Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The bioeconomy dilemma

By David Zilberman

Many view the ‘bioeconomy’, as a key element of the future. While in the past, many vital activities were dependent on non-renewable inputs such petroleum based chemicals, the bioeconomy which utilizes advanced tools of modern biology, will yield products that are renewable and produced from plants and other organic matter that humans can grow. Countries, such as Germany, have started establishing timelines and performance targets for the bioeconomy and policy wonks, as well as firms and NGOs are thinking about policy initiatives to advance them. However, when one looks at the specifics required for the transition to the bioeconomy, in order to reach the desirable objectives of renewable and sustainable technologies, bold action is required.

The ‘bioeconomy’, is the sector of the economy that relies on biological knowledge for commercial and other purposes. Some of the bio-economy has already been in existence for a long time. Large amounts of agricultural output go toward the production to fiber, cosmetics, and other non-food item- which are part of the traditional bioeconomy. Fermentation, which has played a vital role in enabling people to survive harsh climatic conditions (by providing a means for food preservation) as well as pain management and water quality control.

The discovery of DNA in the 1950’s has opened new possibilities for utilization for biological processes. The new knowledge of genomic process is akin to the discovery of the electron that provided the foundation for all electronics. Knowledge of the building blocks of life have enabled people to modify life forms and construct new products be it medicines, chemicals or food. Clearly, the molecular and cell biology revolution is still in its infancy, and after genomics we are facing the new challenge of understanding and utilizing proteins, via proteonomics. But we already have developed tools that can be utilized in the bioeconomy with great potential in the future.

The first area of application of the bioeconomy has been in the field of medicine. The Cohen-Boyer patent that allows for ‘re-combination’ of DNA, has been essential in the development of medicine, like artificial insulin. It is clear that much of the future of medicine utilizes genetically modified organisms. The bioeconomy is likely to include other fields, such as green chemistry, which produces new chemicals as well as in agriculture, which can improve food products. While the use of genetic modification is not essential for every application in this area, it is constitutes a major element in a broad range of fields, and already genetic modification has provided significant tangible benefits. If we want to take advantage of biological tools, there are some risks, but they provide much bigger benefits.

The issue of risk and benefit is not new to the bioeconomy. A key product of the traditional bioeconomy is alcohol. While alcohol has some undesirable effects when consumed in excess, during much of history, it was considered to be a health food, and even an effective medicine. Continual concern about the negative effects of alcohol led to attempts at banning it completely, but no regulation could successfully suppress its allure and benefits and thus through taxation, regulation and education, society has attempted to provide avenues for overall beneficial consumption. I don’t think that transgenic varieties carry comparable risks to alcohol and their benefits may be much more pronounced, but the principle of taking advantage of a good thing, while regulating it, is applicable for both.

Another, perhaps greater dilemma associated with the bioeconomy is that the expansion of production of industrial products on farms will allocate away land and other resources from food production, thus the bioeconomy will accentuate the “food vs, fuel” concerns [1] associated with biofuels. These are valid concerns and obviously food comes first. Therefore two major priorities should be met as we establish the bioeconomy. First, improving agricultural productivity, and second, reducing waste and increasing the efficiency of use of agricultural and other products. There is a great potential to increase agricultural productivity even with existing technology, giving the great discrepancies in yields among regions in the world, and new technologies that are part of the bioeconomy suggest much larger potential for getting more out of our land and water while preserving biodiversity.

We don’t expect the bioeconomy alone to meet all of the challenges of sustainability, especially when it comes to the energy sector. It is part of a larger renewable economy that relies on other technologies, like solar and wind energy and increased conservation. The transition to the bio and renewable economies cannot rely on technologies alone, but is also dependent on policies that will induce innovations. They include public investments in research, incentives to private sector to invest in development of new products, and enlightened regulatory regimes that protect the environment and human health without hindering the entrepreneurial spirit.

The modern era brought us technologies that improved the human condition, but many are not sustainable. We need to go through transitions that will allow us to thrive while sustaining our environment. The bioeconomy is part of that transition to a renewable economy.