Interview with Dr. Richard A. Oppenlander - author of the new environmental must-read Comfortably Unaware - on why what we choose to eat is killing our planet
With his book Comfortably Unaware and his speaking engagements, Dr. Richard Oppenlander addresses a fact that should be widely known but is often conveniently pushed aside: that our current choices of animal foods are causing widespread global depletion - the loss of our land, water, air/atmosphere, food supply, biodiversity, energy resources, and our own health.
In a unique, honest, and most compelling fashion, he points out serious inefficiencies, common myths, and unsustainable practices in our current food production systems, and how these are applied by industry and government to keep the public in the dark and the profit interests of business soaring. Dr. Oppenlander challenges his audience to take a look at all inter-related aspects of food, and to question and verify the often censored information that reaches the public about the impact that food production has on everything on this planet: humans, animals, and the environment we live in.
Comfortably Unaware teaches us that only a fully plant-based diet using organic whole foods and a variety of food sources will be successful in halting, and even reversing, the devastating affect that our food production system has on our planet. Dr. Oppenlander's mission is to make the world aware of our true global depletion causes and solutions, and to seed the reality about the true cost of our food.
Biography Dr. Richard Oppenlander
Dr. Rick Oppenlander - author of
- He is the author of "Comfortably Unaware: Global Depletion and Food Choice Responsibility", which gained immediate media attention and rave reviews by readers.
- He is a restorative dentist and has his own practice in Portage, MI.
- He is also president and founder of an organic vegan food production company called Ope's.
- He became vegan about 40 years ago for health and wellness reasons at first, and when he researched food production further, animal welfare became an additional driver for his veganism. Along with that, he started looking into the environmental impact of food and is committed ever since to change the world's outlook on the complex inter-relationship of food and environment.
- Since the 1970s he has done medical research, treated thousands of patients, and has extensively studied the effect that our food choices have on our health and on our environment.
- Dr. Oppenlander has given hundred of lectures and presentations to a wide range of audiences, including universities and environmental conferences. He has been featured on radio shows, in newspapers, and magazines.
Comfortably Unaware - My Interview with Dr. Oppenlander
1. Rick, you have a thriving medical career and while practicing, you also manage to run an organic food production business, travel the country for lectures and presentations, and write one of the most important new books on pressing environmental questions. How do you manage to juggle all this work and what compelled you to drive so deep into the environmental impact of food?
Dr. Oppenlander (Rick): I am juggling all of these because it is so important to provide a conceptional awareness of the environmental impact our food choices have. I am filling a void of information that needs to be filled and simply does not exist. I want to get the word out until our planet is healthy again.
Right now nothing is being done. Education is needed and the dots need to be connected to raise awareness. There is no other lecture today that tells the full story. I'm driven to do this as I wake up, throughout the day, and through the night - it's like a peaceable obsession for me. The information dispersed on the relationship of food and environment is fragmented at best, and I believe that my work fills a gap.
2. I tasted your very delicious Ope's Cookies during your presentation in Las Vegas. Tell us more about your organic, vegan food production business Export Ope's and what prompted it?
Rick: This is an evolutionary process that started 20-22 years ago. Back then when I was speaking in public, the audience started asking me about what type of food I was talking about that could be healthy but also taste delicious. That's when I was stuck in my lectures and that's the main reason the cookies came out. Then I found more foods and started an organic food franchise, which morphed into Ope's Cookies to create awareness for healthy food choices that are good for the planet too. I started discussing this with hospitals to add these to their options for patients. Again, I saw the need to fill a gap here.
3. I had the pleasure of meeting you at the Vegans in Vegas conference in Las Vegas, where you presented Comfortably Unaware. Your lecture inspired me greatly with its profound insights and solid approach on what needs to be done to save our planet. Please tell us about your key message with Comfortably Unaware.
Rick: the key message of Comfortably Unaware is complex: collectively through our food choices of mainly animal foods, we are causing global depletion and the loss of our primary resources and our own health. 96% of people are either entirely unaware of how their food choices affect the planet, or they are at least unaware of the extent of this impact. The recognition needs to be made clear and we have to find solutions.
