The following is the full transcript of Robyn O’Brien’s talk at TEDxAustin 2011 where she shares her personal journey as a ‘Real Food’ evangelist.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Robyn O’Brien speaks at TEDxAustin 2011
Robyn O’Brien – Anti-GMO activist
Well, first of all, before I get started, I want to take the opportunity to thank all of you for being here, because you are a remarkable group of visionaries and leaders, and it is such an honor to spend this time with you today. So thank you for taking the time out of your weekend.
As I like to share, I am such an unlikely crusader for cleaning up the food supply. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas on Twinkies and po’ boys. I wasn’t a foodie. What I was, was the oldest of four children, and as you often hear about, I inherited absolutely every single one of those Type A overachieving genes you read about in a first-born child. And thankfully, I channeled that into business school. I received a full scholarship and graduated as the top woman in my class before going on to serve as a food industry analyst.
And when management teams would come through our offices from Whole Foods and Wild Oats, we kind of thought they had a nice marketing niche carved out. It was either “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or some hippie thing. It just wasn’t something that we were particularly on board with.
And after doing that for a while, I traded the briefcase for a diaper bag, and with that same Type A energy, my husband and I had four kids in five years. And up until that point, I really had not given a lot of thought about what was in the food supply. I figured if it was on grocery store shelves, it was safe. Don’t tell me what to eat, and please do not tell me what to feed my kids. I had four picky eaters, limited time, limited budget, and I didn’t want to hear it.
And then one morning over breakfast, life changed, and our youngest child had an allergic reaction. And in all candor that morning, that breakfast was L’Eggo My Eggo waffles, tubes of blue yogurt, and scrambled eggs. And as her face started to swell shut, I was so unfamiliar with what a food allergy actually looked like, that I turned to my older three and I said, “What did you put in her face?” And they all gave me those blank, little kid stares, and I got so scared.
And I raced her to the pediatrician’s office and she says, “Robyn, she’s having this allergic reaction. What did you feed the kids for breakfast?”
And I said, “L’Eggo My Eggo waffles, blue yogurt and scrambled eggs.”
And she said, “Well, those are three of the top eight allergens.” And she starts rattling off all of this stuff about food allergies, and I’m thinking, you know like, “How can a child be allergic to food?”
And so as we got the baby calmed down, got everybody back home, I put everyone down for a nap that day. And every single analytical gene in my body went off. Because I hadn’t known anybody that had had a food allergy when I was a kid. So I wanted to dig into this data; I wanted to understand what was going on.
And that morning five years ago, I learned that from 1997 until 2002, there had been a doubling of the peanut allergy. I also learned at that point that one out of 17 kids under the age of three now has a food allergy. And I then went on to learn from the Centers for Disease Control that there had been a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions. That was doctors checking kids into the E.R., that wasn’t moms.
And so I wanted to know, what is a food allergy? Well, a food allergy is when your body sees food proteins as foreign. And so it launches this inflammatory response to drive out that foreign invader. And so it just begged the question: is there something foreign in our food that wasn’t there when we were kids?
And so the analytical side of me, I turned to the US Department of Agriculture, and I learned that yes, beginning in the 1990s, new proteins were engineered into our food supply. And it was done to maximize profitability for the food industry. And as Sunni touched on, that made perfect sense to me as an analyst. It drove shareholder value, absolutely the fiduciary responsibility of the corporations that were introducing these proteins, but at the same time, no human trials were conducted to see if they were safe.
And so milk allergy is the most common allergy in the United States according to the Wall Street Journal and CNN. And so I wanted to know, is there something in the milk that wasn’t there when we were kids? And beginning in 1994, in order to drive profitability for the dairy industry, scientists were able to create this new genetically engineered protein, and this synthetic growth hormone and inject it into our cows to help them make more milk. The business model makes perfect sense, it’s a brilliant one.
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.
So as I began to really dig into this, and look at the fact that we were using all of these new ingredients in the US food supply that we weren’t using in other countries, I’ve got to admit, it drove me absolutely nuts now expensive organic food was. And so I looked into the business model.
And what I learned is that as a national family, sitting down to our national dinner table with our national budget, our tax payer resources are being used to subsidize the growth of these crops with all these chemicals. And then over here, the crops that are grown through the organic process, which means without the use of synthetic chemicals, those guys are charged fees to prove that their stuff is grown without it, and then they’re charged fees to then label those things as grown without it, and on top of that, they don’t get the insurance and marketing program assistance that these guys over here do.
So not only is their cost structure higher over here, but then on top of that, what I learned is that it wasn’t just those farmers that it was impacting. The farmers who are fourth and fifth generation farmers, who have been feeding our country for generations, because those seeds are patented, they now have a cost structure that’s new too, because they have to pay royalty fees, licensing fees, and trait fees to even begin to plant those seeds on their farm.
And so when I thought about this, I thought, how are our American corporations exporting their products if these other countries don’t allow these ingredients? And that’s when I realized, and found research, that Kraft, and Coca-Cola and Walmart, they are doing a remarkable job of responding to consumer demand in other countries. And they have formulated their products differently. So Kraft and Coca-Cola and Walmart, they don’t use these ingredients in the products they distribute in other countries.
Now when I first learned that, at first, it was kind of depressing. But then I thought, we just need to teach each other here. And as I reflected on the fact that we’d introduced these proteins, there had all of this toxicity concern, I wanted to know, what are we spending on healthcare versus the rest of the world? The US spends more on healthcare than any country on the planet. 16% of our GDP goes towards managing disease. What that means is that a company like Starbucks spends more on healthcare costs than they do on coffee.
And as an American, I realized, this very easily could be affecting our global competitiveness. Because rather than driving profitability towards our core competencies in the global marketplace, we’re managing disease. And I thought, we don’t need to wait for regulation, we don’t need to wait for legislation, we can begin to exercise precaution in our own families, in our own communities, and in our own corporations, so that we can protect the health and well-being of our families, and ultimately, of our economy.
And as I was coming through all of this knowledge, and having dismissed all of it, it was pretty paralyzing. But then I realized, you can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. And it’s really all about progress, not perfection. And while none of us can do everything, all of us can do one thing. And just as you don’t potty train a kid overnight, and you don’t wean them from a sippy cup overnight, this is a process that it doesn’t happen overnight.
But that as each and every single one of us does one thing, we have the ability to affect remarkable change. Because each and every single one of you has talents and attributes that you are uniquely good at. And when you leverage that with something that you are passionate about, you can effect remarkable change, in the health of your family, in the health of your company, and in the health of our country.
And the bottom line is there is nothing more patriotic that we could be doing. Thank you.
Announcer: You might get a standing ovation every time you give this talk, but we don’t get to give them all the time, so thank you for taking that in.