Today on Rootstock Radio, we speak with Robyn O’Brien, author, former food industry analyst, TEDx speaker and mother of four. She is also founder of the AllergyKids Foundation, an organization that aims to make clean and safe food affordable to all children.
Robyn’s interest in ensuring good food for all children really began when her youngest child had an allergic reaction. In the aftermath of this reaction, Robyn started digging deep into research about children’s health and the food they eat, and she unearthed some startling things. “This generation of kids has earned the title of ‘Generation Rx’, because 1 in 3 now has autism, allergies, ADHD or asthma,” she says. “The health of our families is buckling. And the best thing we can do—the most important healthcare decision that anyone can make—is what you choose to put on the end of your fork.”
Robyn knows the challenges in our current food system well, from a lack of sustainability, to aging farmer populations, to chemical toxicity on farms. She also sees organic food as a big part of the solution. “The reason organic is not a fad and it is not a trend, is because cancer is not a fad, autism is not a trend. Food allergies are not fads and consumers need to know where their food is coming from—and how it is made. Once they learn that, they choose organic,” she says. “It is such a fundamental human right to be able to feed your family and the people that you love products that will not cause harm.”
Want more? Check out this Rootstock Radio with Sloane Miller, author of “Allergic Girl.” She shares her story of learning how to “live safely, effectively and joyously” with her food allergies.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Robyn O’Brien
Air date: March 27, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m so honored to be here today with Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It. Robyn is an author and a speaker and a former financial analyst. But I think it’s important to say she is the mother of four, the founder of Allergy Kids Foundation, and, as you probably are guessing, probably has had some real experience with kids and allergies. Thank you, Robyn, for being with us, and welcome.
ROBYN O’BRIEN: Oh, thank you so much, Theresa. It’s so great to hear your voice.
TM: And yours too. It’s been such an honor to know you, to be friends with you over these many, many years. And you know, I want to start out—four kids, Robyn, and working in the analytical, economic world—that’s so huge. And I know you always like to joke about how you’re a Type A, but tell me, how do you balance all of that?
RO: You know, it’s so funny, I just yesterday had a meeting with a fund here in Boulder, and the investment manager just kinda looked at me and he was like, “How do you do this?” because he has three little kids. And I think I couldn’t not do it, so I had to figure out a way through. And I grew up in a family that was really anchored, thankfully, and my parents have been married for almost fifty years, and that flex, and the give-and-take, and the grace, and the forgiveness that’s part of being a family was foundational. And then I realized that as my family had to share me with the work, they had to completely be absolutely rock solid and understanding that they would not lose me to it. And so really, I talk about this a lot, but there is so much love that is a part of this.
And when I work with families and I work with different organizations—when you first learn that our food system has been so polluted, when you first learn that we allow these things into our food supply that literally are not allowed around the world—all of our key trading partners and things keep them out—it’s heartache. And there’s grief and there’s sadness and sometimes there’s fear and sometimes there’s anger. But the reason that we feel all of those different emotions and go through all of those different levels is because we love so much. And so once I realized that that was my fuel, that was my source, then I knew how to navigate it.
This is a lifetime of work. This is something that we’ve inherited. You and I have been working on this for decades, and it’s a system that’s was put in place over 50 years. It’s not something we can fix overnight. And I truly believe it is just the work of a generation. And in embracing that, you know, once I really embraced that and realized I was going to be doing this until I have a silver ponytail, then there was something in that rhythm that I found that was sustainable.
TM: Can you tell us, how old are your kids now?
RO: So now I’ve got a 17-year-old, an almost-16-year-old, a 14-year-old, and an almost-12-year-old, and they’ve grown up watching their mother do this. And in the early years I thought, you know, how is this going to impact them? Something I was super mindful of was, as I was really focused on food and some of the toxicity issues that we have in food and soil, I didn’t want them to develop some kind of disordered eating habit. And I was super mindful of that because one in four college girls now admit to having an eating disorder, and I thought, that’s the last thing. You know, I really want them to have this love affair with food that’s this healthy, amazing thing because it’s this fuel we get to put into our bodies every single day that helps us accomplish the things that we want to accomplish and the dreams that we may have in the world. So to me it’s this really positive, powerful thing, and I never wanted that to change. And so I was mindful of how do I make this about progress? How do I give them the grace and flexibility to be teenagers, now that they’re teenagers, if they’re going to go out with their friends and really have a healthy relationship?
