John Robbins walked away from a sweet deal. The heir to his family’s ice-cream fortune, Robbins was in his early 20s when he realized the dairy industry’s image of happy cows and happy farmers hid some not-so-happy truths he couldn’t live with.
So he wrote a book, Diet for a New America, addressing animal rights, factory farming, and the connections between what we eat, our health, and the health of the planet. The book — Robbins refers to it by its acronym, DNA — was published 25 years ago, but it still delivers a jolt.
Since then, Robbins has written seven more books, including No Happy Cows and The Food Revolution. He’s also the founder of EarthSave International and has racked up many awards, including the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, and the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award.
Yet Robbins feels it’s hard these days for a single person’s actions to compete with corporate food’s money, public-relations campaigns, and political influence. That’s why, two years ago, he and his son, Ocean, created the Food Revolution Network. The Food Revolution Network works to connect people and continue Robbins’ mission, which is also DNA’s subtitle: “How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Your Happiness and the Future of Life on Earth.”
How have things changed since you wrote Diet for a New America 25 years ago?
More people have been listening. There’s a food movement, an awakening, and that’s wonderful. There’s things like the Meatless Monday campaign. The Los Angeles school system has undertaken it this year, and this is terrific. It’s such a big step. I’m so pleased when that happens.
But we’re up against a very, very intractable force: an embedded corporate agenda that is toxic to the earth and the farmworkers and produces food that is toxic to the people who eat it. Monsanto is the base of that, but there’s a lot more. Coca-Cola and other soda companies spend over $1 billion a year on ads targeting kids. Children are easily manipulated. They get hooked and are lifelong consumers. They’ve got a big bull’s-eye on their backs; Coke and Pepsi put it there, and they’re aiming and shooting.
You’ve been warning us about the dangers of our food system for decades. What made you decide to focus on the Food Revolution Network?
The original vision was Ocean’s. Working with him has been just fabulous. We wanted to represent every part of the food system, to bring in voices who are deeply informed and knowledgeable and have demonstrated tremendous competence and expertise, people who are passionate without being rigid or strident.
We’ve put on two [virtual] summits. For the first, we hoped for 5,000 participants. We got 32,000. The second one, we hoped for 50,000 and got 73,000. It feels great to be connecting with so many people. I’m hoping the network can be a bridge-builder.
The summits have had a broad scope, with experts speaking on everything from global food policy to personal choices.
What seemed to resonate with attendees?
Everything. Someone who had a real interest in GMOs would naturally go to those interviews, but then listen to others and get excited about aspects he hadn’t known about. That broadening and deepening of our participants’ interests is so exciting. We had people entering from different doors but coming into the same tent.
I have a big-tent approach. I have seen a tendency to become divided and partisan. There has been such rigidity and one-upsmanship in the food movement — raw foodists saying, “I’m better,” people being more vegan than thou or more Paleo than thou or “Atkins is better than Sears.” So many ways people fight. Why bicker and fight with each other over details or minutiae when you can look at the bigger picture, use the opportunity to work together and form productive and creative alliances, to reach a larger group?
You’re one person who’s made a huge difference. But the emphasis of the Food Revolution Network seems to be working together with others. I was intrigued by your interview with Michael Pollan during your recent summit, where you both say personal action is no longer enough.
It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We need to change at the personal level, and we need to develop a network and to create a change at a larger, systemic level of our society.
Building a political movement is difficult. We have so many entrenched interests. If somebody in Congress comes up with a good idea and proposes some reforms that would make for meaningful change, they get thrown out, compromised, and overwhelmed by our agri-industrial complex.
What are the Food Revolution Network’s goals?
The Food Revolution Network is trying to work with other organizations to generate some changes in the Farm Bill, to see subsidies go to sustainable food, healthy food, rather than GMO corn and soy. Today with our current policy, Twinkies are cheaper per calorie than carrots, a head of broccoli costs more than a candy bar.
I’d like to see us label GMOS, to put warning labels on foods that have been proven to be unhealthy, similar to what we do on cigarettes: junk food, high-sugar foods, processed food, and factory-farmed meats and dairy. I would like to see a tax on pesticide use and the income used to lower the price of organic food.
We want healthy food to be available to everybody, whatever their economic situation is. People who are financially stressed become nutritionally stressed. The only calories they can afford are nutrition-devoid. But there are efforts to cut SNAP, the food-stamp program. There are nearly 50 million Americans depending on SNAP to eat — the elderly, veterans. Almost half are children.
We need the public to know the evidence that a whole-food, plant-strong diet — absent processed food, too much sugar, and factory-farmed meat — not only prevents but reverses many, many diseases. This is not something vegans are wearing on their T-shirts; it’s something doctors are finding time and time again in research trials.
If a drug could do what a healthy diet does, that drug would [enjoy] hundreds of billions of dollars of sales; there would be whole industries fighting for it. But there’s nobody profiting from health.
We don’t have a health-care system; we have a disease-management system, and there’s a lot of money being made off it.
You’ve likened our behavior as a society to autism. Tell me more about that. [Robbins’ grandsons are autistic.]
One of the defining features of autism is the person is not tuned in to relationships. They don’t make eye contact with people, are not aware of other people very much. That capacity for relationships seems to be missing as a species in our relationship to other species, to the world, to other cultures, to people of different skin colors, economic backgrounds.
We tend to be guarded and suspicious. We tend to look at other species as something to exploit rather than as partners in the web of life. We don’t look at harmony; we go into a forest and think, how many more feet of lumber can we get out of it? We don’t look at the ecosystem as making Earth beautiful and possible; we see what we can expropriate and turn into revenue. It strikes as me autistic and nonrelational.
Given that, what keeps you going back and delivering the message of conscious eating and living again and again?
i don’t know what else to do, frankly. This is the only thing that appeals to me. The times are urgent, you know?
What’s one positive thing we can do as individuals?
Get connected. Food is incredibly social. We can eat together, and I think that’s a good thing. A number of us are eating our meals alone or eating in front of our computers. If that becomes what you do, you’re missing something, some part of being human.
I think how we eat is important, where we shop is important, who we buy from is important. Buy direct from a grower or a farmer’s market or a CSA, or grow something yourself.
Align your own diet with your highest good, so you eat more from what fulfills your purpose on this earth instead of short-term gratification. It’s important to make that discernment between momentary pleasure and foods that nourish your body and soul and your ability to enjoy your life.
Related book: Diet for a New America
We talk with people doing influential, important, or just plain unusual work in food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite