As a vegetarian, I thought I already knew the inside dirt on animal husbandry, but my knowledge didn’t prepare me for the onslaught of shame and sadness I experienced when I read John Robbins’s Diet for a New America (Still Point). I found it hard to believe that the situation had gotten so bad. I cried harder than I had in years.

As Robbins points out, you don’t have to be an animal activist, or even an animal lover, to be appalled, horrified, and outraged by what occurs every day in factory farms all over the country. His description of factory farming reads like a science-fiction horror story, a prophetic warning of terrible things to come. But the fact is, it’s been going on for years.

An heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice-cream fortune, John Robbins surfaced from his family’s gene pool like some strange new mutation — a thirty-second flavor destined to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the National Dairy Council. In his bestseller Diet for a New America and his second book, May All Be Fed (W. Morrow), he makes clear the link between our food habits and the health of our planet, our bodies, and our souls. Robbins is also the founder of the nonprofit organization EarthSave, which aims to educate the public about health, nutrition, and sustainable energy consumption. To contact Robbins, write to 420 Bronco Road, Soquel, CA 95073. For more information about EarthSave, call (800) 362-3648.

David Jay Brown and I interviewed Robbins at his home in Felton, California. He had the buoyant, contagious manner of a person who is living true to his conscience, and spoke with passionate sincerity. Though in his midforties, he still looked like a schoolboy: wide blue eyes, elfin face, and a smile that radiated childlike innocence. Seeing him, I thought, This is the man at the top of the Meat and Dairy Board’s most-wanted list?

— Rebecca McClen Novick


Brown: How did growing up in “the heart of the American food machine,” as you’ve called it, motivate you to write Diet for a New America?

Robbins: There was a tremendous need in my family to deny any link between diet and health. I understood this denial, given that the family’s livelihood was involved, but I could feel the pressure of it like a lid on top of me. As I grew up and reached beyond the assumptions and values of my parents, I encountered a lot of information that was taboo to them. For a while, I was living two lives: On the one hand, I was being groomed by my father to succeed him, being trained in running the factory, in merchandising and franchising and all the other aspects of the business. On the other hand, I was questioning and challenging everything I’d been taught. It was as if there were two separate worlds. In one world, life was about material success, and in the other, life was about the heart. In one world, ice cream made people happy, and in the other, ice cream was high in saturated fat and cholesterol and contributed to diabetes and heart disease.

Novick: So it was more of a slow unraveling than a revelatory flash?

Robbins: There were moments that catalyzed me. When I was a senior in high school, I was offered scholarships to Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, but I chose not to go to those schools because I would have remained in the company of the privileged few. I chose to go to the University of California at Berkeley instead, which was then fairly inexpensive. I thought it would be an opportunity to meet people outside the very narrow socioeconomic group that I’d grown up in.

At Berkeley, I immediately became involved in the free-speech movement, the civil-rights movement, and the antiwar movement. It was an incredible time to be alive. I took the civil-rights movement very personally. When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, I felt as if a bullet had gone through my heart, too. After that, the idea of going back to business as usual just felt ludicrous and empty.

Novick: How do members of your family feel about what you’re doing now?

Robbins: It’s hard for them. They don’t feel comfortable with it — except my father. When I left the business, he was very hurt, of course. He respected my sincerity, but he felt that I was crazy to walk away from an opportunity to be extremely wealthy in order to do . . . what? I couldn’t explain it in terms that made sense to him.

When my uncle died of a heart attack in the late sixties, I said to my dad, “Do you think there could be any connection between the amount of ice cream that Uncle Bert ate and his heart attack?” He said, “Absolutely not. His ticker just got tired.”

Then, not too many years ago, my dad’s health became precarious. His cholesterol was high. He had very high blood pressure, for which he had to take ten pills a day. His diabetes was getting worse. So my dad made changes in his diet, and he saw tremendous improvement in his own health. His cholesterol dropped to 150. His blood pressure came down so much that he had to take only one pill every other day. His diabetes went into complete remission. His circulation improved tremendously, and he lost a lot of weight. Even his golf game improved.

We used to argue all the time, and I remember him saying to me, “Look, you’re an idealist, and that’s very nice when you’re young, but you have to grow up and get over it in order to be successful. It’s too bad, but that’s the way it is.” Recently he said to me, “Thank God some of us have lived long enough to learn a few new things.”

