I am honored to be interviewing Robyn O’Brien today! Robyn is a globally recognized voice in the food industry and has been called “food’s Erin Brockovich” by The New York Times. Her TEDx talk (based on her book, The Unhealthy Truth) exposes the shortcomings of our food system and has been viewed millions of times. It has influenced policy, legislation, and product formulation. For the last fifteen years, Robyn has advised CEOs and executives at multinational CPG companies, startups, and farm organizations. Robyn is the co-founder and managing director at rePlant Capital, a financial services firm ambitiously determined to reverse climate change through the deployment of a series of proprietary funds focused on U.S. farmers and their transition to regenerative and organic agriculture.
It can be hard for those who want to make real change in our broken systems to initiate change or know where to begin. Robyn O’Brien doesn’t just make noise about problems. She builds solutions and encourages her audiences to participate by identifying their skills and experiences to leverage them as entry points for systems change. In Robyn’s story, capital is an entry point for catalytic change. If biodiversity is resiliency on the farm, Robyn deeply believes that diversity is resiliency in governance.
In this episode, Robyn explains how rePlant Capital is pioneering climate solutions by tackling soil health through a model of agricultural financing that no one else is providing. She also speaks to the importance of diverse governance and leadership in addressing these existential food, health, and climate issues.
I am very grateful to Robyn for writing her book because it has profoundly impacted the trajectory of everything I am doing right now! Stay tuned for more!
“My mission is to make clean and safe food affordable and accessible to anyone and all who want it.”
IN THIS EPISODE YOU WILL LEARN:
- Robyn shares her background.
- Robyn’s motivation for investigating how our food gets produced.
- The additives in our food that drive allergies and food sensitivities.
- Some of the shocking facts that Robyn discovered about food allergies and American children.
- How Robyn realized that she had to use love and gratitude rather than fear when sharing her knowledge.
- The issues with the American food industry.
- Robyn talks about rePlant Capital.
- The difference between the conventional farm-debt industry and regenerative farming practices.
- Why we should never be afraid of starting small.
- The differences between various types of soil composition.
- Why water security is as critical as food security and national security.
- The importance of diversity.
- What you need to be concerned about regarding GMOs.
- Why we are seeing an escalated rate of allergies in our children.
- The importance of transparency in the food industry.
Connect with Robyn O’Brien
On her website
Kiss the Ground website
The documentary, Kiss the Ground (On Netflix)
Connect with Cynthia Thurlow
- Follow on Twitter, Instagram & LinkedIn
- Check out Cynthia’s website
- Check Out Dry Farm Wines: www.dryfarmwines.com/cynthiathurlow
About Everyday Wellness Podcast
Welcome to the Everyday Wellness podcast with Cynthia Thurlow! Cynthia is a mom of 2 boys, wife, nurse practitioner, and intermittent fasting and nutrition expert. She has over 20 years experience in emergency medicine and cardiology, but pivoted to focus on food as medicine. She loves to share science-backed practical information to improve your overall well being and is grateful to be interviewing leaders in the health and wellness field. Her goal with Everyday Wellness is to help her listeners make simple changes to their everyday lives that will result in improved overall wellness and long term health.
Presenter: This is Everyday Wellness, a podcast dedicated to helping you achieve your health, and wellness goals, and provide practical strategies that you can use in your real life. And now, here’s your host, Nurse Practitioner Cynthia Thurlow.
Cynthia: Today, I have the honor of interviewing Robyn O’Brien. She’s a globally recognized voice in food industry and has been called Food’s Erin Brockovich by the New York Times. Her TED talk based on her book, The Unhealthy Truth, exposes the shortcomings of our food system and has been viewed millions of times. It has influenced policy, legislation, and product formulation. For the past 15 years, Robyn has advised CEOs and executives at multinational CPG companies, startups, and farm organizations. She’s the cofounder and managing director at rePlant Capital, a financial services firm ambitiously determined to reverse climate change through the deployment of a series of proprietary funds focused on US farmers and their transition to regenerative and organic agriculture. Welcome, Robyn.
Robyn: Thank you so much for everything that you’ve done and thank you for having me today.
Cynthia: Yeah. I think anyone that follows me knows that I speak very openly. I believe in giving credit where credit is due. But I read your book and it changed my life. It changed the trajectory of my nurse practitioner career, certainly everything that I was doing and thinking about on so many levels, I am where I am today because I read your book. I laugh about the fact that I remember reading the book while my older son was doing Taekwondo, and I was trying to chase after my probably five-year-old, which you have boys, you understand, they’re constantly moving. I would read a chapter at a time, and it was so disturbing to me that I did not know this information. So, I applaud you for getting mad when you had a child with a reaction to eating what we constitute as fairly benign food and you go down that rabbit hole.
So, I would love for you to share with listeners, obviously, I know your story. But I would love for you to share with them, what was the impetus for really learning about how our food is produced, what additives are in our foods, the things that are driving food allergies and food sensitivities. Obviously, for full disclosure, my oldest son has life threatening food allergies. For me, he hasn’t outgrown them only about 30% of children do. So, he will live probably for the rest of his life with allergy, severe anaphylaxis reactions to tree nuts and peanuts. You talk a lot about the growing escalation of food allergies in children. So, I’d love for you to share your story. Obviously, it’s really interesting and very, very relevant to your journey.
Robyn: Well, thank you so much, and as you’re describing how it changed your life, it gave me the chills, because the early years of my work was incredibly isolating, and it was a very, very lonely journey in the early years. Now, 15 years later to have people reach out and say, “You changed my life,” or “I did this or I started this company.” Never in a million years did I expect that kind of courage to yield that kind of result. At the time as I was learning this information, I couldn’t stay silent. It felt toxic to hold it. I truly could not unlearn it, and I could not hold it, and I struggled with that with the enormity of that. I knew that people would question me in all kinds of ways. But back then 15 years ago, people weren’t talking about genetically engineered foods. We weren’t as aware of food as we are today. So much has happened in the last 15 years, and now, with access across Instagram, and Facebook, and all these different platforms, we’re a lot more connected, but you have to go back to 15 years ago, when organic was still perceived as lifestyle of the rich and famous. It was a very niche category. It was very kind of on the coast. So, you saw it in New York, and you saw it in California. But I’m from Texas, and you didn’t really see a lot of it in Texas back then.
My background is finance. I was an investment professional. I was an analyst that covered the food industry. I worked with a team of absolutely great guys. Because I was the only woman, they said, “Cover the food industry,” and I was like, “I’m not your girl.” I was totally addicted to diet coke, and I ate a bunch of processed junk. I was not that person. So, when I was covering the food industry as an analyst, it was a really mechanical thing, which was great for me. Because [unintelligible [00:04:26] involved and it was just spreadsheets, and numbers, and learning why they were taking out all of the real ingredients and putting in these artificial things, and I was driving margins, and it made a ton of sense. That’s where I was right out of business school before I became a mother.
