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'The Food Revolution' by John Robbins

In 1987, John Robbins published ‘Diet for a New America’ – followed in 2001 by ‘The Food Revolution’. In 2011, the Tenth Anniversary edition was published, with a forward by Dean Ornish, clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and famous for the renowned ‘Ornish Plan’ – the hugely successful approach to treating Coronary Heart Disease via diet and lifestyle – thereby avoiding any need for surgery.

John Robbin’s father and uncle created the huge Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire – manufacturing and selling more ice cream than anyone else in history. However, John had come to the realisation that the consumption of meat and dairy products was (and still is) the principal cause of the high levels of chronic disease across America. His uncle had died from a fatal heart attack in his early fifties and his father later developed high blood pressure and diabetes.

Much to his father’s dismay, John Robbins turned his back on his inheritance and set out to promote the need for Americans to move away from the Standard American Diet and towards a Whole Food Plant Based Diet. He was only too well aware that, as well as improving health, this was also necessary to reduce the unacceptable levels of animal exploitation and suffering as well as the horrendous environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture.

One of the testimonials on the back of the book says :

'With regard to our health and the health of our planet, The Food Revolution could be the most important book ever written'

I would have to concur with this - and would recommend anyone to read this book!

For me, the views of John Robbins are summed up in the following quote :

‘To me it is deeply moving that the same food choices that give us the best chance to eliminate world hunger are also those that take the least toll on the environment, contribute the most to our long term health, are the safest, and are also far and away the most compassionate toward our fellow creatures’.

PART I – Food and Healing

The number one cause of premature death in America is coronary heart disease – at the start of Part 1, Robbins addresses this and points out that, as well as the death of his uncle from a heart attack, Ben Cohen (one of the co-founders of Ben and Jerry’s) required a quadruple heart bypass at the age of 49 and the actor, James Garner needed a quintuple bypass shortly after appearing in adverts for the American beef industry.

He outlines the tremendous success achieved by the Ornish programme in treating patients with Coronary Heart Disease, as well as others, like Dr Caldwell B Esselstyn.

There has been accruing a massive amount of evidence in favour of a plant based diet. However, the meat, dairy and egg industries have persistently refuted such evidence and continue to promote their products as an essential part of a balanced healthy diet!

One chapter is ‘Preventing Cancer’ – for me, his conclusions are summed up in the following quotes:

The vast majority of all cancers, cardiovascular disease and other forms of degenerative illness can be prevented simply by adopting a plant based diet’ T. Colin Campbell

‘If you step back and look at the data on beef and cancer, the optimum amount of red meat you should eat is zero’ Walter Willett, MD

‘The meat industry has contributed to more deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters and all automobile accidents combined. If beef is your idea of ‘real food for real people’, you’d better live real close to a real hospital’. Neal Barnard, MD, President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

A report published by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research concluded ‘Vegetarian diets reduce the risk of cancer’.

One major issue in America (and other countries) is the number of people who are overweight and desperately looking for ‘diets’ to help them slim down. Robbins points out that this was by no means the reason for writing his books and that, indeed, he did not like the idea of including the word DIET in his first book.

In The Food Revolution, he gives some consideration to three such diets and the books published to promote them. These were ‘New Diet Revolution’ by Dr Robert Atkins, ‘Enter the Zone’ by Barry Sears and ‘Eat Right for Your Type’ by Peter J D’Adamo.

He points out that there is no scientific basis or evidence for any of these and that, on the contrary, they actually have no health benefits whatsoever. All they really have done is sell an awful lot of books for the authors!

The same diet plans have been dismissed by many others, including T. Colin Campbell and Garth Davis.

It just so happens that a plant based diet is accompanied the maintenance of a healthy weight and it is sustainable in the long term!

In chapter 5, he deals with some of the evidence and arguments regarding the health benefits of a plant based diet.

