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The Battle at the Plate

altWith a new book, ‘No Happy Cows,’  and the forthcoming Virtual Food Revolution Summit, author John Robbins stirs up a food uprising unlike any other. Why the push for more natural foods and less processed, industrial foods has never been greater.

Julia Child and John Robbins walk into a veal barn. (This sounds like the start of a great joke, but it is actually the beginning of a true story.) It was the late ’90s, and the pair were speakers at a conference in Philadelphia, Penn. Child, the iconic American cook and gastronomic Francophile, was well into her eighties; Robbins, who is a Santa Cruz County resident, was a decade into his reign as the leading advocate of a plant-based diet.

“We disagreed about most things,” says Robbins. This fact aside—or perhaps in light of it—he invited Child to accompany him to a nearby veal barn, where young calves awaited their fate as a culinary ingredient.

“I said, ‘Would you like to see how veal is produced with your own eyes?’” Robbins recalls asking Child. “‘Just as a fact-finding tour. I’m not asking you to change anything—what you eat, your recipes, what you advocate. But for your own knowledge, would you like to see it?’”

The legendary chef, although hesitant, eventually agreed to go and, 10 minutes outside of Philadelphia, the duo strolled into an unattended veal barn. “We just walked in,” Robbins says with a light laugh. “They didn’t know it was Julia Child and John Robbins.”  

What they saw in that barn was, as Robbins already knew, the norm for veal operations of the day. In order to produce the velvety texture desired of veal meat, the baby cows were chained up as newborns and not allowed to move or walk until their slaughter a few months later, lest connective tissue form and the muscle consistency be less palatable to consumers.

“The veal calves were chained at the neck by very short chains a few inches long, they couldn’t even lie down—they had to hunch,” he says. “They couldn’t take a single step.”

altStanding among the calves and the noxious stink (the animals were standing in piles of their own waste), Robbins says Child was horrified. 

“She said, ‘I had no idea it was this severe,’” says Robbins. “I said, ‘Julia, unfortunately this is par for the course. This is how veal is produced in this country today. I’m not taking you to a bad example.’”

“That does it,” he recalls her saying. “No more veal.”

Robbins has made a career out of giving others a peek behind the veil of the industrialized food system, although not always in as literal a sense as this. But, like with Child, he has been responsible for informing and changing the hearts and minds of many people, namely those who have read any of his eight books, which explore the intersections of diet, health and the environment.

Although largely alone in the effort when he began in the ’80s, Robbins shouted the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet from the hilltops until others started listening—which they have, and in growing numbers. In addition to increased awareness of the grim reality of factory farming, it’s now more widely understood that reducing meat and dairy consumption is better for our health (diets high in animal proteins are linked to heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and high cholesterol, according to numerous sources, including the World Health Organization) and the health of our planet (for starters, industrial livestock is a larger contributor to global warming than the entire transportation sector, according to a 2006 United Nations report).

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Robbins’ flagship work, the bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Diet for a New America.” Robbins is celebrating with the release of another book, “No Happy Cows: Dispatches From the Frontlines of the Food Revolution,” which hit bookstores on April 1.

Twenty-five years into the business of being a food industry watchdog and dissident, Robbins—an indisputably gentle, kind man—is getting angry. Penning “No Happy Cows” is his way of smearing on the proverbial war paint, and encouraging readers to do the same. 

“There is a tremendous growth in the demand, desire and market for more natural foods and less processed, industrial foods,” he says. “But the forces on the other side are very strong. This basic human desire to eat healthfully in a way that is in harmony with the greater good is unfortunately the opposition today. It’s in opposition to the industrial food machine.”

The vast amounts of money, power and political influence that industry giants like Monsanto have mean that every step forward is met with a large push back, he says. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.

alt“There is a battle going on over dinner, and I’ve written ‘No Happy Cows’ because I want people to win,” he says.