Novick: Could you describe, for those who aren’t aware of them, some of the conditions you have witnessed in factory farms all over America?

Robbins: Rather than point to the worst places, I’ll just describe the industry norms:

Veal calves — male calves born to dairy cows — are taken away from their mothers at birth. As baby mammals, they desperately want to suckle, but they’re not allowed to. Instead, they are chained at the neck in stalls so tiny they can’t take a single step in their entire, short lives. They stand knee-deep in their own excrement, wailing and crying for their mothers. They’re fed a diet deficient in iron to make their meat lighter, because people think lighter meat is healthier; really it’s just the flesh of a tortured baby animal. Some calves die or go blind from anemia before they’re four months old, which is when they’re slaughtered.

Standard operating procedure for layer hens, which produce our eggs, is to cram them so tightly into cages that the birds can’t even lift a wing. The floors of the cages are mesh, and their claws constantly get stuck. Broilers — birds bred for meat — are kept in warehouses where they never see the light of day. The factory farmers then manipulate the birds’ hormonal responses with fluorescent lights to get the maximum possible weight gain in the shortest possible time. They also mix antibiotics into the feed and spray them into the air the chickens breathe.

Beef cattle stand on cement for the second half of their lives, penned in so that they can hardly move. And they’re implanted with artificial hormones — we’re the only industrialized nation that still does this, and we do it to 99 percent of our beef cattle.

Hogs are kept in individual stalls three tiers high. Again, the cages are extremely small. The excrement from pigs in the upper stalls drops down onto the heads of the ones below. Contrary to popular belief, hogs don’t like to be dirty and never soil their own bedding under normal conditions. They also have extremely sensitive noses to enable them to smell edible roots through the earth. Here, the piles of their own excrement give off an unbelievable stench.

We shouldn’t forget that we all take life in order to live. When you separate people into carnivores and noncarnivores, violent and nonviolent, and you stand in one camp and point a finger in judgment at the other, you’re only creating more violence.

Brown: How can we prevent this kind of cruelty?

Robbins: We have to learn to respect the web of life on this planet, and also respect ourselves and our own needs as animals. People who don’t treat themselves well won’t treat the world well, either. If we smoke and pollute our own lungs, for example, we won’t be as sensitive to air pollution from smokestacks. A society that looks at a forest and measures its worth in board feet objectifies the forest and sees its value only in terms of revenue. That mentality encourages us to look at another human being and say, “How can I put that person to work for the glorification of my own ego and the expansion of my wealth?” There’s no cherishing involved.

Novick: So if we develop greater respect for ourselves and one another, then that will spill over into a greater respect for all forms of life?

Robbins: Yes, and vice versa. I know many people who’ve been traumatized and are no longer able to love other human beings — but they can love an animal, and through that love they sometimes learn to care about other people again.

Novick: But most people who have intimate relationships with their cats or dogs feel differently about a cow or a pig that’s lying on their plate.

Robbins: We call some animals pets and other animals dinner because our culture says that some animals are part of our circle of compassion and others are not. To some extent, an animal that is destined for human consumption is exempt from the laws restricting cruelty to animals. In other words, you can do anything you want to an animal as long as you’re going to eat it. There are Filipino communities in the United States whose members carry on their cultural tradition of eating dogs, and many people who don’t think twice about the treatment of veal calves find it very objectionable to see a dog treated that way.

Brown: Some people believe that plants are conscious beings. Is eating the corpses of plants less objectionable than eating the corpses of animals?

Robbins: First of all, it takes sixteen pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. It takes one pound of grain to make one pound of bread. So you’re consuming fewer plants by eating them directly than you would be if you were eating animals, and thus you’re allowing more of the biomass of the planet to survive. Secondly, I’ve harvested cabbages and pulled carrots out of the ground, and I’ve been in slaughterhouses and seen the animals having their brains bashed out with sledgehammers and their throats cut. The experiences are not comparable. The animals do everything they can to resist: they fight, they scream. They have nervous systems with pain receptors. They have souls. They want to live. I think that plants have group souls, but I don’t think that taking an individual plant life compares to the violence of killing an animal.

It’s a matter of degree, of course. We shouldn’t forget that we all take life in order to live. When you separate people into carnivores and noncarnivores, violent and nonviolent, and you stand in one camp and point a finger in judgment at the other, you’re only creating more violence. I think there’s been a great deal of holier-than-thou attitude among vegetarians, and it’s created a backlash, because no one wants to be made to feel guilty or ashamed.