Apparently, it is estimated that 98% of wheat consumed in America is in the form of refined, white flour. I was very interested to note that, when flour is refined, up to 25 nutrients are removed in large amounts, compared with consuming whole grain wheat!

He also lists what should be included in a Whole Food Plant Based Diet. I have addressed this in other blogs – but, essentially, 100% of what we eat should be plants and they should be as close as possible to how they grew i.e. No processed food and no added sugar or oil etc. There is absolutely no reason at all why this should be restrictive – and provides not only a very healthy diet, but one that is also delicious and interesting!

The usual issues of B12 and Omega 3 fatty acids are discussed. Certainly, when on this diet, we need to be taking B12 supplements or consuming products fortified with B12. Flax is an excellent plant-based source of Omega 3.

There some interesting figures quoted at the end of this chapter :

It is estimated that the annual cost of treating smoking-related illness in America is $65 billion.

The comparable cost of treating chronic conditions related to meat consumption is $60-120 billion.

It is quite possible that this second figure is greater than the annual revenues of the meat industry!

Another chapter is devoted to the Dairy Industry – in particular, the huge amounts they spend promoting dairy products (‘white moustache’ adverts etc) and making unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of milk!

Robbins points out (as have others) that cow’s milk is designed to turn a 90 lb calf into a 450 lb cow as quickly as possible and is in no way suitable for human consumption! Indeed, there is mounting, incontrovertible evidence that high levels of dairy consumption are associated with poor bone health and that, contrary to the claims of the Dairy Industry, calcium is far better obtained from plant sources.

Quite soon after the publication ‘Diet for a New America’ someone (anonymously) started sending John Robbins the minutes of various Board meetings of a large Dairy corporation. Mostly these were of little interest until, in one of them he read :

‘We’ve got to do something about John Robbins. People are listening to him. He’s handsome, eloquent, charismatic and believable. What are we going to do about this? We don’t want the public to learn what he’s talking about.’

Clearly, they were becoming concerned about the sales of their dairy products – but there would appear to be a realisation that what he was saying was actually correct!

Aside from the consumption of animal products having a detrimental effect on our health – and being the leading cause of burgeoning levels of chronic illness – there is also the issue of intensive, factory farming and the bacterial contamination of meat and eggs. Robbins paints a very grim picture of the situation in America. In fact, in homes and restaurants were meat is prepared, the quantity of harmful bacteria thriving in the kitchen is MUCH higher than the bathroom and even the toilet! If anyone handles meat and then prepares a salad, cross contamination from the meat to the salad is almost a certainty.

There are a number of strains of pathogenic bacteria associated with animal products, including E.coli 0157:H77 (universally found in hamburgers and ground beef), Campylobacter (contaminates virtually all chicken products), Salmonella (chicken flesh and eggs) and Listeria (found in a whole range of products – soft cheeses, eggs, shellfish, processed meats, unpasteurised juices etc).

It is very difficult to obtain accurate figures as to how many people become ill with these infections and for how many it turns out to be fatal. Whatever the correct figures, it is an unacceptably large number!

What I find even more alarming, is that the meat, eggs and dairy products are only too well aware of the problem but, because of the cost involved, do not appear to be inclined to do much about it! What they are prepared to do is irradiate the meat before it is put on sale. This is a very controversial practice – the meat industry claim that irradiated meat is perfectly safe to eat but it is likely that the radiation causes the formation of potentially harmful molecules within the meat.

Many consumers do not like the idea that their food has been irradiated and the meat industry is fighting hard to prevent it being labelled as such! What they do suggest is that people should be aware of the need to cook the meat thoroughly and completely – though if it is overcooked, there is considerable evidence of the formation of a range of powerful carcinogenic chemicals!

Finally, a quote from an article in Time magazine says it all!

