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Biotechnology’s Third Wave

June 25, 2009


Several years ago I recall reading an article by Francis Fukuyama in which he predicted that biotechnology would be one of the world’s largest economic sectors in the future. Although the biotechnology sector continues to grow, it hasn’t quite been equal to Fukuyama’s glowing prediction. The Economist reports that “a ‘third wave’ of biotechnology is arriving.” It wonders if “it will be able to avoid a poor reception from the general public this time around?” [“Third time lucky,” 6 June 2009 print edition]. The magazine writes:

“For a long time the public has perceived biotechnology to mean dangerous meddling with the genes in food crops. But biotechnology is of course about much more than transgenic food: it also encompasses the use of microbes to make pharmaceuticals, for example. The many benefits of the first wave of biotech products, in medicine, have unfortunately been overshadowed by the supposed risks of biotech’s second wave, in agriculture. Might its third wave—so-called industrial biotech, also known as ‘white biotech’ or ‘green chemistry’—resolve biotech’s image problem?”

Before leaving the subject of the so-called second wave of biotechnology that deals with agriculture, its future may be brighter than its dim past. In its report entitled Global Trends 2025, the National Intelligence Council predicts that “resource issues will gain prominence on the international agenda. Unprecedented global economic growth … will continue to put pressure on a number of highly strategic resources, including energy, food, and water, and demand is projected to outstrip easily available supplies over the next decade or so. … The World Bank estimates that demand for food will rise by 50 percent by 2030. … Lack of access to stable supplies of water is reaching critical proportions, particularly for agricultural purposes, and the problem will worsen because of rapid urbanization worldwide and the roughly 1.2 billion persons to be added over the next 20 years.” Agriculture biotechnology may hold part of the solution to the challenges detailed by the NIC.

Returning to the third wave of biotechnology, The Economist continues:

“As with other forms of biotechnology, industrial biotech involves engineering biological molecules and microbes with desirable new properties. What is different is how they are then used: to replace chemical processes with biological ones. Whether this is to produce chemicals for other processes or to create products such as biopolymers with new properties, there is huge scope to harness biology to accomplish what previously needed big, dirty chemical factories, but in cleaner and greener ways.”

The agricultural wave of biotech concerned (and still concerns) some people because they aren’t sure what kind of unintended consequences the release of genetically-altered crops might have on the environment. The third wave of biotech begins with the assumption that it will make the environment better not worse. That is why The Economist is more sanguine about its reception. The article notes that the industrial-biotechnology sector is already large (about $140 billion in 2007); but it still has enormous potential. Only about 6% of all chemicals sales are currently generated with the help of biotechnology.

“Steen Riisgaard, chief executive of Novozymes, a biotechnology company, says he imagines a future in which bio-refineries are dotted around the countryside producing fuels and other chemicals from biomass such as agricultural waste.”

The article provides several examples of companies that are using industrial biotechnology techniques.

“One company which has been working in industrial biotechnology for years is DSM, based in Heerlen in the Netherlands. In the 1990s it started making enzymes for cheese and omega-6 fatty acids for infant formulas, and went on to develop a biological process to produce cephalosporin, an antibiotic, in a much cleaner way than the chemical processes used to make the drug. Its most recent effort has been to find a biological way to produce a chemical called succinic acid, which is used to make a wide range of products including spandex, biopolymers for agriculture, de-icing salts, esters, resins and acidity regulators in foods.”

The process, the article reports, uses 40% less energy and produces fewer carbon-dioxide emissions than the process it replaces. Another company mentioned is Novozymes.

“Novozymes, as its name suggests, has focused its attention on supplying optimised enzymes—biological molecules that help make reactions happen faster, or at lower temperatures. This sounds trivial but it can make the difference between a commercial and a non-commercial process. The company says it has 47% of the market for industrial enzymes, which are used in areas such as detergents, brewing, baking or to produce animal feeds. … Novozymes says it is close to completing its acrylic-acid process. Around 40% of acrylic acid produced is used to make super-absorbent material like that found in nappies (diapers); most of the rest goes into paints and coatings. Novozymes says its process will be competitive with chemical methods at an oil price of $60 a barrel or higher.”

Oil prices have been steadily creeping back up and it looks like they will hold above the price Novozymes needs to be competitive. For people like me who are interested in helping emerging market countries achieve sustainable development, any process that can help market countries develop using processes that are kinder to the environment than those used in the past is exciting.

“Proponents of industrial biotechnology are optimistic that they can avoid the pitfalls that hindered the adoption of biotech crops, which have been criticised by their opponents as unnatural ‘Frankenfoods’ that extend corporate control of agriculture. For one thing, unlike transgenic tomatoes, say, industrial-biotech products are not sold directly to consumers. And instead of displacing “natural” products with bioengineered alternatives, as in agriculture, industrial biotechnology generally displaces fossil fuels and their associated chemical processes with greener biological alternatives. Surely that should make it easier to convince people of its benefits, and hence to rehabilitate the notion of biotechnology more widely?”

As the question implies, few things are black and white. Some biotech processes use food crops as raw materials. As the article notes, the use of food crops for any purpose other than feeding people or livestock has generated a lot of controversy. Biofuels were highly touted until last year’s food crisis, when their widespread use was called into question. The article concludes:

“The use of agricultural waste is less controversial. Mr Riisgaard reckons that converting agricultural waste into other chemicals (including fuels) using industrial biotechnology could replace 20-25% of global oil consumption. And there is plenty of waste about. He also suggests that raw materials could be grown on marginal land which is unsuitable for food production. That is true, but it could have knock-on effects on biodiversity. Perhaps the most promising approach for advocates of biotechnology’s third wave is to emphasise the potential for a new, greener chemicals industry to create jobs in remote rural areas.”

I’m particularly excited by the prospect that agricultural waste can be used in industrial biotech processes because it means that land can remain in use to feed people and livestock. It also provides another revenue stream for those involved in agriculture. Development begins and ends with jobs. If this third wave of biotechnology helps create good jobs for people in both developed and developing countries it will likely receive the warm reception anticipated by The Economist. The current economic crisis has given most of us a renewed appreciation for our work. Those living in poverty have always had an appreciation for labor and its spoils. The better the jobs people can find, the better their futures will be.

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