Some say he inspired a wave of vegetarianism unparalleled by previous efforts; others find his theories miscalculated and erroneous.
An upcoming lecture might help clarify some of the conflict. John Robbins, author of the popular vegetarian novel, “Diet for a New America,” will speak 7 p.m. Saturday at the University of St. Thomas.
Groomed to take over the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire, Robbins declined his father’s fortune to promote wellness through healthy eating. He said he couldn’t be party to the industrial treatment of animals involved in dairy production.
“Eating is a very profound connection we have with the earth and with our physical selves,” Robbins said in an interview Tuesday.
In addition to his writing, he also founded EarthSave, a health organization promoting the link between food and the environment. The 10-year-old group has 40 chapters across the nation, including one in Minneapolis, which is sponsoring Saturday’s speech.
Choices made at the grocery store affect the body and the planet, Robbins said.
Consuming animal products can lead to deforestation and disease. As more land is needed to raise enough livestock to meet demands, forests are being cut down. Studies also link heart disease to high fat and cholesterol, which meat contains.
Others disagree with details of his theories.
“I’ve always had a problem with EarthSave and John Robbins,” said Carl Phillips, a University School of Public Health assistant professor who conducts research similar to Robbins’. “I probably agree with most of his conclusions, but I don’t agree with how he got them,” he said.
Many facts Robbins presents in his acclaimed book are exaggerated, coming from unfounded sources, Phillips said. Through research of his own, Phillips discovered much of Robbins’ reporting came from unpublished documents and unreliable sources.
Matt Lasley, who heads the Minneapolis chapter of EarthSave, defended Robbins by saying the dispute centers on the cattle-raising practices in the different states where each researcher got his information.
“There’s been a lot of controversy over his statistics. As a whole, what he’s saying is right on and accurate. His heart was in the right place, but maybe he hasn’t done the right way of reporting it,” said Kevin Kjonaas, College of Liberal Arts junior and member of the Student Organization for Animal Rights.
Though the numbers are different, both Phillips and Robbins agree raising livestock requires more resources than raising grain. And both subscribe to a vegetarian lifestyle in part because they feel meat is a waste of resources like land, water and fossil fuels.
“We could go back to raising crops by all horses to save on oil, in terms of energy and allocations of resources,” said Dick Epley, University meat specialist in the Department of Animal Science. “The bottom line is what the consumers want, and if the price is right, they’ll buy it,” he said.
Robbins warned that the matter isn’t as simple as Epley contended. He fears the “standard American diet” is the largest destructor of the planet, and people have to start taking responsibility for the Earth.
But some worry vegetarians are putting environmental causes over their own health. Vegetarians who don’t consume any animal products at all worry some health experts.
It’s hard to make up the nutrients from dairy products, said Cindy Bertheau, registered dietitian at the Midwestern Dairy Council.
“You can get some calcium from vegetable sources, but you have to eat such a large amount of them it isn’t really practical,” Bertheau said.
But the livestock and dairy production process has Robbins and other vegetarians running the other way. Animals live in cramped quarters and die inhumane deaths in the “factory farms” where they are raised, Robbins said.
Practical reasons dictated the shift from traditional farms to those run in a factory, Epley said. If animals roamed free, they wouldn’t grow as fast, would require more feed and take up more land, all things environmentalists don’t want, he said.
Plus, he argues, the large farms of today save people money at the meat counter.
The price breaks of today don’t come cheap, though. Robbins and Phillips said the meat industry is destroying rain forests in search of more land.
“Being vegetarian, you don’t solve everything. But to solve problems, you need a healthy body,” Robbins said. “Eating healthy and moving in a vegetarian direction is not the answer; it’s the beginning.”