For the first time last night, I told my parents about the threats that I have received in this work.
It’s not a conversation that I’ve ever wanted to bring up with them, because a mother’s desire to protect her child doesn’t stop when she becomes a grandmother.
Mom’s face drew in as I spoke.
I started at the beginning, with the threats that I had received in the first years of the work, the defamation that I endured and the meeting with an allergist that gave me the courage to move on. He had testified in FDA subcommittee meetings. His face was as white as a ghost when I shared what had happened to me. “You don’t want to mess with this,” he said. Fear came out of his every pore. How could I not tell this story?
As we left his office that day, turning down the hallway to the elevators that led to the lobby of the children’s hospital in which he worked, there were children with cancer everywhere. They were being drawn in little red wagons with rods attached for their IV drips. Like little boats in an ocean. How could I not tell this story? I have to tell this story, I thought, so on I went. Never once, in the nine years since, forgetting the look on that doctor’s face. It was as if he had seen a ghost.
The defamation continued, but so did the downward spiral of the health of one of our boys, so I continued on, like a soldier or a marathon runner, one foot in front of the other, each day as it came, not knowing where the slander would come from next. In 2007, he was hospitalized, and my commitment to the work began at a level that was deeper than anything I had ever known.
Within a year, I was interviewed by a New York Times food writer who said, “You are their worst nightmare.” And the defamation began in earnest when Random House announced that I would be writing a book. Accusations flew from everywhere. I was a “PR whore”, in it for the celebrity, why would anyone listen to a mother?
My mail was tampered with. What were they looking for?
I had earned a full scholarship to business school and graduated as the top woman in my class before working on a team that managed billions in assets as an equity analyst. Just because someone hadn’t bothered to learn my background didn’t mean that it didn’t exist. Every case study in business school, every exam and time spent managing the a fund for the endowment committee still held. I’d done the work. Let them talk .
And then came the threats from Kraft and Burger King. I remember the day I learned of them, sitting in the office of a friend. It was in July 2010. I stared across at him, “They know who I am,” I said. He almost laughed. “Yes, they know who you are.”
Terrified didn’t even begin to describe the feeling.
A year later, I delivered a TEDx talk that sent a scientist working at an ag school funded by Monsanto into orbit. And the stalking, defamation and slander continued.
As I told my parents about all of it, I told them about what happens on social media, how I show the children the bullying and use it as a lesson. “Do I believe what these anonymous people say about me? People that may not even be using their real names? People who won’t disclose their background or who funds their work? Or do I believe what I know to be true about the work that I have done, and that for my entire life, I have done the work? As an analyst that covered the food industry, as a business school student and at everything I have ever thrown myself into?”
It’s not even a question.
I told my parents about the Arctic seed vault, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on a remote island in the Arctic Circle, that received inaugural shipments of 100 million seeds that originated in over 100 countries, and how it is there to protect seed diversity perhaps as a hedge against genetically engineered foods and the monoculture of soy and corn that it has produced, “with the deposits ranging from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato, the first deposits into the seed vault represent the most comprehensive and diverse collection of food crop seeds being held anywhere in the world.”
“Scary,” was all Mom could say. Here eyes were locked on me. I don’t know if she was talking about what had happened to me or the seed vault.
“Don’t you worry that these stalkers are doing anything they can for attention?” She was talking about me.
I paused, looking her in the eyes but feeling her in my heart.
“Mom, I couldn’t not do this. I learned too much, from scientists who were threatened, about studies that weren’t being done, about what countries around the world were doing to protect children. There was something in that doctor’s eyes back in the Children’s Hospital that first year that showed me what would happen if I turned my back. If I had done nothing, this would have become a cancer in me….
I found love, courage and faith to move through it.”
My grandfather had been a preacher, Mom’s dad, and for some reason in that moment, I thought about the quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
I do this work because I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation…where they will have the right to know what is in the food that they are eating as children around the world do.
In order for that to happen, we must have the faith, courage and love to continue on.
This is written in memory of Mark Pittman, an investigative reporter at Bloomberg News, that I met with in 2009.