What Can the Bioeconomy Do For You
To address climate change, let “life find a way.”
In many circles, “biotechnology” is a four-letter word. Whether you’re a Jurassic Park truther, an anti-Monsanto activist, or an anti-Vaxxer, the products of biotechnology—real, live dinosaurs, genetically modified foods, or the COVID-19 vaccine—are modern monsters.
In some ways, that isn’t surprising. Long before Frankenstein’s monster, new technological forms have elicited an almost pious response from critics, who howl about the unnatural, and reiterate Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper’s fears about the state of their “precious bodily fluids.”
In other ways, though, the resistance is a little more puzzling. Biotechnology, and the “bioeconomy”—the products, manufacturing processes, and markets that are based on biological, rather than chemical or physical, advances—is a massive opportunity to combat climate change while producing abundant food, medicine, and more. Opposition from a purely Luddite and anti-technology perspective simply condemns the products and processes of biological advances without rhyme or reason.
But like any technology, its application is political. For the most part, biotechnology has so far been a co-signed product of public research and private companies. To this end, many of the choices around what is produced, how it’s produced, and to whose benefit, have been left up to corporations, inspiring critiques of these technologies from all over the political spectrum.
Fortunately, the federal government might just be willing to take up the mantle of a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein and start wielding its power as innovator, guarantor, and shepherd of the bioeconomy. Federal government involvement in the bioeconomy can not wish away all the ills of a profit-driven pharmaceutical or food industry, but it can push the industry in the necessary direction for society, as a whole, to benefit.
On September 12, U.S. President Joe Biden signed the “Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy.” Although it lacks any concrete action on things like R&D funding or industrial policy support, the order includes clear directives for federal agencies and departments—like the USDA, NSF, and DOE—to come up with strategic plans, draft reports, and prepare regulatory pathways.
The executive order is not the first step the U.S. federal government has tread into the bioeconomy waters. The Obama administration signed a similar executive order in 2015, although with far fewer clear and actionable steps. Similarly, Manufacturing USA, an Obama administration-created initiative to build manufacturing hubs around the U.S., now runs two bioeconomy-related hubs, one in Minnesota and one in New Hampshire.
But Biden’s executive order signals the administration's intent to lead on many of the technological, industrial, and manufacturing fronts central to the economic success of the United States in the 21st century.
This is exciting for a few reasons. The bioeconomy presents a set of real economic opportunities for overall U.S. economic growth. Today, the U.S. bioeconomy is worth approximately $1 trillion, or about 5% of GDP. Globally, the bioeconomy could reach upwards of $4 trillion by 2040, according to projections done by McKinsey & Company. But, biotechnologies and the manufacturing technologies capable of producing them at scale—in short, biomanufacturing—will also be crucial to achieving a decarbonized economy. This is most evident for agriculture.
Existing biotechnologies like plant genetic engineering and modification already play an important role in U.S. agriculture. As my colleague, Emma Kovak recently wrote: “Biotechnology and breeding are important ways to improve agriculture: they make the plants we grow and animals we raise for food healthier, better tasting, able to thrive under changing weather conditions due to climate change, create less food waste and pollution, and emit fewer greenhouse gasses.” To be sure, biotechnology alone will not be able to solve the world’s food and emissions problems on its own. But, when combined with improvements in farm management, equipment, and other conventional crop breeding, biotechnology can help make agricultural systems more productive, resilient, and low-carbon.
Biotechnology also has a role to play in advancing how U.S. agricultural producers provide nutrients to crops, limiting and improving the use of synthetic and other fertilizers. For example, the California biotech firm Pivot Bio genetically engineers microbes that farmers can apply to their fields to better pull nitrogen from the air, which is essential for crop growth.
And, finally, biotechnology and biomanufacturing advances have the potential to spur the creation of new kinds of foods. In particular, cellular agricultural products—real meat, dairy, and more products that don’t require the growth and slaughter of animals for production.
As other commentators and outlets have pointed out, the executive order signals the Biden administration’s legitimate interest in cellular agriculture. While the order does not mention specific agricultural technologies beyond a reference to “alternative food sources,” a post-signing press briefing specifically called out “cultured animal cells” alongside plant genetic advancements, and fertilizers, as technologies that can “improve food security and drive agricultural innovation.”
In a recent report co-published with the Good Food Institute, Ariel Ron and I argued that the United States risks falling behind other countries when it comes to developing novel meat alternatives. Countries like Israel, Singapore, China, and the Netherlands have all invested millions of dollars into the development of local alternative protein industries. The federal government has recently heeded the call for alternative protein investment—funding $10 million for cultivated meat research at Tufts University, for example—but the opportunity that the United States has to be the world leader for cellular agriculture and other food biotechnologies is too good to pass up.
Fortunately, Biden’s executive order takes seriously the need for innovation, scale-up technologies, workforce development, federal procurement, and regulatory clarity that can help the United States take advantage of the opportunity that cellular agriculture and biotechnology represent. But, the next steps are equally important. Although the order creates a strong foundation, it’s now up to Congress and the many federal agencies with jurisdiction over the bioeconomy to commit funding, reform regulatory frameworks, and take other concrete actions to make the social benefits of a strengthened bioeconomy come to life.