Interest in the concept of a bioeconomy—as a research topic and as a focus of economic, technology, and security policy—has grown rapidly over the past 20 years. The number of research publications referring to the bioeconomy (or closely related terms) began to grow in the mid-2000s (Birner, 2018; Bugge et al., 2016; Golembiewski et al., 2015; Nobre and Tavares, 2017) (see Figure 2-1). To date, more than 40 countries have developed formal strategies for promoting their bioeconomies (Dietz et al., 2018), in addition to efforts to harmonize national measurements of the bioeconomy and its contribution to the overall economy (Bracco et al., 2018; EC, 2018; Parisi and Ronzon, 2016).
What accounts for this recent surge in interest and activity? After all, humans have been growing crops, raising livestock, brewing beer, burning wood for fuel, and using timber for building for millennia. And humans have been gathering biological materials to test their nutritional and medicinal potential for even longer. Economic activity surrounding the use of biological resources remains a fundamental part of modern economies. Indeed, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries (along with mining) are referred to as “primary sectors” of national economies.
Three factors have contributed to this recent interest in the bioeconomy. First, advances in biological sciences and biotechnology hold the
promise of valuable, new commercial applications, as well as new paths toward existing product types. Three developments in particular—genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, and high-throughput molecular operations facilitated by robotic technologies—“transformed the practice and potential of biological research” (U.S. OSTP, 2012, p. 7). Thus, biotechnology has become a new area of international technological and economic competition (Gronvall, 2017; Langeveld, 2015; Li et al., 2006; Meyer, 2017; U.S. OSTP, 2012). Second, substitution of exhaustible fossil fuels with renewable biological resources to produce electricity, fuel, and chemical-based manufactured products became a priority to serve a variety of policy objectives in many countries (de Besi and McCormick, 2015; Dietz et al., 2018; McCormick and Kautto, 2013; Staffas et al., 2013). These objectives included rural economic development, energy self-reliance, and climate change mitigation. Third, genetic materials and biodiversity have increasingly been viewed as inputs to the discovery and production of new pharmaceuticals and other biobased products (Barbier and Aylward, 1996; Ivshina and Kuyukina, 2018; Perrings et al., 2009; Sasson and Malpica, 2018; Sedjo, 2016; Simpson et al., 1996; Trigo et al., 2013; Valli et al., 2018). Genetic resources serve both as a source of materials and as blueprints for the design of new commercial compounds (Mateo et al., 2001).
Dr. Bernadine Healy, then director of the National Institutes of Health, used the specific term “the bioeconomy” in speeches dating back to 1992 (Healy, 1992a,b; Nerlich, 2015). In her 1994 commencement address at Vassar College, Healy (1994, p. 13) observed:
A revolution in the life sciences will also go way beyond medicine into agriculture, chemical production, environmental sciences, micro-electronics. Biotechnology will be creating jobs that we don’t even have names for yet. And they will be high-paying, high-demand jobs—and intellectually satisfying ones. New industries will emerge that will be a growing source of national economic strength and world leadership. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the twenty-first century will be based on a bioeconomy.
Juan Enríquez and Rodrigo Martinez are credited with later using the term “bioeconomy” at a 1997 scientific conference (Birner, 2018; Maciejczak and Hofreiter, 2013; Petersen and Krisjansen, 2015; von Braun, 2015; von Hauff et al., 2016). These sources also cite a 1998 article in Science by Enríquez, “Genomics and the World’s Economy,” that, although not using the term “bioeconomy” specifically, emphasizes the scientific, technological, and economic implications of innovations in genomics that allowed for the study, design, and construction of economically important molecules (Enríquez, 1998).
The article by Enríquez (1998) emphasizes key economic implications of advances in genomics. Boundaries between the agribusiness, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries were blurring as the potential for complementary technological applications spurred a wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions. According to Enríquez, “The objective of the life science company is no longer to generate breakthroughs in a single area such as medicine, chemicals, or food, but to become a dominant player in all of these.” Indeed, companies with histories in agricultural, chemical, and pharmaceutical production merged, reorganized, and acquired seed companies (and their stocks of crop germplasm) to expand into the development and sale of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties (Bonny, 2014; Deconinck, 2019; Howard, 2015; Maisashvili et al., 2016; Schimmelpfennig et al., 2004). These changes in scientific and business models would transform the energy sector, as plant-based energy sources would begin to substitute for fossil fuels. Enríquez heralds the rise “of a new economic sector, the life sciences.”
Over the past 25 years, U.S. agriculture has illustrated the transformations that Enríquez envisioned, with significant changes in both how new crop varieties are developed and how crops are used. Sales of GM crops now account for roughly half of total U.S. crop sales (see Chapter 3 for more detail). The U.S. energy sector has also seen the shift toward plant-based fuels that Enríquez envisioned. Today, more than one-third of the corn and soybean crops produced in the United States is used for fuel (see Chapter 3). The United States is now the world’s leading producer of biofuels, followed by Brazil and the European Union (EU) (Le Feuvre, 2019).
