Just in time for October’s World Vegetarian Month, acclaimed director and NZ resident James Cameron, speaks at length about the plant-based lifestyle he and his family choose to follow and about his Greytown café; Food Forest Organics. The Vegetarian activist, who recently teamed up with Terminator friend Arnold Schwarzenegger to encourage the world to eat less meat, shares with SAFE some very personal thoughts and philosophies around this lifestyle choice.
1 What’s been most rewarding about opening your shop and café?
It’s great to get feedback from the community, and to see our little store embraced by the locals. Greytown is a wonderful little town. It reminds me a lot of the town I grew up in as a kid in Canada, which was near Niagara Falls, so you had the small town feeling, but also a big flow-through of tourists. In Greytown you have the overlay of vacationers on the locals, which is good for business and good for spreading the word about organics and plant-based nutrition back to where the visitors are coming from, Wellington or wherever. We’ve found the store is catering particularly well to the locals who know us and appreciate our reputation for quality of produce and products. It’s great to see people asking questions and wanting to know more about organic foods and health products, and about the benefits of plant based diets.
2 What’s surprised you the most?
I expected more resistance in an area known for its animal agriculture, but people seem to be embracing the health benefits of organic and plant-based eating.
3 Has this been a life long dream?
To open a modest store in Greytown? If you’d asked me when I was starting out as a film-maker wanting to conquer the world, that goal would have been about 10 millionth on my list. But it’s been my dream since 1994, when I drove around the country, to come back some day and live in New Zealand. And part of the appeal was the warmth and forthrightness of the people. So in a sense, that dream entailed becoming part of a community here, and raising our kids here with the values we admire in New Zealanders. To that end, owning a farm, being productive members of the community, and having a business here in the South Wairarapa that puts us in touch with local people day to day, is all part of what my wife Suzy and I aspired to – so in a funny way the answer is YES.
4 Do you have other plans/dreams for developing veganism in NZ?
We want to tread lightly in spreading the word, because animal agriculture -beef, dairy and lamb in particular, is such an important part of the economy of New Zealand, and of the culture and history. But if people are interested and want to learn more, we will be helpful and supportive. The health benefits are astounding, once you open your mind and start to read up on it. And what will be very important to New Zealand, in order to meet its carbon goals for controlling climate change, is reducing meat and dairy consumption for environmental reasons. The whole world is waking up to the fact that we can’t control climate change at less than 2° C without reducing our animal agriculture. It’s simply not possible. And cleaning up the lakes and rivers of New Zealand will require some degree of shift away from beef and dairy production, into more eco-friendly forms of agriculture, which is what we practice on our farm at Pounui. But speaking as a farmer, I want to be solution-oriented. I want to be able to offer farmers profitable alternatives. We’re still exploring the best practices to do that, treating our farm as a test site for eco-agricultural research. Over the long haul we want to expand our organic produce operations, and our no-till/low input cropping operations. In addition, I want to look for ways to add value locally in the supply chain, such as building processing facilities for pea protein, hemp and some of our other eco-agro crops.
5 How long have you lived a plant-based lifestyle and what are your reasons for this?
Our whole family -my wife Suzy and I, and our 3 live at home kids, went plant-based in May of 2012, so it’s been over 4 years. Suzy’s goal was improved health for us and the kids, but my goal was to set an example of living responsibly as an environmental activist. I knew about the serious negative impacts of animal agriculture on the environment — the massive contribution to greenhouse forcing, deforestation, biodiversity loss, habitat loss, water pollution, ocean dead zones, etc – but I believed we NEEDED to eat meat and drink milk for health. I think that’s a particularly male perspective. I need PROTEIN, damn it! What I didn’t understand was that protein comes from plants — that’s where the cattle, pigs, chickens and so on get it in the first place — so we can absolutely cut out the middle man, and in the process cut out heart disease, diabetes, many forms of cancer, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and all sorts of diseases of modern life that are caused or worsened by eating critters.
