Can you talk about the role of government subsidy in cheese?
The US government is intimately involved in dairy marketing. In 2000, the US Government held a program with dairy marketers with the intention specifically to trigger cheese cravings. We know this because of the Freedom of Information Act -- we saw the notes and even the powerpoint slides. The US Government wanted to promote US agricultural products, but they're not so big on promoting apples or citrus fruits -- they're big on promoting meat and cheese for some reason. The US government directly subsidizes the dairy industry. It buys up unsold dairy products and puts them in schools. They put McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's and other fast food chains on contract, specifically to market products with more cheese in them, which is a great way to sell more cheese since these fast food restaurants are in every city in America. They've deliberately done this and the farmers have profited, but the farmers' families and the whole population is paying the price for this with their health.
What do you recommend for someone who wants to get started with a plant-based diet?
I break it down into two steps. The first step is not to change your diet but to test out your options. You may still eat your old diet, but test out your options and try some new recipes. So if you never made a plant-based lasagna, instead of cheese you might use tofu or spinach, or if you never had a vegan pizza with extra sauce and all the veggies and sautéed mushrooms, well, now's the time to try it and see if you like it. Let's say you have a habit of eating fast food and you find yourself at Taco Bell. Instead of having the beef burrito, try out the bean burrito without cheese. It might not be the pinnacle of culinary art but it's a whole lot healthier than what you were eating before. If you're going to Whole Foods and you're buying a hamburger, try a veggie burger.
So step one is about trying some new things and seeing what recipes you like. If you have the 'room service gene' and you buy a lot of convenience foods, then that's okay, just try to figure out which products you like that aren't made with animal products and are low in oil -- because it's no good if you're avoiding animal products but just gorging on greasy food. It might take a couple weeks to figure out what you like, but once you know what you like, I suggest taking a three-week period and make it all-vegan, all-the-time -- but only for three weeks. A person will say, "Sure, I can do that, I can do anything for three weeks." So do it as a test, and if after 21 days and you don't like it you can go back to they way things were. At the end of that time, two things have happened: first you're healthier, your weight is coming down, your digestion is sorting itself out. The second thing is that your tastes have also changed. If you think back when you went from whole milk to skim milk, skim milk tastes pretty horrible at first. But almost everybody adapts, and then they never want to go back to whole milk again -- it's revolting and fatty. If you go from skim milk to soy, rice, or almond milk, that's different too, but you eventually like it. So if you change your diet for three weeks and then went back to a double bacon cheeseburger, it'd gross you out, but you don't know that that would be the case. So, find the foods you like, do it 100 percent for three weeks see what's it like, and then you can talk about going more long term.
What challenges do you face?
I'll tell you what's challenging -- Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill is going to take up subsidies for dairy products, and for corn and soybean (not for human consumption but as animal foods). There are already massive subsidies for these foods, which is why cheeseburgers are cheap - because they are subsidized directly or indirectly by the federal government. This is going to be taken up on Capital Hill later this year. The pressure on Congress to continue these subsidies is enormous because they're very afraid of cutting out a benefit for a politically active lobby. We all know that it's not a poor struggling farmer who's benefiting -- it's enormous corporations who are benefiting, which is what farming has largely turned into. But just like the banks and the chemical companies, they're a large and powerful force to be reckoned with. The problem is if we don't get a handle of subsidies and the promotion of unhealthy foods, then Americans are going to pay a terrible price, and most importantly we're going to set up the next generation to be even less healthy than the current one. We're going to make global climate change worse -- we're never going to cut into the terrible practices that go on at factory farms where animals clearly suffer. So to people to whom their health matters, animals matter or the environment matters, or their children matter, these things have to be tackled straight on, once and for all. Congress is not known for leading the charge -- Congress is the tail that is wagged by the dog, and the dog is the American public, so we've got to let people know that they need to let their congressional leaders know that we've got to start to create a level playing field when it comes to what foods are chosen. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans -- these should be the foods that are favored, accessible, and affordable, and until that's the case we're going to have one arm tied behind our back.