No matter how and where they are grown - animal foods are NOT sustainable for our planet or our health.
4. What inspired the title of your book Comfortably Unaware, which almost slyly woes curious readers, as the title is neither disparaging nor threatening or condescending on the first glance?
Rick: a number of books approach the topic of global depletion and the human role in it, but not in the right manner, in my opinion. It is quite easy to come across patronizing when you tell people what to do and what not, but that's not very useful to attract broader interest for this important subject. Comfortably Unaware accurately portrays what people do when they choose to eat. The book itself spells it out and gets noticed for this reason. I constantly have to update the numbers and the stats I use in my presentations, as they simply change so fast!
The triad of the information in Comfortably Unaware is this:
a) bring it to the forefront
b) get the real story out and get realistic perspectives on our own behavior
c) provide some measure of solution
5. Your presentation of Comfortably Unaware is unusually honest and hard-hitting, but in a truly compelling and motivating manner. You are naming the issues without pussy-footing around the ballroom, so to speak. This stands in contrast to many other authors, who are often concerned not to alienate the audience that needs to hear their message most. What experience have you made with your refreshing approach, and why did you choose a clearly needed, but rarely employed wake-up-call-like way to deliver your message?
Rick: very clear and comprehensive awareness is needed to impact true change. Talking all kindness to the audience does not necessarily go where we want to go. In essence, there are two types of messages out there today:
One message is more focused reality as used by Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Colin T. Campbell, and Dr. Neal Barnard, for example, but many people don't care about these realities. Dr. Barnard has educated audiences on how to reverse diabetes for 28 years, and yet, nationwide diabetes rates are on an alarming rise.
Others like Melanie Joy or Dr. Will Tuttle do a splendid job covering the spiritual aspect and animal rights side of the story, which reaches a few other people. But none of them connects all the aspects of our food choices with the environment. No one exposes the loss of biodiversity.
The second message everyone is hearing is that of partial, skewed, or incomplete awareness, as published by Michael Pollan and others, because it's what the masses like to hear better.
The reason that these authors have an incomplete message, is that they narrow the discussion down to only certain areas, as they choose to tread lightly to protect their popularity, or maybe they are comfortably unaware themselves. Even if they do know the real picture, they are telling us it's still OK to eat animals if we raise them "sustainably" on pastures, as they won't be fed high fructose corn syrup or require high amounts of fossil fuels for transport, as is the case on factory farms. These authors are not going to the source of the issues with their suggestions. Millions of people still hear that farming animals is sustainable and that we just have to take them out of the factory farms. It is not!
The majority of people do not want to hear the wake-up call that I send in my message, but it is effective! Arguments and denial are common in my audience when I present Comfortably Unaware, but the facts are undeniable and many people start to realize that.
Resource losses do exist in profound ways and profound numbers. Our loss of life on earth is all created by our demand for animal foods.
6. What kind of audiences do you reach with your presentations and how do they react to your really inconvenient truth - a term you use? With the advent of the GOP-driven "Global Warming Birthers", I am sure it's not an easy task to tell people that they are killing their planet with their food choices. Please tell us about your experience with audiences and if you observe that people are opening up to the truth.
Rick: I speak about Comfortably Unaware to universities and colleges and will focus even more on these, as this is where our future generation hears the truth and not just fiction. I get a great deal of interest from the attendees there. Other presentations I give are book signings and events like Vegans in Vegas recently, where the audience is already somewhat aware of what's going on between food choices and the environment, but needs to be recharged to disseminate the information and reality better to others around them.
I also speak to groups that listen, but are reluctant to digest and accept what they hear, as other contradicting information and influences are so deeply buried into their everyday life and culturally learned behavior.
The fourth group is the most important one: these are the people who do not yet come to my Comfortably Unaware presentation, but they need to hear it the most. They live in a bubble and don't want to be woken up.
All of us contribute to global depletion. Everyone needs to hear the message. We have to develop a large collective consciousness across all population layers.
Millions of people still hear that farming animals is sustainable and that we just have to take them out of the factory farms. It is not!