‘The good news about chicken is that thanks to modern processing techniques, it costs only about a third of what it did two decades ago. The bad news is that an uncooked chicken has become one of the most dangerous items in the American home’

In the last chapter of Part 1, Robbins discusses some of the regulations that are in place to try and ensure the safety of meat, dairy and egg products. These discussions include the effectiveness of such measures (how well are they are policed and enforced) and the extent to which the industries comply. It does not make pleasant reading!

The particular issues addressed here include

  • The number of times huge quantities of meat have had to be recalled because of bacterial contamination. On all of these occasions, only a fraction of the meat has actually been returned – which suggests that quite large amounts of contaminated meat have actually been consumed!

  • A huge increase in the development of antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria as a result of the use of antibiotics in livestock

  • The use of hormones to promote growth rates

  • The development of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) or Mad Cow Disease and its human form. CJD (Creutzfeld Jacob Disease)

Robbins points out that, as all of these problems develop, ‘the meat, dairy and egg industries will do their best to deflect attention and downplay their responsibility’.

Also, ‘that the surest way to protect ourselves and our loved ones will be to move away from dependence on animal products’.

PART II – Our Food, Our Fellow Creatures

A major part of choosing a vegan lifestyle is to eliminate the cruel exploitation of other species of animals. So many people are entirely unaware (or choose not to give it any consideration) of what is going on – indeed, there tends to be an assumption that in the production of meat, dairy and eggs animal welfare is high on the agenda and that the raising and slaughter of livestock is done in as humane a way as possible. In a world of factory farming, where profit is paramount, nothing could be further from the truth.

In Europe, to be fair, the legal requirements for animal welfare are somewhat preferable to the situation in America. In many states, agriculture is specifically excluded when it comes to animal cruelty laws!

The first chapter in Part 2 is ‘The Pig Farmer’. This is remarkable and moving – I will say no more here – you need to read it!

‘If a substantial percentage of the public became aware of how farm animals are treated today, there would be changes. But the meat, dairy and egg industries have sought to perpetuate the myth that the animals are perfectly content’

This is substantiated by quotes from some industry journals :

Hog Farm Management : ‘What we are really trying to do is to modify the animal’s environment for maximum profit ….. Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory’

Amongst many others, McDonalds comes in for a great deal of criticism. In 1999, they were nominated for a Business Ethics Award – but it was turned down because of concerns regarding the cruelty involved in their supplies of beef and chicken.

In the UK in 1997, there was the famous McLibel case in which McDonalds tried to sue 5 unemployed animal activists. In spite of spending $16 million in fees, they lost their case!

In summing up in the High Court in London, the judge decided that ‘’It had been proven that the animals that became McDonald’s products were treated cruelly and McDonalds were ‘culpably responsible’ for this cruelty’’

McDonalds appealed – but the appeal was turned down. As far as chickens are concerned, the conclusion was ‘Keeping large numbers of chickens in close confinement inevitably leads to disease ….. The high density is intentional and unnecessary …..In my judgement it’s cruel’

Following all of this PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) stepped in and tried to encourage McDonalds to improve the animal welfare in their supply chain. After two years and little, if any, co-operation from McDonalds, PETA launched its ‘Do you want fries with that? McCruelty to go’ campaign. PETA eventually acknowledged that some improvements had been brought in, but the general consensus is that there is still a long way to go.

Following some progress with McDonalds, PETA began to target other burger chains – including Burger King and Wendy’s.

‘We in the US still have a long way to go’ - Bruce Friedrich of PETA.

Next, Robbins discusses other appalling practices prevalent in America. These include

  • When dairy cows give birth to male calves, they are immediately removed from their mothers and placed in veal crates, where their life is one of ‘deprivation, disease and loneliness’

  • Most pigs are raised in tiny pens which allows them virtually no room to move. In situations where they are packed together, it is routine to remove their tails (no anaesthetic) and chip off parts of their teeth – to prevent them biting each other’s tails.

  • Broiler hens are kept in unbelievably overcrowded conditions and egg layers are confined to tiny cages.

