Dietitian for a New America
DAVID JAY BROWN
REBECCA McCLEN NOVICK
Did you know that the leading killer in America, cardiovascular disease, is directly linked to meat consumption? Or that you save more water by not eating one pound of beef than you would by not showering for a whole year? Did you know that it is routine for factory-farm pigs to be forced to drink their own urine? John Robbins, the man at the top of the Meat and Dairy Board's most-wanted list. does, and he wants to alert you. John emerged out of the Baskin-Robbins ice-cream family to become one of the leading spokespeople on the planet for vegetarianism. He is the author of the internationally best-selling book Diet for a New America (Stillpoint Publishing. 1987), which documents the horrors that occur during factory» fanning, as well as the enormous health benefits that come from maintaining a vegetarian diet. He is also the author of May All Be Fed: Diet for a New World (Morrow, 1992) and the founder of EarthSave. a nonprofit organization that concentrates on educating the public about health, nutrition and sustainable energy consumption.
HIGH TIMES: How did growing up in the “heart of the American food machine” influence your motivation to research and write Diet for a New America?
JOHN ROBBINS: There was a tremendous investment in my family to deny the link between diet and health, particularly between ice cream and health. I understood it, given our livelihood, but as I was growing up and reaching out beyond the assumptions, values and worldview of my parents, I encountered a lot of information that was taboo to them.
HT: How old were you when you began questioning those taboos?
JR: Very young. From my earliest childhood I was living two lives: I was being groomed by my father to succeed him, and then my inner life was involved in questioning and challenging everything I was being taught.
It was two separate worlds. In one, life was about material success, and in another life was about the heart. In one world, ice cream made people happy, and in another world, ice cream was high in saturated fat and cholesterol and contributed to diabetes and heart disease.
HT: You never enjoyed ice cream?
JR: Did I say that? I loved ice cream! When
people find out that I don’t eat ice cream anymore, they get this pained look, as if I’m deprived, and I say, “Please don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve eaten enough ice cream for ten lifetimes!”
HT: So the style of your inspiration was more of an unraveling process rather than a revelatory flash?
JR: Yes. There were moments that catalyzed me or where I became aware that I had progressed to a certain point, but I can’t pin the development of my consciousness entirely on those moments.
To put this in context, I have to back up a little. When I was in high school and working closely with my dad, I knew only the world of wealthy people and the country-club scene. I felt restricted and limited by the fact that I only felt comfortable with what I was familiar with. I would look around at everybody else, and I felt completely disconnected.
And I noticed that at Baskin-Robbins, most of the store owners were white and most of the customers were white and that it was basically an upper-class trip—it was a luxury ice cream. And when I was a senior in high school, I was offered scholarships to Harvard, Stanford and Yale because I had been very successful on the debate team. But I chose not to go to those schools because it would have been more of the same—the privileged few.
So I chose to go to Berkeley, which is a public school. I thought, here would be an opportunity to meet people outside the narrow socioeconomic group that I had been in.
So, in 1965, I left Los Angeles and went to Berkeley. I immediately became involved in the Free Speech Movement, the civilrights movement and the antiwar movement. It was an incredible time to be alive, openings of all kinds were happening.
I took the civil-rights movement very personally, and when Dr. King was killed in 1968 I felt as if a bullet had gone through my heart too. Any thoughts of business as usual felt just ludicrous and empty.
HT: How did your dad feel about what you were doing?
JR: When I left the business, my dad was very hurt and that caused a lot of distance between us. He knew that I was sincere, but he felt that I was crazy. Here I was with long hair walking away from an opportunity to be extremely wealthy in order to do—what? He couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t explain it either, in terms that made sense to him.
My uncle, Burt Baskin, died of a heart attack in the late ’60s. I said to my dad, “Do you think there could be any connection between the amount of ice cream that Uncle Burt would eat and his heart attack?” He said, “Absolutely not. His ticker just got tired.”
Then, five years ago, my dad’s health was very precarious. His cholesterol was high. He had very high blood pressure for which he had to take ten pills every day; his diabetes was getting worse. But my dad made changes to his diet, and his blood pressure came down so much that he only takes one blood pressure pill every other day. His diabetes is in complete remission so he doesn’t need insulin, his circulation has improved tremendously and he’s lost a lot of weight.
Recently he said to me, “Thank God some of us have lived long enough to learn a few new things.”
HT: Has it been harder for your mother to accept these things?