Then, you flash forward about five years and suddenly I was having my fourth child. Again, I had these three older children, nothing. I had a couple friends that had children with food allergies and just didn’t understand the condition. I thought, okay, it’s a pain, but I’ll do this for my friend. Then, as life tends to hand it to you, I was given this fourth child, and she had a severe allergic reaction one morning over a plate of scrambled eggs. I didn’t know it was an allergic reaction. So, she started to get fussy over breakfast and I thought she might be tired. So, I took her upstairs about nine o’clock in the morning, and I put her down for a morning nap. Having had four children, usually if I put a child down for a nap, I just put a child down. For some reason, which I still will never be able to explain, I just got the chills again. I went in and checked on her that morning and her face was swollen shut. I remember looking at her and thinking what has happened to her face, and I scooped her up, and I looked at the older kids and I said, “You put something on her face,” and they gave me those really blank stares, where you just know, they don’t know what you’re talking about, and that was terrifying. So, I thought what is happening to this child, and I called the doctor, and she said, “This sounds like an allergic reaction.”
For all of the listeners out there that have had this experience, it is one of the most terrifying things you go through as a parent. You feel completely out of control. Here I had been on a full scholarship to business, worked at that investment group, manage $20 billion in assets, and here I was standing with this child thinking I don’t know what to do. So, we get to the pediatrician. She says this is an allergic reaction. She starts rattling off the statistics with food allergies and how you have these top eight allergens like eggs, and wheat, and milk, and all these things, and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, how am I going to feed this child?” Not only how am I going to feed her, how am I going to keep her safe from these three older siblings that wouldn’t understand that she can’t have this or that. So, all of a sudden, what I expected motherhood to look like suddenly just got scrapped. I’m standing there thinking, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I’m terrified, I don’t want to hurt this child, I don’t know how to protect this child, I hadn’t thought about all these different things.”
And as most of us do, when you’re first beginning to learn about food allergies, it is so overwhelming because you realize they can be labeled. Milk can be called casein in these ingredients. I’m reading these ingredient panels, and I’m thinking, “What in the world is this stuff? Oh, my gosh, how am I going to keep my kids safe?” I was blissfully unaware up until that moment as most of us are. I trusted that if things were on the shelf, they weren’t going to harm my family. As I started to read labels like most of us, when you really read those labels, you’re like, “What the hell is this stuff?” So, as I began to research food allergies, what I did was, I had been an analyst, I had been a number cruncher. This is an incredibly emotional topic, whether you’re talking about food allergies or food. It is emotional. So, I thought, “I just want to see the data because I’ve got to get away from the emotion here.” As I started looking at the statistics, that was probably one of the saddest periods of my life when I began to understand what had happened to the health of the American children across the board.
When I was trying to find statistics on food allergies, the CDC doesn’t actually count food allergy deaths. They count asthma deaths which have skyrocketed, and as those who have a child with food allergies know that when your child goes into an allergic reaction, the airways are constricted. Interestingly, the CDC, if a child dies from that airway constriction marks that death as an asthma death, not as a food allergy. So, the data was murky, and it’s not all neatly packaged in one little food allergy file at the CDC or wherever. So, as I began to pull this data on what was happening to the American children, it was absolutely jaw dropping to understand that one in three Caucasian kids born in the year 2000, which is my oldest child’s class, she’s now 21. One in three, and one in two minority children in that class are expected to be insulin dependent by the time they reach adulthood. They have done nothing to deserve that. I thought, “Okay, that’s my daughter’s oldest class.” One in three kids now have what are called the four As, allergies, autism, ADHD, and asthma. One in three kids, okay, kids have done nothing to deserve that.
But the data that absolutely dropped me was the President’s cancer panel. At the time that I unearthed this data, The panel had been assembled under the Bush administration, and the report had been released under the Obama administration, which I really appreciated. Because it meant that this wasn’t a partisan issue. The data that came through that report said the cancer was the leading cause of death by disease in American children under the age of 15. So, I got to where I would be at the park with the children or I’d be dropping them at preschool, and I would be looking at these kids, and I would just see statistics, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, why is no one talking about this?” At the time, every headline was about obesity, and I’m like, “There’s so much more going on here.” As I began to really understand, what was happening to the health of kids. As you’re looking at cancer statistics, one in three women and one in two men are expect to get cancer in their lifetime in the United States. I thought why aren’t we talking about this and what can be done preventatively? Because it wasn’t like this 30 years ago, it wasn’t like this 40 years ago. When we were all kids in school, we had PB&J’s, and we had cartons of milk, and they weren’t loaded weapons on a lunchroom table. So, again, it was like, “What has changed, what has changed?”
At that point, I just went full analyst mode, because I was trying to control something that felt totally out of control. The way that I did that was through research. So, I began researching all of the different inputs, and I set up a system that I’ve used when I was an analyst to capture data, and to capture headlines. Every morning, I’d wake up, and I’d open my computer, and there’d be a file and a bunch of emails that have come through relevant to what I was researching, which was food allergies. In October of 2007, Michigan State University received a small grant from the EPA, and the title of this particular article that morning was, “Do genetically engineered foods cause food allergies?” I had never heard of genetically engineered food back then. So, I started researching this stuff, and I’m like, “Okay, I have no idea what these things are,” and I had covered the food industry as an analyst, and we haven’t talked about this. So, that was my first call was back to the guys on the desk and saying, “Why didn’t we cover genetically engineered food and all these chemicals that go with genetically engineered foods?” They said that was actually covered by the chemical industry analysts. I said, “But we’re eating this stuff.” They’re like, “It was just how it was covered here.” So, I was like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” Then I called the researcher at Michigan State University, and I contacted him, and I just said, “What’s going on?” He said, “Well, these genetically engineered ingredients were introduced without any animal testing studies.” I thought, “So, we are that animal testing study.”
The data that the CDC did have on food allergies, while they didn’t count deaths, they count hospitalization rates. There had been a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations from 1995 until 2005, it was in about a 10-year period, and I thought, “Okay, correlation is not causation. I’m an analyst. I know that.” But the correlation of this magnitude merits an investigation. No one was doing that investigation. I thought I have to do this investigation like, “What is going on?”
