Interview: Robyn O'Brien, author of 'The Unhealthy Truth'

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Recently, I sat down with Robyn O'Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, a look into the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and our nation's food supply. (See her TED talk here.)

You take a strong mother angle in The Unhealthy Truth -- but aren't GMOs something that everyone should be concerned about?

It was an onramp into a position of expertise of being a leader in this space. I really admire anyone who is a leader in this effort. I feel like I can serve as an onramp to other people, whether its mothers or non-mothers, so they can add to this awareness. It can challenge your belief system, your family, to help people with that process with the forgiveness that's required.

Robyn O'Brien
Image: Heather Clisby

My first awakening was a mother, and then later, as a citizen.

There have been moments along the way, where I really questioned all of this. I was not a natural crusader. I really had to kind of wrestle with the idea. There were moments where I wasn't sure. One of those moments was three years ago, early on, in Dallas, speaking to a tiny group, and it was a very awkward atmosphere. People weren't sure they wanted to be there.

Right as I started to talk, this woman walked in 29-year-old, totally bald, had cancer. Here is this incredible woman and I thought, "What am I afraid of?" She needed the camaraderie, the support. You really need supportive scaffolding to support you through that change. First thing you do, is find a friend -- that's universal.

Your book reads like a thriller. It was almost like you grabbed a stray piece of yarn from an endless sweater that just keeps unraveling.

Totally. I say that all the time.

Do you feel like it is still unraveling? Are you still uncovering new info?

You know, you learn about the toxins in the food supply but what's remarkable, what's happening right now, is that the science that wasn't there 15 years ago is now coming to light. Some of it's out of Europe, some of it's out of the UK, some of it's out of here. You know we have the American Academy of Pediatrics, Harvard University, The Lancet, recently, the President's Cancer Panel. All of them now are saying, "We've got all these toxins, these pesticides, these weed killers, all of these things we're spraying on our crops and in order to exercise precaution, we may want to start reducing our exposure."

So, what's fascinating is to see the mounting evidence that coming in that's saying, "We should be exercising precaution in order to prevent conditions like diabetes, cancer and allergies." But then, on top of that, having initially focused on the toxicity of the food supply and then it got much bigger in realizing that we have a system that, in a lot of ways, contains these almost sort of toxic components to it. Where you learn that, once you sort of lift the veil and realize that, then it makes you realize that, yes, we can do a lot by changing the way we shop in a grocery store but in order to truly affect change, we're going to have to take it to the next level, which is, how do we educate our communities? How do you educate your own company? Your office? Maybe your child's school? Is there a way to get involved locally with legislation? And to really recognize that this effort is an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Because as I came through it, not only did we allow for all these chemical pollutants (is what they're being called) in to the food supply, but the entire agricultural system really has its own set of rules and its own sets of standards. Most recently, one of those standards that I learned is that there are specific labor laws that apply to the agricultural industry where everybody else operates by one set of labor laws, the agricultural industry operates by another.

That came to my awareness because recently, two 14-year-old girls died on a farm. And I thought, "What in the world are these 14-year-old girls doing working on an irrigation ditch with electricity running through it on a farm?"

I have an 11-year-old daughter and I thought, "If she was out there bopping around with a friend in three years' time..." They aren't mature enough, they don't have the experience enough to know what they're dealing with, truly.

And when I started looking into that, a lawsuit was filed on that particular case, against the agri-chemical corporation that was responsible for hiring those girls.

But then, as I really started to look into it, this wasn't a one-off exclusive situation. We've got a whole different set of labor laws that are going to agriculture in order to sustain this way of growing crops. It introduces a lot of risks. Not only does it introduce risks into the food supply but it introduces risks into the food processing and the way that it's actually produced out in the fields.

Shortly after that one, another story hit about boys that were injured in some farm machinery. Again, it was the same thing. It really brought it to light, the fact that these are children that are working these farms. You can't look at it in isolation, you have to look at it as the food system, the agricultural system, is an integral part of international trade, it's an integral part of our economy. As you realize what an enormous part it plays in our GDP, you realize that it's something that has to be addressed, I think, as an economic system and recognized for the enormity of what it represents.

What is the most surprising thing you've learned from this whole thing?