Novick: When Native Americans killed a buffalo, they acknowledged and atoned for the act. In many parts of the world where people hunt for food, there is still that respect for the animal as a sacred and conscious being. How do you think we lost that connection?

Robbins: Western civilization. [Laughter.] When we watch television, for example, we’re extremely removed from real experience. All we’re doing is looking and hearing; we’re not smelling or tasting or feeling. We’ve isolated ourselves from nature, and from our own nature.

Novick: Someone presented with this information about the way factory-farm animals are treated might say, “That’s terrible, but I also have to worry about whether my furniture is made from rain-forest wood and whether my phone company is funding political extremists. It’s all too much.”

Robbins: Vegetarianism is like a social acupuncture point, a spot where a minimum amount of effort produces a maximum amount of benefit for the whole system. Our food choices affect everything from the suffering of animals, to the biosphere, to our own health and ability to function. The good that can come from conscious food choices is profound, and, by the same token, the evil that can stem from unconscious food choices is immense. Alerting people to the consequences of their food choices enables them to make wiser choices, ones that are congruent with their purposes, and their heart’s desires.

You mentioned the rain forest. Every fast-food hamburger made from beef raised in a clear-cut rain forest represents the destruction of fifty-five square feet of forest. None of us would ever go out and clear-cut a rain forest, but we would eat a hamburger. In effect, by the laws of economics, our hands are on the chain saws.

Brown: In Biosphere 2, the experimental self-contained earth environment, the consequences of the occupants’ actions were immediately apparent. If they put a toxin down their sink, they would find it the next day in their drinking water. In the larger environment, however, we apparently don’t see the consequences until it’s too late.

Robbins: We are a nearsighted species, which was fine when our numbers were small. But now there are so many more of us, and the impact of what we do is multiplied again and again by technology. Long-range consciousness is now a survival imperative.

Novick: What’s your opinion of testing products on animals?

Robbins: In general, I do not condone research on animals. We don’t condone research on people who aren’t conscious of the dangers, and to my knowledge no animal has ever signed a consent form.

Brown: But let’s say the loss of several animals’ lives could save the lives of many humans.

Robbins: I’m not a purist. I think that 99 percent of animal research is unnecessary, and in many cases cruel. Whether the remaining 1 percent is something I could support remains to be seen. But I say, Let’s clean up that 99 percent first, and then we’ll talk about the other 1 percent and see whether that can be done in a way that maximizes the scientific value and minimizes the suffering to animals.

Novick: What are some of the health differences between meat-eaters and vegetarians?

Robbins: The differences are staggering. The average vegetarian lives seven and a half years longer than the average meat-eater. A study conducted at Cornell University found that every time people eat meat, they lose eleven minutes off their life span. But it’s not just the length of life that’s affected — it’s the quality. A meat-eater’s cardiovascular system slowly clogs up. The arteries harden, the blood pressure rises, the circulation is impaired, and the flow of oxygen and nutrition to all the organs is compromised. So there is a reduction in the quality of life, as well.

The leading cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease. People who eat the standard American diet stand more than a 50 percent chance of dying from hardening of the arteries, whereas vegetarians have a 15 percent chance of dying from heart disease, and vegans have less than a 5 percent chance. When doctors do autopsies on people who’ve had heart attacks and take out what was clogging the artery, they invariably find the same thing: saturated fat and cholesterol. No one yet has found broccoli and brown rice! One hundred percent of the cholesterol we take into our bodies and 70 percent of the saturated fat comes from animal fats.

Novick: What mistakes do vegetarians sometimes make in their food choices?

Robbins: One mistake is to think that if you stop eating meat you’re now exempt from having to change other aspects of your life — as if vegetarianism alone cured everything. It’s such a powerful, maverick thing to do that people sometimes think they can just stop there. I also see some vegetarians eating a lot of dairy products: yogurt, cheese, ice cream. They substitute dairy products for meat to try to keep their protein levels high. Our culture has a protein obsession.

Novick: Where did this obsession come from?