When I learned that the United States was one of the only developed countries to introduce these ingredients into our food system without labels, that felt so offensive. I thought, “What have they done to us, and to what we believe to be patriotic about transparency, and all these things, and freedom of choice that we hold so dear?” It really challenged a lot in my belief system. But I realized there was this double standard, and I think the most screamingly obvious part of it was when I realized that our own food companies were making products with genetically engineered ingredients and all this artificial junk for here in the US. Then, they make that exact same cereal bar or that exact same cookie overseas without genetically engineered ingredients, without artificial colors, without high-fructose corn syrup. I thought, they already know. They know. They’ve got this higher integrity product that they sell to moms and families in Europe, and yet here in the US, we get this cheaper, junkier stuff, because it drives margins. I knew that as an analyst. That’s why and because we weren’t making any noise. At that point, I spent the next several months swinging between a very deep and dark despair. It was a very, very dark time, realizing that I would have to say something on this, and at the same time, being absolutely terrified, too. At that point, my family was so– We were just never taught activism. We weren’t an activist family or conservative Texas family. I was terrified to step forward on it.
So, I researched people that had presented controversial things. I studied the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and I thought, he used to love when he was presenting civil rights issues. Then I studied Harvey Milk and how he used gratitude when he was presenting issues around the LGBTQ community. Then, I studied others like Al Gore where they tried to use fear and I thought fear shuts me down. Fear just shuts me down. So, I knew I had to use love and gratitude and not fear. I have maintained that for my entire career that this knowledge is a gift, and just as you’re so thrilled to give someone you love a gift, that’s how I feel about this information. Sometimes, people aren’t ready to receive a gift and so you just put it behind you up on the shelf and you wait until they’re ready. They always come around some sooner, some later, but they will always come around, and to hold this knowledge with that kind of love and that kind of gratitude is something that I have maintained since the very beginning.
Cynthia: Really powerful. There was a quote that kept coming up when I was doing my research for our interview, and your quote was ‘courage is contagious. It’s part of our story.’ So, you were so incredibly courageous, because the easier thing to do would have been to have this degree of cognitive dissonance where you’re like, “I didn’t just read that, I didn’t just see that, this didn’t really happen to me, it’s not related to the food that we’re giving to our families.” So, thank you so much for your advocacy and transparency, because even for myself, even with all the training, all the medical training I have, I trained at a big research institution, I had never read this kind of information before, and it was so disturbing, which is why I had to read a chapter at a time, and then every single person I spoke to, I was like, “You have to read this book. This book is going to change your life.”
So, let’s dive into some of the issues with the food industry. I know this is proliferative, but I think it’s important to provide context about some of the things that are in the food industry right now that are contributing to why we have double standards for products that are made here versus the UK, why we have issues with supporting local farmers and organic farming in particular. And then, talking about subsidized foods, farm subsidies, and how that’s contributing to the problems that we’re seeing. It’s interesting. I was just in Nebraska for a business event for some who had never been in Omaha or Nebraska, and had a completely different feel. Being there talking to local farmers, because they happen to be some of the sponsors for the event, and recognizing that people really do want to do what’s right, not just for their businesses, but producing a really incredible product and how on so many levels, things have been so incredibly bastardized.
Robyn: Right. I think getting back to the very beginning of your comments when you said you had gone to school and studied all these things, and never learned that, you actually have to start there. The answer consistently across all of this is follow the money. The medical schools are sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. In the United States, sickness sells. There is so much money to be made in healthcare and disease management. We spend more money on healthcare and disease management than any other country on the planet. So, you have to start there, and unfortunately, you have to realize that your sickness and your conditions are a business model, and that prevention actually hampers that business model. Other countries around the world take a different approach. They say, “You know what? We’re going to provide universal healthcare.” When they commit to that, they therefore have an incentive to prevent disease, because if you’re providing universal healthcare, that means we all pay for it as taxpayers. So, I don’t want you to get sick because my taxes are going up, you don’t want me and my kids to get sick because yours are going to go up. So, there’s actually an incentive in place to maintain health and wellness in a country that does not have a for-profit medical system.
We have for-profit medical. We stand out in global profiles because that’s what we’ve chosen to construct. There’s been a lot of money that’s been made in that. But as a result, when you speak to doctors, and I think some of the most eye-opening comments come from doctors that are like, “I went through the entire trajectory of medical school and had maybe one hour of diet and nutrition.” I have a really dear friend from high school, Garth Davis. He wrote a book called Proteinaholic, which you should read next. He is so candid about what he thought versus what he learned in that same game changing knowledge that came along the way when he realized like he just flat out as a doctor had not been taught this stuff. It’s a pretty humble thing to have to confess. So, I think on the medical side there’s that and then the same thing goes. Follow the money when it comes to the food industry, just as we saw the tobacco industry really influenced legislation, influence science with their money and with their lobbying. The same thing has happened in the food industry.
So, because these are US-based companies, their ability to lobby and influence legislation here in the United States is tremendous, and very powerful, and much more powerful here than it would be in the UK, or Europe, or Australia, or China. So, what has happened is they have this enormous influence over how this stuff is legislated here. They get the greenlight, things get fast tracked. The term is generally recognized as safe. GRAS, generally recognized as safe until and guess what? It’s not. So, the flip side of that is you actually have to prove that this is safe and in other countries, that’s the ownership on the brand to actually do the research to prove that something is safe.
So, what has happened is that we get these as you said, bastardized products here in the United States. We get the artificial stuff when families and other countries get the real stuff. That double standard to me was intolerable. I thought, “There is no family, there is no child that deserves this. There’s not a single person that deserves this.” So, why are we doing this? Well, so you continue to follow the money and you realize it rather than our tax dollars supporting healthcare as they do in other countries, and providing all this incentive for all of us to stay healthy and well. Our tax dollars actually support the growing of our foods with these genetically engineered ingredients and chemicals. I thought, “If I had a choice, how would I choose my tax dollars? Do I really want my tax dollars supporting these farm subsidies that subsidize this genetically engineered operating system and its portfolio of chemicals required to grow them?” No, I don’t think anybody would.
I thought about it. My grandmother passed a couple years ago. She was 108 years old and so insanely smart. I remember telling her about this, and she said, “Robbie, that’s just so scary. That is so scary.” “Grandmother,” I said, “When you guys, when you are raising your voice, you just had corn, it was corn.” I said, now, we’ve got this genetically engineered corn, that’s been genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide internally within the plant as it grows. You can’t wash that off. You cannot wash that off. I thought that’s why we need labels, because any decent human being would want to know and have the choice between that kind of corn that our grandmothers ate, which was corn, or genetically engineered corn that’s been created to release its own insecticide. So, without that transparency, without that information, we’re all blindly eating corn thinking it’s the same as what our grandmothers ate. It looks the same as what our grandmothers ate, but it is patented at the US Patent and Trademark Office as this genetically engineered product, because of its unique characteristics and traits.
