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Turning the Tables

Author John Robbins advocates 'Food Revolution'

By Patrick Sullivan

When author John Robbins sits down to dinner with his family on Turkey Day, there'll be one thing missing from the table--the turkey. "I do want to celebrate Thanksgiving by giving thanks for what we have," Robbins says. "But I don't need to sacrifice a bird to do that."

Maybe remarks like that bug the hell out of you. Or maybe you couldn't agree more. And, of course, there's a strong third possibility: Perhaps you couldn't care less.

But agree, disagree, or shrug your shoulders, you aren't likely to be terribly surprised by that sort of pro-turkey sentiment. Over the past few decades, the United States has gone from a meat-and-potatoes monoculture to a society that scrutinizes its food choices with growing concern.

Of course, the change is particularly noticeable in Northern California, where it's a rare restaurant menu indeed that doesn't sprout a few phrases like "free-range" or "organic" or "vegetarian."

No one person can take full credit (or blame, depending on your view) for that change. But John Robbins has surely played a major role. The only son of the founder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire, Robbins rejected his family's money in favor of a life of advocacy--the kind of advocacy that must have really pissed off his dad.

Starting in 1987 with the publication of his best-selling Diet for a New America and continuing with his new book, The Food Revolution (Conari Press; $17.95), Robbins has led a high-profile campaign to convince Americans to reduce or eliminate meat and dairy products from the table and move towards a plant-based diet.

Why? For Robbins, who speaks Nov. 30 at Sonoma State University, it's simple.

"I do spend a fair amount of time talking about the environmental and health implications of modern factory farming because the consequences are so dire," he says. "And there are positive and healthy alternatives."

The 54-year-old Santa Cruz author marshals a vast array of facts and figures in support of the idea that animal agriculture causes tremendous environmental harm, wastes food resources needed by a hungry world, involves horrific cruelty to animals, and has caused an epidemic of heart disease, strokes, and other medical problems that cut short the lives of millions of people.

One of the best ways to solve problems in every one of these areas, he says, is for people to change their diets.

If that seems a bit too simplistic to you, you're not alone. Robbins is a constant critic of the meat and dairy industry--and frankly, they don't think very much of him, either.

Groups like the National Cattlemen's Association have directed withering general criticism at Robbins. They have also taken specific issue with some facts presented in Diet for a New America, particularly Robbins' claims about the large amount of water and feed grains needed to raise cattle.

Robins says such controversy comes with the territory. He points out that his new book has over 1,000 footnotes from accredited, peer review journals.

"Never ask a barber if you need a haircut, and don't ask the meat and dairy councils for valid information about a healthy diet," Robbins says. "You're going to get a biased view."

Other critics may wonder why Robbins needs to write another book. After all, The Food Revolution covers much of the same ground trod in Diet for a New America.

Robbins says he had to address pressing new agricultural issues: "So much has happened in the last 14 years," he explains. "For instance, genetic engineering for food crops did not exist when I wrote Diet for a New America."

In fact, the new book offers five chapters on genetic engineering, as well as Robbins' views on issues like mad cow disease and the popular Atkins diet.

But one thing has stayed the same. Robbins tries hard to fight the popular notion that vegetarians are smugly self-righteous. He says his goal is simply to get people thinking about the food they eat.

"I'm not about having people signing a purity pledge," Robbins says. "I'm just interested in pointing out the benefits of moving in the direction of a plant-based diet.

"We can make choices that are healthy for our bodies and our planet," he continues. "Or we can make choices that are convenient and cheap in the short term but very costly in the long term."

John Robbins speaks Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. at Sonoma State University's Cooperage, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $10. For details, call 707/664-2382.

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From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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