The American Food Revolution: A Call to Action from John Robbins

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In “No Happy Cows,” John Robbins’ observations about food politics remind us of the importance of working for a more compassionate and environmentally responsible world.
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John Robbins is a bestselling author, social activist, and humanitarian. He is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey's Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Pioneering food activist John Robbins’ provocative observations about food politics and eating more consciously have inspired a generation to reexamine what’s on their plates and embrace a healthier organic diet. No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution (Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC, 2012) is a collection of his most widely discussed and circulated Huffington Post columns, along with some important new writing. Topics include whether soy is healthy or harmful, the marketing of junk food to children, health implications of chocolate and coffee, the rise of obesity in America, and the relationship between animals and the humans who raise them. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction.

It can feel like a war out there. Who would have guessed that First Lady Michelle Obama was doing anything offensive when, shortly after her husband became president, she planted an organic garden on the White House lawn? It seemed innocuous, much like Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify the nation’s cities and highways by planting wildflowers, or Laura Bush’s support for childhood literacy.

But CropLife America, a trade association representing Monsanto and other makers of pesticides and genetically modified (GMO) food, was outraged. They angrily wrote the First Lady and widely broadcast their view that her organic garden was unfairly maligning chemical agriculture. They demanded that she use “crop-protection technologies,” otherwise known as pesticides.

From the degree of umbrage they took, you’d have thought the Obama administration was nursing major plans to do something to challenge agribusiness as usual. But that was far from the case. In fact, the president had already appointed an ardent ally of industrial agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to head the Department of Agriculture. Vilsack’s support for agrichemicals, large industrial farms, and GMO foods was so steadfast that, as the governor of Iowa, he had been the recipient of Monsanto’s Governor of the Year award.

As if to make it copiously clear that he was not intending to confront the agrichemical and factory-farm conglomerates, Obama had even appointed the man most responsible for the advancement of GMO food in the history of the U.S., Michael R. Taylor, as senior advisor to the FDA commissioner. And in case that wasn’t enough, Obama then promoted Taylor to an even more powerful position as Deputy Commissioner of Foods.

This was the same Michael R. Taylor who had made it possible for Monsanto to get GMO foods approved in the U.S. without even remotely adequate testing for possible health dangers. In a classic example of the “revolving door” between agribusiness and government, Taylor was first an attorney at Monsanto, then became policy chief at the FDA, then became Monsanto’s vice president and chief lobbyist, and then was appointed by Obama as America’s food-safety czar.

But CropLife America, whose members include such bastions of corporate virtue as Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and Dow, was still not satisfied. In what may have been the political equivalent of make-up sex, the president subsequently appointed CropLife America vice president Islam A. Siddiqui to become the nation’s Chief Agricultural Negotiator. Siddiqui is not exactly what you would call a hero to the organic food movement. Nor has he made it his mission to defend future generations and the biological carrying capacity of the planet. When he oversaw the release of the National Organic Program’s standards for organic food labeling, it was his bright idea to permit both irradiated and GMO foods to be labeled as organic.

This is the kind of thing, frankly, that makes me upset. It’s not a pretty sight to see our nation’s food policies in the hands of shills for industrial food production and agrichemical companies like Monsanto. Pesticides in the food chain and in the environment are known to cause cancer, birth defects, autism, and many other ailments. The health effects of GMO foods are largely unknown because there has never been sufficient testing, but what there has been is more frightening than reassuring. A diet based on industrial fast food is contributing mightily to escalating rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. And factory farms are contributing massively to global warming, deforestation, and species extinction.

Would it be such a terrible idea if, instead of agribusiness as usual, we were to promote sustainable local food systems as a way to rebuild rural economies and improve access to healthy food? Would it be so awful if we were to support family farms rather than factory farms?

Factory farms, also called “confined animal-feeding operations” (CAFOs), now produce almost all of the nation’s beef, pork, chicken, dairy, and eggs, but they haven’t achieved this level of prominence through rational planning, or efficiencies of scale, or market forces. The factory meat industry has come to dominate the marketplace as the result of federal farm policies that have shifted billions of dollars in environmental, health, and economic costs onto taxpayers and communities. For example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices save feedlot operations billions of dollars a year in animal feed, while grass-fed beef operations do not benefit at all from this subsidy. The USDA similarly provides billions of our dollars to address factory-farm pollution problems, which wouldn’t exist if these operations didn’t confine tens of thousands of animals in small areas–a practice that causes great suffering to the animals involved, as well as massive pollution and well-documented health hazards to humans.