JR: My mother always felt that she was in charge of the food department, and she always seems to feel that I’m saying she fed us wrong. She did the best she could given what she knew at the time, and given the resources that were available then. She didn’t know, for example, about the terrible abuse of animals in modern meat production.
HT: Describe some of the conditions that are going on in factory farms all over
JR: I could point to the worst places where the conditions are most stressful on the animals, but I’d rather just describe the industry norms.
Veal calves are male calves born to dairy cows. The females are shunted in one direction on their way to becoming four-legged milk pumps and the males are taken away at birth or the next day. They are baby mammals and they desperately want to suckle, but they’re not allowed to. Standard operating procedure for veal calves is to chain them at the neck in stalls or cages so tiny that they can’t even take a single step in their entire lives. They stand knee-deep in their own excrement wailing and crying for their mothers. The diet which the calf is fed is designed to be deficient in iron.
The factory-farm workers play the edge so that the anemia won’t kill the creature before it’s four months old, which is when it’s slaughtered, but a lot of them die anyway or go blind because they play the edge and go past it. The reason they want to do this is because the flesh becomes a lighter color and we’ve been trained to believe that lighter meats are healthier—it’s really just the flesh of a tortured baby animal.
I’VE HARVESTED CABBAGE...AND I’VE BEEN IN THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, AND THE EXPERIENCES ARE NOT COMPARABLE.
Broilers—birds from which chicken meat comes—are kept in warehouses and never see the light of day. These are animals that are extremely sensitive to light rhythms. The industry manipulates their hormonal responses with fluorescent lights which are sometimes on 24 hours a day, other times not on at all, all contrived to get the maximum possible weight gain in the shortest possible time. Part of that process is antibiotics mixed into every dose of feed and sprayed into the air they breathe.
HT: What do you think is the best strategy for helping animals gain the right to live
lives without this kind of cruelty?
JR: There are many things that we have to do. We have to learn to respect ourselves and our needs as animals and the entire web of life on this planet. If you expect someone to treat the world well who doesn’t treat themselves well, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Someone who smokes and pollutes their own lungs cannot be expected to be as sensitive to air pollution from smokestacks.
HT: So if we can develop greater respect for one another, then somehow that will spill over into a greater respect for other forms of life?
JR: Yes, and vice versa. I know many people who are not able to love other human beings—they’ve been too traumatized—but they are able to love an animal, and through that love are able to learn to relate more caringly to others.
HT: Some people have extremely intimate relationships with their cats or their dogs, but have a whole different category of thinking about a cow or a pig that’s lying on their dinner plate.
JR: Historically, an animal which is destined for human consumption is exempted 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—hence the treatment of veal calves.
HT: A basic truth about animals is that to exist they have to feed on living things. A lot of people believe that plants are conscious beings. Why is eating the corpses of plants more compassionate than eating the corpses of animals?
JR: Look at it this way: First, it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of feedlot beef. It takes one pound of grain to make one pound of bread. So how many more plants are you eating if you eat a pound of beef? Secondly, I’ve harvested cabbages and pulled up carrots out of the ground and I’ve been in slaughterhouses, and the experiences are not comparable.
HT: But don’t you think that could be a species bias because animals are life-forms that are more similar to us?
JR: The animals do everything they can to resist: they fight, they scream, they secrete adrenaline. They have nervous systems with pain receptors. They want to live. I don’t think that taking an individual plant ruptures the fabric in the same way that the violence of killing an animal does.
You point to the fact that we all do take life to live. It’s a spectrum and we are all
involved in killing. As soon as you separate people into the violent and the nonviolent, into carnivores and noncarnivores, and you stand in one camp and point a finger at the other in a judgmental way, you’re creating more violence. I think there’s been a great deal of vegetarian evangelism, with a lot of holier-than-thou kind of stuff that’s created a backlash because no one wants to be made to feel guilty or ashamed.
I feel that it is less violent to eat plants, and of course it’s healthier. It’s interesting that because you’re consuming fewer plants by eating plants than you would be if you were eating animals, you’re allowing more of the biomass of the planet to survive. The ecological impact of meat production is horrendous. Of course the impact of large-scale, agribusinessdominated, petrochemical-based, pesticidesaturated vegetable and fruit growing is not pretty either, but it’s not as bad.
HT: Say that I’m someone who’s reasonably aware of the way factory-farm animals are treated* I’m a good person in general but I still eat meat, and when I’m presented with this information I say, that all makes sense, but I already have to worry whether my furniture is made from rainforest wood and whether my phone company is funding political extremists. It’s just too much.