That was really where we could catch them, was at the US Patent and Trademark Office, because they tried to claim that these things have existed for thousands of years. Then, why are they patented from 1984 on as they entered into the food supply in the 1990s for their novelty and their uniqueness by these chemical industries and the doctors that work for them. It’s very much a tobacco industry moment, I think, in the food industry when we realize that these chemical companies have done that. You look back, you can google those old cigarette ads where the doctors are saying, “9 out of 10 doctors recommend Marlboro,” or whatever it was. It’s similar here.
As I looked at that, again, being a math and a finance person, I thought, we aren’t given a choice in the transparency what we’re feeding our families but at the same time, the way that our dollars are being used to subsidize this really toxic system. At that point, organic really was very much kind of whole foods whole paycheck lifestyle, the rich and famous. Thankfully, the work that I’ve done over the last 15 years has really been to push to democratize it. My personal mission is to make clean and safe food affordable and accessible to anyone in all who wants it and every chapter of my career has modeled that.
Now, what we’re doing it rePlant. it was born out of working with these companies, when I realized, even the CEOs were feeding their families organic. 85% of us choose organic, 75% of all grocery store categories now carry organic. You can find it in 7-Eleven, you can find it in Costco, you can find it in Walmart, thank goodness. The problem is that only 1% of our farmland is organic. So, if we’re all eating all this organic, which we all are at this point, how are we doing this if only 1% of our farmland is organic, and why aren’t we actually growing the food here in the United States and American families want to eat? So, that became my latest chapter which is rePlant Capital, which is really helping these multinational food companies that weren’t my biggest fans 15 years ago. After years of really informing and educating now they’re recognizing, we have to convert our supply chains. So, that’s the transition that has to happen.
It very much is– it’s an idea whose time has come because as we transition this farmland, we’re helping the American farmer. The kids that have worked on that farm that don’t want to come back to the farm because of the chemicals that are used are suddenly saying, “I will come back if you’re farming regeneratively and organically.” So, there’s a legacy issue that we’re addressing in these farm families, which is amazing. You’re getting the chemical inputs off of that farm, which is taking the debt that the farmer had been required to go into to finance genetically engineered foods and all of those chemicals are required to grow them. All of a sudden, when you cut that off, you’re also cutting off the debt that’s required. So, farmers are saying, “Okay, if I step back from chemical inputs and I learn how to manage the soil,” that’s a transition for sure. So, instead of spending money on chemical inputs, they’re spending money on a technical assistance guy that could come out and show them exactly what to do in Kansas. But once you learn that, you can’t unlearn that. So, that transition, that’s what we’re tackling, is that three- to five-year transition to help get the capital flowing to the farmer so that they can start to grow the kinds of foods that American families want to eat, and then I think the other part that I just love is that their families are coming back. I asked a guy in Georgia, Will Harris at White Oak Pastures, “What’s the best part of your conversion to regenerative and organic agriculture?” He said, “My girls came back to the farm.”
Cynthia: Oh, it’s beautiful. I think that the average person really doesn’t understand the magnitude of farming debt that is involved when working with these companies. One thing that I read as I was doing my prep was that, it’s $126 billion worth of farming debt, and that is a direct interrelationship with the fees that the farmer is required to spend to buy a specific type of seed, not heritage seed, but the specific– whether it’s Monsanto or one other company, and Monsanto is just the big one that I think of. But all of the farming practices that come along with that, and it keeps these farmers– they’re forced, essentially, financially to continue on this path. So, I love that you’re starting to change that narrative, and really to do it in a way that’s focused on the positive and the regenerative agriculture piece.
So, for the benefit of listeners who may not be as familiarized with the term ‘regenerative agriculture,’ and had the opportunity to connect with Robb Wolf, and I know, he’s particularly savvy in this area as well. But I’d love for you to just explain that the differences between the conventional farm debt industry versus transitioning to this new locally done, focused on–
I always say locavore and organic, but really getting back to basics, getting back to soil quality, which is something that’s really been greatly diminished over the last probably 30 plus years, because we’re essentially taking what used to be a relatively healthy plant where there was probably not as much monocropping. Now, it’s a lot of monocropping, where the soil content is really poor, but now we’re transitioning back to what I would consider to be probably the way that we farmed 50 or 100 years ago.
Robyn: Yeah, I would actually caution not to say that because the industry loves to use that against us. I would say that we can pull from the indigenous wisdom of decades past and marry it with technology from the 21st century, that can accelerate this transition to healthy soils. We’re not going backwards. We’re actually going forwards, and we’re leveraging the best of the knowledge that we hold as an industry, as a country, as a globe. But yeah, so, what happened in the mid-1990s was this just rapid transition to this genetically engineered operating system and it changed everything for the farmer. Because up until that point, the farmer had been allowed to save his seeds. As they grow things and catch the seeds and save them, they can repurpose the seeds into the next harvest, into the next season. There’s no money that’s required, because you’re saving seeds from crop to crop to crop. With the introduction of genetically engineered crops and this patented technology, it was illegal for the farmer to save the seed because it wasn’t his to own. It was a patented technology owned by these agrochemical companies. So, all of a sudden, the farmer, instead of just being able to save the seeds, and begin again the next season, he instead had to go to the bank, take out a loan, go to the chemical company, and purchase the seeds. That became an incredible recurring revenue model as you know.
Again, it’s like these agrochemical companies were brilliant, because they said, “If we’re going to increase our share price, we’ve got to increase revenue.” So, all of a sudden, a farmer who didn’t have to buy seeds every year suddenly has to buy seeds every year, well, that’s great for the revenue of the agrochemical company. It’s terrible for the farmer, because he’s taking on more and more debt, and as you mentioned, today American farmers carry $426 billion in debt. The average farm carries so much that there is no other entrepreneur, no other family would ask to do this. So, realizing that fundamental shift had happened, not just in the way that we grow food because we’re taking on the debt to purchase the seeds, so, then they have to buy all the chemicals to treat the seeds, and they have to buy the chemicals to grow the crops. So, just a ton of debt to use this new genetically engineered operating system.
Really, I think, in the early years, the promise was that it was going to increase yields. What happens when you chemically treat a farm year after year after year now 20 years into the 6-year experiment is that the microbiome of the soil is destroyed. For anybody in health and wellness, we talk a lot about the microbiome of the gut. So, it’s pretty darn similar. When you’re thinking about the microbiome of the gut, and how we know now, there are certain things that when you put those things in your gut’s going to make it worse. There are certain things when you put them in your gut is actually going to help restore healthy microbiome. Same goes for the soil. So, what happened was the farmer started to realize that these chemical inputs were harming the soil. They were harming the water quality around their farms. So, it was this sort of awakening and reawakening because the farmers of color will tell you, they never had access to that capital. It was highly discriminatory. 96% of our farmers are white and 70% of them are male. So, that lending structure was highly, highly discriminatory. The silver lining is that farmers of color and indigenous farmers never had access to the debt levels, so they maintained this soil stewardship. They were never able to shortcut with chemical inputs. So, they maintained on-farm practices without chemical input that we now call regenerative farming.
