John Robbins became a household name in 1987, with the publication of his bestselling book Diet For A New America, a groundbreaking work which lifted the lid on the cruelty involved in the factory farming industry and also the health and environmental hazards this industry has to answer for. He’s a visionary with an amazing life story. Here’s my 2008 interview with him, which first appeared in Get Fresh! magazine.
Sarah Best: For those readers who may not know your story, could you briefly describe your privileged upbringing and what led you to turning your back on that lifestyle in early adulthood and passing up considerable wealth in the process?
John Robbins: My father and uncle started Baskin-Robbins, the “31 Flavors” ice cream company, in 1945, two years before I was born. As I grew up, and it became the world’s largest ice cream company, my dad groomed me to succeed in it. I was the only son – I had sisters but no brothers – and my father was an old-fashioned guy so his expectation was all on me. As a kid I worked in the company in many different departments learning all about it. We even had an ice cream cone shaped pool in our back yard!
By the time I was into my late teens I was starting to think for myself. I began to question whether the path my father had paved for me was in fact the right one for me. It was extremely appealing financially of course, but it seemed to me to run counter to my feelings about myself, the world and social responsibility.
So at 21 I not only walked away from the place waiting for me in the company; I also told my father I didn’t want to benefit from his wealth anymore. I knew I wasn’t strong enough then; that my values were not developed enough to withstand the temptation, so I had to make a clean break. I couldn’t be tethered to the ice cream company either through working there or through accepting my father’s money.
SB: How did it come about that you moved so far in the other direction and started living the ultimate in sustainable lifestyles, decades before most people even had any concept of why that might be a good idea?
JR: I needed to separate myself from the Baskin-Robbins empire and my parents’ expectations of me and how they wanted me to live. I wanted the opportunity to send my roots down into the earth and to live on, with and for the earth, appreciating the seasons and rhythms and the way those interconnect with the rhythms of our own bodies.
I met my wife Deo when I was 20 and she was 19. We’ve been married for 41 years now. We both grew up in cities and felt pretty divorced from the natural world. We had a desire to see if we could live a lifestyle that was truly sustainable and, if so, whether that could be fulfilling. So in 1969 we moved to an island off the coast of British Columbia and built a one-room log cabin which we lived in for 10 years. We grew 95% of our own food, everything we grew was entirely organic, and we lived very simply. It was very beautiful. Although the phrase “carbon footprint” didn’t exist back then, ours was very small.
We didn’t have a lot of land so we couldn’t graze cattle. We probably could have had some chickens but we didn’t want to; we wanted to experiment with a vegan diet. It was an experiment in a form of agriculture that was as non-resource-dependent as possible.
We were redefining what success meant. We didn’t use money to measure the richness of our lives. I would suggest that when you use money as the only way to do that, that is actually a deeply impoverishing way of experiencing life.
A few years after leaving the island I wrote Diet For A New America and that book came out of my experiments in living sustainably.
SB: Was your initial decision to experiment with a vegan diet for compassionate reasons as well as environmental ones?
JR: Yes. I’ve always loved animals. I connect beautifully with cats and dogs and any animals I get to experience. I have known animals who’ve felt like family to me and those relationships have enriched me as a human being.
Why is it that we call some animals “pets” and treat them as a member of our family and get so much back from them, and call others “dinner”? Why is it that if animals are on the wrong side of that arbitrary line we feel justified in treating them with any level of cruelty so long as it lowers the price per pound? It is a profound disconnect.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian nor even a particularly compassionate human being to be appalled at the level of cruelty that is involved in modern meat production if you actually see it. You don’t have to be a wild-eyed animal rights activist to just cringe from it.
It is a violation of the human-animal bond. It is a violation of something in our spirit. We are more connected to the web of life than we realise and when we do that to our fellow creatures, it does something to us too. Very few people actually favour animal cruelty. Yet each time we buy something we are sending a message to the producer that we approve; we are saying “Do it again”.
SB: Isn’t it also interesting that the ethical arguments around not eating meat are so strong yet the environmental ones are equally strong? Neither needs the other to prop it up; each stands on its own as reason enough to follow a plant-based diet.
JR: Yes, and they are also totally congruent. It is rare in life that something is this clear; usually there’s at least some trade-off. But what’s best for animals is also best for us and for the planet. The whole discussion regarding the environmental impact of modern meat production was something I brought forward in Diet For A New America and have been working to raise awareness of ever since then. It has had quite a boost in the last few years.
In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations released a report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow. It looked at the direct impact of meat production and also at the impact of the feed crop agriculture required for meat production.
