Tuesday, 11 December 2012
Industrial Biotechnology and the Emerging Bioeconomy
Plenary Three: Biotechnology of the Future - Industrial Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology
Blog from Global Forum On Biotechnology - The Evolving Promise Of The Life Sciences
The third plenary session of the conference focused on industrial biotechnology in the context of the emerging bioeconomy. Chaired by James Philp of the OECD, the session featured speakers from the Russian Federation, Brazil, the Netherlands, and the UK. A key theme to emerge from this panel was how the specificities of the seemingly global ‘bioeconomy’ are influenced by geographies, histories, and government policies at the national level. For example, Russia and Brazil are large countries with plenty of arable land for growing biomass, while the biomass potential of Britain and the Netherlands is much more constrained. These factors are contributing to the development of different national strategies for promoting industrial biotechnology.
Vladimir Popov from the Bakh Institute of Biochemistry outlined prospects for the bioeconomy in the Russian Federation. With a huge landmass, 20% of the world’s forest resources and plenty of water, Russia could become an increasingly important producer (and exporter) of biomass. Their biotech sector is currently small (less than 1% of GDP), but recent initiatives (including a 2012 State coordination program for biotechnology development until 2020) are placing strategic emphasis on the bioeconomy. Priority areas for development include agbiotech, forest biotechnology, and environmental protection, but interestingly not biofuels. (Despite a long history of creative methods for extracting alcohol from plants, as Popov pointed out!) This is in part owing to geopolitical considerations, with Russia relying heavily on oil both domestically and as an export commodity. At this stage, government intervention in the form of subsidies and legislation is seen as critical for getting a bioeconomy off the ground.
Eduardo Giacomazzi provided a Brazilian perspective on the ProAlcool program and the development of biofuel products. Brazil enjoys 278 days of sun annually and has a long history of cultivating sugar cane (ever since the Portuguese introduced it in the 1600s). These factors have contributed to their emergence as a world leader in biofuel production following the oil crisis in the early 1970s. Brazil now produces nearly 30bn litres of ethanol annually, and has about 470 sugar cane and ethanol plants. Giacomazzi echoed a point raised by Popov, stressing the long-term and elaborate investments and incentives that have been implemented by the Brazilian government to bring about the current situation, in the face of significant fluctuations in global energy, food and sugar prices over the past 40 years.
Roeland Bosch from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation in the Netherlands prioritized the need to develop bioeconomy activities in a sustainable manner. He talked about a project to develop generic and quantitative ways of measuring the sustainability of agri-food supply chains and biomass commodities such as biofuels. Such quantitative metrics would ideally help to cut through the confusion being generated by a rapid proliferation of sustainability certification schemes. Bosch’s team is developing a complex valuation and modeling process that attempts to incorporate social, environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability. They are also involved in setting up a mediation court to help resolve disputes over the sustainability of biomass projects and imports.
Finally, Belinda Clarke from the UK Technology Strategy Board focused her attention on one of the key platform technologies seen to underpin the growth of an industrial bioeconomy, namely synthetic biology. She described the process leading to the UK’s publication of a national roadmap for synthetic biology earlier in 2012. This roadmap is concerned in particular with the translation of basic research into commercialization and job creation. The priorities identified through this work are being followed up with a number of small- and large-scale initiatives to foster research, development and commercialisation of synthetic biology in the UK. The TSB sees managing the public debate around synthetic biology as key to its progress, and is keen to promote ‘responsible innovation’ in this sector.