Getting to Know Your Food: No Happy Cows (A Book Review)

I'm good at analyzing policy, tracking legislation and advising stakeholders. I love thinking through big-picture systemic issues (for example, following the Farm Bill currently winding its way through Congress.) Yet I still find keeping up with the ins-and-outs of eating sustainably an intimidating process. For me, doing so is important for a few reasons:

  • The environment, Captain Obvious!
  • My health. Between heart disease (the #1 killer of women in the U.S.), diabetes and cancer, I just don’t need any more scary incentives to tend to my weekly meal and exercise plans.
  • Labor and workers' rights (my dad is a union steward) so I tend to think a lot about the people who grow, stock, process and cook our food.
  • All this, plus I enjoy eating tasty food—on a budget. Not a small order.

Hence my interest in reviewing John Robbins' new book No Happy Cows, a collection of his greatest hits from Huffington Post, here redressed and freshly-introduced. (You may also know Robbins from The Food Revolution and numerous other publications.) If you're also curious and would like more background on food issues, you'll get a terrific overview of many Big Issues in Food Today and resources to help navigate the grocery store (and the internet). As our individual choices are made amidst a larger context, he argues that we owe it to ourselves as consumers (and eaters) to engage with our food system more mindfully.

Robbins says: "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.”

Talking industrial food in the U.S. is not for the squeamish. It’s distressing to think that your bacon comes from a pig who lived amidst miserable conditions, the likes of which Robbins lays out unflinchingly. This is where my inner wonk must point out some parallels between industrial systems. Factory farms in the U.S. (just like highways and suburbia) came to be because we made and enabled them, through government subsidies and regulations, or lack thereof.

If you've committed to engage and learn about your food and where it comes from, these essays are as good a place as any to begin. Organized by themes including animal welfare, what we're eating, industrial food production and holistic self-care, Robbins begins by setting the context of our contentious political environment. In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama came under fire by Big Ag for planting an organic garden outside the White House, despite the fact that several Big Ag pros had already been appointed to the FDA by newly-elected President Obama.

Robbins goes on to introduce us to a heartbroken hog farmer, the chickens who lay our eggs and the cows immortalized in ads as the “Happy Cows of California” (hence the volume’s title). In one of the chapters devoted to specific food topics, he strongly condemns Big Ag’s overuse of antibiotics, referring to concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFO’s, as “bioweapons factories”. (You'll recall that CAFO’s, also known as factory farms, use 80% of the antibiotics in the U.S., mainly to encourage faster growth.) Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and others recently called to enforce the ban upon their use in healthy animals. Robbins explains the issue of antibiotic resistance in a fairly engaging, even humorous, manner.

Ecocentric’s egg fans should also note Robbins' chapter on the subject, in which he also offers some consumer advice. Here he points out that with real industrial reforms, the price of more ethically-produced eggs could rise by only a penny per dozen.

When it comes to some handy industrial analysis and buying guides, certain foodstuffs are well-served. Robbins lists the national brand ice cream manufacturers that have committed to using only dairy from cows not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH (a subject which Stephen Colbert breaks down nicely), how to best support chocolate that does not rely on child labor and the ins-and-outs of fair trade coffee.

Taking on two recent and rather egregious examples of greenwashing, Robbins discusses the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s partner in pink-bucket crime, KFC, as well as Coca-Cola’s infamous “reasonable people wouldn’t think a beverage like this is healthy” VitaminWater scandal.

As Robbins' pieces stand alone, the book is a good choice for busy readers with ten minutes to spare here and there (or with corresponding attention spans). Despite the brevity, you will likely want to let the ideas marinate a little. While the concluding portion of the book briefly touches on new age concepts that might not be for everyone, this volume should appeal greatly to a wide audience. If you'd like a slender book to include as your “heavy” reading this summer, No Happy Cows makes a fine choice.

Look for "No Happy Cows" at your favorite bookseller.