I honestly think that the most surprising thing I've learned is that one person really can make a difference. I think in our culture and in our society, a lot of the media messaging that we hear today (says that) in order to fit in you need to buy this car, you need to have this house, you need to have this hairstyle, to have this new set of boobs -- whatever it is. We're sort of shepherded along in this conforming status quo type of way where we start to doubt that the skills and our unique attributes that each of us have are actually of value.

One of the most important lessons that I've learned is that each and every one of us has a very unique skill set and set of attributes and that those unique talents are where you can add value. And I think as I came through that, to get through those mental hurdles that are saying, "Who are you to do this? Why would anybody listen? Why would you make a difference? Why does it matter that you do anything at all?"

As I came through that and realized that, for me, paralysis just wasn't an option; I couldn't not do anything. So, as I continue to move forward and began to reach out to people like legislators, began to reach to CEOs of corporations, and really engage people in this dialogue, it was amazing to realize that one person really can make a difference.

And that's where I think, whenever I'm speaking to an audience or in front of people, I suggest, "You take what you're good at -- probably the same things you loved doing as a kid -- you take that skill set and you leverage it with what you are passionate about and you can create change in whatever place you want it to be. For some people, it's food, for other people, it might be the arts, for other people it might be business. "

And you do realize that if you were a hippie foodie from Berkeley, nobody would have listened.

Right, and I think for me, I had to dismantle an entire belief system. I had to step back and really ... it was incredibly uncomfortable to go through it at the time. But to stop and say, "Okay, I understand that we have set up this system and it absolutely is designed to drive profitability and there is value in that. It creates economic value that contributes to the GDP and the welfare of our country. Yes, on the one hand."

But if you are only looking at the productivity and the contribution that something makes without also looking at the costs that are being externalized, that's when I realized that this yes, these is something that corporations have done an amazing job. Their job is to drive profitability for their shareholders -- that's their duty, that's their responsibility, so absolutely they should be minimizing costs.

But what they've managed to do is take those costs, and any risks, and any liabilities that these chemicals, this farm production method, any of this might represent and they've managed to push that on to the balance sheets of farmers. They've managed to push that on to the balance sheets of families and they've managed to push that, ultimately, on to the balance sheets of companies who are carrying all these healthcare costs.

And so, a great example of that is, if these crops present any risks, if there's any harm that might come of them, any toxicity, any damage that might come, there are contracts that these farmers have to sign to where they assume liability for the growing and the planting of these crops. So, the agri-chemical company completely moves the liability from their own balance sheet on to the balance sheet of the farmer. So those contracts are then held by that farmer.

What are these contracts called?

Technology agreements. Because they're licensing the use of this new operating system to grow their crops. I think an easy way to really get your head around what genetically engineered crops are, it's sort of like food's operating system. Where you've got Microsoft Office and you need all the different bundles and packages to get it to work, the same thing is going on with these seeds. You've got these seeds that are genetically engineered but you need all these other products to get it to work.

And so, when you're using that seed, because it contains all these traits and these new characteristics and these new attributes, you have to license the use of those traits. And so they've got these licensing contracts and they charge royalty fees, licensing fees, trait fees -- as you would with any technology.

Just this morning on Reuters, there was an article showing that these pesticides are also now being linked to Type 2 Diabetes. Well, the agri-chemical corporations that are spraying those pesticides, they don't have to account for that cost on their balance sheet. Type 2 Diabetes falls on my balance sheet, your balance sheet, the schools' balance sheet, the corporations', the states'....and so we're bearing those costs.

As I came through that, it forced me to reflect on this system that has been created and a model that is not accounting for the true costs of these products.

Did it make you change any political ideals or make you look at capitalism differently?

I just wrote an article on capitalism for The Fearless Revolution.

Really?

Yes, it made me look at capitalism differently. And I suddenly stopped and I thought, ‘Capitalism isn't some static system, it's a system that evolves.' Right now, what we've got and what we're learning is that this current model of capitalism enables these corporations to externalize their costs onto our balance sheets rather than carry the true cost on their own. So if there is environmental damage, if there's air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, if it causes harm to public health, those costs are not captured by the corporations that are pumping these chemical pollutants into our food.

