as organic things like sewage sludge, genetically engineered foods, irradiated foods – those efforts though to water it down have been defeated by the effort of groups like the Organic Consumer’s Association and a lot of other people who have worked really hard. Our political system is quite broken, we all know that, sometimes frankly when I listen to our politicians I feel that I need to take a shower afterwards. It’s really polluted.
Caryn Hartglass: If you haven’t fallen asleep first.
John Robbins: Yeah, the level of truth isn’t very high, usually. And yet, it’s the only political process we have, and it can, when enough of us work hard on it, we can get some things done, and we did in the case you’re referring to. And we do have an Organic Standards board, and we do have Organic Standards certification, and it means something. It’s got teeth and we can trust it.
Caryn Hartglass: So speaking of demons, you talk about the monster Monsanto a number of times in your book. And there’s this proposition in California, number 37, which will go to the ballots in November, about genetically modified labeling, and you’re in California. How’s that going so far?
John Robbins: I’m traveling all over the state – I’m driving and flying all over the state these days – doing fundraisers and events for Proposition 37. It is leading in the polls right now. Unfortunately, the LA Times came out yesterday against it. The Grocery Manufacture’s Association, which sells a lot of processed foods, put a lot of pressure on the times. They represent their biggest advertisers. So, money talk: Monsanto was pouring money into this, as was the Biotech Industry Organization, as is Pepsi and Coke; these companies that use high-fructose corn syrup which is made from genetically modified corn, and other sweeteners made from genetically modified corn, they don’t want people to know which foods are in fact genetically modified; they don’t want labeling. So the money is very – they’re outspending us about 20 to 1. And yet, the polls show it passing still, so it’s gonna be a fight. I think it has a very good chance. And really what it comes down to is the right to know. We’re not trying to outlaw genetically modified foods. We’re just trying to give consumers the right to know which foods are and which foods aren’t genetically modified. And in this case, I don’t think ignorance is bliss; I think ignorance is subordination. Subservience to Monsanto’s plan to control the food supply without anyone raising a finger, or raising an eyebrow, or certainly preventing their efforts from succeeding. They want to profit and exploit the food supply, and they’re doing so, and this is a way to stop them, they know that. Monsanto is really a terrible company, and I’ll just give you one example. When the first genetically engineered product entered the food supply, was Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone that they sold to dairies, large dairies, who would inject it into the dairy cows, and the result is the cows would give much more milk. Their udders get quite enlarged, some of them almost drag on the ground; they get distended, full of pus; they get mastitis, inevitably, which is an udder infection. It is so predictable that cows injected with bovine growth hormone with get mastitis, that when Monsanto delivers the genetically engineered hormone to the dairies, in the same package come the antibiotics Monsanto also used to treat the mastitis which, invariably, the cows develop. It makes them sick, and then residues from those drugs end up in the milk, pus ends up in the milk, possibly even more significantly, antibiotic resistant bacteria build up in the milk, and this is undermining our medicines. There are a lot of reasons to not use the hormone is dairy production – but what happened was when Monsanto introduced this product and got the larger dairies to use it, some smaller dairies refused to do so. They put it on their labels, accurately, “Not Made With Bovine Genetic Growth Hormone,” or “BGH Free,” or different phrases that accurately told the public that their cheese or their yogurt or their ice cream wasn’t made form cows that had been injected with Monsanto’s hormone. Monsanto then sued these dairies for the crime of informing the public accurately that they weren’t using the product on the grounds that by labeling their products accurately, they were unfairly stigmatizing Monsanto’s product. And although that may somehow seem like a ludicrous and absurd argument, Monsanto is so big, and they’re such thugs, honestly, that they bully and intimidate the dairies and the dairies would go out of business trying to fight Monsanto’s legal machine.
Caryn Hartglass: And Monsanto always wins.
John Robbins: Monsanto would win because they’re so big and so powerful, financially. So they fought the right to know by literally exterminating those small dairies that tried to do things in a natural way, and to let the people of the public know that they were doing that. And they stopped suing dairies now just because there’s so many doing it, but it just is an example of how committed they are to fighting our right to know. And then the current example of course is the California proposition. Earlier this year, both Vermont and Connecticut came within a hair’s breadth of passing legislation and putting it into effect that would have mandated labeling of GMOs in their states. In both cases though, Monsanto threatened to sue the states. In one case it was a governor; in the other case it was a key representative on the committee. They backed down because they didn’t want to settle the citizens of those states with the legal bills that would be required.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s just amazing how they get away with it.
John Robbins: Yeah, they actually intimidated states. Now, Vermont and Connecticut are small, relatively speaking. California though – the size of California’s economy is massive compared to those states, and that is not a tactic that Monsanto can get away with in the case of California. In California, also, interestingly, is one of the remaining states that has this ballot initiation process which can be misused – but in this case, it’s the right use of it – and if it passes, which we’ll know on November 6th – and I’m working my butt off, Caryn, to get this passed – because if it does get passed, it’s going to set a precedent for the country.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely.