The report stated that meat production is the second or third largest contributor to environmental problems at every level and at every scale, from global to local. It is responsible for land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, species extinction, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Henning Steinfeld, a senior author of the report, stated, “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”
Al Gore, in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, ignored this whole issue completely. He hasn’t changed his position since, despite the UN coming out with this massive report. When is Gore going to get it?
The FAO report is considered the most definitive, comprehensive and reliable assessment we have. And it states that livestock production generates a staggering 65% of the nitrous oxide produced by human activities, and this greenhouse gas has an even more staggering 296 times the Global Warming Potential of carbon dioxide. The FAO concluded that overall, livestock production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport. What that means is meat production contributes more to global warming than all the trucks, cars and planes in the world combined.
The Live Earth concert handbook stated that “Refusing meat is the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.” Even Environmental Defence, a group which has justifiably been called Bush’s favourite environmental group, calculates that if every meat eater in the US swapped just one meal of chicken per week for a vegetarian meal, the carbon saving would be equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road.
In 2006, a University of Chicago study found that a vegan diet is far more effective than driving a hybrid car in reducing carbon footprint. “Vegetarianism is the new Prius” is a phrase I heard recently. But it’s actually more effective than driving a Prius. If you’re going to drive a car a hybrid vehicle is the way to go, there’s no doubt about it. But as the FAO report stated, all the SUVs, Hummers, trucks, ships and planes in the world contribute less to the problem than meat. The meat-eating Prius driver has a bigger carbon footprint than the vegan Hummer driver, not that there are probably too many of those!
SB: Let’s touch briefly on the question of organic, free range, grass-fed and/or locally-produced meat, dairy and eggs. These are often characterised by those who produce them, and those who consume them, as perfectly ethical and responsible choices. Are they?
JR: If you’re going to eat any animal products, if you can get locally produced and organic that is definitely the way to go. But a bigger step would be to eat less of them or better still not eat them at all. Although grass-fed organic beef is on the whole a much better choice than factory-farmed, and is certainly much better for the animals, in some ways it is actually worse for the environment. It uses a lot more grazing land and the cows take longer to grow to weight so emit more methane, another massive contributor to global warming.
I haven’t eaten beef in decades and I don’t miss it at all. I feel energetic and light and I feel good about the fact I can have a bumper sticker on my car that talks about living lightly on the earth and know that is something I’m actually doing.
If you’re going to eat eggs, get a hen. The second best is buying from a neighbour who has a hen and the third best would be a local, small-scale, free-range producer. When you buy eggs in a health store or supermarket and see the claim “Free Range” on the carton you never know how true that is. Very often it’s nothing more than deceptive marketing.
Near where I live, in a town called Hollister, California, is the “Happy Hen Egg Ranch”. The cartons have a picture of a hen singing in a field with the sun shining overhead. Well, I visited the “Happy Hen Egg Ranch” and the hens were in cages. The cages were a little larger than the industry norm but that’s a very low bar to compare it to and certainly not what was depicted on the carton. As consumers become less tolerant of certain industry practices, companies are under pressure to mislead with their marketing so what is on the label is no guarantee you are buying a more ethical product.
Even the best forms of animal husbandry are polluting, not to mention cruel. There is an economic obstacle to it being any other way. If you want to do the right things as a meat producer you can’t compete at price point with people doing it the standard way, including the standard organic way. The products would cost four to five times as much so who can afford to buy those? Only the very wealthy few.
There is a big part of me which feels if something is only available to the very rich and I have the opportunity to have it, do I really want it? I have this deep instinct that we have too much of that in our world. Too many people are left behind and not even seen let alone valued. They don’t even have a seat at the table. It makes me think of the quote by Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”
The need for social justice is, for me, as imperative as the need for environmental sustainability. I actually don’t think we can have one without the other. Those of us in affluent countries have a tremendous opportunity to take a stand that what we consume must not contribute to the impoverishment of other countries.
Meat consumes a lot of resources that could have been used to feed people in the world who don’t have food to eat. I don’t want to live in such a way that I can’t meet someone with fewer financial resources and look them in the eye as an equal.
SB: This brings us onto another inconvenient truth most people are unaware of: the link between meat consumption in the affluent West and starvation in poor countries.
JR: About a billion people alive today don’t have enough to eat. A third of children in the developing world don’t have enough to eat. Meanwhile McDonald’s is opening five new restaurants a day, four of them outside the US. Is McDonald’s in Ethiopia solving world hunger or contributing to it?
Everyone needs to eat and it is not efficient to cycle grain through animals. The production of 1lb of feedlot beef requires 16lb of grain. 1lb of whole wheat bread requires 1lb of grain. If you’re growing feed grains you’re wasting most of what you grow.
