New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment

Industrial biotechnology, the third wave of biotechnology, holds immense promise for transforming a wide variety of industrial processes by preventing pollution, reducing costs, conserving natural resources, and delivering innovative products to improve our quality of life. It is also creating new markets for traditional agricultural crops and crop residues as renewable feedstocks, chemical intermediates, and energy sources. 

Members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) Industrial and Environmental Section believe that sustainable development cannot be achieved without continuous innovation, improvement, and use of clean technologies and “green” chemistry to make fundamental process changes to reduce pollution levels and resource consumption. Industrial biotechnology uses the techniques of modern molecular biology (genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics) to develop new biobased processes that reduce environmental impacts while improving efficiency in numerous industrial sectors. No matter what stage of industrial production—inputs, manufacturing process, or final product industrial biotechnology is providing innovative new tools, techniques, and know-how to enable companies to move beyond regulatory compliance to the proactive pollution prevention and resource conservation strategies that are the hallmarks of industrial sustainability. 

These new tools, however, cannot help move us toward a more sustainable future unless government policymakers, corporate leaders, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders comprehend their value, support their adoption, and take proactive steps to incorporate them in a wide array of manufacturing processes.

In 2001, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) prepared a trailblazing report that presented 21 real world case studies in which biotechnology was applied to existing industrial processes. The OECD report found that industrial biotechnology more than delivered on its promise to transform and modernize. 

We have attempted to build on the 2001 OECD study by asking the next obvious question: What if industrial biotechnology were more widely used? In posing this question we have attempted an initial—but limited—analysis of the potential environmental and resource conservation benefits that may accrue to certain industrial sectors. This analysis can—and should—be expanded in numerous directions. For example, greater use of industrial biotechnology will have multiple upstream and downstream consequences. We believe that further study will show these to be overwhelmingly beneficial. Nevertheless, quantifying the benefits and addressing trouble spots before they become problems necessitates additional work.

Although this report is written with a U.S. audience in mind, it does have global ramifications. Nothing illustrates this better than the rapid industrial expansion that is going on in China, India, and other parts of the world. Industrial transformation can take a long time while new technologies are developed, tested, deployed, and adopted. However, as environmental and global competitive pressures increase, time without action is no longer a luxury but becomes a liability. We hope that corporate leaders will be inspired by this report to explore the possibilities of using biotechnology in their own companies and that policymakers will be similarly motivated to look for incentives to increase the uptake of  industrial biotechnology processes that accelerate achievement  of environmental compliance goals.

This report is published by the BIO Industrial and Environmental Section and does not necessarily reflect the views of all BIO members. The mention of specific companies and trade and product names does not constitute an endorsement. BIO thanks the members of its Industrial and Environmental Section; EuropaBio; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and others who contributed data, gave input, and reviewed this report.

Report Objectives

1. Provide context for industrial biotechnology. 

This report discusses the evolution and recent blossoming of industrial biotechnology, development of pollution prevention policy, and increasing potential for industrial biotechnology to offer new and transformative ways to prevent pollution and sustain development.

2. Quantify potential pollution prevention benefits achieved by applying certain industrial biotechnology processes to entire sectors within the United States.

This report applies performance outcomes reported in the original OECD case study report to industrial sectors within the United States. Data for these sectors was drawn from EPA and other publicly available databases. Extrapolations were then made from the OECD case studies across several discrete industry sectors in order to illustrate the largest potential magnitude of benefits.

3. Educate stakeholders about industrial biotechnology.

Industrial biotechnology is already reducing pollution and manufacturing costs in some industry sectors. It holds great promise to further reduce pollution and the consumption of raw materials if deployed more broadly; this, in turn, can reduce the cost of producing goods and may lead to better products. Because industrial biotechnology can utilize many renewable feedstocks, such as corn and other agricultural crops and crop residues, it may provide new sources of income for farmers. This report aims to deliver information on these powerful new biotechnology tools to the public, policymakers, NGOs, the press, and corporate America. All of these groups have a stake in a cleaner future and need to be informed about the latest technological developments that are available to improve our world.

4. Inspire a wider inquiry into industrial biotechnology.

The Industrial and Environmental Section of BIO, its members, and some national policymakers possess greater familiarity with the current and potential uses for industrial biotechnology than the target audience for this document. From that familiarity comes our optimism about the possible benefits that can be derived from greater industrial biotechnology use. BIO strongly believes that as an understanding of this field spreads, so, too, will the general sense of enthusiasm about this powerful technology. At the same time, we can not expect that reaction on the strength of this document alone. Industrial biotechnology encompasses a multitude of products and processes. Each will need to endure the scrutiny of potential customers, policymakers, NGOs, and the public. Our expectation is that this report will inform as well as raise questions. We invite those whose interest is aroused, but whose questions are not satisfied, to join with BIO in future research dialogues and other efforts to widen the inquiry into  industrial biotechnology’s current and potential benefits.