He is taking other steps, as an admiral in the food war, to galvanize the movement. He has gathered the troops, so to speak, in form of a free Virtual Food Revolution Summit that he will host from April 28 to May 6. The 20-speaker lineup is a roster of other soldiers in the revolution who represent “all sides of the food equation,” says Robbins. He will interview three speakers per day over the course of the summit, traversing topics like health and nutrition, genetically modified foods, animal welfare and sustainable livestock movements, while speaking with such prominent luminaries as Dean Ornish, M.D., founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, and “The Age of Miracles” author Marianne Williamson.

The event’s producer (and Robbins’ son), Ocean Robbins, helped conceive of the summit. “My dad is known as a popular spokesperson on issues of health and sustainability, but I know he’s been inspired by a lot of people,” Ocean says. “He didn’t come up with all of this on his own. He’s part of a whole community of visionaries and leaders. They hang out and talk together but there aren’t a lot of ways they get to collaborate. I thought, what would happen if we connected the dots?

“You’ve got brilliant work going on around treatment of animals, on health and the latest medical science, and on sustainability and agriculture,” he adds, “but where can you go to get that all synthesized in one place from the top experts in those fields? Presented in a really accessible way, for free? My thought was that that would be such a gift to offer to the world.”

The tables will turn on the last day of the summit, May 6, when Ocean will interview his father, whose message in both the book and the summit is “that people don’t have to roll over and take it,” John says. “They don’t have to let Monsanto or McDonalds dictate what they feed their kids and what they feed themselves.”

We need this revolution just to undo the one that was thrust upon us in the first place, says journalist and “Value of Nothing” author Raj Patel, who is a speaker in the summit. “It’s revolutionary for us to think it’s normal to find water in bottles,” he says. “It’s revolutionary for our kids to grow up thinking tomatoes come from supermarkets.

“I like the idea of a food revolution,” Patel adds. “We need such a thing. I’m keen to engage in a conversation about how we might imagine the world differently.”

And while personal responsibility surely has a part to play in the fight, he says a true revolution will require a collective effort.

“Often we’re beguiled into thinking if only we buy local, organic and seasonal, everything will be fine,” Patel says. “The way the food system is structured, that just isn’t the case. The problems are too deep to shop our way out. We need to figure out ways not individually to make the world a better place, but to do so collectively. And that’s a good thing, in fact. That’s the way movements happen. We’re going to make things better by engaging with one another and becoming bigger than ourselves.”

NO HAPPY COWS

If “Diet for a New America” catapulted the troubles with factory farming and industrial agriculture into the public eye, “No Happy Cows” catches up with everything that has happened as a result. Free-range, grass-fed, humanely-raised—these topics weren’t discussed in “Diet for a New America” because they “didn’t exist at the time as a commercial entity,” says Robbins.

alt“No Happy Cows” is his response to the skyrocketing demand for local, organic, humanely raised and more sustainable foods—and the good and bad that comes along with it. “It’s great,” he says. “I just don’t want to see it exploited or lied about.” The book examines junk food marketing aimed at children, the dark reality behind chocolate, the deceptive branding of products like “Vitaminwater,” and more.

But the prime example of agribusiness greenwashing in “No Happy Cows” is, as the title suggests, the California Milk Advisory Board’s Happy Cows ad campaign. “Great cheese comes from happy cows,” state the commercials, “Happy cows come from California.”

“There are no happy cows in industrial agriculture,” asserts Robbins. “In feedlot beef production, in feed-lot dairy production, there are no happy cows. I really mean that. There aren’t any.” He says the Happy Cow commercials—which depict robust, healthy cows frolicking on spacious green pastures—are an insult to the genuine concerns and cares of the consumer. “They don’t want to treat the cows better, they just want to put an ad campaign out there saying they do,” he says of the industry.

Patel often writes about similar industry maneuvers to capitalize on health-driven trends, such as Pepsi’s introduction of “healthier options” to their product line. But, Patel says, so long as a corporation’s bottom line is, well, the bottom line—and not the consumer—they will never be true orchestrators of change.