  • Chicken farmers generally ‘debeak’ hens and remove their claws and egg producers still use ‘enforced moulting’ - a practice which causes the hens to lose their feathers and begin a new laying cycle.

  • Male chicks, which clearly cannot go on to be egg layers, are either tied in plastic bags to suffocate or thrown live into mechanical grinders, then fed back to other chickens or livestock.

He points out that use of crates, pens and cages has been made illegal in Europe – but still remains the norm in the US.

Another quote from National Hog Farmer – ‘Over-crowding pigs pays – if it’s managed properly’

The final chapter in this part deals with what many of these animals are being fed and the conditions under which they are slaughtered. A majority of people simply would not believe what goes on!

‘Recycled chicken manure is routinely incorporated in the diets of US chickens’

‘By the same token, raw poultry and pig manure are routinely fed to US pigs – and the water they are given is often only the liquid wastes draining from manure pits (three quarters of US pigs are infected with pneumonia at the time of slaughter)’

‘In 1997, in the wake of the British epidemic of Mad Cow Disease, the US Food and Drug Administration finally banned the practice of feeding cow meat and bone meal back to cows. But pigs and chickens are still routinely fed the bones, brains, meat scraps, feathers and faeces of their own species’.

As far as the slaughtering of animals is concerned, the situation would appear to be deplorable.

According to Bernard Rollin, a Colorado State University expert on animal farming, ‘Few ranchers have ever seen their animals slaughtered. Even fewer wish to’.

IBP is the world’s largest meat packing company. In 2000, the San Fransisco based Humane Farming Association captured on videotape what they described as ‘some of the most heart-breaking and outrageous evidence of animal abuse imaginable’

This included struggling cows being hoisted up and butchered while still alive, fully conscious cows being skinned alive and having their legs cut off.

Truly awful.

Included in this section, is a wonderful letter, received by John Robbins, from a father who was vehemently opposed to his daughter cutting animal products out of her diet and even more opposed to bringing up her son is this way. After reading ‘Diet for a New America’, however, he acknowledged that she was right and he decided to adopt the same diet himself. Robbins points out that it is such letters which give him cause for optimism.

PART III – Our Food, Our World

Next, we come to the huge amount of environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture.

John Robbins points out that many people live in towns and cities, where it is easy to lose sight of the fact that humans are just one of the millions of species of living things occupying this planet.

Equally, that we make up one component of a complex web and that we cannot survive without an interaction with and contribution from so many other species – not least to provide us with supplies of oxygen and clean water.

Increasingly, people are aware of the need for energy conservation and recycling as well as the need to try to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

However, what a majority of people don’t realise is that the single most important action they can take is to change what they eat!

I won’t quote any figures here (Robbins quotes plenty in the book) but it would not be exaggerating to say that animal agriculture is responsible for:

  • Habitat destruction

  • Extinction of other species

  • Soil erosion

  • The production of colossal amounts of waste, leading to high levels of pollution and oceanic ‘dead zones’

It is also the number one cause of deforestation and releases more greenhouse gases than any other human activity.

The human population is now in excess of 7 billion – and it is estimated that around 1 billion do not get enough to eat.

In the final chapter of this part, John Robbins discusses the fact that this level of hunger simply need not exist if plant crops such as grain and soybeans were made available for human consumption, rather than being fed to animals. In fact, the quantity of grain used to feed animals is staggering – some countries even grow grain which is exported for animal feed when their own populations are short of food!

The current situation is summed up in the following quotes :

‘It’s painful that as a species we can put a man on the moon, but haven’t come close to ending the scourge of hunger. In a world where a child dies of hunger-caused disease every two seconds, only our own ignorance allows us to continue to view meat as a status symbol’

‘The American fast-food diet and the meat-eating habits of the wealthy around the world support a world food system that diverts food resources from the hungry’

PART IV – Genetic Engineering

There are those who advocate genetic modification if we are to be able to feed adequately the ever increasing human population. Clearly, the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is controversial – but I think it would be fair to say that John Robbins is somewhat cynical!