And what’s been so fascinating is now I think I’m going to have one that’s an attorney. The other day one of our daughters said, “I think I want to run for office.” So it’s fun in these different ways where they’ve seen their mom fight for this justice, this food justice. And I also think what’s really neat is that they realize that if there is a problem, you address it. You don’t run away, you don’t sit down, you don’t shut your mouth—you just bring light to it.
And I think that’s a really important characteristic for anyone to have in their life, because ultimately you’re in charge of the direction that you’re going to go. And so there really have been sort of these silver linings. I mean, I know there are days where they wish they didn’t have to share me, with trips or whatever, but there have been opportunities where they have come along to our state capital and they’ve been part of legislation. And I think that education is not something I had as a child, and I really do look forward to kind of the next ten years as they get into their twenties, to see how it continues to shape them.
TM: Well, that is a beautiful silver lining. And I think it would be good to start with your story of how you all of a sudden found that one of your children had an allergy, and how that brought you into this work that you’re doing right now.
RO: Yeah, it really is not anything in a million years, ever once, not even close did I picture that this would be my life! I grew up in Texas in a really conservative family, and in that mindset was adhering to the rules, not questioning authority, becoming the best version of myself, the best version that you can be, but within those rules. And so there was never that challenge, and there was never advocacy—that was never part of it. Recycling, anything environmental—that was not at all a part of my upbringing.
I went to work for an advertising agency. They asked me to run the financials for some of the clients that we had, and I realized I didn’t speak that language. And I did not like that ignorance, and so I swung back into business school really to learn the language of finance. And I went to work afterwards as an analyst on a team that managed $20 billion in assets. And I went in as an analyst, and as the only woman on the team, the guys said, “We want you to cover the food industry.” And so I tried to tell them, “I drink Diet Cokes, I don’t know how to cook!” Like this is not my shtick, you know. And they didn’t really care. They just said, “You’re the woman, you’re on this, you’re covering this.”
And as we were covering the food industry then, it was really this understanding of, hey, we figured out this way to kind of pull the real ingredients out, replace them with the artificial ingredients. It drove profitability, it drove margins. That helped shareholders, that helped our earnings—win, win, win, win, win. And that’s as far as I got.
So we moved to Colorado in the year 2000 with a six-week-old baby. I just thought, we’ll get through this kind of starting-the-family years fast, and we had four kids in five years. And then, life just has this incredibly funny, humbling, powerful way of reminding you that you’re not in control. And I just got thrown this massive curve ball when our youngest child had an allergic reaction one morning over breakfast. And as her face started swelling shut, again I thought, “What is this?” I had no idea what it was; I didn’t identify it as a food allergic reaction.
And so we raced her to the emergency room and they said, “This is an allergic reaction. What did you feed the kids for breakfast?” You’ll appreciate this, Theresa; it was that deep, artificially blue colored GoGo Yogurt, it was L’Eggo My Eggo Waffles, and it was scrambled eggs. And so she said, “Those are three of the top eight allergens.” And in my brain I’m thinking, how am I going to be a mother if I cannot feed this child? How do I keep this child safe when the older three kids don’t even know how to read? What in the world is my life going to look like? It was totally out of control, and it was terrifying, and it was paralyzing, and it was just this moment of, I just felt this sinking failure as a mother, of “What do I do?”
TM: I can so relate to that, and I think a lot of the people out there who are moms and even Mr. Moms, what happens when you have a child who has a health problem. And it has to be the worst feeling, I think, as a mom that you have this helplessness.
RO: Well, so you know, I think about that, and so what happened was we got her under control. And I am very Type A, and so I came home and I thought, what do I need to know, and how do I not know this, and where’s the education on food allergies? And so I just did this massive deep dive into food allergies. And what hit me that day was, if I wanted to learn about food allergies, there was one organization—you kind of had to pay a fee, a membership fee, to get the details on food allergies. And I thought, that’s crazy! Like, if my kid had diabetes I wouldn’t have to pay a fee. And it really bothered me, which really was the very early stages of wanting to launch Allergy Kids, was because I felt that the information needed to be accessible to everybody—that you shouldn’t have to pay a fee to try to understand the condition. So that was a very early stage in that.
