The Food Revolution: Once Upon a Planet, Part I

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'.

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I was fortunate to be able to know and work with the late actor Raul Julia. A man who emanated enormous exuberance and joy, Raul was one of those special Hollywood celebrities who had an abiding concern for world issues, particularly hunger issues, and a deep sense of social responsibility. He and I once appeared together, along with River Phoenix and Lisa Bonet, on what was then the TV talk show with the largest viewing audience in the world. We had an hour to introduce the public to my work and to the enormous impact our food choices have on our health and the environment.

On many occasions, Raul and I pondered the fate of the tropical rainforests and their extraordinary biological diversity. For Raul, this was an extremely important and personal issue. He won both Golden Globe and Emmy awards for one of his last performances, his starring role in The Burning Season. He played Chico Mendes, the union leader who fought heroically to protect the homes and lands of the Brazilian peasants in the western Amazon rainforest. Mendes became world famous, and became the international symbol of the effort to save the rainforests, because of his work to prevent the building of a road that would have provided the cattle industry with easy access to the rainforest. Mendes was violently assassinated in 1990 by cattlemen who opposed his efforts. But his message and work live on.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as concerned about the rainforests and their fellow human beings as Raul Julia and Chico Mendes were. I remember a few years ago meeting a popular New Age guru. Some of his disciples had been telling him of my work and were urging him to support a vegetarian direction. He wasn’t interested, and told me that he could eat veal and cheeseburgers and suffer no harm because he could “transform the vibrations.” Telling me I needed to get over my hang-ups, he made a point of eating a hamburger in front of me.

If his intention was to make me uncomfortable, he succeeded. But I didn’t take this as a lesson in letting go of attachment to preconceived ideas, as I believe he intended it. Instead, I spoke to him. “Maybe you have some special powers,” I said, “so that you won’t raise your likelihood of having a heart attack or cancer like the rest of us mortals would, but what good will that do for the veal calves, crammed into stalls hardly larger than their own bodies, standing knee-deep in their own excrement?”

He said that for an animal to be eaten by a holy person brought great karma to them.

My heart was by this point feeling quite heavy, and I wasn’t at all sure there was any point in continuing the discussion. But I proceeded, nevertheless, to ask him one more question. What good, I asked, would his “transforming the vibrations” do for the rainforests, the jewels of nature that are being cut down so that he and others like him could have their burgers?

Rainforests and other earthly phenomena, he said, are just an illusion.

Well, they’re a pretty convincing one, I responded, given that they produce a good portion of the world’s oxygen.

“This is not a problem for me,” he answered. “I create my own reality.”

He certainly does create his own reality, I thought as I left. Unfortunately, it is one that does not engage with or even acknowledge the most pressing issues of our times. And it is a reality that, in its obliviousness, causes all-too-real real suffering to other creatures and to the world’s endangered ecosystems.

Trading Tropical Rainforests for Cheeseburgers

The tropical rainforests are among the planet’s most precious natural resources. They contain 80 percent of the world’s species of land vegetation and account for much of the global oxygen supply. These forests are the oldest terrestrial ecosystems on Earth and have developed extraordinary ecological richness. Half of all species on Earth live in the moist tropical rainforests. And the rainforests are home to the world’s most ancient indigenous peoples, tribes who have lived in harmony with their environment since before the time of the Pharoahs.

The biologist E. O. Wilson once found as many species of ants on one rainforest tree in Peru as exist in all of the British Isles. A naturalist counted 700 species of butterflies within a 3-mile radius in an Amazon rainforest. In constrast, all of Europe has only 321 known butterfly species. Twenty-five acres of Indonesian rainforest contain as many different tree species as are native to all of North America.(1) We still know very little about the natural treasures of the tropical rainforests, yet it’s clear that their preservation is essential to the planet’s ecology. Currently, one-quarter of our medicines derive from raw materials found in these forests. A child suffering from leukemia now has an 80 percent chance of survival instead of only a 20 percent chance, thanks to the alkaloidal drugs vincristine and vinblastine, which are derived from a rainforest plant called the rosy periwinkle. Since less than 1 percent of the plant species of the tropical rainforests have been tested for medicinal benefits, researchers feel that here lie what could be the medicines of the future.

With all their beauty and importance, however, the tropical rainforests are being destroyed at a terrifying rate. Every second, an area the size of a football field is destroyed forever.(2)

What drives this devastation?

“The number one factor in elimination of Latin America’s tropical rainforests is cattle-grazing. . . . [We are seeing] the ‘hamburgerization’ of the forests.” - Norman Myers, author of The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and Our Future (3)
In Central America, cattle typically graze on land that was rainforest before being cut down and burned to be used for rangeland. According to the Rainforest Action Network, 55 square feet of tropical rainforest, an area the size of a small kitchen, are destroyed for the production of every fast-food hamburger made from rainforest beef. (4)
“Rainforest beef is typically found in fast food hamburgers or processed beef products. In both 1993 and 1994 the United States imported over 200,000,000 pounds of fresh and frozen beef from Central American countries. Two-thirds of these countries’ rainforests have been cleared, primarily to raise cattle whose stringy, cheap meat is exported to profit the U.S. food industry. When it enters the United States, the beef is not labeled with its country of origin, so there is no way to trace it to its sources.” - Rainforest Action Network (5)
It has always struck me as the height of absurdity for Americans, whose cholesterol levels are already too high, to be eating hamburgers made from rainforest beef so they can save a little money. Particularly when the amount of money saved, according to the MacArthur Foundation, is small indeed.
“Imports of beef by the United States from southern Mexico and Central America during the past 25 years has been the major factor in the loss of about half of the tropical forests there—all for the sake of keeping the price of hamburger in the United States about a nickel less than it would have been otherwise.” - MacArthur Foundation Report (6)
Rainforest beef imported into the United States is mixed with more fatty domestic cattle trimmings and sold mostly to fast food chains and food processing companies for use in hamburgers, hot dogs, luncheon meats, chilies, stews, frozen dinners, and pet foods. McDonald’s and Burger King claim they no longer buy from tropical countries, but these claims are difficult to substantiate because, once the U.S. government inspects beef imports, the meat enters the domestic market with no origin labels. Though Central American beef exports to the United States have declined in recent years, they still approach 100,000,000 pounds annually.