What would happen if we had food and agriculture policies that sought to benefit the environment, public health, and rural communities rather than serve industrial agribusiness? What if we made factory farms, rather than taxpayers, pay to prevent or clean up the pollution they create? What if we subsidized healthy foods rather than unhealthy ones?

The health consequences of current policies are now a matter of record. We have the distinction of having become the fattest major nation in the history of the world and, with each passing year, we are becoming noticeably fatter. In 1996, the U.S. already had the highest rate of obesity in the world, but not a single state had an obesity rate higher than 20 percent. By 2011, there was not a single state with an obesity rate lower than 20 percent.

The U.S. now spends far more on healthcare than any other nation. No one else even comes close. Per capita, we spend close to double the amount spent in countries that–other than us–spend the most (Germany, Canada, Denmark, and France).

The annual health insurance premiums paid by the average American family now exceed the gross yearly income of a full-time minimum-wage worker. Every thirty seconds, someone in the U.S. files for bankruptcy due to the costs of treating a health problem.

Healthcare spending is so far out of control that, not only individuals and families, but the entire economy is buckling under the strain. The chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, says his company spends more money on insurance for its employees than it spends on coffee.

And the situation is not improving. A 2011 report found healthcare costs for a typical American family of four had doubled in fewer than nine years.

Have you noticed that in all the heated debate about healthcare reform, one basic fact is rarely discussed–the one thing that could dramatically bring down the costs of healthcare while improving the health of our people? Studies have shown that the single most effective step most people can take to improve their health is to eat a healthier diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 75 percent of U.S. healthcare spending goes to treat chronic diseases, most of which are preventable and linked to the food we eat. This includes heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, and possibly a third of all cancers.

But isn’t this an issue of personal responsibility, you may ask? Isn’t it true that what people eat is their own choice? This is true, and it is important. Each of us needs to be accountable for the foods we choose to buy and consume. The government has no business dictating what people should eat. But that is only half of the story. We also have to limit the power that corporations have to influence government policy, for all too often they use that power to maximize their short-term interests and to diminish or eliminate regulations that would protect workers, animals, the environment, and consumers. These same corporations, it should be noted, with all their complaints about government interference in their activities, rarely display any reluctance to benefit from subsidies and taxpayer money.

Americans today spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in the history of the world, and also a smaller amount of time preparing it. We think of that as an achievement and a blessing. But it’s not widely recognized that, thanks to misguided farm bills, it’s primarily unhealthy foods like feedlot meat, sweetened beverages, and processed foods with added sweeteners and fats that are cheap. The price of fresh fruits and vegetables has been rising steadily for years. It’s the food products that are the least healthy that are readily available and inexpensive, because these are the ones that our food policies have been subsidizing rather than healthy foods.

We need to ask what is the real cost of this seemingly cheap fast food. The agricultural systems producing them are destroying rural communities, polluting our water, eroding our topsoil, causing incredible suffering to animals, emitting greenhouse gases at egregious rates, and giving most of us toxic levels of nutritional stress. The CDC estimates that more than one out of every three children born in the U.S. today will develop diabetes as a result of the food they eat. We are paying a terrible price for our seemingly cheap food.

Fast-food companies and other advocates for industrial food production and factory farming say that they are only responding to what people want. Their products are full of sugar and unhealthy fats, they say, because that’s what consumers desire. It’s not industry’s role, they protest, to change people’s natural inclinations.

But in fact, the industrial food machine and its allies in government have for many years been at work shaping people’s food desires through the way they create food products, package them, sell them, and market them. Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, and McDonald’s spend billions of dollars a year marketing junk food to children; they cantankerously fight every effort health advocates make to put any limits whatsoever on their right to target children with ads for fast food, sugary cereals, soft drinks, hot dogs, candy, and other nutrient-deficient products.

