Thursday, February 17, 2011

Michelle Obama: First Lady of Junk Science

While her husband may have paid lip service to ending the abuse of science for "politics or ideology," first lady Michelle Obama gave herself a super-sized waiver. Two of her showcase social engineering campaigns -- tax preferences for breast-pumping working mothers and expanded nutrition labels -- are based on distorting or dismissing the prevailing public health literature.

Just as the White House costumed Obamacare activists in white lab coats, the fashionable Mrs. O has cloaked her meddling anti-obesity crusade in medical fakery.

Over the past year, the first lady has marshaled a taxpayer-subsidized army of government lawyers, bureaucrats and consultants against the "national security threat" of childhood obesity. She has transformed the East Wing of the White House into Big Nanny's new Central Command headquarters. The biggest threats to Mrs. Obama's 70-point plan for national fitness: parental authority and sound science.

As part of her "Let's Move!" anniversary celebration this week, Mrs. Obama rolled out a new breastfeeding initiative because "kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese." She made her assertion to an invitation-only group of handpicked reporters who were barred from asking questions about her scientific conclusions. It's not healthy to challenge Super Nanny, you see.

After the Internal Revenue Service carefully studied and rejected an advocacy push to treat nursing equipment as a tax-deductible medical expense last fall, the tax agency suddenly reversed itself in time for the first lady's new public relations tour. The surgeon general has also issued a "Call to Action" to pressure private businesses to adopt more nursing-friendly environments to combat childhood obesity, all while denying that government is intruding on personal decisions. "No mother should be made to feel guilty if she cannot or chooses not to breastfeed," Surgeon General Regina Benjamin asserted, while laying an unmistakable guilt trip on moms and moms-to-be.

So, what do studies on breastfeeding and babies' weight actually say? Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D., research director of George Mason University's Statistical Assessment Service, points out that the literature is inconclusive or demonstrates that the health advantages of bosom over bottle are short-lived:

"Indeed, there is little evidence that using formula causes obesity. There is a correlation between formula use and obesity among babies and children ... though this correlation is not consistent in all studies. Some of these studies show a relationship in only some demographics and not others. Others show that the disadvantage of bottle-feeding and/or formula mostly goes away by the time a child is about 4 years old.

"The result is that we cannot discover whether breastfeeding is correlated with obesity because infant formula or bottle feeding leads to subsequent overeating or disposition to being overweight, or whether those parents who breastfeed are also more likely to offer their children green beans instead of French fries. Despite weak evidence, there is a lingering conviction that formula causes obesity among pediatricians and the press; if anything, the study about infants should make us reflect more carefully on this conclusion."

Alas, such nuance from Mrs. Obama and her unquestioning media water-carriers is scarcer than tofu at Taco Bell.

Don't get me wrong. As a proud mom who breastfed both of her babies, I've been and will always be a vocal defender of women who have devoted the time, dedication and selflessness it takes. But there are myriad individual reasons beyond Mrs. O's expansive goal of battling the collective scourge of childhood obesity -- intimate bonding and health benefits for the mom, not just the baby, for example -- that lead women to nurse.

And we don't need Big Brother or Big Mother to lead the Charge of the Big Bosom to persuade us of the personal benefits. Many private hospitals and companies have already adopted nursing-friendly environments. If it's as good for their bottom lines as it is for babies' bottoms, they don't need a government mandate to do the right thing.

But as I've noted many times over the past year, Mrs. O's real interest isn't in nurturing nursing moms or slimming down kids' waistlines. It's in boosting government and public union payrolls, along with beefing up FCC and FTC regulators' duties.

Take another East Wing pet project: leaning on private businesses to print expanded front-package nutrition labels warning consumers about salt, fat and sugar. The first lady's anti-fat brigade assumes as an article of faith that her top-down designer food labels will encourage healthier eating habits. It's a "no-brainer," Mrs. Obama insists.

However, the latest study on this very subject -- funded by no less than the left-wing Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- confirms other recent research contradicting the East Wing push. A team led by Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School's Eric Finkelstein, published in the peer-reviewed American Journal for Preventive Medicine, found that mandatory menu-labeling in Seattle restaurants did not affect consumers' calorie consumption. "Given the results of prior studies, we had expected the results to be small," the researchers reported, "but we were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation."

Will the first lady and her food cops be chastened by the science that undermines their spin? Fat chance.


GM food hysteria

By Mark Tester, a professor of plant physiology

The bigger cities grow, the more insular they become. This truism is ever so apparent in the recent rekindling of debate about the production of genetically modified foods and crops.

Urban communities are becoming so disconnected with how food is actually produced that conventional farming faces growing problems of public perception and trust.

This is not helped by the constant, ideologically driven doubt-mongering about GM technology by professional activists, such as Greenpeace, which undermines public confidence in the science that underpins our modern, efficient and sustainable food production system.

We are told GM technology is unnecessary, yet the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates the number of humans on the planet will rise from 6 billion in 2000 to nearly 9 billion in 2050, and that food demand will rise by 70 per cent. Given historical increases in food production, it is improbable that farming systems based on conventional science and organics would be able to supply this increase in demand. There are more hungry people now than at any time in history.

GM science will be an essential tool for food security in the decades ahead. In fact, it already is. In 2009, 134 million hectares of crops bred with the aid of the technology were planted in 26 countries. It is estimated that GM varieties of corn, soybean, cotton and canola have delivered tens of millions of tonnes of extra food and fibre since 1996.

As for the contention that agri-corporations will ''control seed supplies'', farmers appreciate that research and development businesses need a return on their long-term investments. Most modern plant breeding is now done by public-private collaborations, and patents and royalties are required to fund the work. It is the global mechanism to provide incentive to innovate. Farmers make economic decisions to use GM; they do not have to use it and can equally use non-GM seeds.

Eco-alarmist opponents of GM technology repeatedly refer to studies that purport to have discovered something harmful about its use. But such studies have, without exception, been discredited by the weight of mainstream scientific evidence, opinion and peer review, and by recognised independent regulatory agencies around the world. The truth is that approved GM varieties are safe for human health and the environment; they are subjected to far more intense, transparent and accountable analysis than conventionally bred varieties.

Australia's world-class regulatory system is designed to pick up anomalies and look for potential problems. Safety is the first priority. Why would it be anything other than that?

The proof of the safety of approved GM varieties is, literally, in the pudding: billions of meals containing GM ingredients have been consumed. In our stomach, all the proteins, starches, fats and oils that are in lettuce, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, corn, soybeans, canola, dairy products, beef, lamb, chicken, fish and shellfish are all broken down into the basic biochemical amino-acid building blocks, and no genetic material becomes incorporated into our genes.

While city people are urged to stop the use of GM canola, our farmers are heading in a different direction. In only the third year of its commercial production in Australia, hundreds of our farmers chose to grow nearly 133,300 hectares of GM canola in NSW, Victoria and WA last year - nearly 12 per cent of the total canola crop.

Incidentally, more than 90 per cent of Australia's cotton crop is grown from GM varieties. City folk should compare the hullabaloo over GM canola to the non-issue of GM cotton. Both crops use Roundup-Ready technology, both crops use few agricultural chemicals and both crops produce edible oils for cooking and meal for livestock supplements. So why the fuss about canola?

What will the activists decry when more GM varieties come to market? Australian researchers are using GM to help develop papaya, pineapple, sugar cane, grape vines, carnations, chrysanthemums, rice, white clover, wheat, Indian mustard, banana, barley, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, corn and rose varieties with new traits that reduce production risks and underpin yield.

It is a good thing that people have a view about how their food is produced. It is best to have an informed view.


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