NOBODY in the western world is dying or even sick from a protein deficiency – I defy any doctor in NZ or the US to say he/she has ever treated one, or even seen one – and yet we’re obsessed and terrified by not getting enough protein. For zero factual reason. And yet EVERY doctor has treated heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, diabetes and all the other ills caused by our animal diets. Our obsession with protein is killing us, and at the very same time people on western diets are actually ODing on protein – taking in two to three times more than is necessary. The average person is eating enough protein to be a world champion body builder, so imagine how much of a protein overdose champion bodybuilders are getting? Even my friend Arnold Schwarzenegger is now preaching less meat in the diet, because he understands both the health and the environmental consequences. As governor of California he was a powerhouse leader for environmental policy, and now he’s walking the walk, eating more and more plant-based. He’s not all the way vegan yet, but I’m working on it.
6 What are you proudest of, about your plant-based lifestyle?
It takes commitment and a good support system, amongst family and friends, to change to a fully plant based diet. I’m proud of our immediate family for doing it 100% and sticking with it. I’m proud of Suzy for incorporating plant-based nutrition into her school in Malibu, California, which is called The Muse School – where kids from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 are able to raise their own vegetables, then have them incorporated into the meals they eat at school. Her school serves only 100% plant-based meals, and is the first school in the US to do so. It also won the award for the greenest restaurant in the world. So our shift to a plant based diet has rippled out far beyond us personally to everyone we interact with. I’m proud of being part of the solution for climate change, and part of a healthier future. That said, it’s very critical for vegans to be humble – the holier than thou attitude of a lot of vegans is very off-putting to meat eaters. We need to put out the vibe that we’re all on a journey, and some are not as far along the path in their understanding of the issues. Until 4 years ago I didn’t know about the health benefits of plant based eating. I always thought vegans were freaks – I couldn’t understand how they could be healthy on an all-plant diet and I guess I subconsciously thought they were either lying and sneaking meat from time to time, or they were medical anomalies. It wasn’t until I watched Forks Over Knives and read The China Study (twice) that I realized I had been programmed by a culture that celebrated meat and dairy consumption in spite of the facts.
7 What other things have come about, as a result of becoming plant-based?
My weight has been very stable at my target set point for 4 years, and it’s easy to maintain. My health has been phenomenal. Typically, before going plant-based, I would have had a couple of colds a year, maybe a flu, and a couple of stomach bugs. Since going plant-based I’ve had zero illness, not even the slightest sniffle. This can’t be accounted for as a statistical fluke. It is absolutely evidence of the plant-based diet’s ability to rev up the immune system. As a film director who needs to go the distance and deal with stress every day for years on end, a good immune system is critical to my work. As a vegan, I would say my immune system is now bullet-proof (knock wood.) My fitness levels are very high. I kick box, lift weights, run and do yoga. My cardio fitness is better than it was when I was 20, and I have tons of energy.
8 Has your relationship to animals changed, now they don’t feature in your diet?
Interestingly, unlike probably the majority of your readers, my reason for becoming vegan was NOT the plight of animals. I always assumed I needed that animal protein to be healthy and that was just tough luck for the animals. That I didn’t make the rules, nature did, so I didn’t need to feel guilty or even think about it that much. But I was completely wrong. Once I realized that not only were animal foods not necessary, but they were actively working against my health, and that of our living world, I changed my diet accordingly and never looked back. And I found an interesting thing happened – I was now willing to look behind the door of the slaughterhouse, where before it existed out of my mind’s eye. I then tore through all the books on the subject, and now realize how we as a civilization are committing this vast crime against nature, against our own sense of morality, and doing it for reasons largely of ignorance and cultural momentum. All of which is of course aided and abetted by the advertizing dollars, the constant media barrage of propaganda, and the lobbying power of the food industry, and meat and dairy industries. Got Milk? Beef — real food for real people! We’ve all heard the slogans. The truth is that if you think meat is real food for real people, you better live real close to a real good hospital. Or mortuary. I think for many new plant-based eaters, one benefit is that they can face the issue of the horrific cruelty being done to animals squarely for the first time. Before that, one lives in denial. We somehow are able to straddle this cognitive dissonance created by loving animals on the one hand – cats, dogs, horses – and yet raising others by the billions in unutterably horrific circumstances, then slaughtering them for our supposed need. Except it turns out not to be a need — but merely a choice. A desire. And not a very smart one at that, from a standpoint of personal survival, and the survival of our civilization.