But it's a model, it's a working model. Just like we had the fax machine - it was a great working model until we developed something that was better and technology moved past it. That's sort of how I see this current system of capitalism. We've got a model that we've been using in the past but it doesn't mean we have to embrace it in the future. So let's evolve, let's improve it.

So what we're starting to see is these corporations that are forming that are called "B Corps," and they are voluntarily agreeing to be full transparency and disclosure, recognizing that they have this social responsibility to the planet. Because ultimately for all these corporations, the planet that we're on is our greatest asset. If we trash it...

So this whole new sector of the economy is starting to form with these corporations that are called B Corps. I think very few people are aware of that. It's an entity, the way you can form your business, you just agree to adhere to these certain standards if you agree to form as a B Corp.

Again, it speaks to how each of us, with our own talents, can really just -- it's that age-old quote -- just "be the change." As we all begin to embrace it, from all of these different backgrounds and socio-economic groups, you realize that there really is this shared common concern to protect this planet that we're all living on.

And as I came through I thought, "How do you get past this whole notion of being a tree hugger?" People kept saying, "This is activism. You're an advocate." And I'm not comfortable with any of those terms. What do you call somebody that's so totally inspired by love?

And it doesn't matter if you have kids, if you don't have kids, whatever. If you're inspired to care for people, your friends or your family, and you want to make sure that they are protected and safe...there isn't a word; we've got this linguistic gap right now for what that person is who is so totally inspired by love. Because whenever anybody tries to say, "You're an advocate" or "You're an activist," I just, that term doesn't hit quite right because I think that's somebody that's inspired by anger. And as I came through it, it was so hard to dismantle this belief system and it caused a lot of isolation five years ago.

There was real sadness in learning it but I realized that the last thing the world needed was another "angry mom." So I thought, "This is something that is so inspired by love." As you learn this, as hard as it is to hear, and as much as I didn't want to know it, now that I know it, I see it as a gift that I can share. This knowledge, this incredible gift that you can share to protect people that you love. And again, it really speaks to this notion each of us has the ability to create change.

How does your family look at food these days?

I'm sure it looks very different now. Oh, it totally does. One of the kids one day, he just looked at me and said, "Mom, we didn't used to eat this way." And you know, I didn't know any better. Truly. I had maybe been...I hadn't wanted to hear it. I had plenty of people trying to tell me and I just wasn't ready to hear it.

A typical meal?

Now, we always have fresh fruit and vegetables. We cook from scratch. I have the 80/20 rule, where if we're flying around between soccer and lacrosse, voice lessons or whatever it is, I'll grab a frozen pizza but I've always made sure that it doesn't contain genetically engineered soy or genetically engineered anything. The 80/20 rule is so important to get through the insanity of our schedules.

"If 80 percent of what we give our kids is healthy—free of additives, preservatives, artificial color, aspartame, MSG—then for the other 20 percent we, and they, get a free pass." -- The Unhealthy Truth, p. 232

Do your concerns about GMOs and antibiotics also apply to meat?

The science around genetically engineered products, really gets into this kind of he-said-she-said category, where you got scientists over here saying one thing and you've got scientists over here saying another thing. Because my background is finance, whoever's funding the study is usually going to tell you what the answer is. So instead of this he-said-she-said debate on the science of genetically engineered products, which is still pretty hazy because no human trials have ever been done, I tend to step back and say, "Okay, you're engineering these products."

There are two genetically engineered traits that we have on the market. One is to allow the increased spraying of weed killers and herbicides. You're able to really drown these crops in weed killers. The other trait enables the plant to make its own insecticide. So, regardless of the GMO thing, I don't want more weed killers on my crop and I don't want eat something that's making its own insecticide. So, for those reasons, I'm gonna choose to opt out.

What's fascinating is that no human trials were done. We don't have any long-term animal studies because a lot of this corn and soy is grown to feed to the livestock. Livestock is getting increasingly sick; 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock. So, correlation is not causation, it's really important to emphasize that.

But, as we learn how polluted our food supply has become, whether it's "dirty dairy" because the milk comes from cows that have been injected with this artificial growth hormone that's not allowed in other countries, and then the cows are so sick they're injected with antibiotics or fed the antibiotics in their feed or their water, and then on top of that these cows are being fed these genetically engineered crops that have been absolutely doused in weed killers or engineered to create their own insecticides, we simply don't know.

