September Right To Know Champion – Robyn O’Brien
Robyn O’Brien is a leader in the good food movement and proponent of genetically engineered food labeling. Her work has appeared on CNN, the Today Show, Good Morning America, FOX News, in the Washington Post and countless media outlets, and she currently writes a popular column for Prevention while serving as the Executive Director of the AllergyKids Foundation and doing strategic advisory work for companies making trend-setting changes in the food industry.
We had the pleasure of interviewing her and learning about her passionate journey in food advocacy, check it out.
Q&A: Right to Know Champion, Robyn O’Brien, AllergyKids, Author, The Unhealthy Truth
What made you first become passionate about the issue of genetically engineered food, and advocating for mandatory labeling?
When I took a hard look at what was happening to the health of our families, I learned that while our food may look the same, a lot has changed. I was forced to pay attention to what was in food when our children got sick. I quickly learned how many families in this country are dealing with a condition like asthma, allergies, diabetes or cancer. It wasn’t like this a generation ago, and it begs the question: what has changed? When I first learned about genetically engineered ingredients, I assumed that I was late to the party and everyone already knew about them. They didn’t. When I then learned that over 60% of the world’s population was told that these ingredients had been put into their food when they were first introduced in the 1990, while we hadn’t, it felt like a fundamental human right had been violated, and it felt like a patriotic issue to me. Why hadn’t Americans been told? Especially when our own American companies were making products without these ingredients or labeling them overseas? The double standard felt like a civil rights issue.
How did I learn about them? I first learned about genetically engineered food in the fall of 2006, researching food allergies. The EPA had issued a small grant to a school in Michigan to study whether or not these foods were causing allergic reactions. I had never heard of them. To then learn that they had already been put into our food before these studies had been conducted launched an investigation and what would quickly become my life’s work: that clean and safe food is affordable and accessible to all families.
What do you think it will take for major companies to become more transparent?
The fastest way is through the marketplace. Loss of revenue makes shareholders sit up and take notice. Consumers are waking up and demanding change. Companies that are responding to this consumer demand for food that is “free from” things like antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, GMOs and other artificial ingredients are seeing their share prices soar. Chipotle, White Wave and Kroger are all examples of companies that are expanding their portfolio of “free from” offering and seeing tremendous upside. The flipside is a downward slide in sales and layoffs for the companies that don’t want to listen or respond. Kellogg’s is the 21st century poster child for those mistakes
Do you think biotechnology offers potential benefits?
Yes, I’ve met with researchers from places like Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, spoken with those who have worked on genetically engineered insulin. Would they eat genetically engineered food? They have said no, and that they wouldn’t feed it to their grandkids, that the insertion of those proteins creates genetic rubble. Could we one day lower the barriers to entry on this technology and attract the most efficient, effective and safest methods? Perhaps. But we’d need to label each genetically engineered product in order to follow it through the market for post-market surveillance to see if it is actually delivering on its promises and not doing harm. Labeling genetically engineered products is essential for collecting data and scientific analysis.
Do you try to avoid eating GE foods?
We look for food that is free from genetically engineered and other artificial ingredients. If given a choice between corn that’s been in our food for generations and a genetically engineered corn now regulated by the EPA as a pesticide, most of us would choose the non-genetically engineered corn. A mom would not knowingly feed her children food that has been soaked in the same chemical, RoundUp weed killer, that we are told to not store under our kitchen sinks. Corn, soy and sugarbeets are the top GE foods, and thankfully, by simply eating less fake food from the processed aisles, you can avoid a lot of them. If you eat meat, also look for grassfed meat, as cows and other livestock are often fed a diet of GE foods. And products that carry the USDA Organic seal mean that they were not allowed, legally, to be produced using genetically engineered ingredients.
Do you have other ambitions in the world of food activism?
I will be working on food policy until I have grandkids. This is one of the greatest human rights issues of our time. The financial structure of our food system needs to be addressed. Right now, there is an economic disequilibrium. Subsidies, crop insurance and marketing programs are not universally offered to all farmers, regardless of whether or not they are planting organic crops or genetically engineered ones. Clean and safe food is not universally affordable and accessible. With so much work to be done, I am only just getting started.
Tell us more about AllergyKids and how it got started.
My food awakening began when our fourth child had an allergic reaction one morning over breakfast. From there, it was like pulling on a thread that didn’t stop. The more I learned, the more I couldn’t unlearn about the changes made to our food supply, the fact we were never told and how much we can actually do to protect the health of our families. I was also learning about the growing number of conditions impacting American children, conditions becoming so pervasive that our children have earned the title of “Generation Rx.” At the time, one of the only resources about food allergies charged a membership fee for the information. That didn’t feel right to me, given how much of an epidemic this was becoming, so we launched AllergyKids to provide access and democratize information about food and food allergies. Little did we know what we would start! Today our mission is to make sure that clean and safe food is affordable and accessible to all families, especially for the 1 in 3 children that now has allergies, asthma, ADHD and autism.
Who has inspired you to become a leader in fighting for a better food system?
My mom was a nurse with Save the Children in Vietnam and my dad was in the US Army. They taught me to stand up for children’s rights and for our country. This is one of the most patriotic issues of our time, access to information on how to keep our country safe and healthy. I am also so inspired by farmers and by the American children. This generation of kids has earned the title of “Generation Rx” because of the rates of allergies, ADHD, autism, diabetes, asthma and so much more. They may represent less than 30% of our population, but they are 100% of our future. If we want a vibrant healthy future for our country, we have to take care of our families and our farmers. We work with low income and minority families, families battling cancer, and others at the AllergyKids Foundation every day. Clean and safe food is a fundamental human right. It shouldn’t be reserved for those that can afford it. A better food system is in the best interest of the health of our families, our communities, our farmers, corporations and our economy. Right now, the demand for non-GMO crops is so great that American food companies are sourcing those crops from countries like Romania and China. That economic upside should be captured by American farmers, corporations and our economy instead of being outsourced overseas.
What would you say to others who are hoping to lead a movement for positive change?
Leverage what you are good at with what you are passionate about and you will create incredible change. Build your team. Motivate with love, not fear. Inspire others to be the best version of themselves that they can be. Lead with your head and your heart, put your ego in your pocket, and teach others how to lead, too. Hold firmly in your mind the vision of what our country could look like with a healthy food economy.
What are good resources for others hoping to learn more about GMOs?
Take a look at the standards set in other countries for labeling GMOs or why other countries have banned them altogether. Just Label It, the Non GMO Project and of course, my book, The Unhealthy Truth. It was one of the first books of its kind and has inspired countless readers and families around the world. And never underestimate your own power to create change, in your own kitchen, at your children’s school, your church or your community. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something!