John Robbins: California’s economy is so big that it could spread through the whole –
Caryn Hartglass: So much of our food comes from California.
John Robbins: That’s right, that’s right. And that’s why Monsanto is spending tens of millions of dollars on this.
Caryn Hartglass: Crazy, really crazy. Well, that’s humans for you. I want to believe like you said earlier that we all have it within us to do positive action, but many of us live in denial. And somehow that drug of money can influence so many people in not very nice ways. All the stories, all the articles, are very good in here – the one that really got me is the chocolate story. I remember when you first wrote about slavery and chocolate, maybe a decade ago; I’m not sure how long ago it was, but I was not happy to read the updates.
John Robbins: I know, well, there’s a more recent update that you will be happy about.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh good, I need some good news.
John Robbins: Just this week, just a couple of days ago actually, Hershey’s finally agreed to end slavery – well, not buy cocoa – in African fields where child slaves are used. And Hershey’s has been the last big chocolate company to hold out against us, and it has been a big deal that they have finally agreed. Now, we’re going to have to watch over them and make sure that they keep their word, but the fact that they made the commitment, up until now they have refused. People may not know what we’re talked about, but I’ll just say real briefly that a good deal, about 40% of the world’s cocoa, comes from the Ivory Coast – a very poor African nation – and unfortunately, tragically, a large amount of child slaves are actually used in the cocoa fields there. They are abducted from their homes in adjacent countries or stolen or in some cases purchased; there are promises made to their families which are not even remotely what takes places; it’s an ugly, ugly, brutal story of children being not just mistreated or abused, but literally enslaved and killed in the production of chocolate, this food that we associate with pleasure and happiness. It’s just one of the tragedies that’s taking place on out planet today. But there’s been a lot of people trying to expose this, and educate people, and particularly to get the large cocoa companies in this country to stop sourcing there, by using their buying-cloud, to eliminate this practice. We’ve been working at this for many, many years, and we’ve gotten some headway. Hershey’s was the most intractable country; for some reason they just wouldn’t do the right thing.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s just mind-blowing to me – the people in the top positions who are clearly affluent and have power, how they support something like this; I just don’t understand it.
John Robbins: They see things so strictly through the balance sheet. They justify it that it’s their responsibility to their shareholders, that profit is what they’re in business to produce, and they don’t look at the larger bottom line of the impact on the world. But when their own shareholders start to demand change and they fight it, well on whose behalf are they fighting it on? The shareholders are demanding the change. And that’s what we’ve done with Hershey’s and we’ve finally got a shift here.
Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s really good news. I have so many memories about Hershey’s – and of course I haven’t had any Hershey’s chocolate in a long time, a very long time – but as a kid on Halloween, when we got a Hershey bar in our trick-or-treat bag, that was a major score; that was the best thing you could get. And then my parents took us for a trip to Lancaster County, and the Hershey factory is there – it was so delightful to see these giant vats of gooey, luscious chocolate just churning away, and the little soldiers of candy kisses – just lovely memories – and to know that’s all sprinkled with pain and suffering of children.
John Robbins: Yeah, you know, I love dark chocolate in moderate amounts, and I get it organic – by the way, if it’s organic, you know that it’s not slave-grown or slave-produced in any way.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good news.
John Robbins: Yeah; I also get fair trade chocolate when I can, because that’s an additional positive thing. But getting it organic simply means that it won’t be tainted by slavery. And dark chocolate has many wonderful nutrients and nutritional benefits. You’ve got to be careful though, because as chocolate gets more sugar in it and more fat added to it, like in milk chocolate. But dark chocolate is a pleasure that i allow myself to enjoy.
Caryn Hartglass: And we all should.
John Robbins: We need healthy pleasures.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely.
John Robbins: I think we need to have pleasures and things that enrich our lives that don’t destroy us, don’t impair our ability to live with power and resilience and creativity and joy – and don’t have impacts; their production systems aren’t exploiting the world or damaging the environment or harming people or brutalizing animals. We can have healthy pleasures that are produced in a way that has harmony and respect for life. That’s where we need to go.
Caryn Hartglass: Tell me about the Food Revolution Network.