7. In your book Comfortably Unaware you are taking a stab at categorizing the meat-eating population into those who willingly subject themselves to disease; those who are in the know but believe it won't affect them; and those who still falsely believe that animal products are good for health, which is the biggest group. Can you elaborate on these categories?
Rick: I have found there to be three types of people who eat meat:
- "Burger, Fries and a Side of Disease"
- "I Am Superman"
- "I Need My Protein"
The first, "B, F and S", understand that they have an increased risk of contracting one or many of the top four diseases in the U.S. which are coronary heart disease, malignancies, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes, but are under the belief that this is normal - essentially a normal function of getting older. You turn 50 or 60 and you have a heart attack or develop colon or breast cancer - all part of the aging process and being completely separated from anything to do with food choices.
The second category "I am superman" is made up of those who have a feel or sense that eating certain foods will increase the risk or cause diseases, but it will simply never happen to them.
The third type, "I need my protein", are those that are truly comfortably unaware of any ill effect of eating animals of any type, because they have been so heavily influenced, essentially brainwashed into believing that eating animals is a necessity. Why? Because of our culture and nearly all other cultures in the world that have dictated this precept, and it has then been further grounded by other various political, educational, and social influences. We absolutely have to change the education levels and mindsets of our mentors, teachers, and educators!
8. You mentioned during your Comfortably Unaware presentation that global warming is just one problem of overall global depletion, which runs far deeper. What are we facing 5-10 years down the road if we change absolutely nothing in the way we produce our food today?
Dr. Oppenlander at his
Comfortably Unaware Booth
Rick: Nowadays our environmental focus seems only on global warming, which was started by Al Gore. This is only a small fraction of the whole picture though. The largest contributor to global warming and global depletion is our choice of food - livestock, fish, dairy, and eggs.
If we change nothing at all, very soon the first of all areas will collapse. Even if we convert all factory farms to pastures to graze our cattle for food, the greenhouse gas emissions will still increase, and methane alone will even rise by 50-60 % from grass-fed cattle.
More droughts, floods, storms, more severe weather will become the norm, which we already see this year. This will be combined with massive amounts of ecosystems being deployed and going extinct. Our food supply will die out. Our freshwater resources will die out. Water and food security will lead to more conflicts worldwide. We are already losing 30,000 different species of animals to extinction every single year now, and that number will drastically increase.
We don't have to wait 5-10 years to feel the devastating impact of our current food production - it's happening right now! People don't see all the impact with their own eyes, but that does not mean it doesn't happen. Those scientists that have the platforms to reach a broad public are either not aware of it, or choose not to talk about it, as they may be afraid of losing their jobs and for losing industry grants.
The ones who are allowed to influence the public don't understand the full complexity of global depletion - that's the most troublesome issue for me.
9. The facts you are listing in Comfortably Unaware about food production's impact on the planet are mind-boggling. Out of the many alarming global depletion statistics, can you name those that concern you the most and why?
Rick: All the factors and numbers are alarming, but it's not the stats that worry me most. The #1 troublesome issue for me is the reason why I wrote this book and why I am so committed to this: we are seeing this phenomenon of consistent suppression and exclusion of this data.
Formal environmental organizations and global summits were specifically created to address the problem of global depletion, but they consistently fail to effectively address the main reasons for it. A global environmental summit was created in 1997 and they gather regularly to address this problem. At least 50% stems from pastured and unsustainable farming and fish farms.
These issues are never talked about, as they involve food politics, political agendas, and large economic interests. 9 years from now, less than 10% of all oceans will be protected. How all this information is mismanaged is a selfish and dangerous trend. The ones who are allowed to influence the public don't understand the full complexity of global depletion - that's the most troublesome issue for me. This is the state of our culture overall, and I am committed to resolve this.
We are seeing this phenomenon of consistent suppression and exclusion of this data.
10. What immediate measures should every single person take to prevent global depletion from widening further?
Rick: First of all everyone should eat organic, plant-based food with every bite at every meal. But that in itself is not even enough. Of prime importance is to continue to increase awareness of this issue, and to empower others to embrace change for their own lives and for our lives.
11. What other possible solutions would you like to see enacted to stop or at least slow further global depletion, which you have also outlined in Comfortably Unaware?
