Just when many of us hoped that we would soon be seeing the last of the Obamas, it appears that Michelle Obama will still be involved in what passes for public service in progressives' parallel universe. She has decided to partner with the far left-wing Food Policy Action Education Fund, a sister organization of the radical Food Policy Action.
In an advertisement video released in early January, Mrs. Obama intones, "What a wonderful world it would be if all the children had the nutrition they need." That is rich, given that at every turn her husband's administration obstructed new, innovative technologies that could have offered cheaper, safer, higher-quality products.
The three-year campaign, dubbed "A Place at the Table," is backed by $300 million in donated media, including TV, digital and print. It is a kind of sequel to the film documentary of the same name that chef and FPA co-founder Tom Colicchio helped produce (and that was co-directed by his wife). The nationwide campaign will be managed by another member of the left-wing, pro-nanny-state All-Star Team, Willy Ritch, former communications director for Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a leading demagogue in the fight to politicize food.
By partnering with a radical left-wing activist group rather than an organization focused on actually feeding hungry people, the former First Lady has chosen to further politicize an issue that should be above partisan politics. There are many organizations that successfully put politics aside and bring people together in the fight against hunger, such as No Kid Hungry, the sponsor of the Cooking Matters program, which teaches families how to "shop for and cook healthy meals on a budget," or any of the countless faith-based groups that daily provide meals to people in need in their communities.
We are not surprised that the Mrs. Obama has decided to partner with a divisive, ideological group and cloak it in a do-good, feed-the-hungry campaign. But the partisan nature of the campaign is striking. The ad provides links to celebrity chef and activist Tom Colicchio, whose political action committee is known for creating the "Food Policy Action Scorecard," which scores lawmakers on how liberal they are on food issues.
Even among clueless celebrities, Colicchio stands out. An example is his 2015 New York Times rant about the FDA's decision not to require a "genetically modified" label on an Atlantic salmon called "AquAdvantage," which differs from its wild cohorts only by reaching maturity almost twice as fast as its unmodified siblings. (Thanks to Barack Obama's FDA, which kept the poor fish treading water in regulatory limbo during a 22-year review, the entire once-promising sector of genetically engineered food animals has virtually disappeared.) But for good measure, Colicchio took a few misinformed swipes at genetic engineering in general.
Consider the following (non-exhaustive) illustrations of Colicchio in La-La Land:
This 'super' salmon was conceived by combining genes from Chinook salmon that produce extra growth hormone with an 'antifreeze' gene from a bottom-feeder, the non-Kosher ocean pout. The result is a fish that grows far faster and larger than non-engineered salmon.
The real world:
The AquAdvantage salmon contains a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and a regulatory sequence of DNA from the ocean pout that enables the new gene to produce salmon growth hormone year-round instead of just seasonally. (Neither of these has even the remotest connection to "anti-freeze.")
As a result, AquAdvantage salmon reach market size in about half the time as conventional Atlantic salmon, but they are not larger than conventional Atlantic salmon at maturity. They are otherwise indistinguishable–same taste, nutritional value and appearance as their siblings. The only thing not kosher here is Colicchio's tripe.
The FDA insists the transgenic fish is safe for humans, but many experts believe they have yet to prove AquAdvantage will be safe for the environment or other fish. Factory fish farms depend on the use of antibiotics and pesticides to control disease and parasites that flourish in high-density environments. The waste they release can decimate other marine life and contaminate the water supply. Farmed fish often escape into larger waters, endangering native species. While these new salmon will be sterile, mistakes can happen.
The real world:
Colicchio's anonymous "many experts" ploy--a pathetic example of the "appeal to authority" fallacy--is unpersuasive. All of the farmed fish will be sterile females, which will only be raised in land-based facilities using recirculating aquaculture systems that recycle 95% or more of the water in which the fish are grown. Waste products are filtered out of the water (and the solids can be used by land farmers as fertilizer or soil amendments). The salmon eggs are produced in the company's certified disease-free hatchery, so there is no need for antibiotics or pesticides because the fish are not exposed to pathogens or parasites found in the natural environment outside of the farming facility.
Escapes from land-based recirculating aquaculture system facilities are extremely unlikely because of the many fail-safe measures: physical barriers in the piping of the facility--tanks, screens and filters in the pipes, pump impellers that would mince the fish, and chlorination of water leaving the facility. Farming facilities have strict security measures and the perimeter has chain-link fencing. These are farmed salmon, not Navy SEALS.
Finally, even if a "mistake happens"--that is, if the fish were somehow to be transported to and released into the ocean--they would not survive because they are maladapted to conditions outside the farm.
Colicchio seems oblivious as well to the critical issue of sustainability. The AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon, which in the wild are "highly endangered," according to NOAA fisheries biologist Rory Saunders. Over-fishing is the primary reason, and the availability of efficiently-produced farmed Atlantic salmon can relieve much of the pressure on wild populations.
The use of GMOs has led to unintended consequences. For instance, most GMO crops are engineered to withstand blasts of a powerful weed killer that the World Health Organization has decided probably causes cancer.
The real world:
The molecular techniques for genetic modification are an extension, or refinement, of those used for decades or even centuries. The modifications are far more precise and predictable (and to this point have also more sustainable and benign to the natural environment) than the older ones described in the point above, so "unintended consequences" are far less likely with the modern molecular techniques of genetic engineering. There have been some unintended consequences with the older, pre-molecular techniques for genetic improvement—such as a new potato variety with high levels of a toxin and inadvertent susceptibility of new corn varieties to a fungal infestation—but not with the more precise newer techniques of genetic engineering.
The "powerful weed killer" that Colicchio referred to is glyphosate, one of the most benign and biodegradable herbicides. As to his assertion that it "probably causes cancer," once again Colicchio simply doesn't understand the science. The data (and a selected set of data, at that) were reviewed to determine whether glyphosate is capable of causing cancer—but without any consideration of likely exposure levels.
As is the case with common chemicals like salt and water, and foods like nutmeg and licorice, glyphosate at very high doses is capable of causing harm to humans. However, that analysis ignored one of the seminal tenets of toxicology--"the dose makes the poison"--and the reality is that glyphosate is not a human health risk even at levels of exposure that are more than 100 times higher than the amounts that humans are exposed to, when used as directed in the product's labeling. (Cooking tip for Tom: Go easy on the nutmeg and licorice.)
Mrs. Obama's decision to partner with Tom Colicchio should be no surprise, given her past choices of collaborators. She picked Debra Eschmeyer to be Executive Director of her signature Let's Move! program. Before working for Let's Move, Eschmeyer's highest-profile contribution to exercise and nutrition was her use of FoodCorps, a federally funded program through AmeriCorps, to try to tackle the problem of childhood hunger by pushing schools to have gardens. The appointment was part of a broader, troubling tendency in the Obama administration to let ideology take precedence over good science.
Eschmeyer's campaign to get more gardens into schools is the type of bumper-sticker-style health advocacy that makes advocates feel good, but does little to address the real challenges facing our country. We're not going to solve the obesity problem by telling urban children to go farm. It was 10 degrees in NYC in the middle of the school day when she was appointed, and that was balmy compared to the weather in the Northern Great Plains. So much for Eschmeyer's fresh locally-grown produce; a (heated) bus ride to Walmart would have made more sense.
Michelle Obama, like her husband and his minions when he was president, is allied with food elitists who ignore and distort science to promote their leftist agendas. Should we be surprised, then, that she's continuing to exploit her popularity to advance unscientific, New-Agey objectives?
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA. Twitter: @henryimiller. Jeff Stier is the director of the Risk Analysis Division at the National Center for Public Policy Research.