John Robbins: Well that’s a powerful thing. We have over 35,000 members now; something that my son Ocean and I have created together. People can learn about it at foodrevolution.org. We’re doing some remarkable things; we’ve had twelve different New York Times #1 bestselling authors that I’ve interviewed in the last little while; we had a summit where we had over 35,000 participants; we’re basically trying to spread the word about what a healthy diet really is. If you get more and more of your nutrients, your proteins, your fats, your carbs, and all your vital chemicals and vitamins and antioxidants and all the wonderful things food can give you to make your life healthy and good from plants instead of animals, very often, the health-giving properties are enhanced, the negative properties are diminished, the environmental effects are much more positive, there isn’t the cruelty that’s involved in meat-production. There’s just so many benefits to moving to a plant-strong diet. You feel better, you’re leaner, we reduce our risks of heart disease and cancer and diabetes and obesity and so many of the other problems – dementia, and other problems that plague our society today. And we feel better; we’re stronger our minds our clearer, our emotions are more serene, workable – and instead of our bodies being something we drag through life, they become the ways that we express ourselves and fountains of understanding of one another. There’s a possibility for the growth of empathy, and higher consciousness, frankly, on a plant-strong diet. This is one of the secrets that people don’t talk about. When you start eating a plant-strong diet and get away from these animal fats that clog up your bloodstream and weigh you down, your mind becomes sharper and more lucid. Your energy goes to a higher frequency; your energy to empathize and connect with other people, with other beings, increases. What happens through all of this is that your engagement with life goes to another level, and you actually become a more conscious person; a more awake, more aware person. I think that for a lot of us, that’s part of the purpose of life; that is really what is fulfilling and joyful.
Caryn Hartglass: I like to tell people that they don’t know how good they can feel by just changing what they eat. They don’t even know!
John Robbins: I know, it’s so true – they don’t know, and they won’t find out, and it so frustrating when they don’t find out because they won’t make the shift to just experiment and try it for a while to see how it works for you and what it does for you and what you might gain from it. The entrenched interests that keep us believing that we must eat animal protein to be healthy, there are no scientific ground for that; it’s just marketing, it’s just the entrenched interests of industry. We need, deeply, an actual liberation for ourselves. We need to extract ourselves form that captivity and become free people.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s happening in the United States – I’m very happy for the Internet because that’s the way this message is getting out at an exponential level, more people are catching on; the thing is that it’s not catching on, really, outside the United States. Certainly in Europe, there’s a lot going on, but we see as the developing nations become more affluent, they’re starting from the point where we were a long time ago; they’re not using the most state-of-the-art information.
John Robbins: I know, it’s sad – they’re following in our footsteps on this path of destruction. Just to give one example that I’m very familiar with, Baskin Robbins now has more stores in Tokyo than it does in Los Angeles, which is where it originated.
Caryn Hartglass: And when were Asians eating dairy?
John Robbins: Exactly; it’s not part of their traditional cuisine. And in fact, most Asians are lactose intolerant. It’s not a part of the food supply that they grew up with and evolved with at all. They get all kind of health problems as a result, but they like the taste. Right now, KFC is making more money in China than it makes in the United States.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
John Robbins: All of these fast food enterprises – Taco Bell, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Baskin Robbins – all of them are going to Asia because there is a huge market there. Their advertising is massive. I am interviewed often by publications in those countries who are trying to raise awareness. And I say to the people, as an American, as a member of the Baskin Robbins family, even, I implore you – don’t buy Baskin Robbins, don’t buy any ice cream or feed it to your kids, because it will make them sick and fat; it will make them unhealthy; it will undermine the beauty of their lives and it will reduce their self-esteem; it will make life harder for them; and it’s not worth it for the momentary pleasure of eating that dessert.
Caryn Hartglass:And there are so many other wonderful plant-based desserts out there that aren’t doing any harm to the planet or to our bodies.
John Robbins: They really are. And ice cream, in particular, if you are an ice cream junkie – and I was at one time, it was a long time ago, but I was, and probably at the level that most people would not be able to grasp – but I did eat ice cream for breakfast growing up. But there are many frozen dessert now that are made without dairy – some of them are coconut-milk based, almond-milk based, and they’re so much better for you. They don’t have the dairy products in them, so they don’t have the allergenic responses that you get to the dairy proteins. They don’t have the saturated fats, they types that are in dairy that cause so much trouble. They’re really better for you. They don’t involve cruelty to dairy cows and veal calves and so forth that is implicit in modern industrial dairy production, so there are so many advantages to them – and frankly, when you make the shift, they taste better.
Caryn Hartglass: I hear that all the time. My friends that are moving to more plants and less animals, they talk to me and tell me how foods that they used to love, when they try them again as a treat, they don’t feel good or taste as good. We could talk about this all day John, and I usually do, but it’s the end of this segment and I would like to thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food. Everybody go and get No Happy Cows – let’s go and make all the cows on this planet happy!
John Robbins: Thank you, Caryn. Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay! I’m Caryn Hartglass; you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. We”re going to take a very quick break and in a minute we’ll be back with Mark Reinfeld and the Taste of Europe.
Transcribed by Sarah Brown, 3/19/2013