“[Corporations] are like old style vacuum cleaner salesman, who will come into your house and dump a bunch of dirt on your carpet and then clean it up,” says Patel. “Well, we wouldn’t need the vacuum if they hadn’t dumped the crap there in the first place. If we’re serious about sustainable eating, then it’s not big corporations that will help us get out of this. To borrow a joke from Hillary Clinton, asking them to fix the food crises is like asking the iceberg to fix the Titanic.”

Robbins’ beef isn’t just with misleading advertising, but also with the sheer amount of it aimed at promoting unhealthy foods.           

“We live in a culture where there is a bombardment of advertising for junk food,” Robbins says. “It’s on every street corner. Fast food is everywhere. That pushes us in an unhealthy direction. And I’m trying to balance that. I’m the anti-Monsanto, the anti-McDonalds, and,”—here, he lowers his voice—“in some ways, the anti-Baskin-Robbins.”

(He is a Robbins, of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream family. You may be familiar with the story: as the only son of Baskin-Robbins co-founder Irv Robbins, he was heir to the company and its accompanying fortune. But he experienced a change of heart in his early twenties that led him to turn down the opportunity and divest from the family’s wealth.)

Robbins isn’t alone is his disdain for dairy. Not mentioned in “No Happy Cows” are the “Real Milk Comes From Cows” commercials currently on the air. The ads are the latest marketing effort of the California Milk Processor Board (CMPB), the group of milk producers behind the popular Got Milk? ads. But their new “Real Milk Comes From Cows” commercials don’t seem to promote milk consumption so much as attempt to protect it. Their defensiveness makes sense when you consider the significant rise in sales of soy and other non-dairy milk alternatives in recent years. In “No Happy Cows,” Robbins writes that annual soy milk sales went from a few million dollars in the early 1980s to more than a billion dollars today ($1.3 billion in 2011, according to market research group Packaged Facts). “And it’s not just soy milk,” Robbins continues. “It’s all soy foods. From 1996 to 2011, annual soy food sales in the U.S. literally quintupled—increasing from $1 billion to $5 billion.”

Add to that the 79 percent increase in U.S. almond milk sales in 2011, according to Packaged Facts, and the dairy industry may be right to be worried.

altThe growing market for non-dairy beverages correlates with increasing awareness about the prevalence of hormones in conventional milk—a topic explored in one of “No Happy Cows”’ more gripping chapters, titled “Infants Growing Breasts: The Trouble with Hormones in our Milk.” Although the use of Bovine Growth Hormones (BGHs) are banned in other developed countries, including Canada and most of Europe, non-organic American dairy cows are pumped with the stuff regularly.

Milk is to Food Revolution Summit speaker T. Colin Campbell’s career as ice cream is to Robbins’.

Campbell was raised on a dairy farm and grew up believing that milk was, as the saying of the day went, “nature’s most perfect food.”

“If anything, growing up on a dairy farm biased me in favor of eating meat, milk and eggs as the best of nutrition,” says Campbell, who spoke to Good Times on his 78th birthday. He went into his career as a biochemist and nutrition scientist promoting the consumption of animal proteins for optimal health, but everything changed when he saw a curious finding in an Indian medical study that found a link between cancer and diets high in animal products.

“I took the next 27 years to simply inquire into the question ‘does higher protein intake really increase cancer risk?’” he says. “What we learned was that we could turn on or off cancer growth depending on the amount of protein. We were using cow’s milk for protein, and as we increased the amount of milk, it turned cancer on. When we eventually tried a couple of plant proteins, it did not turn on cancer growth.”

These findings set Campbell on a path he hadn’t expected—one that caused him, like Robbins, to “break with my background.” But his dairy-doubting studies did more than to distance him from his roots; they also ostracized him from his colleagues and the accepted beliefs of Western medicine.

 “It had been said for decades that if we wanted to have a good, healthy diet, we ought to be consuming enough milk and making sure we got enough meat to go along with it,” he says. “That was the story told.”