What We Know

  • Number of species of birds in one square mile of Amazon rainforest: More than exist in all of North America (7)
  • Life forms destroyed in the production of each fast-food hamburger made from rainforest beef: Members of 20 to 30 different plant species, 100 different insect species, and dozens of bird, mammal, and reptile species (8)
  • Length of time before the Indonesian forests, all 280 million acres of them, would be completely gone if they were cleared to produce enough beef for Indonesians to eat as much beef, per person, as the people of the United States do: 3.5 years (9)
  • Length of time before the Costa Rican rainforest would be completely gone if it were cleared to produce enough beef for the people of Costa Rica to eat as much beef, per person, as the people of the United States eat: 1 year (10)
  • What a hamburger produced by clearing forest in India would cost if the real costs were included in the price rather than subsidized: $200 (11)
The National Cattlemen’s Association has downplayed the connection between U.S. beef and rainforest destruction. The organization’s effort to refute Diet for a New America states, “Fast-food beef consumption by Americans contributes little or nothing to tropical rainforest destruction.” (12)

Given how many fast-food hamburgers are eaten in the United States, I wish they were right. But many leading figures within the U.S. beef industry say otherwise. Dr. M. E. Ensminger is former Chairman of the Department of Animal Science at Washington State University and the author of ten books dealing with livestock raising. His classic 1,200-page textbook titled Animal Science is currently in its ninth edition. In this edition, he writes,

“Is a quarter pound of hamburger worth a half ton of Brazil’s rainforest? Is 67 square feet of rainforest—an area about the size of one small kitchen—too much to pay for one hamburger? Should we form cattle pastures to produce hamburgers in the Amazon, or should we retain the rainforest and the natural environment? These and other similar questions are being asked too little and too late to preserve much of the great tropical rainforest of the Amazon and its environment. It took nature thousands of years to form the rainforest, but it took a mere 25 years for people to destroy much of it. And when a rainforest is gone, it’s gone forever.” (13)
We need our world’s forests. They are vital sources of oxygen. They moderate our climates, prevent floods, and are our best defense against soil erosion. Forests recycle and purify our water. They are home to millions of plants and animals. They provide wood for our buildings and cooking fuel for much of humanity. In their biological integrity, they are a source of beauty, inspiration, and solace.

The world’s forests are being depleted as a result of several developments in addition to beef cattle ranching: agriculture and population resettlement, major power projects like dams, hydroelectric plants, and the roads that go with them, and logging. What can we do? We can reuse paper and wood products, reduce the amount of paper and wood we use, and use recycled paper whenever possible. We can stop all use of tropical hardwoods. (To stop importing tropical hardwoods, the United States would have to reduce its consumption of timber by only 2 percent.) We can support organizations involved in rainforest conservation. And, most important, we can eat less meat.

A cultural shift toward a plant-based diet would be a substantial step toward saving our remaining forests. It takes far less agricultural land to produce a plant-based diet than to produce meat, so with this shift we could feed our species without having to clear ever more forest land for food production. Since forests absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, the movement toward a plant-based diet would provide our children with more plentiful oxygen to breathe, an atmosphere with fewer greenhouse gases, and a more stable climate.

There is still time to turn things around if we act now. Every time you choose to eat plant foods rather than meat, it’s as if you were planting and tending a tree, helping to create a greener and healthier future for all generations to come.

Editor's Note: Continue to Once Upon a Planet, Part II


1. Sussman, Art, Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2000), p. 67. 2. “Livestock and Environment,” Agriculture 21, Agriculture Department, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations. 3. Myers, Norman, The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and Our Future (New York and London, W. W. Norton, 1984), pp. 127, 142. 4. Denslow, Julie, and Padoch, Christine, People of the Tropical Rainforest (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p. 169. 5. “Seven Things You Can Do to Save the Rainforest,” Rainforest Action Network Factsheet, 2000, 6. Raven, Peter, We’re Killing Our World: The Global Ecosystem in Crisis (IL: MacArthur Foundation, 1987), p. 8. 7. Gore, Al, Earth In Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Plume, 1993), p. 23. 8. Denslow and Padoch, People of the Tropical Rainforest, p. 169. 9. “The Price of Beef,” WorldWatch, July/August 1994, p. 39. 10. Ibid. 11. Ibid. 12. Belk, K., et al., “Deforestation and Meat Production,” in Cross, H. Russel and Byers, Floyd M., eds. Current Issues in Food Production: A Scientific Response to John Robbins’ Diet for a New America, Supported by the National Cattlemen’s Association (Englewood, CO: National Cattlemen’s Association, 1990), 2.2. 13. Ensminger, M. E., Animal Science, 9th ed. (Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers, 1991), p. 244.

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  • Posted on Nov. 11, 2007. Listed in:

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