Robbins: The original protein experiments, in 1971, were done on rats and mice. Rats need a lot of protein. Rat mother’s milk is 47 percent protein. Human mother’s milk is 5 percent protein. A baby rat gains weight rapidly on a certain pattern of amino acids very close to that found in eggs and, to a lesser extent, in meat and dairy products. When Frances Moore Lappe wrote Diet for a Small Planet, the egg pattern was the ideal. She pointed out that, by combining grains and beans and other vegetable proteins, you can get a pattern that approaches the egg. In subsequent editions of her book, however, she said that her emphasis on protein had been mistaken. Our protein needs are much lower than we thought.

Novick: In Diet for a New America you quote numerous studies, conducted by leading medical authorities and health institutions all over the world, that show meat consumption to be a major health hazard. How is it that this information remains relatively underground?

Robbins: You have to understand how the medical establishment works. It’s as if the major cause of death were people falling off cliffs. At the bottom we have stationed the most expensive and sophisticated system of ambulances in the world, but we haven’t erected fences at the tops of the cliffs. As a matter of fact, the companies that manufacture the ambulances and the people who drive them would like to see laws passed to forbid the erection of fences.

The medical establishment has a built-in investment in illness. Of course, no doctor wants his or her patient to get sick. But the pharmaceutical industry profits from disease. Sick people are a market. Invent a pill that will lower blood pressure, and you can make a great deal of money; but teach people how to eat so that their blood pressure will not be high in the first place, and it’s an uphill battle to make a living. The pharmaceutical companies support and endow the medical schools, where the average student gets two and a half hours of course work in nutrition over four years.

It’s as if the major cause of death were people falling off cliffs. At the bottom we have stationed the most expensive and sophisticated system of ambulances in the world, but we haven’t erected fences at the tops of the cliffs.

Novick: What are the meat and dairy industries doing to counter the information that is getting through to the public?

Robbins: Oh, a great deal. The situation is comparable to what happened in the tobacco industry ten or fifteen years ago. As information about the dangers of smoking finally made its way to the public, the first thing the companies did was step up their public-relations and advertising campaigns, trying to confuse the issue.

In meat and dairy advertising, there is no attempt to show where products come from. The industry agenda is to keep the veil in place. McDonald’s, in its Saturday-morning commercials, tells children that hamburgers grow in “hamburger patches.” When I first saw that, I thought it was just an innocent fantasy, but there’s nothing innocent about it. It’s a deliberate ploy to obscure the reality that hamburgers are ground-up cows. If hamburgers grew on plants, they would be vegetables. These ads are aimed at children because they are uniquely sensitive to animals.

Novick: What else are the meat and dairy industries doing to hide from children the moral and biological consequences of consuming their products?

Robbins: They undertake “educational” programs in schools, in which the literature — provided free of charge — paints a camouflaged picture of the actual situation. In it, all the animals have names like Bessie and are treated with care. The National Dairy Council produces school films with titles like A Visit to Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen’s Dairy Farm. The films make dairy farming look idyllic, as if the animals were just part of the family. The contrast between that depiction and the actual reality of dairy cows — penned in, not allowed to graze, and pumped up with drugs — is outrageous. It’s industry propaganda, and the sad thing is that it’s not questioned.

Novick: When was the last time dairy cows were treated like that in America?

Robbins: There are still a few family farms left, but they simply can’t compete with highly mechanized mass production. It’s not because the factory farms are more efficient — in most cases they aren’t. It’s because the factory farms have the clout in Congress to get subsidies, tax write-offs, free water, and the support of agricultural colleges.

In California, kindergarten children receive a coloring book from the California Milk Producers’ Association. Inside is an outline of a man’s face underneath which is a question: “What did Dad eat today?” Then it says: “If Dad has had his butter, Dad is happy. Draw a smile on his face. If Dad has not had his butter, Dad is sad. Draw a frown on his face.” Then it says: “If Dad has had his cheese today, color his eyes blue. If he hasn’t, color his eyes red.” And so on. And you end up with one of two dads: The one with the high-fat diet has blond hair, blue eyes, pink skin, white teeth, and a big smile. (There’s a racial stereotype here, you’ll notice.) The other dad, who has not drenched his body in fat, has red eyes, black teeth, green skin, blue hair, and a big frown.

The National Dairy Council is the single largest supplier of nutritional-education materials to U.S. public schools, and it’s nothing more than a trade lobby whose purpose is to promote the sale of dairy products, especially higher-fat products from which the most profit is made. What’s traditionally seen as a public service is really free advertising aimed at a vulnerable and captive audience.