He makes the point very forcibly that, to date, very few examples of genetic modification have been particularly successful. Equally, in spite of their claims to be trying to increase the yield of crop plants, all the Biotech companies (such as Monsanto, Astra-Zeneca, DuPont, Novartis and Aventis) would appear to be much more motivated by profit.

For example, they create GM crops which are resistant to particular herbicides. This makes them easier to grow because the farmers can blanket spray, so that any weeds are killed but the crop continues to grow. However, it just turns out that the herbicides required can only be obtained from the same company which produced the crops in the first place!

They also create plants which produce sterile seeds – which means that the farmers cannot retain some seeds for the next year’s crop but have to buy more from the same company!

A particularly alarming case was when a German biotech company developed a GM bacterium which would break down much of the wood chips and corn stalks as well as other waste from the timber industry and agriculture – and produce ethanol in the process. However, during trials it was discovered that these bacteria had a devastating effect on other soil organisms resulting in the soil being unable to support plant growth!

Following this, the geneticist David Suzuki said ‘This genetically engineered bacterium could have ended all plant life on this continent. The implications of this single case are nothing short of terrifying’.

The whole concept of transferring genes from one species to another completely different species is somewhat scary! Robbins discusses this at some length, but it is well summed up by the molecular biologist, Dr John Fagan :

‘Genetic engineers can cut and splice genes very precisely in a test tube, but the process of putting those genes into a living organism is extremely imprecise, inaccurate and uncontrolled. Such manipulations can cause mutations that damage the functioning of the organism. Once a gene is inserted into an organism, it can cause unanticipated side effects. Mutations and side effects can cause genetically engineered foods to contain toxins and allergens and to be reduced in nutritional value’.

Two examples where things have gone badly wrong are :

  • L-Tryptohan – a food supplement known to aid relaxation and sleep. This is produced by a particular species of bacterium. Some years ago, a Japanese company created a genetically engineered bacterium which would produce much larger quantities. As a result of taking this new L-Tryptophan (and they didn’t know it was different because it wasn’t labelled) thousands of people began to suffer from a very serious condition, known as Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS) which resulted in the deaths of at least 37 people and thousands with permanent disabilities.

  • Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) – for some time, Bovine Growth Hormone has been routinely used to stimulate milk production in cattle. Monsanto then developed this genetically altered version which could be produced much more cheaply and was therefore used more widely. This is now known to have resulted in much larger amounts of IGF-1 (insulin- like growth factor) in the milk, which is linked to much higher rates of prostate cancer in men over 60 and breast cancer in pre-menopausal women.

In general, foods containing GMOs have to be labelled in the UK and Europe – not the case in the US!

This is a matter of great controversy, where the biotech companies have lobbied against labelling and have been supported by most government agencies. Essentially, their argument has been that labelling might confuse consumers and that such labels might give the impression that the products are not as safe as those which do not contain any GMOs!

However, Robbins is clearly encouraged by the fact that, over the last decade or so, the trend has been away from using GMOs. Consumers around the world are demanding more organic produce (which, by definition, cannot contain GMOs) and many supermarket chains are telling their suppliers that they do not want products containing GMOs.

Yet again, much of this is linked to the huge demand for meat and other animal products :

‘With an even modest reduction in meat consumption, we would be able to convert our entire nation’s agriculture to organic, thus sparing ourselves, our environment and future generations the dangers of pesticides and genetic engineering, and feeding ourselves far healthier food in the bargain’.

As I said at the beginning, this is a book everyone should read - so get a copy! It is well summed up in the quote I used earlier :

‘To me it is deeply moving that the same food choices that give us the best chance to eliminate world hunger are also those that take the least toll on the environment, contribute the most to our long term health, are the safest, and are also far and away the most compassionate toward our fellow creatures’.

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