At age 8, Birke Baehr decided he wanted to know where his food came from. At age 11, he took to the TED stage to deliver an eye-opening evaluation of our food system that quickly went viral. Now 15, he gives talks across and country and he’s well on his way to achieving his dream of becoming an organic farmer. He’s taken that first betrayal he felt at age 8 upon learning the realities of chemical and industrial agriculture, and channeled it into building a movement for positive change. He spoke to us about how his world – and plate – got turned upside down, and his hope for the next generation of organic farmers.
What’s your earliest memory of food?
When I was four or five, my family had a small garden, with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I remember putting a seed in the ground, watching it grow, harvesting, and then eating. That was my first connection to what I would consider actual food, as opposed to processed. It was pretty powerful.
What appealed to you more about organic food?
Before I actually started eating organic, I did a ton of research about our food system, about how our food is grown and processing. When I found out about the mess that processing has made, it spurred me to eat healthier. The only way to get away from the chemicals was to eat organic.
What do you see as the benefits of organic?
I see it as probably the healthiest change that people can make in their lives. Food is so important in everyone’s life, but it’s also so underrated. A lot of people I know don’t think twice about what they put in their bodies. Food has such a heavy impact in my life, and we need organic food to be there to keep people healthy.
What draws you to being an organic farmer?
I feel like there’s such a need for farmers these days. You look at the stats and most farmers in the US are 60+. A third of the country used to be farmers, and now less than 6% are farmers. That’s overall – that’s conventional, big ag, and organic. There’s such a need for new young people to get interested in that kind of thing. After all, if all the farmers retire, where are we going to get our food?
What’s the biggest challenge for young people who want to become farmers?
I see a few challenges. I think my generation might be a bit lazy – they see the work that needs to be put into farming, and they think there are easier alternatives.
Another challenge is the availability of property. I’ve been looking at real estate prices since I got interested in farming, and it’s unreal how much an acre of land costs, much less 10 acres, 100 acres.
Those are the two biggest hurdles facing young people who might want to get into farming. If we can make these things easier, and make it worth young people’s time, more people might find their passion in farming.
How can we overcome those challenges you mention?
I’ve definitely seen some people who live in the city and have inherited property end up leasing the land to farmers. That’s a great way to make property and land available to farm. People with acres and acres of land sitting untouched can lease it out to farmers. As a farmer, you’d still be putting work into building the nutrients in the soil, but you wouldn’t need hundreds and thousands of dollars for land.
How do you share your passion for organics?
I just talk to people. I try to spread it everywhere I go. Once I start a conversation with someone I just try to talk about what I’ve learned. Whether it’s hundreds of people at a seminar or one on one, the more connections I’m able to make, the farther I can spread the message.
In your TED Talk, you say that you used to think all our food came from small, family farms with happy animals – how did you feel when you started uncovering the truth?
The word I would use to describe it is betrayed. At the time, I was 8 years old and doing all this research. I’d grown up with Tony the Tiger and an image of what farms should be. I felt like I could trust these personas, and when I found out about the realities of the food system, I felt betrayed by these cartoon characters and companies. I felt almost ashamed for being swayed by these things. It turned my world upside down – it was a huge epiphany.
Are you glad you went down that road and did all that research?
I don’t have any regrets. It might have been easier to avoid this knowledge, but the path it’s taken me on has been so rewarding. The difference I’ve been able to make has been unreal and I’m thankful for every opportunity I’ve had.
You’ve learned – and shared – a lot of scary information about the way our society grows food. Where do you find hope?
I go to a lot of these healthy food events and more and more, the people I start talking to about food are more aware. They say “Oh yeah, Monsanto I’ve heard about them”. Seeing the growth in awareness, that’s where my hope lies, seeing the change already happening. People are getting more informed and more aware, and it’s so great.
What’s your advice for other people your age who want to get involved in shaping our food system?
Everybody should start small. I started just talking to my cousins, my grandparents, my closest friends about what I was learning. I’d tell them about their favourite junk food snack and how it was bad for them. Then I started telling strangers, and then I had the opportunity to start public speaking. Start small, and never stop researching and learning. Even now, I don’t know everything about the food system – I just try to soak up and learn as much as I can.
What do you wish the world understood about organics?
I wish they would understand the propaganda that the conglomerations and big ag are putting out about organic food. They’re just trying to keep selling their unhealthy product. The propaganda that’s out there isn’t true, and people should look past it.
What’s your vision for the future of food?
A world where nobody has to worry about what they’re eating. We shouldn’t have to go to the store and read two paragraphs of ingredients to know if a food is healthy or not. We should be able to go out and choose food knowing it’s healthy and won’t make us sick.
I’d love to live in a world where we’ve fixed the problems that have come up. We’ll have to take many different steps along the way, and the biggest fight will be around GMOs. We have to get chemical companies to stop using millions of gallons of chemicals. We have to use diversity in our crops instead of millions of acres of corn, or soybeans. That’s the problem with the food system – there’s not just one thing to be fixed. I’m trying to tackle as much as I can, to help get us to that final destination.
What do you think stands in our way of that final destination of real, healthy food for all?