So, it’s regenerative in a sense that if you were using chemical inputs, and now you’re going back to restoring soil health, you are regenerating the health of the soil. Farmers of color have been doing it all the time, which is why they get annoyed with the term ‘regenerative.’ But here we are in a place where 96% of these farmers that are white that probably did have access to the capital and probably did embrace a lot of this agrichemical model, realizing it destroyed their soil. Just as we have the microbiome of the gut, we have the microbiome of the soil. So, the first step is do no harm, and that begins by removing the chemical inputs. Then, what are you going to do? So, they’re learning that instead of spending money on the chemical input model, you’re spending money on this sort of soil stewardship model and learning how to restore the health of the soil. There are so many different practices that can be employed. You get really on-farm wonky, pretty fast, but there are a lot of things that farmers can do on farm to actually build soil health and that’s the transition.
That’s what we do at rePlant, is we’ll help finance if it’s cover crops. Putting cover crops on soil really helps, restore soil health, it can draw carbon from the atmosphere, it can hold on to water, it can hold on to nutrients. So, instead of standing on a farm that’s been treated with chemical inputs where the soil is really damaged, and doesn’t hold the same nutrient quality, and it doesn’t hold the same water content, it can’t capture carbon the same way. When you transition a farm using these regenerative and organic practices, all of a sudden, soil becomes this vibrant living thing again, that can serve in such an amazing capacity, not just with the potatoes that we’re pulling out of it, but also its ability to assist in climate, when it’s drawing down carbon.
I was with a bunch of scientists a couple years ago, and I said, “When do we really in a big enough number wake up to the fact that soil has this incredible power?” Because I felt so stupid that I hadn’t really been aware. This was a few years ago. They said I was probably 10 years prior. So, it’s probably about 15 years ago, now, where they started to really understand the magnitude of what the soil could do. As you learn that, then you’re like, “Why are we not elevating these farmers?” They’re doing so much for us that none of us can do. Yes, I have a garden, but not to the extent that is required the way our farmers serve our country. So, not only are they putting food on the table, but as they transition to these better practices, they’re improving water quality on all of the areas around their farms. They’re serving in this incredible role in climate solution with soil’s ability to draw down and hold carbon. I thought, “We really need to flip the script here.”
Our farmers to me are total superheroes and the ones really brave right now they’re going through this initial transition. The farmers of color that always held it, those are the superheroes. So, when people are like, “Oh, your book, your book.” I’m like, “Look, I’m just amplifying the work of some extraordinary people,” that in many cases, I’m very, very grateful to know, and it just continues, and so I think it gets back to that ‘courage is contagious’ stuff. It’s just be brave enough to address the cognitive dissonance. That takes a lot of courage. Be brave enough to have these hard conversations and do it with a kindness and compassion, and then be brave enough to figure out how to start to make change and I think my advice there is don’t be afraid of baby steps. We’ve taught kids how to ride bikes or weaned them from sippy cups. It does not happen overnight. Most change does not happen overnight. So, give yourself permission to make progress and this isn’t about being perfect out of the gate.
I think probably, one example I have of that is, the very first speaking engagement I was ever asked to give six people came. I invited my pediatrician. I invited a friend who was a nutritionist, and then there were four others that actually came, and that’s how I started my speaking engagements. Now, to be invited to speak at some of these events and summits that I speak at, there’s just again that profound gratitude of not being afraid to start small. I think what I was most afraid of is if I did nothing. So, again, you’ve got to start where you stand with what you have, and know that it’s going to inspire someone in some way that you never could have imagined.
Cynthia: Absolutely. I think it’s really important to reemphasize the fact that slow and steady wins. I remind people all the time that neither you nor I overnight made so many changes, both personally and professionally. Certainly, your advocacy is really critically important. You touched on the soil piece, and I would love for you to speak a little bit more about this. I know that when I talk to people who will say, “Well, I eat all organic, why is the soil quality even an issue?” I always usually focus on magnesium. Magnesium depleted soil, but I know there are a lot of other nutrients that are as important, if not more important than that, were differentiated between the current standard practices for the way soil is in terms of composition versus the regenerative agricultural side or you mentioned that there’s a lot of biases in the farming industry, and who had access to these chemicals, and fertilizers, and those that had been for many years doing more traditional farming methods. What is the difference between the types of soil composition? This is one of those nerdy questions. I’m just innately curious about this. I know that my grandmother used to always tell me that if there were a lot of worms in the soil, that was a good sign because she had this massive garden in her backyard at Colorado.
Robyn: Yeah, so that’s a great question, and my brain goes to the experts on that, and that I would say is Ray Archuleta. He is with an organization called Understanding Ag, but you can see him in action in a documentary called Kiss the Ground. If you really want to understand what happens when you transition farmland to the soil, Kiss the Ground documentary is beautifully done. It took seven years for them to make, and they do a really good job of showing and highlighting those changes. If you’re with Ray Archuleta in person, which I have had the luck to be with him as he’s given these demonstrations, A, you kind of feel you’re in church, because he is just like preaching this thing in such a big way, and he’s so passionate is coming from such a full heart because he knows it changed his life, and it changed the life of his farm.
But I think probably the best demonstration that they give, it’s just fascinating, is he’s got this giant flatbed with all these different soil types on it, these different kind of blocks from a soil type that is very conventional, treated with a lot of chemical to something that’s regenerative, something that’s organic to actually a piece of asphalt. What he does is, he takes a showerhead and he rains on across all of these different beds, and then underneath what he’s got is giant mason jars that are capturing whatever comes through. I think the most fascinating thing is that, when you have really damaged soil, the water doesn’t go through. It just runs right off the top. So, that jar underneath is literally capturing nothing because that water– infiltration is the term, that water infiltration is almost nonexistent. Whereas, when you have really healthy soil, that water is able to permeate through this living vibrant cell, it’s not a piece of concrete, comes through and you can see what the water holds by what is captured in the soil. I think the water part of this conversation is to me my North Star. I think it is completely under mentioned. It is not tabled enough in terms of how critical water security is to food security which is to national security. This is where I totally look at some of our policymakers and I’m like, “We have got to be braver here.” Without water, our food system goes into immediate crisis and we are getting dangerously close to that point. You see these headlines out of California with some of the reservoirs here in Colorado with the Colorado river, we see the headlines.
