- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Several stories in the news this week are linked in a fascinating way, but no one seems to have noticed. One item was the series of “Live Earth” rock concerts intended to draw attention to global climate change; another, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of huge and seemingly inexplicable disparities in “niche” milk prices.

The connection? Al Gore, whose influence on both issues — via intractable, decades-long opposition to biotechnology — has been indubitably negative.

First, the news. The Live Earth concerts, held in 10 cities on seven continents, were supposed to encourage people to be “more green.” The Head Greenie himself, Al Gore, proposed a “seven point pledge” for individuals that calls for reducing personal emissions, planting trees and demanding innovations at work and in government.

And according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which regularly surveys the cost of food, the average price for a half-gallon of milk from cows not supplemented with bST, a protein used to stimulate milk production, was $3.01, 36 percent higher than a half-gallon of regular milk ($2.22), while the average price for a half-gallon of organic milk was $3.65, or 65 percent higher than a half-gallon of regular milk. (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. The gene-spliced and natural versions are identical with no detectable difference in the milk itself.)

The use of bST is environmentally responsible 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 3 billion pounds. This helps keep the lid on corn prices, even as much of the nation’s corn harvest is 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 Mr. Gore and his staff to bST (as well as 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 double in the last year — from $2 to $4 a bushel. We are already seeing upward pressure on food prices, and on land being newly cultivated, as the demand for ethanol put intense pressure on supplies of corn. Until the recent ethanol boom, more than 60 percent 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, Mr. Gore campaigned relentlessly against biotechnology applied to agriculture, even contributing a jacket endorsement to Jeremy Rifkin’s vile, anti-biotechnology diatribe, “Algeny.” He spearheaded unscientific, anti-innovative regulation and bullied regulators to be anti-biotech — all despite 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. And despite the fact the new, biotech-derived varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases that ravage crops; or to be resistant to herbicides, so farmers can reduce their use of pesticides and adopt more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. And also despite the fact the greatest boon of all both to food security and to the environment in the long term will likely be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses. (Where water is unavailable for irrigation, the development of crop varieties able to grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.)

This brings us to the stunning prediction by Al Gore, who, after campaigning tirelessly for years for the over-regulation of the most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology applied to agriculture — ostensibly to ensure 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.”

We are seeing intense pressure on supplies of grain, prices are sky-high with food costs following suit, and there’s every indication that the situation will deteriorate further. Whatever contributions Mr. Gore may make to other aspects of environmentalism, his malign influence on biotechnology applied to agriculture will be a significant part of his legacy.

Henry I. Miller, physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of the book, “The Frankenfood Myth.”

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