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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.

Americans take the old adage "you are what you eat" very seriously. Food today has become a kind of identity politics -- avowed meat eaters, die-hard vegans, diligent locavores, junk food enthusiasts. That's why John Robbins' new book No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution, is a refreshing read. A veteran writer, Robbins is also author of the acclaimed 1987 book, Diet for a New America, among numerous other works. His food writing draws the intersections of animal rights, health and the environment. But just as important, Robbins' work seeks the converging paths of many different kinds of people.

No Happy Cows is a collection of writings, some of which were drawn from popular blogs on the Huffington Post, which take on hot-button issues like the condition of animals in factory farms (so horrifying you know you don't want to read about it anymore, but you still should), the health impacts of soy (wonder food or health menace?), food safety, grass-fed meat, hormones in your milk, child labor in the chocolate business (and the health benefits of chocolate), fair-trade coffee, predatory advertising, and more.

Although a proponent of eating a plant-based (vegan) diet, Robbins is decidedly not preachy. That's not to malign all vegans as evangelizers, but sometimes when you care deeply about something (not just what you eat), it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. As Robbins told me, "the more passionate you are about something, the more you need to remember to be respectful to people who have different beliefs or different lifestyles."

In fact the book opens with an incredibly moving chapter in which Robbins encounters a hostile pig farmer. Both Robbins and the farmer make snap judgments about each other, but by the end of their meeting both men are irrevocably changed when they are able to finally see past their own biases and look deeply at their lives. "To me, this is grace -- to have the veils lifted from our eyes so that we can recognize and serve the goodness in each other," Robbins wrote. "Others may wish for great riches, psychic powers, or for ecstatic journeys to mystical planes, but to me, this is the true magic of human life."

AlterNet recently caught up with Robbins by phone and talked to him about our relationship with animals, with each other and with our food, and about his decision to choose a different path other than the one destined for an heir to the Baskin Robbins ice cream empire.

Tara Lohan: You write pretty early in the book that you were being groomed to take over the family business, Baskin Robbins. When did you first have an inkling that your path would be much different than that?

John Robbins: My dad and my uncle were the cofounders and the co-owners of the company, and I'm an only son -- I have sisters, but no brother and my father groomed me to succeed him. All of his expectations were on me. I went some steps down that path but at a certain point I felt pulled in a very different direction. So I walked away from the company and I also chose not to be financially connected to it in any way. I told him I didn't want a trust fund, I didn't want to depend on his achievements for my life, I wanted to live by different values. And over the years that followed I wrote the book Diet for a New America which is highly critical of modern meat production, modern dairy production. I don't believe I could have appraised the modern dairy industry and modern meat production as objectively as I did if I had remained tethered financially in any way to it.

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