And that food from that animal contains a whole bunch of chemicals and pollutants that weren't there when we were kids. And we don't have any long-term studies.

So in order to exercise precaution, say, "I'm gonna opt out of this human trial." Because that's really what it is. We are the long term human study. We are.

One of the most disturbing things from your book was the reality of the revolving executive door between companies like Monsanto, the FDA and the USDA. How can we stop this? Is there a bill in the works?

I think that in January 2010, when the Supreme Court basically ruled that a corporation is a person, and gave the corporation rights, in elections, for what they could fund … Again, it speaks to a system that has been created to drive profitability.

But what can we do?

People suggest shopping with your dollar in the grocery store, but I truly think you have to reach out to your local legislators. And that was an intimidating hurdle for me to have to clear. I really didn't want to do it -- again, it went against the conservative upbringing. And yet, I felt that but in order to protect our families and our economy from these growing healthcare costs, that to be able to exercise precaution, just like the President's Cancer Panel is urging, or the American Pediatrics, was just a sound business decision as a country.

As I began to reach out to legislators, I realized that disease doesn't know party lines. As I really looked at the system, I realized that these problems affects both sides of the aisle.

That disease affected both sides of the aisle. As I was speaking with representatives, didn't matter which party they were from, everybody has family members that either have diabetes, or allergies or cancer and that's what unifies us. If you can give people information about ways they can protect their families. It doesn't matter where they are politically, where they are socio-economically, that's a very unifying, powerful force. I think as state senators learn about it, as congressmen, congresswomen learn about it. It's powerful information and you can't unlearn it.

And what's remarkable, what we're seeing right now, is that even though the federal government isn't doing anything when it comes to addressing the concerns around these agri-chemical ingredients in the food supply, at the state level there's a lot legislation that's being introduced. Every year, an increasing number of states are saying, "We want this labeled."

It's sort of like IBM, it's new technology. We've had a very dominant player in this space. So when IBM first introduced that computer, they were really a dominant player, there wasn't a lot of market competition so we weren't getting the best, most effective, most efficient technology on the market. We had that giant computer in that giant room. Can you imagine if we all still worked on that today? And then, as the barriers to entry were forced down and competition took hold in that marketplace, we suddenly got faster, better, cheaper computers and a whole diversity in that product line. And I think that's where these genetically engineered products need to go.

Right now, we've got a very dominant player in the agri-chemical industry. There are really high barriers to entry with lots of protection in patent law. If we could bring those barriers down and create a really competitive, healthy market place, we'd getter a better, faster, safer, more efficient, more effective technology.

In the meantime, we need labeling on these products so that consumers can make an informed choice, so they can know that this genetically engineered protein, this synthetic growth hormone that's in American dairy, isn't being used anywhere in other developed countries. To be able to have the right to know so you can make an informed choice, to have that freedom, to me, that is truly one of the most American attributes out there.

What's the most active piece of legislation, or political leader, that is behind this cause?

I don't know but what's interesting is that but recently I've been contacted by state senators out of Texas, Georgia. They're parents, they're dads, and they're concerned. They want it labeled so they can make an informed choice when it comes to protecting their families. And to see that out of places like Texas and Georgia, is not what you'd expect. It's not Boulder, Colorado, it's not Berkeley, California, these are really conservative parts of the country, but to exercise precaution is a very conservative move when it comes to protecting your health.

I think once we have that information to be able to preserve and protect your health, by being conservative when it comes to exposing your family to foreign ingredients that have never been in the food supply, it's a smart decision.

Is Michelle Obama aware of your book or this issue at all?

Again, food is very political. If you consider that for the past several decades, our fuel source has been oil-based and now our fuel-source is commodity-based -- we're moving in that direction -- you realize the tremendous power of Big Oil, Big Ag.

So, when you look at it politically, the administration is currently focusing on calories-in, calories-out, which is why they're focusing on physical activity and moving. But as anyone who has spent any time in the kitchen knows, not all calories are created equal.