The price of food is escalating rapidly now. We are draining water tables globally. Food production depends in almost all cases on the ability to irrigate so this is likely to push food prices higher. Meanwhile, the world grain harvest per capita has been declining since its peak in 1984. There are lots of reasons for that, including the degraded, eroded, nutrient-depleted state of the world’s farmland. All this means there are serious concerns as to our ability to grow enough food in the future.
Two-thirds of agricultural land in central America is used for meat production, either directly or indirectly. Yet the poor majority can’t even afford to buy grain to eat. A plane takes off every day from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, carrying beef that’s being exported to the European market and when I think about that, something in me just screams.
That is water and grain and other resources that should be used to feed the poor of that country. The exploitation and abuse of impoverished people and their ecosystems in order to produce cheap food for us – it’s just obscene to me. The day that hunger is eradicated from the world will be the greatest spiritual explosion this planet has ever seen.
SB: What can each of us do to hasten that day and in the meantime ensure this is a problem we are not a part of?
JR: It has been calculated that if everyone in the US ate 10% less beef that would save enough grain to feed 60 million people a year. 60 million happens to be the number of people expected to die of starvation or other hunger-related diseases on the planet this year.
That doesn’t mean all we have to do is eat 10% less beef and we’ll have ended hunger, because there’s no guarantee that that food would reach the world’s hungry. At current prices they couldn’t afford it and the way the world economy is set up right now, if you can’t afford to buy food, you don’t eat.
But it is guaranteed that the food won’t reach those people if we continue to cycle it through the animals we eat. I say to audiences, “There are a lot of people who won’t lift a finger and that can make the problem seem too overwhelming. But cut down by 20% and you’re covering for one of those people, cut down by 30% and you’re covering for two, and cut down by 100% and you’re covering for 9.”
People often feel helpless in the face of the enormity of the problem and say, “That person has a really big oar because he’s rich and famous. I only have a toothpick so what can I do?” And I say, “If that’s all you have to use, row with your toothpick. Just by doing that you become a bigger person and who knows how that will play out and what influence you could soon have. Even if you only have a toothpick, the way you live is having an influence on everyone you interact with and when someone is doing everything they can to live sustainably, that sends a very powerful message. It will be noticed by those around you and will make them reflect on their own lifestyles, values, choices and actions.”
There is an illusion in our culture that the rich and famous determine things, but they are actually followers. This is about each of us doing our bit. What I’m talking about is the human spirit coming alive in response to our collective problems and challenges. These problems are not confined to any one place; they are global. The phrase “Think globally, act locally” has never been more appropriate.
When we widen our circle of compassion we don’t restrict our concern to people we know or to people like us. We reach out to people of different nations, classes and colours and also to animals. That requires that we realise all of life draws breath from the same source and that we are interconnected, and the day we grasp that is the day we awaken.
It is so important we each realize our own power. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the problems and the economic clout that goes into perpetuating those problems. But the fact these problems are so big is the reason as many of us as possible need to stand up as examples of just, sustainable living.
SB: At this point, do you think we’re moving in the right direction collectively?
JR: There are so many ways now in which consumers are becoming more conscientious. I love that people are starting to ask, “How was that meat produced?”, “Are those grapes sprayed?”, “Was that rug stitched together by a child forced to work horrific hours in terrible conditions due to the destitution of his or her family?”
People are starting to do things like switching off lights, changing to energy-efficient light bulbs, learning to insulate their homes more efficiently, and just generally greening up their lifestyles. This is based on a deep understanding as a culture that our lives have become very earth-unfriendly.
SB: At a time when more and more people are living more consciously, an extremely worrying statistic from the UN’s Food and Agrigulture Organisation (FAO) is that meat production is on course to double from its level of 229 million tonnes a year in 2000 to 465 million tonnes by 2050.
JR: Yes, and a lot of that increase is coming from changing dietary patterns in less developed countries with large populations, namely China and India. India at least still maintains some vestige of its vegetarian roots but China is going the whole hog. KFC is making more money in China than in the US and McDonald’s is opening a new restaurant in China every day.
But it’s not just happening in China; it’s happening everywhere in the developing world. People who become able to purchase meat and fast food seem to want to and this is thanks to the influence of Western consumerist culture. We’re exporting hamburgers and ice cream into cultures that have until recently always had simple, unprocessed, largely plant-based diets. These foods are tasty in an instant gratification sense, but people are not aware of the devastating health and ethical implications of eating these foods.
Much of my work now is to try to say to people in those countries, “As an American who grew up as heir apparent to the Baskin Robbins company and walked away from that because I saw what it was doing to the planet and couldn’t support that, I gave up extreme wealth because I didn’t want to give up my soul. Think about what you are doing taking on these Western consumerist values.”