Brown: What can be done to counter the nutritional misinformation that children are receiving in schools?

Robbins: I think people have to be willing to educate themselves and then speak to their children. It’s our duty as parents to see to it that our kids aren’t lied to. It’s particularly abhorrent when we come across this in the schools, because we trust the educational system to be free of commercial agendas.

What’s harder to overcome is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture supplies $6 billion worth of free food to schools — mainly ground pork and ground beef. If you want to serve high-fat, high-salt cheese in schools, you can get it free from the USDA; if you want to serve low-fat, low-salt cheese, you have to pay for it. It’s the same with milk. So the more impoverished school districts, which tend to be in minority communities, are at the mercy of the school lunch program. This is part of the reason why American black communities have the highest rates of high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease in the world. The lunch program is touted as government generosity, but it’s really a guaranteed market for the most unhealthy products of the industries that control the program. Meat and dairy producers get a fine price from the USDA for foods that they have trouble selling elsewhere.

Novick: What are some of the less obvious impacts of the meat and dairy industries on the environment?

Robbins: For one thing, it takes thirty-nine times as much energy to produce a pound of protein from beef as it does to produce a pound of protein from soybeans. It takes twenty-two times as much energy to produce protein from beef as from corn or wheat. So people who derive their protein from plant sources are consuming far less energy than those who derive their protein from animal sources.

The average pound of beef in the U.S. takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce. (The animal doesn’t drink that much; it mostly goes to water the crops that the animal eats.) In a relatively dry state like California, the situation is worse. According to the agricultural extension program of the University of California at Davis, the average pound of beef here requires 5,214 gallons of water to produce. By contrast, apples take forty-nine gallons per pound; lettuce takes twenty-three gallons. Over half of the water in California goes to beef and dairy production, and we still have to import most of our beef from other parts of the country. And we’re told to turn off the water when we brush our teeth!

If a Californian were to shower seven days a week, using two gallons of water a minute and taking seven-minute showers, he or she would use roughly 5,200 gallons of water a year. This means that, in the state of California, you can save as much water by not eating one pound of beef as you can by not showering for an entire year.

Novick: And roughly how much beef does the average American eat a year?

Robbins: Present per capita consumption is sixty-three pounds of beef a year.

Novick: You’ve written about how some of the chemicals and hormones used in dairy and meat production have taken many years to reveal their effects: for example, incidences of premature sexual development in children.

Robbins: You’re referring to earlier menarche, or onset of menstruation, in females. In traditional cultures, girls get their first periods around sixteen or seventeen; in the U.S., the average girl begins menstruating at eleven. Early menarche has been shown to be related to animal-fat consumption, which throws off the estrogen cycles in the body, and also to the hormones in animal products. Statistics show that the earlier a girl begins to menstruate, the more likely she is to get breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer. The earlier a boy enters puberty, the more likely he is to get prostate cancer. These are all hormone-related cancers.

The reliance of agriculture on pesticides and hormones is the equivalent of crack addiction: in the short term there’s an immediate rush, but in the long term it’s reinforcing a destructive cycle. The first time that farmers sprayed plants with DDT, it seemed like a miracle. But the long-term consequences are disastrous. The average breast milk in the U.S. is so contaminated with pesticide residues that it would be confiscated if you tried to ship it across state lines.

Novick: Many people abuse their bodies and eat junk food and nothing seems to happen to them; they still function reasonably well. Do you think they could be adapting to the environmental pollutants?

Robbins: No, I don’t. I think a lot is happening to those people. Their immune system, kidneys, and liver are doing everything they can to detoxify, but there are limits to what the human body can handle. They may not have cancer — yet — but their whole appreciation of the human experience is a fraction of what it could be.

Novick: I imagine that it would be extremely hard for you to continue your work without hope, but you must also have some dark moments when you are reminded of what you are up against. Are you optimistic about the future of humanity?

Robbins: No, my optimism tends to wane very quickly, and fluctuates with pessimism. If I depended on optimism to inspire my work, I would burn out very rapidly.

Brown: What do you depend on, then?

Robbins: Love. If I don’t take responsibility, who will? My parents? Bill Clinton? We’ll all die waiting.

This interview is excerpted from Voices from the Edge (The Crossing Press), by David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen Novick. It appears here by permission of the authors. A different version of the interview was previously published in High Times.

— Ed.