Robyn O’Brien: The Transition at TEDxBOULDER (Transcript)

Robyn O’Brien – TRANSCRIPT

Fifteen years ago, if anybody would have told me I’d be standing in front of you guys talking about food, I would have said they’re totally nuts. Because I was in Texas, in business school, on a full scholarship. I was about to graduate as the top woman in my class, and I was being recruited by Enron, and the oil and gas industry I so wasn’t a foodie. But I was so type A, and I channeled that into academia, and what I decided to do – I wasn’t really interested in Enron, thank goodness – and I decided to go into the investment world as an analyst, and I covered the food industry. And I was so completely inept at this whole food thing that when Martha Stewart came through our offices bringing her company public, and everybody had her sign the cookbooks, I had her sign the financial statements. I couldn’t cook.

So when my husband and I decided to move here 12 years ago, I traded the briefcase for a diaper bag. Threw all of that type A energy into having kids, and we had four kids in just over five years. And I was busy nuking those Dino Nuggets, serving fluorescent mac and cheese, and blue yogurt. I didn’t want anybody telling me what to feed my kids; I didn’t want anybody telling me what to eat.

And then one morning, five years ago, over breakfast, everything changed, and our youngest child had an allergic reaction. I was so clueless. As I raced her to the pediatrician’s office, she said, “Robyn, what did you feed the kids for breakfast?”

And I said, “Well, tubes of blue yogurt, L’Eggo my Eggo waffles, and scrambled eggs.”

And she said, “Well, those are three of the top eight allergens,” and she starts rattling off these statistics about food allergies. And I had totally rolled my eyes at the whole thing, and I thought, “Since when?” because I hadn’t known anybody with a food allergy when I was a kid, and I didn’t understand why all of the sudden a PB&J and a carton of milk were loaded weapons on a lunch room table.

So as I got everything under control and I got the kids back down, and everybody was down for a nap that day, every analytical gene in my body went off, and I wanted to see the data. And that morning I learned that from 1997 until 2002 there’d been a doubling of the peanut allergy. I learned that one out of 17 kids under the age of three then had a food allergy. I learned that one in three American kids now has allergies, autism, ADHD, or asthma. And I later went on to learn, according to the CDC, there’d been a 265 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergies. That was people checked in to the ER – big kids and little ones.

That wasn’t somebody making it up. And as I learned that a food allergy is when your body sees food as foreign, and launches an inflammatory response to drive out that foreign invader, it just begged the question, is there something foreign in our food that wasn’t there when we were kids? I don’t think anything really could have prepared me for the answer that I found.

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Because as I dug into the data, I learned that in 1994, in order to drive profitability for the food industry, scientists genetically engineered an E coli bacteria to create an artificial growth hormone to help a cow make more milk. The analyst in me – it made perfect sense: you drive profitability for the dairy industry, there’s the argument you can lower the cost of milk, who can stand in front of that? But at the same time, I kept coming back to the fact we were genetically engineering E coli bacteria to create an artificial growth hormone that we were injecting into our dairy cows. And we were the only developed country in the world that did it. Canada, the UK, all 27 countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan – they all said, “This has never been proven safe.” The product label for the product said that it caused fertility problems, reproductive problems, mastitis, ovarian cysts. It resulted in an increased antibiotic use in animals, and so for that reason, these countries never allowed it.

And yet, we did. And then studies started to come out showing that it elevated hormone levels that were linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancer. So the analyst in me wanted to see what are the rates of cancer here in the US versus the rest of these countries that never allowed this? Because while correlation is not causation, I wanted to see the data. So I turned to the American Cancer Society and I learned that one in two men, and one in three women are expected to get cancer in their lifetime here in the US. I then learned from the Centers for Disease Control that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in kids under the age of 15.

So I wanted to learn more because milk allergy is the most common allergy in the US according to CNN and the Wall Street Journal. But I was an analyst so I knew correlation wasn’t causation. And so I turned to soy, because a couple of years later, scientists genetically engineered the soybean to contain a new protein so that it could withstand increasing doses of weedkiller. Again, it makes sense as a business model. If you’re a chemical corporation, you’re trying to sell weedkiller.

But at the same time, it had never been proven safe, there were no long-term human studies, and the one human study that had been conducted showed a 50 percent increase in the rates of soy allergy. And so when I learned that, I thought, “Why is nobody talking about these foreign proteins, and the risk that they might present, and that they might trigger an allergic reaction?” Because I was learning that while protocols were in place, there were no definitive tests to determine whether or not these proteins were causing these allergic reactions. So I reached out to some food allergy doctors, some food allergy organizations, and they pretty much had an allergic reaction to me.