In 2011, California Assemblyman Bill Monning proposed legislation that would impose a penny-per-fluid-ounce excise tax on beverages with significant amounts of added sweeteners, like soda pop and sports drinks. The bill would raise $1.7 billion annually that could be used to lower the price of fresh vegetables and fruits for low-income children and families. Not surprisingly, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo aggressively fought the bill. Their representatives castigated the effort as just another attempt by “do-gooders” at “social engineering.”

Similar attacks have been leveled against efforts to tax white bread and use the revenue to lower the price of whole-wheat bread, to tax pesticides and use the income to lower the price of organic food, and to tax junk food in order to lower the price of wholesome and nutritious food.

How can we break this cycle? How can we break the cultural trance and overcome the political cowardice that permits industrial fast food and factory farms so much control over both national and state food policies–and ultimately over what most of us eat? How can we obtain foods that are truly nutritious, affordable, and produced in a sustainable way? That, in a nutshell, is the subject of the essays and articles in this book. Each of the pieces in it speaks to steps you can take toward a healthier, more humane, and more Earth-friendly agriculture and cuisine.

No Happy Cows gathers together some of my most widely discussed and circulated blog posts, along with some substantial new writing. These articles cover topics like what’s fueling the rise in obesity, whether soy is healthy or harmful, the debate about grass-fed beef, the marketing of junk food to children, why we are seeing a rise in food contamination, the politics and health implications of chocolate and coffee, the perils and broken promises of GMO foods, and hormone disruption in children (and its connection to animal-based foods). There is also a section on the social realities of engaging with people whose food habits are endangering their health.

I hope you enjoy the book, and I hope you find support here for your efforts to live a healthy life. I write from the belief that we can still break through the control that companies like Monsanto have been exerting over our food systems, and bring our agriculture policies back into alignment with the greatest good of our people and the Earth. I write from the conviction that what the Constitution of the United States calls “the general welfare” is more important than the short-term profits of companies whose products are nutritional and environmental disasters.

I write from a faith that it is possible to turn things around. If more Americans stopped overeating, stopped eating unhealthy foods, and instead ate more foods with higher nutrient densities and cancer-protective properties, we could have a more affordable, sustainable, and effective healthcare system. We’d be less dependent on insurance companies and doctors, and more dependent on our own health-giving choices.

We can make healthy choices as individuals, as families, and as a society. We can support farmers’ markets, natural food stores, and organic and locally sourced restaurants. We can put restrictions on the right of junk-food companies to bombard children with ads that make them crave foods that are unhealthy for them to eat.

We can stop factory farms from breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria by prohibiting the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock. We can require factory farms to clean up their own waste, and require them to treat the animals that provide our meat, milk, and eggs with a modicum of decency and respect. It’s true that this would raise the price of meat and cause some Americans to eat less, but that would be a good thing not a bad thing. It would improve the health of consumers, livestock, and the land.

If we are going to subsidize any foods, why not make it healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains, rather than high-fructose corn syrup and cattle feeds made from GMO soy and corn? If we are going to subsidize a type of agriculture, why not support family farmers who have a long-term commitment to the land, who are stewards of the Earth, rather than corporate farms that view the land as simply another commodity to be exploited?

Despite the efforts of big agribusinesses, organic produce is already the fastest-growing and most profitable segment of American agriculture, and the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past eight years. Despite the clout of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, many school districts throughout the country are already banning sodas and junk foods. Despite the belligerence of the livestock industry and farm bureaus, states are increasingly passing referenda on behalf of animal welfare. Despite untold billions being spent promoting fast food and junk food, a large and ever-growing number of people are choosing to eat local, natural, and wholesome foods.

I write to support those of us who are working to build a healthier way of life and a healthier world. I write to support us all in demanding that the companies who produce our food be held accountable for their impact on our Earth, our health, and our future.

You deserve to know the truth about what you eat, where it comes from, and what its impact is on your life and on the world. The more you know, the more power you will have to take effective and meaningful action. The more you know, the better able you will be to bring your food choices into alignment with your purpose and your passion. Your mind will be clearer, your heart will be more at peace, and your body will thank you for the rest of your life.

Reprinted with permission from Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC, No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution by John Robbins is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at 1-800-423-7087 or Red Wheel online.

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