Interview with Robyn O'Brien: The Unhealthy Truth | Civil Eats

Interview with Robyn O’Brien: The Unhealthy Truth

Robyn O’Brien is the best-selling author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It and a “reluctant crusader” for cleaning up our food system. A Houston native from a conservative family—not the most likely candidate to be found on the frontline of the battleground for the American food supply—Robyn’s advocacy began when the youngest of her four children had a violent reaction to eggs. In a quest to find answers and solutions to what seemed to be a personal problem, she used her MBA and background in finance to uncover and report on the relationship between Big Food and Big Money and unearth how a flawed federal policy has allowed hidden toxins in our food that she argues could be contributing to the alarming recent increase in allergies, ADHD, cancer, and asthma in our children. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Robyn about her book and her work, specifically focusing on the recent engineering of patented chemical and proteins in our food.

Why did the U.S. recently begin to alter food proteins using biotechnology?

To enhance corporate profitability. The introduction of genetically altered foods into the American food supply began in 1994 after scientists realized that by manipulating the genetic structure of a growth hormone, they could enhance profitability in the dairy industry by injecting manipulated proteins into dairy cows, inducing these cows to make more milk. Realizing the profitability to be achieved in this invention, Monsanto quickly patented this new technological and synthetic trait (recombinant bovine growth hormone or rbGH) under the commercial name Posilac and began to sell it to the dairy industry.

Can you explain why the U.S. is one of the only developed country to have recently allowed foreign proteins like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into our food supply?

American corporations, like Monsanto, are largely responsible for the recent introduction of these patented, novel proteins into our food supply. They have a strong profit motive and tremendous influence (in the form of lobbying and longstanding relationships with those responsible for regulatory oversight). Our regulatory system has looser standards than other developed countries. One of the first patents in the biotech industry was invented by the State Department’s Chief Technology adviser, Nina Fedoroff, a genetic scientist appointed after Bush awarded her the 2006 National Medal of Science. (Fedoroff cloned the first complete maize/corn transposon.) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has chosen to keep Fedoroff on.

In the United States, we allow ingredients into our food supply until they are proven dangerous. In other developed countries, substances are not allowed into the food supply until they are proven safe—a higher food safety standard and a precautionary measure that puts additional burdens on corporations. In some countries like France and New Zealand, not only have they not allowed these food proteins into their food supplies, but they also have not allowed these food proteins to be fed to their livestock or planted in their soil, given the toxicity that they might present. However, here in the U.S., we began engineering these foreign proteins into our food supply in 1994 to drive corporate profitability. The deregulation of the food system is not unlike the deregulation of the banking system that we have recently witnessed, as in both cases, this deregulation has enhanced profitability for industry as new derivates (in the food markets and in the financial markets) have been introduced.

Might these foreign proteins in our food have unintended consequences?

This is the health question that countries around the world have asked, to which they feel that there has not yet been an adequate answer. As these genetically altered foods are created in the laboratory in order to alter the DNA of these food proteins in an effort to enhance profitability for the food industry, new proteins and new allergens are created in the process. The costs of testing all of these new proteins and allergens is prohibitive, so here in the United States , we simply assume that these newly engineered food proteins are not dangerous.

A good example is of the inadequacies in our testing system and the potential impact of these foreign proteins and allergens in our food supply is milk. According to CNN, milk is the number one food allergy in the United States. However, we do not have testing to determine whether or not a person with a milk allergy is allergic to an organic milk protein or rbGH. We do not know if a child with a soy allergy is allergic to an organic soy protein or Monsanto’s patented and genetically engineered soy protein introduced in the late 1990s that has been designed to resist herbicide. We simply do not know because tests have not been developed, so we assumed that these new food proteins were not dangerous. Since human studies have not been conducted and the U.S. is one of the only developed countries to have adopted the early use of these foreign proteins into our food system, it has been said by government officials in other countries, that the health of the American children will serve as an indicator.

Additional concerns about the unintended consequences of these foreign proteins focus on the environmental impact that the chemicals in these crops might present, given that some, like corn, now have insecticidal proteins engineered into the DNA of these crops.

Fortunately, these concerns are now gaining attention here and just this week, a U.S. appeals court left in place an injunction barring Monsanto from selling its Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until the government completes an environmental impact study on how the genetically modified product could affect neighboring crops. As this investigation into Monsanto’s patented product moves forward, it will be extremely important to have full disclosure and transparency in the funding ties behind the science and researchers that conduct this environmental impact study.

The FDA has claimed that these ingredients are some of the most tested in our food supply. Scientists will claim that these ingredients have never been proven harmful, what is your response?

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As evidenced by the recent headlines about food recalls, the FDA is in dire shape and these ingredients have never been proven safe which is why governments around the world have not allowed them into their food supply. Health data presents a compelling reason to adopt the precautious approach: according to the American Cancer Society, the United States has the highest rates of cancer of any country in the world. Because the FDA is inadequately funded and not funded to conduct independent studies, it is forced it to rely on industry-funded studies.

What did you discover in your research that connected “Big Money to Big Food”?

That some of our most trusted names in pediatric research not only serve on the speakers bureaus of some of the largest corporations in the world, but that these trusted doctors have also invented patented proteins for agrichemical and pharmaceutical corporations. As I write in Chapter 7 of The Unhealthy Truth, these corporate ties seemed to highlight the flaws in our system: dedicated scientists are often employed by corporations who have a financial stake in the outcome of their research. As a result, it’s hard for the public to know how to view the scientific information we’re given, since so much of the funding comes from companies with a built-in incentive to support research that will help their bottom line and profitability.