And then, as I was learning about food allergies, when you go into these government databases and things to try to extract information on food allergies, you don’t just get to see food allergies. You start to see the rates of autism in children, you start to see the rates of pediatric cancer in children, you start to see the rates of Type 1 diabetes, and obesity, and ADHD, and all of these conditions. And that was an image and a picture that was created that I could not un-see. And in that first year, I so didn’t want to see it. Every conservative part of me, every part of me that had hid behind the terminals of those computers when I was in finance, didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to speak about it. The few times I would bring it up to a friend, they just kind of looked at me like, “You’re really going to talk about this?” And it was paralyzing, but it was just information I could not unlearn.
And I kept thinking, if cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in American children under the age of 15, and I’ve got four kids, what do we do? And how long can our country go with this kind of data? And when you look at that data and you realize that this generation of kids has earned the title of Generation Rx because 1 in 3 now has autism, allergies, ADHD, or asthma; 1 in 13 has food allergies; 1 in 65 has autism—you start to look at that, and that’s our future work force, that’s our future military, that’s our future farming base. What happens to our country if we don’t fix the health of our families?
TM: So you’ve been collecting a lot of data, Robyn, for your book. Wasn’t your book released in 2009?
RO: It was, it was released in 2009. And it was interesting, because as I was collecting the data on food allergies—it’s terrible. I mean, the studies are terrible, they’re phone studies. And I went to the CDC and I said, “How many people die each year from food allergies?” And they said, “We don’t collect that data.” And I was like, “What do you mean you don’t collect that data?” And they said, “We collect the deaths from asthma.” And then, you know, having been in this space for over a decade, food allergy deaths often are marked as asthma deaths because as the child goes into anaphylaxis and the severe allergic reaction, the airways close. And so it’s marked as an asthma death, which is, in a way, doesn’t give accurate representation for what actually initiated the death. And so as I was really getting into the data—and I mean I totally am a numbers nerd—as I really got into that data I just thought, “We have to tell this story, as brutal as it is.” As much of a heartache as it is, we have to tell the story. And unfortunately we keep telling it over and over again.
And so, as I was first unearthing this information and this nonprofit back in D.C., back in 2006, they really didn’t like the fact that I was talking. And as I continued to talk, I joke, I mean, they kinda had this allergic reaction to me. And I thought, that doesn’t make sense. Why are they trying to keep a mother quiet who’s trying to create a greater awareness of this issue? And so I did what I knew how to do, which was pull their financial statements.
And when I pulled their financial statements, that’s when I realized that their website had been solely developed by Kraft and that some of their scientists and these allergists that were on staff were inventing patents and developing patents for Monsanto. And even back at that point in 2006, I didn’t know who Monsanto was. So again, I’m kind of in this financial mode of typing in “Monsanto,” looking at the ticker symbol, MON, and thinking, okay, what is this big company? And out flies this multibillion-dollar chemical company, and I’m thinking, okay, these guys are making our food? This is a chemical company. And if these guys are making our food, why, when I was a food industry analyst, did we never meet with them once—never meet with them?
And as I kind of went back to the guys that I had worked with in investments, they said, “Well, the chemical industry analysts would cover companies like Monsanto.” And I just thought, this is absolutely astonishing, that this corporation has been able to completely change agriculture in our country, completely change the way food is grown and made, and completely change what goes into the foods that we feed our families every single day—and nobody had had this bigger conversation. There had never been labeling around that, there had never been a big media conversation, it was not something that had been openly discussed with members of the Congress. And I just thought, that’s a hard story to tell, because it just seemed so unbelievable that a multibillion-dollar company would be able to execute a business plan like that without the American population knowing.
And so I had to figure out a way to tell the story. And thankfully, again, with this finance background I was able to say, okay, if I’m a chemical company and my job is to sell a chemical like Roundup, I need to sell more Roundup. And that is 100 percent the job of those executives and that CEO. And so by genetically engineering seed so that it could withstand more Roundup, not only can they sell more of their signature product Roundup, but now they’ve got these genetically engineered seeds that they also have a revenue stream on because they’re selling the seeds to the farmers and then they get to license that, and they have trade fees and these technology fees. So it was this kind a of this multilevel revenue model. And I thought, this is brilliant if you’re that chemical company. It’s absolutely brilliant, because they’ve figured out how to really blow out their revenue on the backs of these genetically engineered seeds that withstand more of their chemicals.
That’s fine, but at the same time, as you know, countries around the world were saying, “We have no idea what the long-term impact of this is going to be. We have no idea what the long-term health impact is here.” There were no animal testing models that were available, so they were sort of developing these models and hoping that the worst wasn’t going to happen.
