Tuesday, June 11, 2013

From food industry analyst to food crusader (Robyn O’Brien - TEDxAustin 2011)

As a former food industry analyst who was born in Houston, Texas, Robyn O’Brien describes herself as an unlikely food crusader. It was not until her youngest child had an allergic reaction to her breakfast that O’Brien became concerned about the food system. She started doing research, and being shocked by what she found, she went on to educate others about what she discovered. In her TEDxAustin 2011 talk, she describes many of the food-related issues we currently face in the United States.

While her initial concern about our food system was driven by health, she also makes a strong business argument. Compared to every other country in the world, the U.S. ranks number one in percentage of GDP spent on health care. The percentage of our GDP spent on health care has increased from 9% in 1980 to almost 17% in 2009. O’Brien shrewdly points out that this means we have fewer resources to use toward education and economic development, which diminishes our global competitiveness.

Below are some facts she shares in her talk:

  • Food allergies:
    • Between 1997 and 2002, peanut allergies in the U.S. doubled.
    • One out of every 17 children under age three has a food allergy.
    • From 1996 to 2000, there was an average of 2,615 hospital discharges per year with a diagnosis related to food allergy among children 0 to 17 years. From 2004-2006, the average jumped to 9,537 (more than a 265% increase).
  • National Health
    • The U.S. has the highest rates of cancer in the world.
    • 1 out of every 2 men and 1 out of every 3 women are expected to get cancer.
    • 1 out of every 8 women has breast cancer, but only 1 out of every 10 of breast cancers is genetic. This means that 90% of breast cancer cases are environmentally triggered.

Starting in the early 1990s, new proteins were engineered into the U.S. food supply to maximize profits, but no human trials were conducted for safety.

In 1994, the U.S. dairy industry introduced a genetically engineered synthetic growth hormone (rBGH) to be injected into cows to produce more milk. The injections made the animals sick, and led to increased use of antibiotics. Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and all 27 European countries do not allow use of rBGH because of the potential health risks. However, in the U.S. we allow it because it has not been proven dangerous. Furthermore, elevated hormone levels are associated with breast, prostate, and colon cancers.

Soy and corn have also been engineered and are used in some form in most processed foods. Soy was engineered to withstand increased doses of weed killer, and corn is now engineered so that it releases its own insecticide as it grows.

Our tax dollars subsidize the growth of crops, such as soy and corn. On the other hand, organic farmers must prove that their produce follows the “organic” criteria and must also pay to have their foods labeled as such. This additional cost is the reason why many farmers at your local farmers market are not “certified organic” even though they may have the same farming practices as certified farmers. However, it is not all rosy on the conventional side. Because of companies like Monsanto, farmers must now pay royalty, licensing, and trade fees to plant patented seeds, which is a huge financial burden.

O’Brien ends with a message of hope. The products distributed by Coca-Cola and Kraft in countries that ban genetically modified foods are formulated differently than they are here. This is living proof that we as consumers have the power to effect significant change.