Robyn O’Brien | TEDxAustin 2011

Robyn O’Brien | TEDxAustin 2011


Transcriber: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Denise RQ 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 that 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. (Laughter) 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, “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 percent 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 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 Sonny 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 fourfold. 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?” (Laughter) And I said, “Well,
it’s you four and daddy.” And he said, “Mom,
you need a bigger team.” (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) 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. (Whoops) (Applause) 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 taxpayer 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, 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’d been 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. Sixteen percent 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 affect 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. (Cheers) (Applause) Host: 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.