Rick: An eco and health risk tax on animal foods would address the issue of environmental accountability. The cost of eating an animal has always been externalized, without reflecting the true cost of it.
The environmental impact of every milk carton and every piece of meat has to be paid for by manufacturers and consumers of such products.
The price must reflect the use and depletion of land, water, fossil fuels, etc., that went into the product. It must reflect the toll on biodiversity and threat of extinction for the food source. It must reflect the heightened healthcare cost that ensues from eating animal foods.
I am not advocating a carbon tax, which is vastly understating the problem. I mean a full eco and health risk tax. The farm bill re-issued every year by the US government must reduce funding for factory farms and allot money for healthy foods, and that does not include small farmers of animal foods. (Note from editor: animal foods are highly subsidized by the government, which also guarantees to buy farming surpluses if consumer demand drops. Large agribusinesses have therefore no interest to reduce their output, as they get paid regardless of who consumes it.)
The farm bill must provide for education on global depletion and levy a tax on those who violate the guidelines. Food that is better for the environment needs to be promoted, but no one addresses this. Stores like Whole Foods are going into the right direction with their sustainable label on foods, but that only scratches the surface.
You really can't put a true price tag to a piece of meat, as the resources lost are irreparable. Right now, only our planet pays for our food choices, but not us.
12. What does true sustainability really mean, and why are we surrounded with so-called experts who are in charge for public education in this matter, but don't actually comprehend or choose to consider the whole spectrum of sustainability?
Rick: True sustainability related to food choices can really only be defined in one way: choose the foods that are in the best interest of our planet. No animal products fit this bill. The reason we are surrounded by these foods is that we allow media to dictate our education and culture. And they do a marvelous job at exposing issues, but we have become indoctrinated by the limitations of these people who serve as our public educators, as they don't know the difference or choose to ignore it.
Michael Pollan says he loves tuna, a fish that is highly endangered and at the brink of extinction. And yet, Pollan is publicly portrayed as the trailblazer of sustainability through localized farming. Actor Ted Danson says publicly that he eats only "sustainable fish", without realizing that the farming practices he endorses are anything but sustainable.
These people have been chosen as experts in this field, although they do more harm than good with their limited knowledge. Just because they have popularity with the public, they are now used as a communication platform by the media.
Only 400-480 pounds of meat can be produced by one acre of land, compared to 20,000 pounds of plant foods that could be grown on the same slot.
13. In Comfortably Unaware you dispute the statement that grass-fed beef is a sustainable food choice, as supported by author Michael Pollan and others, who influence a current "locavore" movement in the US. Why is locally farmed animal food not more sustainable than factory farmed food in your opinion?
Dr. Oppenlander speaks about
Comfortably Unaware in front of students
Rick: People won't raise cows in their own yard, even if that seems like a good idea to Michael Pollan. Grass-fed or locally sourced beef or other animal food is not sustainable at all.
When Pollan compares the fossil fuel savings between factory farmed and grass-fed beef, he only looks at what's needed for transport, which is a mere 11%. The vast majority of fossil fuel goes into the process of raising and slaughtering the cattle, which remains the same - or even increases with pasture-raised animals, as they have a longer lifespan.
If we move away from factory farming towards seemingly more sustainable livestock operations, we are only addressing one problem: that of concentrated pollution. This however does not eliminate the problem - it only redirects it over a wider area.
5 million pounds of excrements are created in factory farms per minute, which will still be the same if we move the animals to green pasture land. In fact, cow's gas production will actually increase and methane gas output will rise by 50-60% from grass-fed beef.
Cows also live 2 - 2 1/2 years longer on pastures until they are ready for slaughter, as they are more active and burn more calories. The longer lifespan, the diet higher in fiber, and the higher water consumption due to more activity will all ADD to pollution and depletion by grass-fed beef. You also need additional irrigation for pasture lands.
The grass-fed beef operations in California alone use 1-2 million gallons of water on one acre of pasture land they call sustainable. This is true self deception - grass-fed operations will drastically increase resource depletion! Only 400-480 pounds of meat can be produced by one acre of land, compared to 20,000 pounds of plant foods that could be grown on the same slot.