However, over the course of his ensuing scientific endeavors, he found quite the opposite to be true. “When we consume protein in excess amount than we need—and almost everyone does, and they get it from animal foods—we are increasing the risk of cancer and a number of other problems like heart disease,” Campbell says. 

At the risk of being seen as “out there” by his peers, Campbell moved forward with the work. “I had to decide for myself at that time, am I going to continue to talk in technical terms and be an objective scientist and be careful not to say anything far out there, or am I going to take a hard look at this?” he says “This evidence had become so persuasive at that time.”

In 2005, Campbell co-authored the four-time best-selling book “The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health,” which the New York Times called the “grand prix of epidemiology.” His work is now some of the most famous and reputed evidence for the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Campbell was featured in the documentaries Forks Over Knives and Planeat, both of which also spotlight physician Caldwell Esselstyn, who is also a Food Revolution Summit speaker.

ONE STEP

The personal frustrations that come along with being a food and health revolutionary are one of the topics Robbins plans to address with his interviewees.

“What is it like to see as clearly and strongly as many of these people do when you’re speaking to a culture—and trying to awaken a culture—where denial and deflection and distraction prevail?” says Robbins. “When you’re carrying a torch and doing so over the long haul in a culture where the forces that are aligned that are very powerful?

“Monsanto, McDonalds, they have the money,” he also notes. “We may have the truth on our side, but they have the money and influence in Washington. They get to very often have tremendous input into the farm bill and into agricultural subsidies and how things play out. So what is the key that enables people to sustain for the long haul? In the face of the criticism, the cynicism, the rejection, the inevitable disappointments?”

Speaker Kathy Freston is the New York Times bestselling author of books including “The Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World” and “Quantum Wellness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to Health and Happiness.” Her latest work, “The Lean: A Revolutionary (and Simple!) 30-Day Plan for Healthy, Lasting Weight Loss” came out on April 1. As for Robbins’ question, Freston says it is her hope, but also her dissatisfaction, which fuels her fire. 

“I’m always frustrated,” she says. “It’s the thing that drives me forward—like with every activist—the absolute horror at seeing what we’re doing as a culture every day and what we’re doing to other live beings who feel, and to our precious planet earth, and to our bodies. It kills me every day. Am I judgmental about it?  No. I believe everyone has their own process regarding when they want to look at something and do something about it.”

Like Campbell and Robbins before her, Freston had to unlearn a lifetime of conventional eating habits and beliefs before she became a leader in the movement for a healthier diet.

“I grew up in Atlanta, raised on barbecue ribs, cheesy grits and chicken fried steak,” she says. “[Vegetarianism] was something that was completely foreign to me.” Throughout her twenties, a copy of “Diet for a New America” sat, unread, on her bedside table—the book called to her, but it was a long time before she felt ready to give it a go. “I’d open it up and close it back up again,” she says. “I’d read something and feel that just to read it would be to have to change.” Needless to say, she eventually read it—and the rest is history.

But, while Freston is a self-proclaimed “veganist” (defined as “someone who is very interested in learning more and turning it into action”), she advocates for taking baby steps toward a healthier diet and not beating oneself up along the way. This is encapsulated in her concept of  “the lean,” a double entendre hinting at both the weight loss potential of a vegan diet and the strategy of gently leaning into the changes.

“I believe in progress, not perfection,” she says. “Rather than white knuckling it through changes that are new and sometimes daunting, it’s easier if we point ourselves in the direction of change, and nudge ourselves forward. Then we create a momentum.”

This message is shared by many of the summit’s speakers, including Robbins. Although he’s known for advocating a plant-based diet, “No Happy Cows” is a departure in that, instead, it details ways to eat milk and dairy responsibly and is—he hopes—good reading material for non-vegetarians looking to get more informed about their choices.

