Giving is easy, taking away is hard. Treasurer Wayne Swan should not be blamed for crossing his fingers and hoping for the best when it comes to delivering a budget surplus. The politics of removing entitlements to a government payment are fraught with difficulty. Losers tend to vote against you and politicians naturally try to avoid that. For Treasurer Swan to have removed any benefits at all was courageous and not deserving of the churlish criticism that he is predicting a smaller surplus than he originally hoped for.

Common sense prevails. The boredom of the backbench clearly can do strange things to members of Parliament. How else to explain the extraordinary effort in South Australia to depose a Liberal opposition leader when the government is floundering? At least this morning common sense prevailed and Isobel Redmond retained her job, albeit by only one vote. Maybe the 12 votes for her opponent Martin Hamilton-Smith shows that s-xism really is alive and well in the Liberal Party.

Why subsidise breeding them? I’ve never understood the need for any of these baby bonus things. In an overcrowded world I’d be paying people not to have children and importing any extra people needed from all those countries with a surplus. My criticism of the mini-budget reduction in this government payment is not reducing the amount for second and subsequent children but keeping the thing at all.

Feed the kids organic? Paediatricians in the United States have turned their attention to the benefits or otherwise of organic foods and given them a tentative endorsement. A study by the American Academy of Paediatricians examining the scientific literature cites lower pesticides in organic produce and potentially lower risk of exposure to drug-resistant bacteria.

But the guidance offered to parents is mixed: while organic foods have the same vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, lipids and other nutrients as conventional foods, they also have lower pesticide levels, which may be significant for children. Organically raised animals are also less likely to be contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria because organic farming rules prohibit the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. However, in the long term, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or lower risk of disease. No large studies in humans have been performed that specifically address this issue.

The key findings of the report are:

1. Nutritional differences between organic and conventional produce appear minimal, but studies examining this have been limited by inadequate controls for the many subtle potential confounders, such as moisture, maturity of the produce, and measurement techniques. No direct evidence of a clinically relevant nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce exists.

2. Organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues than does conventional produce, and consuming a diet of organic produce reduces human exposure to pesticides. It remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant.

3. Organic animal husbandry that prohibits the non-therapeutic use of antibiotic agents has the potential to reduce human disease caused by drug-resistant organisms.

4. There is no evidence of clinically relevant differences in organic and conventional milk.

  • a. There are few, if any, nutritional differences between organic and conventional milk. There is no evidence that any differences that may exist are clinically relevant.
  • b. There is no evidence that organic milk has clinically significant higher bacterial contamination levels than does conventional milk.
  • c. There is no evidence that conventional milk contains significantly increased amounts of bovine GH. Any bovine GH that might remain in conventional milk is not biologically active in humans because of structural differences and susceptibility to digestion in the stomach.

5. Organic farming approaches in practice are usually more expensive than conventional approaches, but in carefully designed experimental farms, the cost difference can be mitigated.

6. The price differential between organic and conventional food might be reduced or eliminated as organic farming techniques advance and as the prices of petroleum products, such as pesticides and herbicides, as well as the price of energy, increase.

7. Organic farming reduces fossil fuel consumption and reduces environmental contamination with pesticides and herbicides.

8. Large prospective cohort studies that record dietary intake accurately and measure environmental exposures directly will likely greatly enhance understanding of the relationship between pesticide exposure from conventional foods and human disease and between consumption of meat from hormone-treated animals and the risk of breast cancer in women.

News and views noted along the way.

Peter Fray

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