BOOKS: The Food Revolution

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2001:
The Food Revolution:
How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life And The World
by John Robbins
Conari Press (2550 9th St., Suite 2001, Berkeley, CA 94710), 2001.
488 pages, paperback. $17.95.

A few vegetarian advocates achieved transient public notice before John Robbins hit the bigtime with Diet For A New America in 1987, but they were mostly focused on personal health and fitness. Frances Moore Lappe had only transient impact in linking meat-eating with world hunger, and even the most influential writers addressing the animal welfare aspects of meat, such as Ruth Harrison, Peter Singer, and Jim Mason, barely reached beyond those who already cared.

As the heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune who rejected the money, Robbins had the story, charisma, and energy to reach beyond niche audiences, and had perhaps the first book that presented the whole picture of what meat-eating does to the world. Robbins also had good timing. The word “diet” caught the attention of Baby Boomers just beginning to hit middle age, and as the U.S. approached the 20-year celebration of the first Earth Day, and the end of the 20th century, we were ready for the promise of “A New America,” even if there would be no “dawning of the Age of Aquarius” or genuine New Age.

Robbins went anywhere and everywhere to sell his book and his ideas. I met him, somewhat skeptically, on a freezing cold morning at a failed New Age festival where the audience for his outdoor lecture could almost have fit in a hot tub–and probably would have, if there had been one. Half were young female animal rights activists who sat at his knees, some with their boyfriends. The rest were vendors, mostly older men, who stopped to listen because they had no customers and nothing else was happening.

As a second-generation lifelong vegetarian, I have seen veggie evangelists come and go, and have seen some go on to selling snake-oil, too, so I hooked my thumbs in my belt and slouched at the back of the gathering among the men I sized up as probable hecklers. I wasn’t there to heckle, but I wasn’t there to acclaim the latest cult hero, either. I wanted to see if Robbins really knew his stuff, if he meant it, and if he could preach convincingly to anyone but the choir.

He could and did. A seller of bogus “Native American” fur wares, whom I had confronted the day before, was the first
potential heckler to drift away. A Native American elder who had backed me up in the argument stroked his chin and nodded agreement. One by one, Robbins won the skeptics over. At the end, they all shook his hand. I was last. Everyone else bought the book. I already had it.

“Good work,” I said, introducing myself. “I thought you were the guy who was going to be trouble,” Robbins admitted.

Update and sequel

The Food Revolution is a combination update and sequel. The most memorable content of Diet For A New America is all within it, and Robbins’ delivery is as charismatic, upbeat, and persuasive as ever–but his timing with this book is terrible. He missed the milennium, and after September 11 no one wants to hear about revolutions.

Instead, the November 26 edition of Newsweek reported, sales of ice cream have “spiked,” foie gras sales jumped 50%, and Butterball turkey sales rose 8%. Faint comfort for animal welfare advocates, but not vegetarians, might be that free-range turkey sales jumped 10%.

And this time I am the guy who is going to give Robbins trouble, because this time he has made some of the silly mistakes that separate a cult book from one that might persuade a well-informed person holding opposite views.

It may be a small matter, in context, that on page 166 Robbins cites animal shelter data that is now 20 years old and four times too high, but on page 209 he repeats the error in asserting that “commercial meat, dairy, and egg products often come from animals whose diet included the ground-up remains of cats and dogs, including the flea collars some were wearing and the euthanasia drugs injected into their bodies.”

Indeed, among the offal of the 10 billion chickens, turkeys, pigs, cattle, and other slaughterhouse remnants that are
processed into livestock feed each year are some remains of cats and dogs. But they were either roadkills collected by highway crews or were killed by gas. If they contain “euthanasia drugs injected into their bodies,” they are hazardous waste under U.S. law, and are supposed to be incinerated or buried in lined landfills.

On page 313, Robbins calls agricultural herbicide use “largely unnecessary,” then one sentence later advocates “no-till
farming” as an alternative to it. Actually, “no-till” is the use of herbicides and seed-drilling instead of ploughing and seed-casting. No-till markedly decreases soil erosion and seed loss to birds, feeding more people per acre and permitting cultivation of less land to get a greater yield than conventional tillage, but it is heavily herbicide-dependent.

Robbins in the next paragraph quotes Indian food issues crusader Vandana Shiva, who says that, “In India, at least 80 to 90% of the nutrition comes from what the agricultural industry terms ‘weeds.’ [Agribusiness] has this attitude that the weeds are stealing from them, so they spray a field which has sometimes 200 species that the women of the area would normally use as food, medicine, or fodder.”

Shiva is arguing, in essence, that it is preferable to grow 200 species in each field, instead of much higher volumes of each species in separate fields. Her approach works in India, where most people still live on the land and most farm work is still done by poorly educated women who furnish abundant cheap labor. If female work and intelligence is ever properly valued, however, many women will choose less strenuous, less tedious, and more rewarding work, and Indian agriculture will have to become much more efficient. Further, when Indian women are doing work that allows them to buy quality food and medicine, they will no longer have to scavenge weeds to eke out survival, and the “weeds” with real nutritional or medicinal value will be cultivated as crops.

Denouncing biotechnology, Robbins on pages 315-316 asserts that, “Even with nearly 100 million acres planted in 2000, and with genetically engineered crops covering one quarter of all cropland in the U.S., their products had yet to do a thing to reverse the spread of hunger,” although the famine-stricken portions of the world have been shrinking and have been mostly confined to war zones for the past 30 years.

“No commercial acreage had been planted in crops which had been engineered to produce greater yields or that had any kind of enhanced nutritional value,” Robbins continues. “There was no more food available for the world’s less fortunate. In fact, the vast majority of the fields were growing transgenic soybeans and corn that were destined for livestock feed.”

In fact, most of the genetically engineered crops have been modified for pest and weather-resistance, with does bring greater yields. Greater yields mean greater nutritional output per acre. Even if none of it goes anywhere except into livestock feed, increasing the feed output from 25% of U.S. cropland reduces the demand for feed production on the rest–and that does make more land available to grow other things, including the greater portion of all the food that all the nations of the world export to famine areas.

On page 353, Robbins claims that, “Even as we assault our farmland with millions of pounds of poisons annually, bugs are eating as large a share of the world’s food crops as they did in medieval times.” This in itself is a good argument for using biotechnology instead of pesticides to fight insects. It also underscores the value of increasing food yields per acre, so that the loss of a significant share to insects does not leave whole nations to starve.

In the same chapter, Robbins simultaneously fulminates against the unwanted spread of pollen from genetically engineered crops and the use of “Terminator” seed technology that would leave the pollen harmlessly sterile.

Robbins made a much stronger case for vegetarianism before he tried to hybridize his argument with the muddled case against biotech, which except when applied to animals is an issue apart from animal agriculture. Indeed, many foes of biotech–like Vandana Shiva–would increase human reliance on animals for transportation, if not necessarily for food. Abandoning biotech would also markedly increase the number of cows used to produce milk, calves killed for
veal or beef, and pigs killed for pork, if not accompanied by a sharp drop in demand for animal products.

This time Robbins has produced a cult book. It won’t achieve mainstream popularity, and that may be better for animals than if it had.

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