SB: Given the pollution already caused, the vast areas of forest and rainforest already destroyed, and the other finite resources already guzzled by global meat production, if the FAO’s prediction comes true, what kind of a world will we be living in in just a few decades? Is it even possible do you think; can the planet even sustain animal agriculture on that scale?
JR: Obviously not. One strong possibility is that oil could become so expensive that food transportation ceases to be financially viable and then we’re back to locally grown food. There are other ways it could play out, but my preferred way is that people wake up to the fact we have huge problems which are demanding our urgent attention. If everyone just did what they personally could, we’d get there.
This is not even a political issue. Once the facts are understood there is general agreement on the urgency of the situation. When I am talking to someone who doesn’t share my views, someone from the meat industry perhaps, I might say: “We disagree on a lot of things but we can agree on something. If we were both in a car crash on our way home tonight and found ourselves in intensive care and dependent on those support systems our prayers would be with each other and we would be deeply committed to those life support systems working properly. Well, we are deeply dependent on the life support systems of the planet yet the way we are living is abusing those support systems.”
SB: What would you say to those who believe consuming fish is a more sustainable food choice than consuming land-based animals?
JR: It’s deeply troubling how fast fish stocks have been decreasing. Most of us think of fish as a renewable harvest resource, like wheat, rather than as species that are endangered, like the panda or tiger. But as the technology used to vacuum every last fish from the ocean has become increasingly sophisticated, species after species has been pushed to extinction. Today, nearly all of the world’s fisheries are depleted or in steep decline. And half of all fish species are considered to be vulnerable to or in immediate danger of extinction.
Some look to fish farming as an answer. But the farming of shrimp, salmon, trout, bass, yellowtail and other carnivorous species has actually increased demands on marine production. It takes five pounds of wild ocean fish to produce a single pound of farmed saltwater fish or salmon. The dismaying reality is that aquaculture, or fish farming, is now a contributing factor to the collapse of fisheries around the world.
SB: You touched earlier on the fact that where our leverage is greatest is in the food we choose to eat. That is where we can have the most impact with the least effort. What are the other things that make a really big difference and that are relatively easy for anyone to do?
JR: One of the most important things is buying less of everything. Buying a green version is a step forward, but buying less is a much bigger one. If you do this, you’re not causing the production of more new stuff, using resources or exploiting less advantaged people.
Ask with every choice you make, “Does this enhance the earth or does this degrade the earth?” Vote with your life. Vote by the way you treat people. If you can live with respect for yourself and others you’re taking a huge step. You’re doing your part. If enough of us do our part we will turn the tide.
SB: What are some other things that you personally do that may inspire readers who feel moved to tread as lightly as possible on the planet?
JR: We’ve covered our house with solar panels which generate electricity from the sun. You can’t do this if you’re renting, so unlike the other things I’ve talked about this is not something everyone could do, but it is something a lot of people could do. It is a completely maintenance-free operation once it’s installed, in time it pays for itself and from then on you’re saving money.
We grow as much of our food as we can and the rest we buy from local farmers’ markets. Almost everyone can grow something and growing your own food is a joy. It is key to reinstating your connection to the earth and reminding you what real food is.
We live in a three-generation household. Our son lives with us, along with his wife and our grand-twins. There are four adults in the house but we only have two cars, one a Prius. We try to minimise our car trips. If we need to go to the store we all talk and we make a list together so that rather than going once a week we can go once every two weeks. No car is “My car”; both cars are “Our cars”. This forces us to communicate, otherwise someone may not have a car available when they really need one.
We develop, cultivate and appreciate our relationships with one another. We take each others’ needs and feelings seriously and do what we can to uphold, affirm and cherish each other. The feelings of vitality and peace that come from being loved and knowing that your love is important to another person; when you have that in your life you are so much less susceptible to advertisers convincing you that their product is what’s missing.
We define success as a culture almost exclusively in extrinsic, materialistic terms. The American dream is understood as limitless consumption but I believe there is a deeper, universal yearning and that is for limitless compassion. To me, a real success is someone who has beautiful relationships with other people. A real success is someone whose compassion makes a difference to those they interact with. A real success is someone who changes the way they live to make it more sustainable for the planet.
John Robbins is the author of Diet for A New America, The Food Revolution, Reclaiming Our Health: Exploding the Medical Myth and Embracing the Source of True Healing, Healthy at 100, and The New Good Life.
His new book, co-authored by his son Ocean Robbins, will be released on June 30: Voices of the Food Revolution: You Can Heal Your Body And Your World With Food!