We need to make sure that when we are using water on farm, we are using it on soil that can absorb it and we’re not wasting this incredibly precious resource. When we’re treating the farms with all the chemicals, and then using this liquid gold which is water across the farm, and it’s not even being captured, it’s not even being absorbed, that waste to me is criminal. So, as we transition farms to regenerative agriculture, I think the policy play there is water. That as you can show, for example, the work that we’re doing in the Central Valley in California with almond growers shows that as they transition their orchards to regenerative agriculture, there’s a 500% increase in water infiltration. So, water’s ability to actually get in. The swamp, that is huge. So, you think about a state like California, that’s just in total water crisis, drought. To me, we’re only a few years out before the states are going to start to say regenerative practices for water conservation and water infiltration. To really recognize that, none of this is possible without this asset, water that we all just completely take for granted. I’m the one in my house, it’s totally my thing, where it’s like, if a kid leaves water in a cup, I water a plant with it. If kids leave water cup, I’ll put it in the dog’s bowl. I never pour water down the drain. It’s liquid gold to me. So, I hope that there’s a growing awareness of that soon too.
Cynthia: Well, it’s really interesting, because you and I both share that predilection. We’re in a rental right now and building a house, which is supposed to be done in a couple days, which is very exciting. Because we normally drink filtered water and are not doing that right now, anytime there’s water anywhere, it gets in a plant– into the dogs, but we have two dogs, and I’m always yelling at my kids to turn the shower. Because they’ll turn the shower on and go down the hallway and grab something, and it’s five minutes later, I’m like, “You’re wasting all this water.” But I’ve actually heard that some of the crops, even if it was almonds or if it was avocados, but it was talking about how much water is required in a kind of conventional farming situation to bring a crop of almonds to market. It was unbelievable. I don’t recall what the statistic was, I wish that I did. But it was surprising for those of us that are not in the farming industry, how much of that resource is being utilized in order to– I think almonds are like a “hot, fairly clean, healthy food.” Some people think, “Oh, this is great,” but you’re actually contributing to the problem if you’re not learning more about this resource for sure.
Robyn: Yeah, I think, again, the education around all this is so important. To me, you could put it in a biology class in middle school. You could put it in a math class in middle school. There’d be so many ways you could teach this and it’s so relevant. I do think as a generation of parents that were told one thing and then woke up to the reality of what’s actually happening. I’m grateful that our kids are exposed to this double standard and to this duplicity at an earlier age. So, it’s not like we had to all come to this moment where it was just so impossibly hard to hold the information because it challenged so much, whereas I think, I look at my kids who are now between the ages of 16 and 21, they have a very healthy dose of skepticism. It’s partly yes, that they’ve had this mother that has advocated on behalf of children for their entire life. But I also think they look at it in the political spectrum, they look at it environmentally. I think one of the challenges we have as parents is that this generation of kids is in this existential crisis a little bit, because the leadership has failed them, and it’s so clear that it has failed them consistently and across the board.
For me, one of the things I think that really can help address that is we talked so much about how important biodiversity is for farm health and soil health. I think diversity is critical in terms of governance. So, whether we’re talking about local leaders, state leaders, federal leaders, or on corporate boards, the more diverse that you can make those organizations, the better for everyone, because we all come with such a different experience. So, if the organizations have been primarily white male which the finance industry has, it’s no wonder that we have a broken food system that has been primarily white male, because it has lacked the voices and the diversity and that collective wisdom. So, to me, the more that we can really say, if we’re going to talk about biodiversity on farm, we’ve got to talk about diversity in the boardroom. It’s starting to happen. That’s something I think that needs to accelerate, because I think women, especially in the food industry, bring incredible insight and knowledge, especially as mothers through what we’ve navigated through pregnancy and to dismiss that to me is incredibly risky.
Cynthia: I think having an echo chamber, where you’re just surrounded by people that all agree with everything that you’re doing, and don’t question anything, it’s dangerous on so many levels. Now, I definitely want to touch on genetically modified foods. The reason being is that, I still think there’s this misconception about what GMOs are. I know initially, when I read your book, and I was saying to my husband, we were talking about soybeans, and cotton, and corn as just a couple of examples, the degree of cognitive dissonance when I was talking to patients when I worked for a large cardiology practice for 16 years and 95% of the time, it would fall on deaf ears. But I would start just saying, we need to be concerned about these things. We touched on how corn it has these intrinsic pesticides or insecticides that are grown with the plant so, you’re ingesting these things. What are some of the other concerns about GMOs? As you’ve mentioned previously, there’s no long-term human health studies on these things, but obviously, we’re starting to make these as you mentioned, correlation is not causation. But we’re starting to look to see, are we healthier, preceding the advent of GMOs indoor food supply, or are we dealing with more health issues? There’s no question there. Well, what are some of the other more common GMOs that people may be thinking of, if you’re looking at food labels just being aware, I tell people all the time, soybeans and sugar are two of the more common things that we’ll see in the food supply that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. But also, cotton, just cotton clothing is also another big one.
Robyn: Yeah, the soybean thing was pretty gut wrenching, because in the early years of motherhood, I buy these bags of edamame from Costco, and thought I was giving the kids something that was a healthy snack. To learn that genetically engineered soy had been introduced under the name Roundup-ready soy, so that it could be treated with increasing doses of round up or round ups a weed killer that you walk into Home Depot, and you’re able to buy it off the shelf there to treat the weeds in your yard. As I’ve thought about that, I thought what I want, a thing of Roundup on my kitchen table to treat the soybeans that I’m feeding my kids? No. That to me was one of the first offenses of saying like, “Look, you want to claim your stuff is safe, fine. Claim it safe. But give me an informed choice.” We weren’t given that choice, because we didn’t know that those soybeans had been genetically engineered. The assumption was they’re the same soybeans that my grandmother would have fed her boys 50 years ago. That was a bad assumption. So, to realize that Roundup-ready soybeans have been created to withstand increasing doses around up is a pretty tough thing to swallow, literally.
Then in the last several years, we’ve seen these global lawsuits around glyphosate. Well, glyphosate is the lead ingredient in this Roundup. Those lawsuits globally have absolutely exploded to the point that they’re who acquired Monsanto is trying to just settle these things, because it’s billions and billions of dollars’ worth of litigation and lawsuits that they’re confronting. It’s interesting because retailers are starting to pull some of these products off shelf. Schools are starting to realize that they shouldn’t be treating our kids’ soccer fields with these products. So, again, those headlines, as hard as they are to read and to see the heartache in the families that have suffered, it’s bringing a global awareness to the fact that the ingredients in Roundup have been linked to the possibility that can cause cancer in people. So, the industry is going to like flood as much science out of saying, “No, no, no, no, no, they’re safe, they’re safe, they’re safe,” just like the tobacco industry did, which is why I think it’s really important to look to other countries and say, what is happening around the world?
