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Achieving Sustainability in the Biobased Economy

July 21, 2015
Monday's General Plenary Session at BIO World Congress was sponsored by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the Government of Canada's premier research and technology organization. Working with clients and partners, it provides innovation support, strategic research, scientific and technical services. Denise LeBlanc, General Manager of the Aquatic and Resource Development section spoke to their capability and that they are “open for business” and welcomes BIO members to use their capability to help build their business.

The plenary was moderated by Matthew Rudolf, Business Development Manager of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). RSB provided certification to companies using biobased feedstocks, and has engaged a range of stakeholders from industry, academia and the NGO community to develop a program tailored to meet the requirements of the EU Renewable Energy Directive. Matt said “sustainability is an opportunity to innovate” and of the huge advancements that have occurred in industrial biotechnology. He said innovation in feedstocks is evolving to meet demands on biomass for environmental sustainability and the role of industrial biotechnology in providing “something better than the incumbents” is important in this regard. All of the speakers in this session have found ways to sustainable intensify production using industrial biotechnology, without using additional agricultural land needed for food production.

Panelists included:

  • Ken Shields, Chairman, President and CEO of Conifex Timber Inc.

  • Allan Green, Research Program Director for Bioproducts at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

  • James Levine, CEO of Sapphire Energy

  • Steven Fabijanski, President and CEO of Agrisoma Biosciences Inc.

  • Greg Jenkins, CEO of Ciris Energy

Conifex is a forestry sawmilling and power generation company, which owns 46% of the world’s independently certified sustainably managed forest in the world. Ken spoke of their goal to responsibly maximize the fiber value of sawmill residuals and profitably use forest biomass currently not being utilized. In addition to producing traditional bulk products, it is moving into the transportation biofuels, renewable chemical and biobased materials, made possible through industrial biotechnology. Industrial biotech has made it possible to use sustainably produced biomass to upgrade the value of stands, and with it the opportunity for increased employment and high paying jobs in the forestry sector.

Alan Green of CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, directs a group engaged on engineering tobacco plants to produce oil from its leaves. Their objective is to develop biomass through the use of industrial biotechnology which is additional to food supply; in other words, to “sustainably intensify” the productivity of existing land use. Looking at the predicted population increase by 2025, they have calculated that global oil production needs to triple to meet demand.

While the last 25 years have delivered significant increases of plant oil production through increased yields, some of the increases have also come through increased land use – an option that will not be available in the future. Most of our plant oils are derived from the seeds or nuts of the plant. On average only 10% of our dedicated oil plants is usable oil. Even the soybean only delivers 20% oil – the rest is vegetative growth. Engineering tobacco plants (the ones without nicotine in them!) to produce oil in their leaves maximizes oil production within the plant and enables the production of significantly higher yields of valuable unsaturated fats as a percent of the total crop yield; in others words, more useful product from the same, or less, land use. This research has been patented and these plants will be commercialized for use as biomass feedstock for the industrial biotech industry.

CEO Jamie Levine recently took over the leadership of Sapphire, which uses open pond algae to make high value oils, proteins and functional proteins. He spoke of the need to “redefine the farm” and look at nontraditional "crops" to provide the building blocks needed for renewable chemical production. Their 100 acre open pond algae uses carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce 10 times more protein than soy per acre. Sustainability for them means using land considered unusable for traditional agricultural crops, which thrive in salt and brackish water in an economically feasible way. He emphasized that broader industry means “and” not “or” – that algae is not an alternative, but a compliment to traditional land use and crops like corn and soy.

Steven Fabijanski of Agrisoma Biosciences spoke about how “sustainability” has driven the development of their company – defined by sustainable production with sustainable economics. They have developed a new type of brassica plant which can be used within a traditional agricultural rotation particularly on marginal lands. A cousin of canola, it is unique in its tolerance to heat, cold, drought and disease. It is a non-food crop, but provides high quality protein for use in animal food as well as oils within a mixed feedstock producing biofuels.

Greg Jenkins of Ciris Energy also referenced the challenges of meeting the demand that will arise as the world’s populations increases. Their small company of 30 employees has a high IP footprint in the development of technological breakthroughs in cellulosic biomass conversion. As demand for chemicals has grown, so too has the use of petroleum to develop those chemicals and meet that demand. Shifting towards a sustainable and renewable source of chemicals and fuels will be particularly important in the years ahead. Greg articulated the 10 “keys to sustainability” which are underpinned by the need for social and economic benefits without reliance on government supports, or lower petroleum prices. Instead they need to focus on solving the issues of scale, of ensuring sufficient aggregate and diversified supply of biomass and collaboration of integration with the industry to enable the layering of technologies.