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John Robbins: Life on the Frontlines of the Food Revolution

Author John Robbins talks about the science of soy, meat production, our "disease care system," and how MLK Jr. influenced his work.

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TL: Was there a particular experience in your relationship with animals that led you to your decision?

JR: There were several. I've always loved animals and felt connected to them. It alienates our hearts from ourselves in a profound way when we treat animals cruelly. You do as much for the child as you do for the caterpillar when you teach a child not to step on a caterpillar. We have developed a system of livestock production, of agribusiness that treats these animals with a degree of contempt that is, to me, completely inconsistent with our compassion as people.

As well, the ice cream business is selling a product that isn't good for people's health. My uncle, Bert Baskin, my dad's brother-in-law and partner, died of a heart attack at the age of 54. He was a very big man who ate a lot of ice cream. When it happened, I asked my father did he think there was a connection between the amount of ice cream my uncle would eat and his fatal heart attack, and my dad said, "No, his ticker just got tired and stopped working." And I realized, my father could not even consider the possibility there might be a connection -- by that time he had manufactured and sold more ice cream than anyone who had ever lived on the planet and he didn't want to think he was harming anybody.

But I felt that I had to consider that question and I didn't want to make a living selling a product that might be undermining anybody's well being. I began to think of the ice cream business as something like the tobacco business -- the more you consumed of the product that was sold, the more likely you were to have serious health impacts. Ice cream isn't going to kill anyone, but the more you eat, the more likely you are to have a heart attack like the one that killed my uncle. Ben Cohen, the cofounder and for many years co-owner of Ben and Jerry's -- lovely man, peace activist, very progressive guy, beautiful human being -- but he was a big guy who ate a lot of ice cream, and he had a quintuple bypass in his late 40s.

So I'm not pointing the finger at Baskin Robbins per se, but people think of ice cream as a happy food and it certainly provides momentary pleasure, but I didn't want to sell it and I didn't want to derive my livelihood from an industry where the more it sold, the more people hurt.

TL: You've written quite a lot, as have others, about CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). At this point do you think most people actually do understand where their meat is coming from?

JR: Well, they didn't used to. I think through my work and many others' work there has been tremendous awareness about the cruelty that's involved in factory farms, but the industry is fighting back. This is one of the reasons that I wrote No Happy Cows. There are two forces I see today in our society that are on a collision course. On the one hand, there is an ever-growing number of people who want their food to be healthy for their bodies, who want it to be produced in a sustainable way, who want it to be produced in a way that isn't decimating the biosphere, that isn't harming farmworkers, that isn't polluting the air and the water -- they want it to be friendly to the Earth and to people. These people are eating organically, they want GMOs to be labeled, they want to have less processed foods in their diets, they are reading books about how to be healthy -- there is an increasing number of people who make that connection.

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