In France and New Zealand, they do not even allow genetically engineered crops to be planted in the soil because they don’t want the risk of environmental toxicity. Other genetically engineered products, there’s something called recombinant bovine growth hormone, and it’s a hormone that’s injected into dairy cows to help them make more milk. Again, all of our trading partners, developed countries around the world said, “No way, not enough science. That looks too risky. We’re not going to do it.” So, they never allowed this artificial growth hormone to be injected into their dairy cows. Here in the United States, it was put into our dairy supply. We were not told, it was not labeled. That kind of duplicity, I think, as an American just goes against who we are and what we stand for, this whole freedom of choice, how can you have freedom of choice if you’re not told about these monumental changes that were put in place, the way our dairy is produced, the way that corn is produced, the way that soy is produced? So, for me, that call to action has always been very loud, and that is give us this right to know, give us the right to choose, give us the freedom of choice.
Cynthia: I think it’s really critically important. I think for many people, they may very well if they’re listening to this podcast, this might be the first time they’ve actually heard this information. [crosstalk]
Robyn: It’s challenging. When you hear it, you’re like, “No way. There’s no way. There’s no way,” and I think I was like that. There’s no way. This is can’t have happened. I had plenty of people that are very dear to me say the same thing, there’s no way that this has happened, and it was really exposing the double standard globally, that other countries have said this stuff has not been proven safe. We don’t want it in our food supply, we don’t want it in our food system. If it’s in there, it’s absolutely got to be labeled. We haven’t done any of that. I think the challenge is unfortunately because, as we mentioned earlier, the subsidies go towards these genetically engineered crops. Those are the cheaper ingredients and those are the cheaper products in the grocery store, and to me that’s criminal.
It’s criminal on a lot of levels. I think the farmers that are growing things without the chemicals, why are we not subsidizing that? Now, on top of that the farmers that are growing things without chemicals. They’re actually the ones that are financially penalized and have to pay to have their products labeled as organic. I thought that’s crazy, because those are actually the products that have existed for thousands of years. Genetically engineered products are new to the scene over the last 20 or 30 as documented at the US Patent and Trademark Office. And the ownership, the responsibility should be on the guys that are producing products with these newer genetically engineered ingredients. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
So, if you look at it as a math equation, I think once we get to a place where organic is equally as affordable and accessible, and someone can make that transition without it being a financial hardship, then it’ll accelerate a lot faster. So, that’s really a huge focus of my work, is how do you make this transition at scale, so that this isn’t a financial hardship to somebody. I learned that, the last several years work I’ve done within the food allergy community, when the price of EpiPens took off, I thought, “These are families that can’t pay their mortgage, they can’t pay their car payment, they’ve got to buy an EpiPen, how in the world am I going to talk to them about organic?” You can’t, you can’t. Until you can solve that economic equation for American families, we haven’t landed at the solution. So, that’s where all of this work has led me today is, how do I address that economic hardship, how do we make this affordable and accessible to everybody, and how do we make it affordable and accessible to the CEOs that are calling the shots? Because at 1% of our supply chain, that’s not likely, it’s too expensive for the CEOs which is why it’s too expensive for most of us.
Cynthia: Yeah, and it’s interesting that you brought up the EpiPen situation because I remember during that timeframe, I obviously have a child that has to have a set of EpiPens with him and a set of EpiPens at school, and as I was leaving Walgreens, I said to the pharmacist, what are peop– because I was paying $200 with insurance during that timeframe. I said, “What are people doing that don’t have insurance coverage?” He said they’re not taking the EpiPen. I said, “That’s abhorrent.”
Cynthia: Abhorrent, I said. To think that there are children that are not protected, because the parents are making a choice, and it’s clearly not a choice they want to make, but maybe they have to pay for a mortgage, or rent, or food, and it’s between that and getting an EpiPen for their child. So, the last thing I really want to touch on is the peanut piece because I have a child with a peanut allergy, and if I recall, that was the chapter that completely got me spun out of control, and I think I went home and showed my husband, and underlined a bunch of things there. Your book is earmarked in multiple areas.
So, you talk a lot about how much peanut allergies have doubled. I think it was between the incidence and doubled between 1997 and 2002, quadrupled in the last 13 years. Let’s talk a little bit about peanuts, and peanut allergies, and some of the things that may have contributed to why we’re seeing such an escalating rate of allergies in our children, because on many, many levels, certainly I think I was advised while I was pregnant with my oldest son who just turned 16, not to consume peanuts while I was breastfeeding or pregnant because of concerns about this potential transmission of peanut allergens to him while he was younger. Now, we’re actually seeing research that suggests the opposite, introduce it earlier, so they don’t end up developing allergies.
Robyn: Yeah, it’s head spinning as a mother because you’re told one thing and then six years later, another study comes out telling you the exact opposite. So, you go into total guilt trip because of what you’ve done. It’s really manipulative, it’s emotionally manipulative, and it’s completely unfair because it puts the burden of the responsibility on the mother when it should be on the producer of the food itself. Something that we’ve learned about peanut production, couple things actually, it is highly, highly treated with chemical inputs. The industry hates this word, but it is one of the most toxic products out there, because of how many things are sprayed on peanuts to keep them from molding and all these other things that they deal with on the farm. So, there’s that piece, I would say, “Are we allergic to peanuts, or are we allergic to what’s been done to them?” Because what has been done to peanuts today is so different again to what our grandmothers experienced 50 years ago.
I think the other piece of this gets back to soil. Peanut is rotated with a cotton crop, and cotton is one of the largest genetically engineered crops in the world. It is also one of the crops that is the most highly, highly treated with chemical sprays and inputs. So, you think about a cotton farm, and what is done on that farm to grow that cotton, all of the chemicals that are sprayed on that farm and what it does to the soil. Not only what it does to the soil, but the soil then holds those chemical inputs in the soil. Then, when you rotate a crop, what that means is where that cotton was growing, when cotton season’s done, you pull the cotton plants out and you plant peanuts. So, you’re planting peanuts in the soil that has been treated for that cotton plant. Any plant absorbs what’s in the soil and its growth. You’re basically planting a crop into a really, really chemically abused soil, and then you’re chemically abusing the crop.
The industry would say, “You’re not chemically abusing. These are inflammatory words.” I think if anybody saw what was done on farm, they would not choose those products. The industry, they want to show a highlight reel of how 365 days what these processes look like that then by all means do it. But I think as mothers, if we have a choice between planting our food in soil that has been chemically treated, and then chemically treating our food versus planting our food in soil that is healthy and vibrant, and not chemically treating it and stewarding the soil through, cover cropping and these other practices, it’s pretty clear what a mom would use.