The remainder of this chapter explores different definitions of the bioeconomy used by governments and academics, which can be characterized according to three different visions of a bioeconomy’s purpose: a biotechnology vision, a bioresource vision, and a bioecology vision. The chapter then reviews the approaches taken to define a landscape of what is included in the bioeconomy. Next, the committee reiterates from Chapter 1 its definition of the U.S. bioeconomy and presents a high-level review of what the U.S. bioeconomy landscape looks like based on this definition. The chapter ends with the committee’s conclusions with respect to defining the U.S. bioeconomy.
Around the world, government bodies, scholars, and private business organizations continue to develop new definitions of the term “bioeconomy” to communicate which life sciences–related economic activity they are referring to. As noted in Chapter 1, there currently is no globally accepted consensus definition of the term. The wording some entities use is vague, with the bioeconomy being referred to as “a notion” (Bugge et al., 2016), “an
emerging concept” (Wesseler and von Braun, 2017), and a “policy concept” (Birner, 2018), while “the definitions have shown to evolve in a relatively short period of time” (McCormick and Kautto, 2013), with different definitions being classified in terms of different “visions” (discussed below) (Bugge et al., 2016; Pfau et al., 2014). Yet, “it remains unclear what the bioeconomy is” (Scordato et al., 2017), and “there seems to be little consensus concerning what bioeconomy actually implies” (Bugge et al., 2016).
Some earlier studies discuss or provide tables and lists of alternative definitions of the bioeconomy (e.g., Bugge et al., 2016; Maciejczak and Hofreither, 2013; Meyer, 2017; Staffas et al., 2013). Box 2-1 provides a sample of bioeconomy definitions from publications of national governments and international organizations. This set is not exhaustive, but representative of the variety of definitions employed. A common theme is the use of biological resources. Definitions vary in terms of the emphasis they place on new uses of these resources (e.g., energy, material production) and whether traditional activities (e.g., food production) are considered. They also vary in the explicit use of the term “biotechnology,” but that term is usually included.
Many countries have developed separate strategies for promoting biotechnology and biobased production, which relies on the substitution of biological resources for fossil fuels. Over time, these separate strategies have been combined under an overarching concept of the bioeconomy (Staffas et al., 2013). As the number of definitions of the bioeconomy grows, the value of cataloguing definitions diminishes. There has been a shift in emphasis from simply listing definitions to studying the variation in definitions themselves to understand common and divergent components (Bracco et al., 2018; Bugge et al., 2016; Pfau et al., 2014; Staffas et al., 2013). Some of this research has included bibliometric analysis of publications on the bioeconomy (Birner, 2018; Bugge et al., 2016; D’Amato et al., 2017; Golembiewski et al., 2015; Nobre and Tavares, 2017). Bibliometric studies provide detailed analyses regarding which fields of science, regions, and institutions are conducting research defining the bioeconomy.
The committee chose to characterize different definitions based on an approach adopted from Bugge and colleagues (2016), who catalog the definitions in terms of three different visions of a bioeconomy’s purpose: (1) a biotechnology vision, (2) a bioresource vision, and (3) a bioecology vision (Devaney and Henchion, 2018; Scordato et al., 2017; Wreford et al., 2019):
- Under the biotechnology vision, activities in the bioeconomy center around generating scientific knowledge enabled by the purposeful manipulation of DNA, with production processes operating at the molecular level, the commercialization of such
processes, and the development of new commercial products through biomanufacturing.
- The bioresource vision involves the conversion of biomass and biological materials (e.g., crops, trees) into sources of power and/or new products, such as bioplastics or biofuels.
- The bioecology vision “highlights the importance of ecological processes that optimize the use of energy and nutrients, promote biodiversity, and avoid monocultures and soil degradation” (Bugge et al., 2016, p. 1). Among biodiversity-rich countries, the bioecology vision emphasizes conservation of biological diversity and promotion of ecosystem services. Here, a country’s natural endowments of biological diversity may provide raw materials or blueprints for pharmaceutical prospecting (Barbier and Aylward, 1996; Ivshina and Kuyukina, 2018; Perrings et al., 2009; Sasson and Malpica, 2018; Sedjo, 2016; Simpson et al., 1996; Trigo et al., 2013; Valli et al., 2018).
These three visions are discussed in further detail below.
Under the biotechnology vision, recent advances in biotechnology are prominent aspects of the bioeconomy, as exemplified in the National Bioeconomy Blueprint of the United States (Carlson, 2016; U.S. OSTP, 2012). With the release of the Blueprint in 2012, the United States became the first country to describe biotechnology as a key driver of the bioeconomy. After a long period of countries formulating new bioeconomy strategies that did not feature biotechnology, over the past year new “biotechnology” bioeconomy strategies have been released by Canada (Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, 2018), Germany (Federal Ministry of Education and Research and Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 2020), Japan (Japan’s General Council for Science and Technology Innovation, 2019), and the United Kingdom (HM Government, 2019). Biotechnology is seen today as a new area of technological and economic competition (BioteCanada, 2009; Gronvall, 2017; Langeveld, 2015; Li et al., 2006; Meyer, 2017; U.S. OSTP, 2012).