JR: I think that person would find their own purpose strengthened and validated if they understood that the ramifications of their food choices are incredible, to the animals, to the biosphere, to our own health and ability to function gracefully. The good that can come from conscious food choices is profound; by the same token, the unconscious evil that can ensue from food choices is also dramatic.
You mentioned the rainforest. Every fast-food hamburger that’s made from rainforest beef represents the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical rainforest. The person you’re describing would never go out and clear a rainforest, but they would eat a hamburger, and in effect, by the laws of economics, their hands are on the chainsaws at that moment.
So, I think that alerting people to the consequences of their choices enables them to make wiser choices, ones that are congruent with their desires and heart’s purpose.
HT: John Allen talked about how in Biosphere 2, the consequences of their actions were very profound and very fast. If they put toxins down their sink, they would find them the next day in their drinking water. We apparently don’t see the consequences until way on down the line.
JR: We are a nearsighted species, which was
fine as long as our numbers were within a certain range. But now there are so many more of us and the impact of what we do is multiplied and then multiplied again by our technological advancement. We are definitely called by the urgency of the situation to make some key changes. It is now a survival imperative. Whether we as a species are going to make it is still a very open question.
HT: What are some of the major health differences, evidenced by scientific research, between meat-eaters and vegetarians?
JR: The average vegetarian lives sevenand-a-half years longer than the average meat-eater. The leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease, the second is cancer. People who eat the standard American diet stand over a 50 percent chance of getting heart and cardiovascular disease, whereas vegetarians have a 15 percent chance of dying from such a condition and vegans less than five percent.
When they do autopsies on people who’ve had heart attacks, they take out what had been stuck in the artery blocking the flow of blood to the heart. It’s usually gummy and thick, and when it’s studied they invariably find the same thing: saturated fat and cholesterol. No one has yet come back from the lab and said, broccoli and brown rice!
HT: What mistakes do vegetarians sometimes make in their food choices?
JR: I see some vegetarians who eat a lot of dairy products: yogurt, cheese and ice cream. They substitute dairy products for meat to try to keep their protein levels high. This culture has protein paranoia.
HT: Do you think that the success of the idea that a lot of protein is good for you stems from the belief in many people’s minds that bigger is better?
JR: Yes. The pediatrician comes in and says, “How’s the child doing? Is he gaining weight?” Who cares?! Maybe we’re not all supposed to be the same size! Some of us are supposed to be much bigger than the standard norm and some of us are supposed to be much smaller.
HT: In Diet for a New America, you quote numerous studies that point to meat consumption as a major health hazard. How is it possible that this information has been kept relatively underground?
JR: You have to understand how the medical establishment works. There is a built-in investment for illness in the medical establishment. Of course it’s not an individual conscious desire on the part of the doctor for his patient to get sick, but the pharmaceutical orientation has made disease profitable. Sick people are a market.
The pharmaceutical companies support and endow the medical schools. The average MD in their four years of medical school gets two-and-a-half hours coursework in nutrition. They don’t know much of anything about nutrition building health. In a healthy society medical people are paid when their patients are well and not when they’re ill.
HT: What are the meat and dairy industries doing to hide the moral and biological consequences of consuming their products from children?
JR: They undertake what they call “educational programs.” In California, for instance, kindergarten children all receive a coloring book from the California Milk Producers Association. Inside there is an outline drawing of a man’s face underneath which there is a question: What did Daddy eat today? Then it says: If Dad 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 asks: Has Dad had his cheese today? If so, color his eyes blue; if he hasn’t, color his eyes red. Then you are asked: Has Dad had his ice cream today? Has Dad had his sour cream today? And you end up with two dads: One has blond hair, blue eyes, pink skin, white teeth and a big smile; the other
dad, who has not drenched his body in fat, has red eyes, black teeth, green skin, blue hair and a big frown.
Now what five-year-old child is going to raise her hand and say, “Excuse me, Teacher, what is being taught here? Who provided us with these coloring books? Aren’t all those dairy products the least healthy of the dairy products?”
HT: What can be done to counter this nutritional misinformation in schools?
JR: It’s our duty as adults to see to it that our kids aren’t lied to. It’s particularly abhorrent when we come across this in schools, because we put our trust in the educational system as a means of liberating us from merely commercial agendas.
EarthSave, which is a group I founded, has a program called “The Healthy School Lunch Program,” and we go to schools and talk to kids and teachers and the food-service people. The idea is to educate kids and make other options available in the cafeteria like vegetarian, no-cholesterol, low-fat foods.
