Home » Robyn O’Brien at TEDxAustin 2011 (Full Transcript)

Robyn O’Brien at TEDxAustin 2011 (Full Transcript)

But at the same time, what happened is that it was making the animals sick. It was causing ovarian cysts, it was causing mastitis, it was causing lameness, it was causing skin disorders. And for that reason, it increased antibiotic use in those animals. And so governments around the world said, “We’re going to exercise precaution, and we are not going to allow this into our dairy and into our milk supply, because it hasn’t yet been proven safe.”

We took a different approach. We said, “It hasn’t been proven dangerous, so we’ll allow it.” As I learned that, I thought, “How many sippy cups have I filled with this milk? And how many bowls of cereal have I poured it on for my husband?” Not knowing that Canada, the UK, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and all 27 countries in Europe didn’t allow it when it was introduced in the US in 1994. And so I wanted to know what are the conditions that we’re seeing here in the US? Because one of the concerns around this new growth hormone, this synthetic protein, was that it also elevated hormone levels that were linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancer.

And so I turned to remarkable organizations like LIVESTRONG and the American Cancer Society, because I wanted to know what the rates of cancer were in the US versus the rest of the world. The US has the highest rates of cancer of any country on the planet. And according to the American Cancer Society, migration studies show that if you were to move here from somewhere like Japan, your likelihood of developing cancer increases four-fold. One out of two American men and one out of three American women are expected to get cancer in their lifetime.

I also learned that one out of eight women has breast cancer. But then what I learned is that only one in ten of those breast cancers are genetic, which means nine out of ten of them are environmentally triggered. So kind of like, you know, when you’re driving down the highway and you see an accident, and you just keep looking, and you’re not really sure why? I wanted to know, are these other allergies that we’re seeing, have foreign proteins been introduced into our food there too.

And shortly after, milk was engineered with this new protein, scientists then engineered soy, and soy is also one of the top eight allergens. And again, to drive profitability for the soy industry, because soy is primarily used to fatten livestock, scientists were able to engineer the soybean so that it could withstand increasing doses of weed killer. And the business model, as an analyst, made perfect sense. You engineer the seed so that you can sell more weed killer. And at the same time, you’ve engineered something new into that seed so that you can patent it. So now you’ve got a patent on the seed and you’re selling additional weed killer.

But once again, governments around the world said no studies have been done to show if this is safe to feed to the livestock and to feed to our consumers, and so we’re going to exercise precaution in order to prevent the onset of any disease that may result. And in 1996 here in the US, we took a different approach.

As I kept learning more about food allergies, I was hearing concern from parents about a corn allergy, and so I wanted to know, did corn get engineered? And interestingly, in the late 1990s, as concern started to grow about the spraying of insecticide over cornfields, scientists were able to engineer that insecticide into the DNA of a corn seed, so that as a corn plant grows, it releases its own insecticide. As a result, corn was then regulated by the EPA as an insecticide.

As you can imagine, this was incredibly hard information to learn. We had introduced a term called substantial equivalence. It’s a conceptual tool, and it’s used by the tobacco industry to facilitate the approval process of something for which no human trials have been conducted. And that was the justification given for why we were introducing these things in the US.

And as I sat down one night with my husband, I said, “I can’t unlearn this. And I don’t know what people will say if I try to teach them, but I have to try.”

And so the next morning I came downstairs, and I sat our four kids down, and I said, “You know how mom has learned some pretty tough stuff about what’s going on in our food, and how it’s not in food in other countries, and it’s especially not in food fed to kids? I have to try to do something about that.”

And one of my boys, he looked at me and he said, “Mom, how many people are on your team?”

And I said, “Well, it’s you four and daddy.”

And he said, “Mom, you need a bigger team.”

And he was absolutely right. And at that point, I’d had people come up to me saying, “You’re food’s Erin Brockovich, you’re food’s Erin Brockovich. You should reach out to Erin Brockovich.” And at that point, I did not want to be food’s Erin Brockovich, and I thought, “How in the world could I possibly reach out to her?”

But then, all of those Type A genes started going off, and I thought, “I have to at least try.” If I could get through to somebody like Erin Brockovich, then maybe we could create this change here in the US. And so channeling all of that energy, I honestly spent about two weeks crafting a four sentence e-mail to Erin Brockovich. And I fired it off. And I don’t know if I ever really expected her to reply, but when she did, to have someone like that cheering you on suddenly makes you think that maybe one person can make a difference.

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