The 2010 TEDx Talk: “What's wrong with our food system?”
Birke Baehr was only given five minutes to talk about a vast subject, which is food. The boy who realized how some ingredients in the food he eats are toxic to the body began his personal crusade back when he was eight years old. He learned from his mother that high-fructose corn syrup, which is a ubiquitous ingredient in basic goods we consume like bread and beverages, has mercury. Since then he has vowed not to ever drink sodas again.
But it did not stop there. Birke is not the type who would keep quiet about things he knew is a matter of life and death. So at 11 years old, he endeavored to speak at TEDx Next Generation Asheville where he posed the question, “What's wrong with our food system?” Within five minutes, Birke passionately talked about how contemporary farmers alter the genetic make-up of plants to meet the demands of the market. He also briefly lashed at CAFOs or Confined Animal Feeding Operations.
Birke made good use of the little time he was given to get everybody who listened to his speech think about the food they put into their mouths. To say that it was a compelling speech would be an understatement. Hearing it from a boy who people expect wouldn’t care less about his food made all the difference.
But what made this boy spurn fast food?
Parents Encourage Birke’s Food Activism
Mr. John and Mrs. Tricia Baehr raised their three kids in the suburbs of Tennessee. One of their children, Birke, is an innately curious kid with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Most of their friends often remark at Birke’s adult-like perspective. Talking to him made them feel like they are talking to an adult in a boy’s body. For that they would often refer to him as an “old soul.”
A boy born in 1999, Birke belongs to Generation X. It’s the generation of kids who are so into gadgets. They grow up to have very little interest in nature. But having been homeschooled, Birke is fortunate to be brought in a way that made him appreciate the vibrant, pulsating world surrounding him.
When he was eight years old, he saw his mom reading her email. A featured article in the email caught his attention. The words “high-fructose corn syrup” and “mercury” piqued his interest. Having known mercury as a highly poisonous element, he asked his mom what high-fructose corn syrup is. Tricia explained that it’s a sweetener added to soda. From then on, Birke swore not to drink sodas ever again. Here’s how he cultivated his knowledge about GMOs:
“I have done a ton of research but to say something about every study that I got my info from would have taken away from the time I spent on my message. As I kept on finding out things about food, how it's grown and how it ends up at our homes, I kept on my parents not to buy food that I just didn't feel good about eating.” (Source: Birke on the Farm)
“What’s Wrong with Our Food System” 2010 TEDx Talk
Learning of the deceiving practices by food manufacturers and conventional farmers, Birke became more suspicious about foods they consume at home. Whenever he went shopping with his mom, he became wary of flashy packaging. He would buy food when he’s satisfied with the ingredients he sees at the back of the cover.
This kind of vigilance opened Birke’s eyes to the problem that society faces. It’s as if no one has taken notice of how they are getting duped by companies who manufacture goods with toxic ingredients. But what angered him the most is the greed that’s driving those companies to put ethics behind profit. He’s scandalized when he learned of Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. They are the technology used by food processors in order to maximize profit. They alter the genetic makeup of animals or plants so they would grow bigger and look perfect. This process, however, takes chemicals to be injected into the organism to manipulate genes and growth. By the time it gets on the family table, it’s already laden with chemicals that are not fit for consumption.
With that, Birke knew he had to do something. He had to at least be heard. The long-awaited opportunity came when Tricia stumbled upon a TEDx press release on her Facebook account. They are encouraging people who have something meaningful to say to take part in the TEDx Next Generation Asheville talk. Fortunately, Birke was shortlisted and became TED’s youngest speaker.
Although he was given only five minutes to speak, Birke was able to capture the attention of a larger audience. The central idea of his talk revolved on “What’s Wrong with Our Food System?” Hearing sustainable farming, CAFOs, and GMOs from an 11–year–old tantalized the viewers. Here’s an excerpt of his talk:
“So I ask myself, how can I change? How can I change these things? This is what I found out. I discovered that there's a movement for a better way. Now a while back, I wanted to be an NFL football player. I decided that I'd rather be an organic farmer instead. Thank you. And that way I can have a greater impact on the world. This man, Joel Salatin, they call him a lunatic farmer because he grows against the system. Since I'm home-schooled, I went to go hear him speak one day. This man, this "lunatic farmer," doesn't use any pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified seeds. And so for that, he's called crazy by the system.
I want you to know that we can all make a difference by making different choices, by buying our food directly from local farmers, or our neighbors who we know in real life. Some people say organic or local food is more expensive, but is it really? With all these things I've been learning about the food system, it seems to me that we can either pay the farmer, or we can pay the hospital. (Applause) Now I know definitely which one I would choose. I want you to know that there are farms out there—like Bill Keener in Sequatchie Cove Farm in Tennessee—whose cows do eat grass and whose pigs do roll in the mud, just like I thought. Sometimes I go to Bill's farm and volunteer, so I can see up close and personal where the meat I eat comes from. I want you to know that I believe kids will eat fresh vegetables and good food if they know more about it and where it really comes from. I want you to know that there are farmers' markets in every community popping up. I want you to know that me, my brother and sister actually like eating baked kale chips. I try to share this everywhere I go.” (Source: TED)
Birke received a standing ovation and his video, at one point, became the most watched TED talk on YouTube with over 1 million views and counting.