But it’s very difficult to overcome the fact that the USDA supplies $6 billion worth of free food to schools. If you want to serve high-fat and high-salt cheese in schools you can get it for free from the USDA, but if you want to serve low-fat and 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 more minority communities, are most vulnerable to this. It’s positioned as this generous activity of the government, but it’s really just a guaranteed market for the worst products of these industries. The result is that American black communities have the highest rates of high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease in the world.
HT: 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?
JR: Television is an extreme example of removal from feeling experience. We’ve isolated ourselves from nature and our own natures. Until we have communities and families that cherish one another, we will continue to play out this hostility.
Ronald Reagan ran on this traditionalfamily-values platform, and then Nancy Reagan encouraged children to turn their parents in for drug use! There was a young girl who took Nancy up on it because her mother was selling marijuana. Nancy Reagan flew to California to have a press conference with this little girl and tell her that this showed she really loved her mother.
The girl’s mother was sent to jail, and it turns out that she wasn’t even a smoker but was trying to make some money to buy her daughter a tricycle for her birthday, because they were poor.
What kind of traditional family values are these where you encourage little children, who are completely out of their realm in issues like this, to do something like that? That’s the replacement of family values with government values.
I TOOK LSD FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 1965...AND IT CHANGED MY LIFE. IT SHOWED ME THAT WHAT WE TAKE INTO OUR BODIES...CAN CHANGE OUR CONSCIOUSNESS DRAMATICALLY.
HT: I imagine that it would be extremely hard for you to continue your work without hope, but you must also have dark moments when you are reminded of what you are up against. Are you optimistic about the future of humanity?
JR: No. Optimism for me tends to wane very quickly and it fluctuates with pessimism in a cyclical manner. If I depended on optimism for my work I would burn out very rapidly or feel like a hypocrite.
HT: What do you depend on then?
JR: Love. Look at the human being: We can produce a Hitler, but we can also produce a Mother Theresa. The moral spectrum of humanity is vast. You begin to feel, well, if I don’t take the responsibility, who will? Bill Clinton? We’ll all die waiting.
HT: Have you ever had an experience with psychedelic plants that influenced your perspective?
JR: I was a child of the ’60s and I definitely participated. They say that if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. Well, I have wonderful memories of the ’60s. I took LSD for the first time in 1965.1 had never had any psychoactive substance before, and it changed my life. It showed me that I was an ant and it made me humble. It also showed me that what we take into our bodies, even if it’s just a few
micrograms of a chemical, can change our consciousness dramatically. It also made me an environmentalist. I saw that everything is connected.
I didn’t take it very much because it was so overwhelming. Shortly thereafter I took mescaline a few times and had wonderful experiences in nature.
In the early ’80s a friend of mine talked to me about MDMA. I had had concerns about LSD. I had seen some people get very scattered and I felt that it sometimes forced a premature opening on a psyche that wasn’t ready for it. MDMA seemed to be kinder. I was a practicing psychotherapist at the time and I began to use it in my practice. I administered it to hundreds of people while it was legal, but after it was made a Schedule I drug, I couldn’t justify the risk of continuing its use.
HT: What kind of results did you achieve with MDMA?
JR: Oh, it was incredible! I saw extraordinary transformations. What a terrible shame that a tool so valuable to people was taken away! When a couple was fighting and stuck in a pattern that both were in despair about but which neither could change, suddenly they had the ability to see and go beyond that pattern. They’d have to work it all through of course—the drug alone didn’t do anything—but it gave them the will to change.
It made me feel that our policy towards drugs is criminal. I see the Drug War as a serious erosion of our civil liberties. We don’t have freedom of religion because some of these substances genuinely do activate religious experiences and are true sacraments.
HT: What is your perspective on God?
JR: Well, I’m not into the old man with the white beard. The sense of spirit that enables us to be more present and more honoring of our interconnectedness, to me that’s the action of the divine. The surrendering of the individual self—the ego self—into the greater universe is my spiritual practice.
Some people find this type of discipline restrictive, just as some people find being a vegetarian a limitation. I find it an honor. And when we learn to honor ourselves fully, we end up honoring each other. It just turns out that way.
David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen Novick are the authors of Mavericks of the Mind (1993, The Crossing Press; Freedom, CA). Mavericks of the Mind, Vol. 2, from which this interview is excerpted, is due out early this year.