Diet for a New America at 25: Essential Reading for Everyone
* please see corrigenda from a friend at the end of this article, Thank you
A few weeks ago, a 25th Anniversary Edition of Diet for a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Your Happiness, and the Future of Life on Earth by John Robbins was released, and I immediately ordered a copy, having read it when it first came out 25 years ago I was curious what could possibly have changed; not much. What struck me, in reading this book again over the past few days, is how relevant its insights remain to Americans today. His frank examination of the inhumane practices of industrial agriculture (in which animals are treated as machines), his discussion of the myriad health risks of an animal-foods-based diet, and his exploration of the environmental impacts of our current food choices all still merit concern. Back when the book was first published in 1987, Robbins had noted that “Over the past 25 years, there have been unprecedented breakthroughs in our understanding of food choices and health. However, there is an enormous gap between what has been discovered and what the public has learned about it.” This situation remains true today. The fact that the 25thAnniversary edition has been changed from the original only by the addition of a fifteen-page afterward reflects how new his message will still be to many readers.
In the first part of Diet for a New America, Robbins exposes the inner workings of the Great American Food Machine (as he calls it), depicting vividly how domesticated animals (particularly chickens, pigs, and cattle) are treated under the current industrial agriculture model. He observes that “the point of view that animals are only machines, and thus incapable of suffering, is still very much with us today.” This was true in 1987, and is largely true at the end of 2012. Americans maintain a double-standard, lavishing attention and love to the dogs and cats who share our homes, while remaining oblivious to how chickens and pigs generally live their lives. Chickens, for instance, are classified by industry based upon their purpose for humans, termed either “broilers” (meat production) or “layers” (egg production). The age of the barnyard chicken has given way to that of the “assembly-line chicken.” These animals spend their days crammed together in buildings without natural light, beaks snipped to prevent them from attacking each other out of frustration and panic, bodies (in the case of the broilers) adding flesh so rapidly that their bones cannot even keep up. As the video Food, Inc. revealed a couple of years ago, factory farms remain the norm.
We are beginning, perhaps, to see the emergence of alternatives, through the efforts of a growing (but still small) number of dedicated organic farmers. But for the most part, meats, eggs, and dairy products sold in supermarkets are still being produced in large-scale industrial operations driven by a concern for the bottom line, not for the animals being raised and slaughtered. As Robbins explained in 1987, “The behemoths of modern agribusiness seek profit without reference to any ethical sensitivity to the animals in their keeping.” One way the American Food Machine is able to keep running smoothly is that most people remain blissfully unaware of the horrors of the stockyard and slaughterhouse. Under the influence of costly ad campaigns on the part of industrial agribusinesses, most Americans imagine that chickens still live in chicken coops in farmers’ backyards, while cattle still roam bucolic pastures until the day they are finally killed. As the recent brief animated videos called The Meatrix pointed out, the meat and dairy industry works hard to maintain an illusion about food production. “It takes courage to open our eyes to such tragedy,” Robbins wrote. How much longer will it take before Americans will collectively find that courage?
After examining how our food choices are affecting the animals we eat, John Robbins next considers the impacts of those choices on our own health. He begins by noting that “Nutritional education is not just inadequate in contemporary medical schools; in most cases it is nonexistent.” (Back in 1987, there were only 30 of the nation’s medical schools that included a nutrition course in their curricula; in 2009, despite an ongoing obesity epidemic in America, that number had dropped to only 26.) Robbins then presents substantial evidence establishing the nutritional merits of a pure vegetarian (i.e., vegan) diet over the standard American diet. He includes studies linking more plant-based diets to higher life expectancies, and showing that vegetarians tend to have greater endurance and stamina than meat eaters. While dairy products contribute to iron deficiencies (being low in iron and blocking the absorption of what iron is present), plant-based diets do not. Robbins alsooffers studies showing that all of our protein needs can be met with a vegetarian diet; indeed, excessive protein in the diet can lead to osteoporosis, kidney stones, and even cancer. Vegans consume no cholesterol (found only in animal products) and very little saturated fat, and therefore have lower incidence of atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure than meat eaters or vegetarians consuming eggs and dairy products. In further chapters, Robbins links the standard American diet to many other ailments, from diabetes and cancer to gallstones and multiple sclerosis.
