In 2013, television host Kevin O'Leary called genetically modified organism (GMO) protesters "just stupid" and suggested that they "stop eating"; that way, the world could "get rid of them." Canadian anti-GMO activist Rachel Parent was outraged. Parent, who was just 14 years old at the time, challenged O'Leary to a live debate on his show.
If O'Leary expected a mousy, misinformed teenager, Parent must have surprised him. On his show, Parent appeared poised, well-read, and articulate. Parent had already been researching GMOs for three years. At age 11, she had been shocked to learn that 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs, and that the long-term effects of GMOs are largely unknown. "I felt like I was part of a big experiment," she says. Parent immediately committed to speaking out about GMOs. At age 12, she founded the non-profit Kids Right to Know Organization, which campaigns for the labeling of GMO foods in Canada.
We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.
Parent's debating skills shined during her talk with O'Leary, especially when he tried to stump her. At one point, O'Leary challenged Parent to imagine she had been born into less privilege. "Your only food was rice that had no vitamin A in it. You were going blind, and then you died. Five hundred fifty thousand people your age die that way every year. And a company like Monsanto could come along and offer you a genetically modified rice that includes vitamin A that could save your eyesight and your life. How do you feel about that, Rachel?" O'Leary asked.
Parent knew that genetically modified food products weren't as beneficial to the poor as O'Leary claimed. She smiled and confidently said: "Actually, funny that you mention this. [GMO] golden rice was scrapped because it didn't work, and in order for the average 11-year-old boy to get enough vitamin A from the rice, he'd have to eat 27 bowls of rice per day."
The debate was posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed over 6.2 million times. The video's success empowered Parent to extend her media influence even further. Since then, Parent has spoken out about GMOs at many schools and conferences, including TEDx Toronto. She's also met with leading environmentalists such as Vandana Shiva and Jane Goodall, as well as Canada's Minister of Health, Rona Ambrose, and officials from Health Canada.
Though Canada still does not require GMO labeling, Parent continues to speak out about the cause, and to strive to avoid consuming foods that contain GMO ingredients by eating Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified foods whenever she can. Last summer, she grew a garden. "It truly is a miracle watching your garden grow from seeds to produce," she says.
Parent sums up her life philosophy with a quote from the pioneering organic farmer Rupert Stephens: "Always leave the Earth better than you found it."
Submit your response to this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.
For more from Pacific Standard, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletter and subscribe to our print magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store and on Zinio and other platforms.