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June 2009




Henry I. Miller
Office 650.725.0185; Home 650.358.1221; Mobile 650.906.9014
The narcissistic, know-it-all, school-marmish Al Gore was at it again, holding forth last week [week of July 14, 2008] on solutions to energy issues and “enlarging the political space” in which the next president can act.

But Gore continues to exist in a parallel universe with little connexion to the one the rest of us inhabit. It is easy enough to posit the elimination of all carbon-emitting forms of electricity production within the next decade – and without an increased fraction of nuclear power, no less – but not so easy to do it, either technologically or politically.

The press like to portray Gore as a sort of amalgam of senior statesman, policy wonk and technology-loving nerd, but the truth lies elsewhere. In fact, he has a long history of irrational opposition to technology -- and, worse still, of making authoritative pronouncements while not knowing what he doesn't know. It is worth examining his past judgements and prognostications.

While a senator and self-styled expert on biotechnology issues, Gore praised Algeny, troglodyte Jeremy Rifkin's shoddy and repugnant anti-biotechnology diatribe, and is even quoted on its cover: "an important book" and an "insightful critique of the changing way in which mankind views nature."

In a 1991 article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, Mr. Gore displayed remarkable lack of insight into biotechnology's past, present, and future. For example, he dismissed investors' eager reception of Genentech's stock offering in 1980 disdainfully as the first sellout of the "tree of knowledge to Wall Street."

Since when is the commercialization of a life-saving, life-enhancing technology a sellout? In any case, Gore seemed unaware of biotechnology's monumental pre-Genentech commercial successes: Fermentation using microorganisms to produce antibiotics, enzymes, vaccines, foods, beverages and other products was a $100 billion industry before the advent of gene-splicing.

Even more curiously, Mr. Gore's article claimed that "the decisions to develop ice-minus [bacteria], herbicide-resistant plants, and bovine growth hormone . . . lent credibility to those who argued that biotechnology would make things worse before it made things better.”

How does history judge this pronouncement?

O The ice-minus bacteria were successful in field trials – effective at preventing frost damage to crops and completely without safety problems – but never commercialized, largely because of the expensive and debilitating regulation championed by Gore. As a result, citrus, lettuce, stone fruit and other farmers – and, of course, consumer prices – remain at the mercy of spring frosts.

O Herbicide-resistant, gene-spliced plants, now grown on more than 80 million hectares annually worldwide, have spurred the adoption of more environment-friendly herbicides and agricultural practices. These changes have markedly reduced soil erosion and carbon dioxide emissions and increased yields.

O The price of milk, which has skyrocketed during the past two years, has been modulated somewhat by dairy farmers’ use of bovine growth hormone (also known as bST, or bovine somatotropin). (The protein, produced naturally by a cow's pituitary gland, is one of the substances that control its milk production. It can be made in large quantities with gene-splicing techniques, but the gene-spliced and natural versions are functionally identical and there is no detectable difference in the milk itself.)

The use of bST is environmentally beneficial in several important ways. For every million cows supplemented with bST each year, 6.6 billion gallons of water (enough to supply 26,000 homes) are conserved. With much of the nation enduring a drought and many cities in the West experiencing water shortages, this is a significant benefit.

The amount of animal feed consumed each year by those million bST-supplemented cows is reduced by more than three billion pounds. This helps to keep the lid on corn prices, even as much of the nation's corn harvest is being diverted to producing ethanol for cars. And the amount of land required to raise the cattle and grow their food is reduced by more than 417 square miles. At the same time, more than 5.5 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel (enough to power 8,800 homes) are saved, greenhouse gas emissions are lowered by 30,000 metric tons (because fewer cows means less methane produced by bovine intestinal tracts), and manure production is decreased by about 3.6 million tons, reducing the chances of runoff getting into waterways and groundwater.

Ironically, the opposition of Gore and his staff to bST (as well as to other applications of biotechnology) prolonged the FDA's review and delayed for years the approval of gene-spliced bST. Largely as a result of pressure from them and several members of congress, the regulatory review of bST took nine years, while the evaluation of an almost identical product for injection into growth hormone-deficient children had taken a mere 18 months.

Finally, there is another nexus that links environmental issues, biotech and Al Gore: the current push to divert corn from food to ethanol for fueling cars. This initiative (which itself is dubious) has caused the price of corn to more than double over the past two years. There is relentless upward pressure on food prices and on land being newly cultivated, as the demand for ethanol exerts intense pressure on corn supplies. Until the recent ethanol boom, more than 60% of the annual U.S. corn harvest was fed domestically to cattle, hogs and chickens or used in food or beverages. Thousands of food items contain corn or corn byproducts.

While a congressman, senator and vice-president, Gore campaigned relentlessly against biotechnology applied to agriculture. He spearheaded unscientific, anti-innovative regulation and bullied regulators to be anti-biotech – all in spite of the consensus that gene-splicing is no more than an extension, or refinement, of more primitive, less precise and less predictable methods of genetic modification.

Finally, there is the stunning prediction by Gore, who, after campaigning tirelessly for years for the over-regulation of the most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology applied to agriculture -- ostensibly because of concerns about environmental safety – changed his tack and came up with this doozy: "The most lasting impact of biotechnology on the food supply may come not from something going wrong, but from all going right. My biggest fear is not that by accident we will set loose some genetically defective Andromeda strain. Given our past record in dealing with agriculture, we're far more likely to accidentally drown ourselves in a sea of excess grain."

On the basis of his past performance and perspicacity, why should anyone pay any attention whatsoever to Al Gore?

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993.

Henry I.Miller, M.D.
The Hoover Institution
Stanford University
434 Galvez Mall
Stanford, CA 94305-6010
Phone: 650.725.0185
Fax: 650.723.0576