Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth, discusses Patriotism on a Plate at TEDxMileHigh conference. Below is the full transcript of the whole talk.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Robyn O’Brien on Patriotism on a Plate at TEDxMileHigh
I’m such an unlikely crusader for cleaning up the food supply. I grew up in Texas, eating my fair share of Doritos and Ding Dongs. I wasn’t a foodie. What I was, was the oldest of four kids and like you often hear about, I inherited absolutely every single one of those Type A overachieving genes that you read about in first born children. And thankfully, I learned how to channel that into academics, and I received a full scholarship to business school before graduating as the top one in my class.
I then went on to work as a food industry analyst and when the management teams of places like Whole Foods and Wild Oats would come to our offices, we just kind of thought it was “lifestyle of the rich and famous” or some hippie thing. We didn’t really get it. And so after doing that for a while, my husband and I decided to have kids, so I traded the brief case for a diaper bag. And using all of that Type A energy, I had four kids in just over five years. Up until that point, I really hadn’t given a whole lot of thought about what was in the food supply. I figured if it was on grocery store shelves, it was safe. Please don’t tell me what to eat, and don’t tell me what to feed my kids.
And then one morning, over breakfast, life changed. And in all candor, that morning, that breakfast was L’Eggo My Eggo waffles, tubes of blue yoghurt, and scrambled eggs. And our youngest child started to have an allergic reaction. As her face started to swell shut, I was so unfamiliar with what a food allergy actually looked like, that I looked at my older three and said, “What did you put in her face?” They all gave me those blank little kid stares. And I got really scared.
So I raced her to the paediatrician’s office and she said, “Robyn, what did you feed the kids for breakfast? It looks like she is having this allergic reaction.”
I said, “Well, I fed them L’Eggo My Eggo waffles, blue yoghurt, and scrambled eggs.”
And she says, “Well, those are three of the top 8 allergens“, and she starts rattling off all of these statistics about food allergies, and how food could kill a kid. And all I could think was, since when? Since when has food become so dangerous? And as we got everything under control, we got back home, and I put all the kids down for a nap, every single analytical gene in my body went off. And I wanted to dig into that data. Because I hadn’t known anybody that had a food allergy when I was a kid.
And as I turned to the research, I learned that morning, that from 1997 until 2002, there had been a doubling of the peanut allergy. I also learned that one out of 17 kids under the age of three now has a food allergy. And then I learned 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 people into the ER, that wasn’t moms diagnosing it.
So I wanted to know, what is a food allergy? A food allergy is when your body sees food proteins as foreign. And it basically launches this inflammatory response to drive out that foreign invader. And so it just begged the question to me: Is there something foreign in our food that wasn’t there when we were kids? And so again, I turned to the data and I’d heard from the Wall Street Journal and CNN that milk allergy is the most common allergy here in the US. And I learned from the US Department of Agriculture that beginning in the 1990s, we began to engineer new proteins into our food supply. And it started in our milk.
In 1994, in order to drive profitability for the dairy industry, scientists, using this new technology, were able to genetically engineer new proteins. It was a synthetic growth hormone and it’s injected into dairy cows, and it helps them make more milk. Now, the analyst in me, that made absolutely perfect sense, it was a brilliant business model that could help drive profitability for the dairy industry.
But at the same time, no human trials had ever been conducted on that. Animal studies were showing that it increased rates of mastitis, ovarian cysts, lameness, skin disorders that resulted in an increased antibiotic use. And so for that reason, governments around the world said, “This hasn’t yet been proven safe.” So Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, all 27 countries in Europe, they didn’t allow it into their food supply. And then on top of that, studies started to come out that showed that this synthetic growth hormone, elevated hormone levels that were linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancer.
And so when I learned that, I wanted to know: what are the rates of cancer here in the US versus these other countries that didn’t accept this growth hormone? And so I turned to incredible organizations like the American Cancer Society and Livestrong. And I learned that the US has one of the highest rates of cancer of any country on the planet. And that migration studies show that if you were to move here from somewhere like Japan, your likelihood of developing cancer increases four-fold. I also learned that one out of two men and one out of three American women are expected to get cancer in their lifetime.
I then went on to learn from the Centers for Disease Control that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease for children under the age of 15. Correlation isn’t causation. So I wanted to look at some of these other allergens.
And I turned to soy because I had learned that soy had recently become one of the top eight allergens. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 1996, in order to drive profitability for the soy industry, because it’s primarily used to fed livestock, a new protein was introduced into the soybean. Again, as an analyst, it made perfect sense. The soybean was engineered to withstand increasing doses of wheat killer. So it drove profitability for the industry by increasing sales with that wheat killer and then on top of that, you were patenting something new in that protein that you could then license, and charge royalty fees, and trade fees, and licensing fees for.
And again, because no human trials had been conducted, and the one human trial that had been conducted showed a 50% increase in the rate of soy allergies, governments around the world said, “We’re going to exercise precaution. We’re not going to allow this into our food supply because it hasn’t yet been proven safe.” And yet, here we said, “It hasn’t yet been proven dangerous.” And we allowed it.
As I kept looking, I wanted to know: Were there other new proteins in our food? And I learned that a few years later, through the growing concern of the spraying of insecticides over corn fields, scientists using this new technology were able to engineer that insecticidal protein into the seed of a corn plant. So that as it grows, it releases its own insecticide. Again, because no human studies had been done, governments around the world said, “We’re not going to introduce this into our food supply. Or if we do, we are going to insist on labeling so that consumers can make an informed choice.” In some countries, they didn’t want it fed to their livestock. In some countries, like in France, in New Zealand, they were so concerned, they didn’t want it planted in their soil.