I have spoken to many grass-fed farm owners and all of them, 100%, believe that factory farms are a necessity, as it's entirely impossible to create the meat supply for our current demand from pasture-raised beef.
And besides the above, grass-fed beef is still loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat and therefore unsustainable to our health - locally grown or not. Comparing factory farmed to pasture raised is not the correct picture; but it is this path of least resistance that attracts people to it. The only real sustainability comparison would be between animal foods versus non-animal foods.
True sustainability related to food choices can really only be defined in one way: choose the foods that are in the best interest of our planet.
14. What do you mean in Comfortably Unaware when stating that we don't see the "true cost" of our food choices? Can you elaborate on this for our readers?
Rick: The true cost of food is never reflected in the price we pay. It does not account for the resources used - sometimes irreplaceable resources - or the healthcare cost that goes into it.
1/3 of all top soil in the US is already lost. 20-30 million acres of rainforest per year are lost to deforestation for grazing land and soy bean farming, which are then fed to cattle. We are now spending between $120-350 billion on healthcare cost in the US every year for eating animals.
As we begin to run out of natural resources and pay more for health costs, the current price for a pound of steak at $3.89 should more realistically be 300-500% that much. In fact, you can not really put a price tag to it, as the resources lost are irreparable. Right now, only our planet pays for our choices, but not us.
15. In Las Vegas we briefly discussed how important it is to have you as guest speaker at environmental conferences of all sorts, along with animal rights, vegan, and other food-oriented events. Your message with Comfortably Unaware is so important, but often overlooked or suppressed, that we don't often get this perspective when it comes to exploring ways to help the planet, people, or animals. What can we do to spread the word further and what does the future hold for Comfortably Unaware?
Rick: I want to speak more at environmental conferences with larger audiences and before students about Comfortably Unaware. My new agent will be helpful with that. There is a long list of opportunities to come, and we need to find these audiences. An unfiltered lens is the best approach to disseminate the information. Social networking is another massive opportunity to raise awareness.
I have also started work on my second book, a continuation to Comfortably Unware, which will handle the question "why should we pay for food that others eat?"
At least 50% of global depletion stems from pastured and unsustainable farming and fish farms.
16. Speaking of spreading the word about Comfortably Unaware, can we share your upcoming speaking dates so Belsandia readers know where to catch you for a presentation?
Rick: This year I will speak at the Vegetarian Summerfest in PA and the Worldfest in San Francisco. I also have a few workshops and large keynote presentations lined up. Within a few months I am also considering to offer seminars on Comfortably Unaware. Now with my new agent on board, we will address larger platforms and do more interviews as well.
17. Your vision and any parting words for our audience?
Rick: First of all, Ina, let me express my deep appreciation for you, and that you care enough and are thoughtful enough to implement the changes we talked about yourself. I applaud your efforts!
My vision can be summarized as follows:
Resource losses do exist in profound ways and profound numbers. Our loss of life on earth is all created by our demand for animal foods. If we stop demanding that we can heal our planet. Exclusions like some eggs or cheese here or there don't work - the change must include all animals. It is all embedded so deeply into our daily behavior and culture, and that's where the real change has to start.
I want to encourage you to always filter through what you are told. Don't believe it at face value if you are told something is sustainable. No matter how and where they are grown - animal foods are NOT sustainable for our planet or our health.
Don't be comfortably unaware - be aware and be an instrument for the health of our planet and our future. Start today!
Click the following link to get more information: Comfortably Unaware - Global depletion and food responsibility... What you choose to eat
Contact Information for Dr. Rick Oppenlander and Comfortably Unaware
- The main website for Comfortably Unaware with more information and excerpts from the book.
- Ope's - Food the World can live with- Dr. Oppenlander's organic, vegan , and sustainable food business.
- Dr. Rick Oppenlander's Blog - great articles on pressing environmental issues and topics that relate to Comfortably Unaware by Dr. Oppenlander.
- Follow Dr. Oppenlander on Twitter and get Comfortably Unaware Tweets.
- Follow Dr. Oppenlander on Facebook and learn more about important issues from Comfortably Unaware.