And now here we are, 20 years into it, and we’re realizing there were so many miscalculations. There were miscalculations for the farmers, because the overuse of that chemical Roundup then has now resulted in weed resistance, half the farms around the country. So now those farmers have to turn to even more high-octane, more high-toxic level of pesticides, a higher use of these pesticides and insecticides. And again, I’m named after a farmer; she battled breast cancer. And I look at those farmers and I think, again, is this sustainable? And those families will tell you themselves, the kids don’t want to go into the farming. And they’re not stepping in, and so we’ve got this aging farm population, we’ve this got this chemical toxicity on the farms. That profession, that population, that career choice, is struggling. And again, it’s like, if we can’t grow our own food, what does that mean for our national security?
And what’s fascinating to me, and especially under this new administration, what is so fascinating to me is that we now have farmers that are saying, “I want to convert. I’m scared. Financially I don’t know what the risk is going to be. Is this really sustainable? Is there really a market for organic? What does it look like if I have to convert my farmland?” And yet at the same time, we are importing massive amounts of organic products, and like 70 percent of organic soy is imported; 40 to 50 percent of organic corn is imported, because less than 1 percent of our farmland here in the U.S. is organic. And so I look at that and I think, this is an awesome opportunity. How do we grow organic agriculture? How do we grow this industry? How do we grow the revenue? How do we create the jobs? There’s so much economic growth that can happen in the organic industry when you consider that it’s growing four times faster than conventional.
And what’s fascinating is that the consumers want it; the grocery stores are pushing it. Companies like Kroger got on board super fast and quickly and launched their own private-label brand that went from zero to $1.5 billion in revenue in a three-year period. And so we have this opportunity, we’re driving this massive change in the marketplace, and I think conversations like this—to be able to have these conversations so that the farmers know this is not a fad, this is not a trend. And the reason organic is not a fad and it is not a trend is because cancer is not a fad, autism is not a trend, food allergies are not fads, and consumers need to know where their food is coming from and how it is it made. And once they learn that, they choose organic.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with author Robyn O’Brien, who is talking to us about the allergies in food, and especially the concern she has about our children.
Well, you just said a mouthful, and I love the way you put it all together there, how these things are all connected. We are in a health crisis, and even the statistics that you threw out, you know, they keep changing every year and getting worse.
RO: All the time! All the time!
TM: And here in the Midwest we’re seeing an increase in miscarriages that is terribly frightening. And to speak to what you just said, glyphosate, which is Roundup and is now called “a probable carcinogen,” you know, here, as I said, in the Midwest we’ve had to add dicamba and 2,4-D, the other half of Agent Orange, and we’re spraying two months more than we were. We used to stop in June, but now we have to spray through August because we have superweeds that just simply will not go away. In fact, they’re getting even more super as we speak. But the heartbreak, besides all the health issues, is now we’re losing our pollinators. We’ve lost 50 percent of our pollinators. And I think there’s actually now being designed a mechanical pollinator.
RO: Yeah, I know. I mean, again, I think too it’s, Mother Nature has had a fascinating way of working for thousands of years. And organic agriculture has sustained societies for thousands of years. I think one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns out there was when Monsanto decided that they were going to use fear of this population growth to drive revenue for genetically engineered products, and they’re basically saying, “You have to have these seeds if we’re going to feed the world.” It’s total B.S., because the UN and the USDA are saying 30 to 40 percent of the food that we produce is thrown away. And so we have gone at this with just this absolutely wasteful mindset.
We’ve not only wasted the food but, as you perfectly just described, we’re wasting the bees. And the assumption that we can somehow replace that, when you consider the first 20 years of genetically engineered agriculture, it has created a toxicity on these farms—it has created a toxic situation. It has created massive waste, not only here in the U.S., but what we’ve also found is that we can’t export these products to other countries. And so maybe 20 years ago there was the assumption we were going to genetically engineer all this corn and everybody was going to want it, we were going to export it and export it—and other countries were like, “We don’t want that stuff. We don’t want that stuff. We don’t want it in our food.” And some countries like New Zealand and France, they said, “We don’t even want it in our soil. We don’t want to plant it.” And so there were a lot of assumptions that were totally wrong that have got us into this really tough situation right now.