Developing a Love for Organic Farming
Since Birke discovered how conventional farmers grow food and tend animals, he’s been on the lookout for farmers who go against the system. That’s when he was led to Joel Salatin, a book author and an organic farmer. Joel became Birke’s mentor and he cultivated the boy’s knowledge and passion for traditional means of growing crops and tending farm animals. As Birke’s knowledge concerning organic farming broadened, he decided to get formal training.
This boy, who some people think does not know what he's talking about, is doing what he could to learn as much about organic farming. He's completed training with Jeffrey Smith on GMO issues. Jeffrey is affiliated with the Institute for Responsible Technology and the Advanced Course in Quantum Agriculture with International Biodynamic Farm Consultant. Aside from that, Birke works in the organic farms in different parts of Georgia and Tennessee, such as Full Moon Farms Co-op in Athens; Sequatchie Cove Farm, Sequatchie; Sapelo Farms, Brunswick; and the organic gardens of The Hostel in the Forest in Brunswick. Of course, Joel Salatin remains to be his mentor and Birke has attended his seminars at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee and at the Nevada County Grown Sustainable Food and Farm Conference. Since he became a food activist, he's taken part in The Sequatchie Valley Institute's annual 'Food for Life' event.
More Talks for the Young Food Activist
The TEDx Next Generation Asheville was only the beginning of his speaking career. Birke caught the attention of organizations based locally and abroad. 2011 has been a busy year for the then-12-year-old boy. He's been invited to speak at the Tennessee Local Food Summit and also introduced his mentor, Joel Salatin, during the Nevada County Grown Sustainable Food and Farm Conference. Furthermore, he spoke at the Sierra Club and the 1st Annual Bonfire Heights event. Birke was also one of the speakers at the Organic Growers Association’s IGNITE! Agriculture event. A TED homegrown talent, he was invited to again speak at TEDx Knoxville to give opening remarks and at the TEDxRedmond.
Overseas, Birke also became an instant celebrity. He guested at an Italian TV show titled “Il Senso Della Vita.” He visited a farm there and was invited to speak at the John Cabot University in Rome, Italy.
There’s no doubt that Birke started revitalizing the food movement with his resounding message and earnest call. His efforts did not go unnoticed and TreeHugger.com named him one of the six child environmentalists who have already made a change in the world.
Birke on the Farm Gets Published
Already a known speaker in the subject of organic and sustainable farming, Birke wanted to influence kids of his age and those younger than him too. It led him to write a book, which he called “Birke on the Farm.” He gave his official website the same name.
The publisher gave the following synopsis:
"An eight year old boy asks hard questions about our food system and travels down the road of discovery to find out that the reality of the industrial food system is less than picturesque. First, it leads him to organic and sustainable farming methods and then, on to a stage from which he begins to change the world with his views on "What's Wrong With Our Food System." This journey takes him around the globe where he vows to make a difference, 'one kid at a time.'"
With the increasing views his first TED talk accumulated over the years, it earned a spot on ABC's The Revolution Daytime. Birke also appeared on GBTV.com to, of course talk, about his crusade. He’s probably the most outspoken Monsanto nemesis next to Vandana Shiva, who he also admires.
Apart from speaking at the Tennessee Local Food Summit, Birke was featured as one of the personalities in a documentary called “Choice Point” and is currently filming “Bite Size” where he would also appear and is set to be released this 2013.
From a boy of eight who got worried of his diet and health, Birke had gone a long way and is growing up to be one fine man—so fine that some people is toying on the idea of getting him into politics. Asked about his political plans, he only has this to say:
"Actually when this thing started a politician from East Tennessee where I'm from sent an email to my mom asking if I could go to the Tennessee House Agriculture Committee. I've been asked, but I haven’t heard too much from that. I'm not going to be a politician or anything but I'd really like to go speak in front of the USDA." (Source: Ecocentric)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Next Generation Asheville
- Agriculture and Environment Researchers
- Polyface Farms
- Humane Society
- March Against Monsanto
Awards and Achievements
- 2010: Youngest presenter at TEDx Next Generation Asheville
- 2011: TEDxAsheville Speaker
- 2011: Tennessee Local Food Summit Speaker
- 2011: Introduced Joel Salatin during the Nevada County Grown Sustainable Food and Farm Conference
- 2011: Guested at an Italian TV show, “Il Senso Della Vita”
- 2011: Sierra Club Speaker
- 2011: Spoke at the John Cabot University in Rome, Italy
- 2011: Spoke at the 1st Annual Bonfire Heights Event
- 2011: Spoke at the Organic Growers Association’s IGNITE! Agriculture event
- 2011: TEDx Knoxville Opening Remarks
- 2011: TEDxRedmond Speaker
- 2011: Named as one of the Six Child Environmentalists Who Have Already Changed the World
- 2012: TEDx Asheville 2011 appeared on ABC's The Revolution Daytime
- 2012: Appeared on GBTV.com
- 2012: Published a children's book, "Birke on The Farm - A Boy's Quest for Real Food"
- 2012: Tennessee Local Food Summit Speaker
- 2012: Featured in a documentary called "Choice Point"
- 2013: “What’s Wrong With our Food System” reached 1,164,908 views and still counting
- Spoke at the Tennessee Organic Growers Association
- Featured in a documentary called "Bite Size"