No Happy Cows
*This is the first installment in a new Eating Plants section: Book Reviews. If you are interested in writing one, please let me know (e-mail contact is at “About James”).
There are a LOT of reasons to like John Robbins, the charismatic son of the Baskin Robbins ice cream empire who, Lear-like, left the kingdom to become a plant-based diet guru of considerable fame. Regrettably, his latest book, No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution isn’t one of them. It pains me a bit to say that. I relied heavily on his book Diet for a New America when I wrote Just Food and I occasionally find his blogs to be inspiring. Plus, he seems like a terrific guy.
No Happy Cows, though, is sort of a chaotic hodge-podge of recycled material, randomly rehashed blog posts, and warmed-over mini rants against industrial agriculture. The book is compromised by typos (including, technically, a word in the subtitle), lacks footnotes, and couldn’t be bothered with an index. Moreover, it’s too frequently marked by factual inaccuracies (there was e. coli before cows ate corn; Michael Taylor was hardly the “man most responsible for the promotion of GMO food”; grass fed beef is not “far less polluting”; cows are not skinned alive in slaughterhouses nor do they “have their feet cut off while they are still breathing”) and historical distortions (there was factory farming before subsidies). But hey, Woody Harrelson blurbed it and the cover is a handsome one.
Most of No Happy Cows is a strenuous and strained defense of soy, pitting this study versus that, that versus this, until the eyes cross. Readers of his previous work will find nothing new in his ultimate soyful message: moderate soy consumption has health benefits. A complementary section reiterates why industrial cow’s milk damages human health. Nothing new here. Hormones and antibiotics: bad news. The milk industry: shameless liars. Etc. Etc. The remainder of the book skips and skedaddles from Fair Trade coffee to Vitaminwater to the miraculous properties of dark chocolate. I agree with most of Robbins has to say but what he has to say is pretty bland and, by the last section, when he’s writing (tenderly, I might add) about his own personal shortcomings, it’s hard to see what it all adds up to. It doesn’t help that Robbins has a bad habit of punctuating his prose with painfully obvious statements. To wit: “There are dangers to eating a diet based entirely on soybeans.”
Perhaps what bothered me most about the book is Robbins’ tepid, and at times even cautiously supportive, critique of small-scale alternatives. If you have to eat eggs, he writes, get them from the small organic guys. Grass fed beef is better (although, as he rightly says, that’s not saying much). Michael Pollan is quoted too often and too favorably. Nicolette Niman’s Righteous Porkchop get a little time in the spotlight (and a little for her is too much). The health properties of grass-fed beef are pushed a little too hard before Robbins gets to the “dark side.” After a while you begin to wonder why Robbins nearly ruptures a disk bending over backward to be “fair” to the alternatives. Is this book supposed to encourage us to eat plants or just support small organic farms? This was not the question I wanted to be left with.
As Robbins reminds us (a few too many times for my taste), he’s sold millions upon millions of books and been translated into dozens and dozens of languages. This book will in no way take away from these achievements. But they won’t add to them either.