9 What is your secret for inspiring others to consider becoming vegan?
I think it’s important to approach it from logical as well as emotional positions. Emotionally it’s good to appeal to parents, especially mothers, and their sense of nurturing their children and wanting the best for them, both in health and in the type of world we pass on. It’s good emotionally to emphasize that you look better as a plant-based eater. You get more compliments on your healthy glow. You’re fitter and trimmer. You’ll live longer and be happier. You’ll have more energy. Your sex life will be better. Men – take note – the primary cause of erectile dysfunction is clogging of the arteries caused by meat and dairy. Real men eat plants.
It’s important emotionally to feel empowered in a world of negative trends. Everyone is anxious about climate change. Reducing meat and dairy consumption, or going completely plant-based, is the biggest single thing you can do – right now, today – as an individual, to make a difference. You can contribute to the Sierra Club and buy a Prius, but changing your diet has a ripple effect on everyone around you, and pushes us incrementally as a society toward a profound change that will save our natural world and prevent the worst effects of climate change.
When it comes to logic – it’s important to be right about your facts, so the first thing I did was raise some money, and contribute a fair bit of my own, to creating a research group to aggregate the facts about animal agriculture’s severe impacts on our planet. That work is being done by the Plant Power Task Force, which I co-fund, and which Suzy is directing. Through that entity, we funded a research study done by Chatham House, the UK think tank, which was published last year and was very disruptive in bringing to the forefront the connection between diet and the environment, specifically climate change. Chatham House also did demographic research in the US, UK, Brazil and China to find out how much people knew on the subject and what inclination they might have to change diet. The results were surprising. It was no surprise that people weren’t making much of a connection between meat and dairy consumption and the long list of environmental woes topped by climate change. What was a surprise was people’s willingness to change.
It has long been fatalistically assumed that asking people to change diet was a non-starter of an approach to saving the environment and stopping climate change. Ask most environmentalists and they just shrug and say it won’t happen, so they promote other ideas like genetically engineering cows to burp less, and other stupid techno-optimist solutions that won’t begin to make a dent in the problem. But there was no data to support this notion that people won’t change. No one had actually checked. It was just “common sense.” Well I always say that common sense tells you the world is flat. And it was for many millennia, right up until somebody actually checked. When we checked about the willingness of people to change diet, we found a direct correlation between the degree to which people understood the environmental impacts, and the degree they were willing to reduce or eliminate meat and dairy. It was a linear relationship, and it was true in the four culturally diverse countries we studied. It turned out not to be an unassailable bastion after all. This was the most significant outcome of our research.
People can and do change, and they are more likely to change when they understand both the health and the environmental issues. Both together have more impact than either separately, although we see that baby boomers are more interested in health, because they know their arteries are clogging off and their hearts and the blood vessels in their brains are time bombs, whereas millennials and teens are more willing to change for the environment. Add the plight of animals to this, and you’ve got the trifecta of reasons.
10 What do you most wish people understood about veganism?
It’s not a cult, it’s not a fad. It’s the single most powerful thing you can do as an individual to affect climate change, improve the world’s ecosystems, reduce water pollution, protect biodiversity, reduce deforestation and improve your health, energy, and longevity. What’s NOT to love about that? You get to live longer, be happier, and look in the mirror every morning knowing that you are living right with Mother Nature, and doing the best you can do for future generations of human beings.
11 How do you find being plant-based in NZ?
I find New Zealanders to be the sanest people in the world. I believe this country can be early adopters of this important paradigm shift for individual health and the health of the planet. It’s a small country and it can pivot fast, which can allow us to be world leaders in this. NZ is thought of as a pure and natural place to visit and live, so it’s incumbent on us to support that vision of New Zealand, and present that face to the world. On the down side, there’s a deeply ingrained culture and history of animal agriculture that New Zealanders rightly take pride in. So that’s standing in the way. But New Zealand has been on the right side of history and taken a leadership role on the world stage on other issues, such as being the very first country where women could vote, and being the ONLY colonial country that honors its original treaties with its indigenous People – so why not be leaders in this new consciousness as well?
– James Cameron
James spoke with SAFE’s Amanda Sorrenson. SAFE has produced a free guide to plant based eating. Order yours now.