In January 2015, the German Bioeconomy Council produced a report detailing how each of the G7 members has started to embrace a wealth of biological resources to build their economies. Six member states have now published a national bioeconomy strategy: the UK, Germany, Canada, France, Japan and the USA. In November, we will see the emergence of the Global Bioeconomy Summit, billed as ‘the first community-building platform to discuss bioeconomy policies globally’. So is the ‘bioeconomy’ just a buzzword or is this increasing momentum signalling a monumental change for the future?
Humanity is facing unprecedented changes on a global scale – climate change, population growth, changing resource availability and affordability, and health concerns all present mounting challenges which threaten future upheaval.
Addressing and mitigating the consequences of these challenges will be key to humanity’s long-term future and, as we continue our journey into the 21st century, the biological sciences are set to play an increasingly important role. Enter the bioeconomy which is estimated within the EU alone to be worth €2 trillion and employing approximately 22 million EU citizens.
What lies behind these figures is the challenge presented by our continuing dependence on industries reliant on fossil fuels to drive our economy. What if manufacturing based on biology could integrate with existing technology to transform our process industries? Could they help the UK economy grow?
So what is the bioeconomy exactly, and is it anything new? Well, it can be considered as any economic activity arising from the generation of products made using biological processes and using biological solutions to address the challenges we face in food, chemicals, materials, energy production, health and environmental protection. Examples include using highly specific microbes to transform wastes into bioenergy or biofuels, or using plants as biopharmaceutical ‘factories’ for reliable and rapid medicine production.
The importance of the bioeconomy lies not only in providing solutions to pressing social and environmental needs – such as re-using waste and providing alternatives to fossil fuels – but also in delivering real benefits for the UK (and elsewhere) through creating new companies, new products, new jobs, policy and advice, and contributing to the green economy through increasing UK exports and inward investment.
Furthermore, it’s not only about viable profit-making companies and tax revenues. It includes instances in which the application of bioscience brings about substantial economic savings through averting disease epidemics in humans and farm animals.
A great example of this has been the eradication of bluetongue virus in UK farm animals and the prevention of its re-emergence in 2008 which is estimated to have saved the UK economy around £480M and saved up to 10,000 jobs in the agri-tech sector. Scientists at the UK’s Pirbright Institute developed tools to predict the arrival, spread and re-emergence of the virus using their understanding of the behaviour and movements of midges within Europe. This enabled the assessment of the threat that bluetongue virus posed to the UK and a highly targeted vaccination of at-risk livestock.
As to whether the bioeconomy is “new”, the answer is essentially no. For millennia, ever since we learned to harness yeast biology in fermentation to make alcohol, human communities can claim to have had a bioeconomy of sorts.
However, what is new is the emerging breadth of the bioeconomy across the globe and the way in which it is expanding rapidly as advances in innovative biotechnology are being delivered. It will begin to pervade many more areas of our lives than it has done previously and we will likely see the ‘greening’ of entire industries through new biological ways of making the same products.
Take chemical company Croda for example, who already use a sustainable bioprocess based on plant cell culture to manufacture a skin anti-ageing product. At the same time, we will likely see the emergence of new bio-based products that we have not yet conceived. Bio-based products and processes already support a raft of key industrial sectors in the UK, including agriculture and food, energy and chemicals, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, and consumer goods.
To adopt this new, broader bioeconomy, we need to react appropriately to the grand challenges society faces – how we react to these changes will make them either an opportunity or a threat.
The UK is in a strong position to harness the chance to deliver sustainable solutions – the opportunity comes from supporting the bioeconomy, whilst the threat comes from not doing anything or implementing policies (e.g. affecting regulation) which block relevant advances. We should also continue to nurture the world-class research, training and innovation that exists in the UK and enable UK scientists to work in partnership with the best international collaborators and policymakers across the globe.
This increases the impact of their research and maximises the value of UK investment from both Government and industry. The major UK funding bodies have, for example, invested around £100M since 2012 in the area of Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy. This investment includes support for a number of technology and innovation centres such as the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) which works in partnership with UK companies to prove and scale-up research into new processes.
CPI helps companies to de-risk the complex process of translation from laboratory to production plant and so increases the probability of commercialisation. Similar investments have also been made in the areas of Synthetic Biology and Agri-tech. All have successfully leveraged investment from industry to accelerate the transition in UK biotechnology through collaborative partnerships. This investment and support for the bioeconomy needs to be maintained in the long term as it can take many years for new businesses to be created.
The UK has shaped a positive environment for those willing to invest in the bioeconomy and it needs to build on this good start. Continued investment through public-private collaboration is essential to maintain confidence and the momentum to develop the products, processes and services that can help transform industries and society.
Developing biotechnologies such as advanced sequencing, synthesis and analytical techniques will help to build a platform for UK based companies to commercialise. In addition, work in theses exciting new innovative technologies can help inspire today’s young people to study the sciences and engineering – they will provide tomorrow’s bioeconomy workforce.
A thriving UK bioeconomy that integrates with our existing industries is likely to be a major part of the answer we need to address our dependence on imported fossil fuels and reduce the damage we do to our environment. It may even help bring back consistent economic growth. It is clear that we will need to move away from our reliance on the earth’s dwindling natural resources. Are we ready for a new bioindustrial revolution?
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