“I’m not trying to convert people to veganism,” says Robbins, who doesn’t actually use the “v” word himself (rather, he calls himself a “near vegan” or a “vegiquarian” because of his occasional consumption of wild-caught fish). “If you can cut down, if you can reduce, you can move in the right direction.”

The food uprising will be accomplished when everyone, collectively, takes a step in the right direction, not by a handful of full-fledged militants, he says. He hopes that his new book and the summit will inspire the general public to get angry enough with the modus operandi to make some small changes. “If we could get everyone in the world to take one step, the impact of that on the greater reality would be much greater than any people way out there, because there are just so many more people,” says Robbins.

The summit’s lineup includes speakers with a variety of dietary styles, from Freston, the veganist, to Campbell (who is anti the “v” word and instead sticks with the phrase “plant-based diet,” which he helped coin) to livestock rancher Nicolette Niman, who authored “Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.”

“Each will be different and each will give a different piece of the puzzle,” Ocean Robbins says of the group. “Together you get a great toolbox of resources.”

The interviewees may be coming at the food revolution from different angles, but, like Robbins, they are “in it to win it.”

Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology and author of “Seeds of Deception,” for example, has dedicated his life to fighting against genetically engineered foods—and is confident that the battle will soon be won (see sidebar). “I look forward to putting myself out of a job,” Smith says. “If I’m very successful, then I will be unemployed. And we’re not far.”

Patel, who originates from the U.K., is also optimistic. “When I came to the U.S. in the mid-’90s there wasn’t really a food movement to talk about,” he says. “The movement itself is growing, and that’s something to get excited about.”

As for Robbins? “I want to win this battle,” he says. “I really do.” 

 


The Virtual Food Revolution Summit will take place April 28–May 6 via a web broadcast and a dial-in phone teleconference. To register for free, find the full list of speakers, or to learn more, visit foodrevolution.org. Participants can dialogue with one another through a chat room during the summit. An upgrade package will be available for $97 in the three days following the event (after which it will be $197), and will include mp3s of the collection of interviews, e-books, webinars, recipe books, interview transcripts and other offerings from the various speakers involved.


The GMO Tipping Point

Author/activist Jeffrey Smith has seen awareness and actions about genetically modified foods soar since he first began working in the field in 1996. “Right now there is an unprecedented level of awareness and concern about GMOs,” he says. “So much so that I am confident that we are seeing the early signs of a tipping point at which point the use of GMO ingredients will become a marketing liability for food companies and they will usher them out of the market.”

As a nationwide leader in the movement to ban and/or label GMO foods, Smith points to California as the epicenter of the battle, and has high hopes for the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Foods Act, which is currently in the signature-gathering phase. If volunteers—including more than 100 Santa Cruzans—can gather 800,000 signatures by April 22, voters in November will have a chance to weigh in on the measure, which would require foods with GMO ingredients to say so on their packaging. (More than 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMO ingredients, according to the Committee for the Right to Know.)

GMO-Free Santa Cruz would not divulge the exact numbers of signatures they had gathered as of press time, but they did say that they had met their halfway goal and were optimistic. For Smith, it’s not a matter of if, but when, labeling will occur, and whether consumers will stop buying GMO products before July 2014, when the law would take effect. “I think there’s a race between labeling and a consumer tipping point—I don’t know which will hit first,” he says.

In the meantime, Smith offers the following four tips for people looking to avoid GMO foods:

1. Find non-GMO products listed at nongmoshoppingguide.com, or use the iPhone app “Shop No GMO.”

2. Buy products that say “Non-GMO,” particularly those that say “Non-GMO Verified.”

3. Buy organic—they are not allowed to intentionally use GMOs, although sometimes contamination can occur.

4. Avoid the at-risk ingredients, which include milk and meat from animals fed GMOs, milk from animals injected with Bovine Growth Hormone, and eight crops: soybeans, corn, cottonseed, canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya (most), zucchini and yellow squash (some).

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written by Elizabeth Borelli, April 10, 2012
What a well rounded and amazing group of speakers. Looking forward to this incredible event!

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