For example, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most trusted names in the world of pediatric allergy, has reported receiving consulting fees from Unilever, Wyeth and Monsanto; receiving a grant and holding stock options and related patents with SEER (formerly Panacea); and receiving grants from the Peanut Board, the National Peanut Foundation and Monsanto and is also on the speakers bureau for EpiPen/Dey.

It would be extremely beneficial for all American families to have full disclosure and transparency into these funding ties, royalty structures and revenue streams so that we can make an informed choice, based on transparency and full disclosure, when weighing the opinions of these experts and this industry funded science.

What’s your take on the documentary Food, Inc., and Monsanto’s response to it?

I am profoundly grateful for all who are working to inform our nation of 300 million eaters of the recent changes in our food supply and the role that Food, Inc. has played in broadening awareness and expanding the discussion around our food system. As a former financial analyst, I am not at all surprised by Monsanto’s response and the marketing investment that they have made in defending their patented technology, their products and in turn their share price, as it is their fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to do exactly that.

What do you think is the most effective way to get some of these foreign proteins and GMOs out of our food supply?

Fortunately, on a personal level, there is a lot that we can do to reduce our families’ exposure to these ingredients and to feed our children the same food that children in developed countries like France, Australia and the UK are eating. Recognizing that corn and soy are two of the largest genetically engineered crops in our country, simply reducing your families’ exposure to corn and soy-based ingredients can go a long way, since recommending organic soy and organic corn (which by law is not allowed to contain these genetically engineered proteins) is not a viable option to many. In voting with your fork, you are sending a message to both the food industry and the agrichemical industry that you would rather not choose their products for your family. And since Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-Mart have been amazing in responding to the concerns of citizens overseas and voluntarily removed certain synthetic ingredients from the products that they sell overseas, together we can urge them to respond to our concerns here in the U.S. and offer their newly reformulated products in our grocery stores, too.

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On a broader level, I also think that it is important to recognize that there are already remarkable platforms in place that are working to advance the health of the American children, given that today 1 in 3 American kids has autism, allergies, ADHD or asthma and that according to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 3 Caucasian children and 1 in 2 African American children born in the year 2000 are expected to be insulin dependent by the time they reach adulthood. These conditions do not know party lines or rungs on the socio economic ladder and are affecting all of our children, regardless of income level or party affiliation. With legislation like the Food Allergen Labeling Act already in place, it makes sense to amend it to include these foreign proteins given the novel allergens that they contain.

What about people or corporations that say we need this patented technology to feed the world?

As I address in Chapter 7 of the book, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (hardly an anti-industry or anti-technology organization) currently available genetically engineered crops do not increase the yield potential of hybrid varieties. Furthermore, a 2004 report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization on agricultural biotechnology acknowledges that genetically engineered crops can have reduced yields. As this issue continues to be debated, I would simply ask the corporations advocating for the adoption of their products in the global agricultural marketplace to disclose who is funding their research and their claims for increased yields. The promise of increased yield is a forward looking statement that drives share price gain for these corporations. Science has yet to prove these claims to be true. Independently funded research used by governments around the world suggest that food security for the world would be better served through an adequate distribution system.

What’s the single most important thing that an average person can do to learn more about our food system?

Believe in our collective ability to effect remarkable change, just as eaters around the world, in other developed countries, have already done. Together, they have voted with their forks and their shopping carts. They have made their voices heard by their governments and their legislators and have implemented new legislation and higher industry standards in efforts to safeguard their health and remove certain synthetic ingredients and genetically engineered proteins from their food supply. They have inspired food corporations (including the international arms of American corporations) to move voluntarily ahead of this new legislation. And it has been largely out of a drive to control health care costs. Just as eaters around the world have already done, we can do it here, too, if we simply work to inform and inspire that change together.

Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.  Read more >

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  1. Thank you for bringing Robyn and her compelling new book to people's attention.

    Her answers to your questions highlight the overwhelming connections between our government and corporate interests, and, worse, how we the eaters are basically real-world lab rats.

    I hope others reading this interview will get Robyn's book to learn more about what's behind her answers, and figure out effective strategies they can use to avoid being another rat in the industrial food maze.


    Rob Smart
    a.k.a., Jambutter on Twitter
  2. Robyn’s book has given me an idea. What if Tom Harkin, head of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Representative Lynn Wollsey every member of their committees were to read this book? Perhaps then, there might be a shift in thinking from nutrient based legislation to a focus on the ingredients! The junk food lobby has most legislators convinced its about calories, not chemicals.

    Bold, meaningful legislation is necessary to transform school food, children’s health, behavior and learning. We need our representatives in Congress understand that our kids are not just fat! Many kids are suffering from allergies, asthma, behavioral problems. It connected to the food! What if we made school food free of GMO ingredients, hormones, colors, flavors and preservatives? Would kids be able to learn better? Would moms spend less time with their kids in the doctor’s office?

    We need to build the Food IQ of our government; you can help by reading this book and sending a copy to your Senator or Congressperson. Ask them to re-think nutrient based school food legislation and consider the ingredients too. Give your representative the gift of this book, they need to learn the Unhealthy Truth!

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