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Bioeconomics: Everybody’s Doing It

June 26, 2014
It is everywhere. In March, the US State Department held a one-day conference titled “Showcasing the Bioeconomy: The Future is Now”. That same month, the UK House of Lords published a report on the same topic. “Waste could be turned into wealth,” they said.

In the past couple of weeks, Finland’s first national bioeconomy strategy was unveiled, while the Borneo Post reported that “The vast potentiality of bioeconomy has been regarded as one of the solutions to Malaysia’s economic challenges.” And this month a major international event on the bioeconomy takes place in Nairobi, Kenya.

What is all the excitement about ? “Bioeconomy” refers to all economic activity that is derived from the commercial application of biotechnology. It encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food, feed, chemicals, energy and healthcare wellness products via innovative and efficient technologies.

This notion of a bioeconomy is captivating politicians and economists as never before, but it is not an especially new concept. Indeed in the US, the Obama administration presented its plan to facilitate the U.S. bioeconomy in April, 2012 by which time many other countries had already done so, as had nearly every major U.S. metropolitan area (especially those with a significant college/ university presence) and U.S. state.

The great thing is, the bioeconomy can be all things to all people – and that isn’t just a political trick. In Malaysia, for instance, the national plan includes a focus on tropical agro-biotech and projects on palm-oil-based industrial products; for Finland, forestry is the focus, bringing together wood processing, chemistry, energy, construction, technology, as well as solutions related to nutrition and welfare.

US Bioeconomics 101

According to Jim Greenwood, president of BIO, the fact that national and international leaders are talking about bioeconomics means the industry’s efforts to have a seat at the leadership table are gaining the traction they need to help steer policy. Supporting this contention, the White House has appointed an Assistant Director of Biotechnology, Mike Stebbins, a geneticist who served as a legislative fellow for U. S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and as a policy fellow for the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Needless to say, the local, state and federal programs vary widely, though most of the plans touch in some way on bio research, medical developments, agriculture, biofuels, and environment-friendly manufacturing processes. In contrast to the plans presented by the European Union, which lean toward sustainable industrial practices and carbon reduction, the U.S. nurturing flavor of bioeconomy is to support biology-oriented businesses, including genetic research and medical applications, including pharmaceuticals.

The U.S. Bioeconomy Blueprint states “five strategic imperatives”:

  1. Support R&D investments that will provide the foundation for the future bioeconomy.

  2. Facilitate the transition of bioinventions from research lab to market, including an increased focus on translational and regulatory sciences.

  3. Develop and reform regulations to reduce barriers, increase the speed and predictability of regulatory processes, and reduce costs while protecting human and environmental health.

  4. Update training programs and align academic institution incentives with student training for national workforce needs.

  5. Identify and support opportunities for the development of public-private partnerships and precompetitive collaborations—where competitors pool resources, knowledge, and expertise to learn from successes and failures.

The State Department’s March meeting had an eclectic delegate list including members of the U.S. diplomatic corps, researchers, and U.S. policy makers. Specific discussions included job growth and economic development, current policy climate, and regulatory trends. Expert panels examined overarching themes such as intellectual property, data management, education, and regulatory hurdles.

Feedback has been mixed. A repeated critique of the U.S. Blueprint is that it does not institute anything new. Rather, it combines and espouses programs that are already happening in one form or another via various government departments, economic development entities, and/or academic programs.

However, supporters answer this by noting that just the fact that leaders and policy-makers are carving out the time and resources to focus on bioeconomics—even if it mostly just discussion—means that hopefully action and institution of changes and programs to support it are soon to follow.