So you can have empty calories going in that are full of sugar and fat and protein and processed foods. Or you can have nutrient-dense calories going in. And so, because of the political landscape of food, Michelle Obama is doing an amazing job of focusing on calories-in, calories-out and really addressing the physical need but there really has not been a lot of attention on the fact that not all calories are created equal.

Have you read My Year of Meats? It's fiction, and it won't help you sleep at night, but it's about all these fears coming to reality. Interesting that it came out 12 years ago. Similarly, your story is like walking through the Haunted Mansion -- scary things keep popping up, but it all comes together in one big theme.

You know, it's interesting. We de-regulated the financial system and we got a bunch of toxic assets. We had the whole housing bubble and the whole mortgage crisis. We deregulated the food system, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that we got a whole bunch of toxic assets.

And one of the things I speak to a lot is, as a national family sitting down to our national dinner table with our national budget, we haven't allocated much of our national resources to protecting the food supply. Almost half of our national budget goes toward defense, but at the same time, our population is getting so sick that they can't serve in the military.

So, we've got to start realizing that in order to defend our country, we've got to defend our health. This is truly one of the most patriotic things we could be doing. For the health of our country, for our economy, for our military -- it doesn't matter what your priority is, we have to have a healthy population to thrive and succeed in the global marketplace. In order to do that we have to allocate resources.

The FDA is a perfect example. When I wrote the book, the budget for the FDA was $4 billion, and they basically didn't have the budget to conduct any studies so we have to rely on industry to conduct these studies. And industry came out just this year and said, "We can't do it, we're self interested. Our interest is profitability. If you're calling on us to do these studies, this might be a conflict." The industry itself disclosed that!

You have to step back and say, "If we're truly going to defend this country, we have to defend our health."

I read something scary yesterday that said wheat is the next big market for GMOs. Another big floodgate being opened?

So, 70 percent of our immune system is found in our digestive tract and what doctors are starting to say now is that we've got all these chemicals going in to our pipes. It's highly intensive what they put on those crops already and you genetically engineer the wheat to withstand increasing doses of chemicals, that crop is going to be drowning in chemicals by the time it gets pulled from the field and gets processed into the food supply.

And then I learned that, by law, organic foods are not allowed to contain these toxins and not sprayed with these intensive doses of these chemicals. You start to realize that this is your health insurance policy. This is your way of exercising precaution.

While these crops are being engineered to withstand all these increasing doses of weed killers, it's great for these corporations that are selling the weed killers, but not great for us.

It seems that America no longer produces anything of real value anymore. In fact, our biggest product these days is disease. Would you agree?

I think what happened was we genetically engineered these traits into our corn and soy and we anticipated great international trade and that we'd be able to sell these crops and countries around the world said, "We don't want them because they've never been proven safe. Not only do we not want them in our food supply, we don't want them fed to our livestock." Some countries, like France and New Zealand, didn't want to plant it in their soil.

Suddenly, this surplus came back into the United States and we had to create a new market: ethanol. If some market analysis had been done prior, they might have realized it wouldn't sell in a global marketplace. There is a surplus of a lot of these commodities here in the US which is why we see them put into the school lunch program and why we see them fed to cattle because there hasn't been a big marketplace internationally for the product.

Wait, what?

Yeah, the school lunch program is sad. What's not put into grocery stores, restaurants and livestock feed, is then disposed of in the national school lunch program. All of these different national programs, are essentially customers for the food industry.

Okay, so this is where it gets heavy! As you start to really pull the thread, it keeps pulling -- just the other day to learn about how these children are working these farms ... Sometimes you think you know it all and then you hit something like that and it goes straight to your heart.

Because it is such a mess, it means that there's just enormous opportunity to be part of the solution. There are all of these different places that you can engage -- if you're concerned about child labor, the health and well-being of workers, legal aspect of the technology agreements, the school lunch program - whatever your interest is, there are so many ways to get involved. I think that part is what's really exciting.

One piece of advice that you would give?

My one piece of advice: Find a friend! Sometimes it's a friend, sometimes a spouse, sometimes it is an encouraging mother or a sibling. To have that person to stand beside you, who can cheer you on, who can hold you up when people roll their eyes at you or try to knock you down for these beliefs. It's so important to have that person beside you because it can be overwhelming.

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns; Section Editor, LIFE; Proprietor, ClizBiz

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