So I pulled their financial statements, and I learned that some of the largest food allergy organizations, and some of the most prominent researchers, were funded by the agrichemical corporation that was engineering these proteins into our food supply. And as I sat on that, I thought, “You know, I guess technically, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I sort of wish these guys were more like Nascar drivers and maybe wore those logos on the fronts of their jackets.”

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And so I thought, “You know, what else?” And I learned that a few years later, in the late 1990s, using this new technology, scientists genetically engineered a new protein into our corn. It was to reduce the spraying of insecticides over cornfields. Who could argue with that? But what they did was that they engineered that insecticidal protein into the corn seed, so that as the corn plant grows, it manufactures and creates its own insecticide which it can release as it grows. It’s a brilliant business model.

But because of that new protein, that corn was then regulated by the EPA as an insecticide. Countries around the world again said there are no long-term human studies we don’t want this in our food supply. Some countries didn’t want it fed to their livestock. And in some countries like France and New Zealand, they didn’t even want it planted in their soil. And yet, here in the US, we introduced it.

And as I learned how these other countries had either not allowed these ingredients, or insisted on labeling, believing that their citizens had a right to know about these ingredients in the food, I couldn’t unlearn this information. And I know correlation isn’t causation, but we have one of the highest cancer rates on the planet. The American Academy of Pediatrics has linked pesticides to ADHD and hyperactivity in kids. And the President’s Cancer Panel has recently urged all of us to reduce our exposure to these chemicals in an effort to try to prevent the onset of these diseases, which according to the New England Journal of Medicine is placing an increasing burden on our economy. And I got it, it was a business model.

But at the same time, I couldn’t unlearn this. And I struggled with what people might call me. I’d dismissed it as a hippie thing; lifestyle of the rich and famous. And I really didn’t want to put my face on this movement. And yet I sat across the table one night from my husband and I said, “I can’t unlearn this.” And so we sat the kids down the next morning, and I said, “You know how mom’s learned about how we have all these ingredients in our food and we didn’t know? I’m going to have to try to teach others about it.”

And one of the boys 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 people were telling me to reach out to Erin Brockovich; they were saying, “You’re food’s Erin Brockovitch.” And people were telling me to reach out to Bobby Kennedy because he was really involved with food politics. And I’m from a conservative family, and I thought, “I can’t.” But at the same time, I thought, “You know, I have to at least try, and I do have all of these type A genes.” And so I harnessed them, and I spent a couple of weeks around the Christmas of 2006 drafting a very short e-mail to Erin Brockovitch. And when she actually responded, I thought, “You know, maybe one person can make a difference.”

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Then later that spring, I took all of the data and of the research that I had done, and I spent a good two weeks in a Kinko’s office binding it, and shipping it off to Bobby Kennedy. And when his Chief of Staff called, she had me on speakerphone. And to this day, I still don’t know who was in that room, but she said, “This is unbelievable information.” And as I began to move through this, I realized that we spend more on healthcare in this country than any other country in the world. And that disease doesn’t know party lines. Cancer doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. We spend 16 cents of every dollar in this country managing disease. And as I thought about that, I thought, “None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something.”

And right now, we’ve got this prototype, this new technology in our food supply. And I thought, it’s kind of like the fax machine – you know, maybe it served its purpose there for a while, but the two products that it’s brought us have allowed an increased spraying of weedkiller, and for something to produce its own insecticide, and maybe it’s time for a new technology. Because right now, these farmers, they sign End User Agreements, where they have to license the use of this technology, they’re charged royalty fees, trait fees, licensing fees. I spent time with these guys on their farms – and this is not the farming that their grandfathers did. At the same time, the Department of Justice is investigating this stuff because of the monopolistic practices, the way that these seed companies can increase their prices five to ten percent in order to drive shareholder return.

And while none of us can do everything, all of us can do one thing. Because each and every single one of us has something that we are uniquely good at. And when you leverage that with something that you’re passionate about, you can create extraordinary change. And as I leaned into this – you know people were trying to call me an activist, and they were trying to call me an advocate – and I just thought none of those terms hit me quite right, because I realized that this was so totally inspired by love. And I thought, what do you call people who are working and totally inspired by love to restore the health of our country, and to create a better way? And I realized that our country was founded on that spirit, and that you really simply call us citizens.

And so I invite you to lend your talents, to find a friend, so that together, we can create the change that we want to see in the health of our families, and the health of our food system, and in the health of our country. Thank you.

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