Twenty-five years afterward, the evidence for the health benefits of a vegan diet is greater than ever before, thanks to the work of research physicians such as T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Dean Ornish, and Joel Fuhrman. Celebrities such as Alice Walker, Brad Pitt, and Bill Clinton have embraced a vegan diet, while movies such as Super-Size Me and Forks over Knives have garnered considerable attention from the public. At the same time, it is evident that the standard American diet remains deeply entrenched in American culture. Nutrition remains largely outside of the realm of conventional medicine, and the meat and dairy industries continue to engage in “hucksterism,” “chicanery,” and “shinanigans,” to use three of Robbins’ choice epithets in Diet for a New America. As long as add campaigns insist that milk “does a body good” and beef is “what’s for dinner,” and as long as federal government policies continue to be set by organizations led by persons with vested interests in the meat and dairy industries, it is not clear how this situation will change. The widespread obesity crisis in America, with its corresponding high rates of heart disease and diabetes, clearly reveal that the standard American diet does not work. Yet medical researchers continue to seek a cure for cancer rather than considering its causes (one of which is clearly the food choices we make), and physicians continue to argue for coronary bypass surgery instead of advocating that their patients shift to a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Robbins notes delightedly in the afterward that “The growing awareness of the health value of a plant-strong diet is inspiring.” While this is certainly the case, there is a long journey that remains to be taken before a plant-based diet will be the choice of a majority of Americans.
In the last part of his book, Robbins widens his focus from humans and the animals they raise for food to consider the bigger picture of how our food choices affect our environment. He explains how “Today’s factory farm livestock are subject to vast quantities of toxic chemicals and artificial hormones.” These chemicals accumulate in the fatty tissues of organisms at the top of the food chain, such as human beings. These toxic chemical substances include dioxin, heptachlor, and PCBs. They are present in our soils and waterways, fish that swim in our rivers, the chickens and eggs we eat and the cow milk we drink, and even (in considerable quantities, no less) in human breast milk! Fortunately, studies have shown that we can protect ourselves by consuming a plant-based diet; in particular, one investigation published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that the breast milk from vegetarian mothers has only 1 to 2 percent of the pesticide contamination found in the national average. Twenty-five years later, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals are still widely used in industrial agriculture. Toxic chemicals are still abundant in our environment, and the need for us to consider our food choices carefully as a result is as great as ever.
One dramatic change that has occurred since 1987 is that the environmental impacts of meat and dairy production have become considerably more evident, and alarming. At the timeDiet for a New America was published, Robbins shared a number of statistics showing the much higher resource demand of a diet rich in meat compared with a plant-based one. For instance, meeting the annual dietary needs of a meat-eater in America requires 3 ¼ acres, whereas a vegan requires only 1/6 of an acre. Meanwhile, 85% of all topsoil lost each year in the U.S. is the result of livestock raising. Meat production leads to deforestation as new land is cleared for pasture. Up to 100 times the amount of water is required for producing a pound of meat compared with a pound of wheat. In order to sustain our dwindling resources of land, soil, and water, it is clear that we need to decrease (ideally, eliminate) the amount of meat we consume. But now there is another danger of which Robbins in 1987 was largely unaware: global warming. A report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2006 revealed that the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production are higher than from the transportation sector. Another study found that choosing to switch to a vegan diet can have a greater impact on slowing global warming than trading a gas-guzzling car for a hybrid. A 2009 study by World Bank scientists even found that more than half of all greenhouse gases caused by humans come from animal production.
At the close of Robbins’ book, the reader is left with a clear sense that there is an urgent need for us to change our diets – for the sake of animals, our environment, our health, and our climate. Ultimately, this is an individual choice we all need to make – and as more of us make the change, the effect with become greater and greater. Back in 1987, Robbins’ Diet for a New America was a groundbreaking book, waking up many to the realization that the food choices we make are among the most important decisions in our daily lives. Twenty-five years later, Diet for a New America remains essential reading everyone concerned with how our individual actions can affect ourselves, others around us, and our world.
* corrigenda from a friend
John Robbins has shared statistics that explain the “much higher resource demand of a diet rich in meat compared with a plant-based one,” as he’s cited an FAO report which revealed that “the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production are higher than from the transportation sector” — and that “World Bank scientists even found that more than half of all greenhouse gases caused by humans come from animal production.”
But the cited comparison between livestock and transportation has been retracted by its authors. Their analysis prescribes not a plant-based diet, but rather more industrialized livestock production (p. 236): “The principle means of limiting livestock’s impact on the environment must be… intensification.” The lead author and a co-author later wrote to confirm that they prescribe not a plant-based diet, but rather no limit on meat consumption.
Yet those authors are livestock specialists, not environmental specialists, and their employer — the FAO — is just one of 19 UN specialized agencies.
Conversely, environmental specialists employed by two other UN specialized agencies — the World Bank and IFC — have authored analysis that the above posting attributes to “World Bank scientists.” Those specialists have estimated that at least half of all human-caused greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock (rather than all animal) production. That gas may not all “come from” livestock production, depending on how it’s counted; and those specialists haven’t counted non-livestock animals (such as pets and lab animals).
Some might find it of interest, the New York Times published Robert Goodland’s critique of the FAO’s partnership with the meat industry. There is a video that was launched by Paul McCartney’s meat-free campaign. And last week an analysis was published in a letter to Nature, one of the world’s most eminent journals. How much weight a letter to Nature might carry; Nature itself touts how the theory of DNA’s double helix was first published in a letter to Nature.