I LOVE JOHN Robbins. Let me clarify this though: I’m not talking about the way I ‘loved’ David Cassidy in the 1970s when I imagined he was singing to me as he belted out the words of ‘I Think I Love You’.
No, this is a different type of love. If I were to compare my vegan awakening to a religious epiphany of sorts, then John would be my favourite disciple. I’m assuming that most of you who visit this fine website will know of John Robbins, perhaps even read one of his books. If this is the case, then you’ll likely recall that John Robbins is in fact the son of Irvine Robbins, who together with his brother in law Burt, in the 1940s established what has become the world’s largest chain of ice cream specialty stores, Baskin-Robbins, now serving about 150 million customers worldwide each year.
John Robbins grew up with an ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool in the backyard. The Baskin-Robbins empire was to be his destiny too, but he had a different dream. He believed that “how we eat is a powerful statement of commitment not only to our own wellbeing, but the creation of a healthier world”. Being heir to an ice cream empire was a world apart from those beliefs and thus, he followed his own star, the dream of “a better life and a more loving world”. John Robbins continues to live life in accordance with that dream, in doing so inspiring others to make the necessary changes in their own lives to do the same.
When I became a vegetarian in my mid 20s, it was a selfish move. I don’t recall giving much thought to animal welfare. I guess the drawings of happy hens on egg boxes and smiling cows in daisy-dotted fields on advertisements made it easy to presume that these cheerful looking animals just loved their lot in life. John Robbins’ book Diet For A New America was a real wake up call for me: the realisation that most livestock are forced to live a life of suffering ending only with their own undignified and terrifying death came as more than a shock. The reality of their lives and deaths is a world apart from the marketing hype, and I can see why.
Raising livestock is actually all about money. The typical western diet has more to do with keeping the meat, egg, poultry and dairy industries in business than with keeping people healthy. But never fear – because doctors are trained to treat disease with drugs and surgery. The ambulance is waiting at the bottom of the cliff.
I recall a particularly disturbing revelation in Diet For A New America, how in the late 1970s there were six universities across Canada and the USA working on breeding a chicken without feathers, to eliminate that ‘tedious’ element of production: plucking.
Similarly, around the same time the director of the Animal Research Institute of Agriculture in Canada when addressing a conference proudly shared the news of a current project the institute was involved in, working on breeding animals without legs.
To the best of my knowledge neither of these projects ever came to fruition, but I have no doubt that there are equally unsettling new endeavours underway right now which have the sole aim of maximising the cash cow (excuse the pun). I found it disturbing too, to learn that in the USA the National Dairy Council is the foremost supplier of ‘nutritional education’ materials to classrooms.
I was quietly hoping that the USA would be somewhat ‘unique’ in their approach to rearing livestock to feed the masses, and that in clean, green NZ we would have happier stories. Sadly, I do not think this is generally the case. According to info on the SAFE website, 88 percent of the one billion eggs eaten in NZ are produced by hens that spend their whole lives on a floor space smaller than an A4 sheet of paper. Many ‘free range’ birds never actually see the light of day. The proposed ‘colony cages’ destined to replace battery cages offer minimal changes; still the birds will never see the sun, be able to flap their wings, walk or fly, or scarcely even be able to turn around without difficulty. (Gary Steel’s recent blog ‘Obscured By Clouds’ tells us more about the miserable life of broiler chooks.)
And then, of course, there was comedian Mike King’s expose of pig farms – whatever happened to that story? In the end it could best be described as having been a storm in a teacup; most certainly it was an inconvenient truth. It’s true indeed that when money talks, the truth is silent. I clearly recall that in the months after that story broke, pork was constantly ‘on special’ in my local supermarket. Obviously, the strategy worked, and the sad story faded away along with the squeals of those miserable pigs. People have short memories.
Whenever I start to feel depressed about the apparently bleak prospect of the truth being widely acknowledged about which foods are hurting us, I stop and think about cigarettes. The change happened there, and maybe in another 50 years there will be many more vegans than there are today.
The highly successful Camel ad campaign that ran from 1946-1954 proudly stated that ‘More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette’ and featured a selection of attractive smiling doctors with a lit cigarette in hand. Now, that’s a million miles away from pictures of rotten teeth, blackened lungs or plain packaging! I have been a smoker and I found cigarettes infinitely harder to give up than any of the foods I no longer eat.
It seems though, that for many people the desire for certain food is as strong as any drug-induced craving. We all accept that this is true about foods that contain a lot of added sugar – which is exactly why sugar has been added to more and more food items; it is a sure- fire way to guarantee people come back for more. I make this association between smoking and certain food to illustrate a point: I didn’t quit smoking because I stopped enjoying a cigarette, far from it. I stopped smoking because I listened to the facts and statistics and the overall picture wasn’t great. It’s about choosing the path with the most favourable odds. Why do we look before we cross the road? It’s because we all know and accept that if we cross the road every day without looking, at some stage we are going to get knocked over.
Being vegan is a lot more life changing than I ever thought it would be. There is definitely a spiritual element about caring about what I put into my body, and thinking how the food choices I make today will have an effect on all my tomorrows. Can becoming a vegan make you a better person? I’m beginning to think so. Good guys like John Robbins help us to understand that what is best for us is also best for our planet.
This American Indian proverb seems an appropriate way to finish:
Only after the last tree has been cut down; only after the last river has been poisoned; only after the last fish has been caught; only then will you find that money cannot be eaten. CARRIE STEELE