When I learned all of this about the peanut, I immediately switched my family to organic peanut butter. I thought this is absolutely shocking. Again, I think it’s how can we have an informed choice, how can we let consumers, and families, and parents know that this has happened and it is hard to digest. I really understand how hard it is to hear this information for the first time, and want to dismiss it, and want to shoot the messenger, and want to marginalize it or say it’s not true. That’s why, again, it’s got to be affordable and accessible to everybody to transition out of this chemically treated stuff into something that hasn’t been abused the same way. Is organic perfect? No, it is not perfect. I’m not going to be one of those people that says it’s perfect. But again, let’s bring a transparency to these conversations, and let’s think about how we’re allocating our resources as a country, how we’re allocating the precious resources of both farmers and water, and then think about how a consumer can make an informed choice.
As I worked with the industry, as I worked with the food industry, I said, transparencies, actually, your friend. As intimidating as it is to just go fully transparent, when you do, then all of a sudden, you know your consumer is making an informed choice, and that way, he or she is telling you exactly what they want going forward. Instead of you getting these misguided numbers because they think they’re buying one thing, and then all of a sudden, when they wake up and realize they’re not, they’re going to pivot really quickly. So, I think the more that the industry embraces transparency, and they’re getting better about it.
Then, I think the other thing that thankfully has happened is a lot of the CEOs of these multinational food companies are not happy with me in the beginning of the work, have all stepped down, and now, we have almost complete turnover at the top of these companies with CEOs who have children with autism, or they have a sister with breast cancer, or they have a child with food allergies. They know they’re buying something organic for their own families. So, they’re actually working with us towards the solution in a way that 10 years ago, that wasn’t the case. So, that’s where it’s really exciting right now, and I think to have platforms like yours and your voice, which is such an amazing one to continue to say, “We want this, we want this. Yes, this is right. Yes, this is true.” To be able to share this kind of work, your work, with the food industry itself to say, “Look, this is a platform, and so many people are engaged in following in this conversation.” It’s a focus group in and of itself, that the food industry can benefit from.
To me, I think, thankfully, we’re in a place where that dialogue and those conversations are so collaborative now, they’re not antagonistic the way that they were 10 years ago. So, to be in that place, where executives are trying to learn, they’re trying to figure out financially, how do they do this. One of the biggest challenges is the financial institutions that own these firms are just driving them to produce the cheapest stuff at the highest margin. You’re starting to see companies like [unintelligible [00:59:20] say, “What? We’re going to be a B Corp.” Because we recognize that can’t be the only thing we focus on. I think more in the food industry will start to shift. The B Corp certification for those that aren’t familiar, it basically says, instead of it just being the financial institutions that are the shareholders, it is recognizing all of us are stakeholders in this. You’re sitting at your kitchen table, my kids sitting at theirs, and that there’s a responsibility not just to the financial returns, but to the impact that their products are having on all of us. And that’s where this B Corp movement is, it continues to take off. It’s really exciting to me because it lets people put their values into play in the corporate world.
Cynthia: Well, I can’t thank you enough for our time together today. What are you working on next? What are you doing right now that is unique or fresh for 2021? I know we’re in interesting times. [laughs] I think most of the world is feeling like it was on pause for about 18 months.
Robyn: Yeah. For us, we are raising $2 billion so that we can deploy that money into the supply chains directly to farmers who want to transition to regenerative and organic agriculture, who want to break the chemical input model, and they want to break the debt levels that are attached to that chemical input model. The way we’re doing that is going back to these big food companies and the small ones, and the organizations that have relationships with farmers, and saying, “Who are your top eight people? Guys, women, who are the top 10 within your supply chain that are really ready to make this transition, that are recognized for the leadership that have the courage that’s required to really lead here?” It’s really interesting, because whether you’re talking to [unintelligible [01:00:55] or Anheuser-Busch InBev, or McCain, which is this amazing potato grower that’s privately held, that produces about a third of the world’s French fries, they know exactly who those farmers are that are ready to sort of lead on this.
The food companies themselves are really excited because all of a sudden, they’ve got this amazing story to tell because they’re transitioning their farmland towards products and offerings that we now want as 21st century consumers. Plus, they have this amazing climate story they get to tell where it’s like, “Hey, as we build out soil health, here are metrics around water, here are metrics around bees, here are metrics around carbon,” that they couldn’t tell before. So, it’s been a lot of fun to work with both the farmers and the food industry in a way that people are really excited about what’s in front of us. So. that’s the work today, and I think, for me really recognizing that economic tension of I don’t want to hear this because I can’t afford organic. So, how do we make organic affordable and accessible to everyone? It’s with the supply chain. To me, that’s the next chapter of the work. It’s something that I’ll be working on until we’ve really converted these things.
We’re at 1% of our supply chain is organic. I would hope in 10 years’ time, we’re well into double digits because I think it only takes three to five years to transition off of the chemical input model into organic capital is what’s required and that timeline so that the farmer can make the transition. So, that’s the work that we’re doing and it means, we get to work with a lot of amazing farmers and there are a lot of amazing educators out there like the Kiss the Ground team. As a resource and a tool to be able to teach people what this is about. And then, inside these multinational food companies are just so amazing people who are really ready to take the lead and push these things through, That’s where it is today. Hopefully in 10 years, we can look back and say, “Gosh, we were 1% then and now we’re in whatever double digit we are.”
Cynthia: Well, I can’t thank you enough for your work, and leading with gratitude, and a mother’s heart, and courage because although a lot of other people that would have learned some of the information that you did and would not have been able to take action, they would have been in a state of paralysis. What’s the easiest way for us to connect with you if listeners would like to check out your website, check you out on social media? Where are you most active?
Robyn: Yeah, you can find my website at robyno’brien.com, and then across social media is @RobynOBrienUSA. Please reach out and share your stories. I love hearing from people. I’ve heard from farmers who read my book, and lost 30 pounds, and they’re the sweetest before and after pictures you could ever see, I’ve heard from people whose lives have been changed like yours, others whose children have now started businesses that are somehow tied to this. A lot of people have gotten involved in policy which is such an important piece of this. Again, I never in a million years thought I would ever be involved in policy, I was never brought up in any kind of political way to be active in that arena, but there’s a lot of opportunity there.
I thought I was going to be confronted by these old people behind these giant mahogany desks. And when you get into any policymaker’s office, it’s always like 20 something year old that are totally connected to this work. They have grown up with a child with food allergies or some other condition if it wasn’t them themselves. You’ve got a lot of really willing collaborators around the table and all these different capacities. My advice would be leverage what you’re good at with what you love to make change. Don’t try to fit somebody else’s mold, don’t try to fit someone else’s version. You’ve got to leverage your unique skill set with the things that you’re uniquely passionate about and engage there. It can be things from movie nights at school to book clubs or its policy, whatever your thing is, do your thing because I think that’s what the world really needs.
Cynthia: Thank you, Robyn.
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