But again, I think, what’s so inspiring to me is that it’s so fixable. And yeah, we’ve lost 50 percent of the bees; yeah, we’re down to 1 percent of our farmland is organic. But as you know, it only takes three years to convert farms from conventional to organic, and there is massive demand in the marketplace to do that. You see General Mills partnering with organic to convert farmland; to have Nature’s Path buying up farms to convert farmland; to have Costco’s CEO talking to his shareholders, saying, “We’re going to convert farmland”; to talk to the CEO of Patagonia—she’s trying to develop different mechanisms to convert farmland.
And again, it’s so doable, it’s so fixable. We need capital, obviously, to come into the model so that we’re able to do this. But we also need to have these conversations and realize that ultimately that’s the success, is to address this bottleneck, so that we can grow our own food supply, so that we don’t have to rely on imports from Turkey and Russia and Uruguay and Australia and China in order to have organic food and organic agriculture here in the U.S.
And it’s across the board. You talk to a company like Applegate, and you say, “Well, where are you getting your non-GMO livestock feed?” And they have to import it from countries like Australia. And again, that model is so unsustainable. So how do we build out the economic opportunity? How do we build out the job creation and the growth here the United States? And thankfully it’s really starting to happen.
And I look at that, and that, to me, that’s the story we get to tell. And it’s not going to happen overnight—change doesn’t happen overnight. But my hope is that 20 years from now, 30 years from now, when our grandkids are asking us, “What’d you guys do when you realized that half the bee population was gone, that glyphosate had been labeled a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization? What’d you guys do?” and we’ll be able to say, “We fixed it.”
TM: When you started out, it seemed to me very clear that you couldn’t even talk about it, actually, to your friends without them kind of thinking that you were a little bit crazy. How did it change? How is it that you then began to get your voice and be able to kind of plant your feet and say, “No, I’m going to do this!” What do you think has changed over this last decade?
RO: I’ve always used the data. I think numbers tell their own story. And a lot of these issues, whether we’re talking about climate change or the food supply, it can be very emotionally charged, and the beliefs can be as deep as any religion. So you step back and you say, okay, look at the food industry right now. Look at the sector that’s growing. If it were any other industry, if it were technology and all of a sudden there was this one sector that just started to emerge as the blockbuster sector, we’d have tons of capital coming in, we’d have policy that would try to support it. Food is so political, and we have this chemical company that has really sat on legislation in D.C. and governed so much of the relationships with these agencies, like the EPA and the USDA, that we’re not getting the support that we need out of D.C. And so I step back from that and I say, okay, we can beat our head against the wall and hold our breath and hope that that’s going to change, or we just continue to drive massive impact in the marketplace, because policy always follows the money.
And again, people aren’t choosing this because they get to pat themselves on the back, or because they get to feel better. A mother is choosing a product that’s free from all this artificial junk because her child has food allergies. And a dad is maybe choosing products that are free from all these artificial growth hormones and antibiotics and things that can be put into the dairy, or put into the meat, because his wife has breast cancer. You can’t find a more pure or passionate reason for why people are choosing organic. And I think that’s the myth, is that somehow people thought it was because, “Oh, this was this lifestyle choice.” And when you really speak with people that are choosing organic, they’re choosing it because it’s free from all of these artificial ingredients; it’s free from GMOs and it’s free from Round Up; it’s free from the nastiest sounding stuff like sewage sludge. It is free from those things. And as you realize that the health of our families is buckling and the best thing we can do, the most important healthcare decision that anyone can make is what they choose to put on the end of their fork.
And I think what’s fascinating to me is people say, “Well, who do you follow? Who’s leading in this?” And I think the grocery stores are, because again, they don’t care which side—they’re not taking a side. They simply see what the consumer is choosing as she goes through that checkout line. And Kroger introduced that Simple Truth brand in 2012; it went from zero to $1.5 billion in revenue because the consumer wants to opt out of this experiment that is GMOs; they want to opt out of all of these artificial ingredients; they want to opt out of the artificial growth hormones. And they’re providing an affordability and an accessibility to millions of families, and they’re also removing that stigma that this was somehow some elite thing, because it’s not. It is such a fundamental human right to be able to feed your family, and the people that you love, products that will not cause harm.
TM: Well, you’ve got me on your team, Robyn. So just huge, huge thanks because you kind of are a general in our army here, and we really need you out there speaking and being so eloquent at it.
RO: That’s so mutual, Theresa. Thank you for all of your leadership. You really have established this as a credible, viable, financially successful industry. And I think there are a lot of people that were paying attention, obviously. They may be a little late to the party, but better late than never. So thank you for your leadership.