The approach to defining the bioeconomy under the biotechnology vision is example driven, highlighting specific production processes or products. A challenge of this technology-based definition approach is that many of the novel technologies or products involved have been deployed in more traditional economic sectors, such as agriculture and forestry. This raises questions about whether to focus the definition on the inclusion of newer applications, such as GM crop varieties, or to consider all crop
and forest production as part of the bioeconomy. For example, studies by Li and colleagues (2006) (of China), Lee (2016) (of China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan), Carlson (2016), Trigo and colleagues (2013) (of Latin America), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2018), along with the U.S. National Bioeconomy Blueprint (U.S. OSTP, 2012), consider the diffusion of GM crops as a performance indicator of the bioeconomy. In contrast, EU countries tend to consider all crops as part of the bioeconomy, with no special tracking or consideration of GM crops. This approach could be related, in part, to the fact that the growing of GM foods is banned in many individual EU countries (GMO Answers, n.d.).
Countries vary in their approach to health fields. While most definitions consider biobased pharmaceuticals to be part of the bioeconomy, the United States and China focus on a wider set of medical applications. For China, Li and colleagues (2006) emphasize not only (human and animal) vaccines, but also genome sequencing, gene therapies, tissue-engineering products, and health immunological diagnosis. In this respect, this definition mirrors many of the applications discussed in the U.S. National Bioeconomy Blueprint (U.S. OSTP, 2012). Finland and Nordic countries emphasize nutraceuticals and functional foods designed to promote health (Dubois and Gomez San Juan, 2016).
Countries also vary in their emphasis on measuring biotechnology-related research and development (R&D) activity and applications, with Canada, China, and the United States giving it greater emphasis (BioteCanada, 2009; Carlson, 2016; Li et al., 2006; U.S. OSTP, 2012). Generally, European countries deemphasize biotechnology R&D, with notable exceptions being studies from Germany (Ehrenfeld and Kropfhäußer, 2017) and Sweden (Statistics Sweden, 2018). Some studies have also included bioleaching applications in the mining industry as part of the bioeconomy (Juma and Konde, 2001; Li et al., 2006; Matyushenko et al., 2016; Pellerin and Taylor, 2008).
The bioresource vision of the bioeconomy focuses on substitution for the fossil fuel–based production of electricity, fuel, and chemical manufacturing. A key goal is the development of new value chains for traditional biological resource–based industries (Bugge et al., 2016). Countries consistently include such activities in their definitions of and strategies for the bioeconomy. Countries, however, differ in terms of the emphasis they place on climate change mitigation, meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), energy security, and rural economic development as motivations for bioresource substitution (Bracco et al., 2018; Bugge et al., 2016; Dietz et al., 2018; Dubois and Gomez San Juan, 2016; Wreford et al., 2019).
U.S. agencies do not have a consistent set of technologies or economic activities to include in biobased production. The 2015 BioPreferred report to Congress of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (Golden et al., 2015) evaluates seven biobased product industries contributing to the U.S. economy: agriculture and forestry, biorefining, biobased chemicals, enzymes, bioplastic bottles and packaging, forest products, and natural-fiber textiles. It excludes agriculture for food, feed, or biofuels production, as well as pharmaceuticals. New forms of biobased manufacturing (such as biobased manufactured products) accounted for only 8 percent of direct value added (value added summed over all industries equals national gross domestic product [GDP]) from biobased production. Logging, timber, and wood products accounted for 81 percent of value added, while cotton production and cotton-based textiles and apparel contributed 11 percent. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Billion-Ton report (Brandt et al., 2016), which focuses on bioresource supply potential, considers a broader array of technologies and products, including biobased chemicals, ethanol, biodiesel, anaerobic digestion, woody biomass and wood waste, and landfill gas.
The bioecology vision of the bioeconomy emphasizes “the importance of ecological processes that optimize the use of energy and nutrients, promote biodiversity, and avoid monocultures and soil degradation” (Bugge et al., 2016). Recycling and reuse of biological (and other resources) is also emphasized. In this respect, the bioecology vision of the bioeconomy shares features of the circular economy. EU economic policies are increasingly focused on a circular economy concept whereby use of resources is maximized and waste is minimized, instead of a “linear economy,” in which “take,” “make,” and “dispose” are primary elements. A circular economy employs a regenerative approach that includes design for longevity, reuse, repair, and recycling as foundational elements. Scholars have argued that the circular economy and bioeconomy represent distinct but complementary practices (Carus and Dammer, 2018; Wesseler and von Braun, 2017), with the bioeconomy placing greater emphasis on the role of biological science and processes, while certain biobased energy production and consumption are considered external to the circular economy (Carus and Dammer, 2018).
Not surprisingly, the term “circular bioeconomy” has gained traction in the European Union, and policies are being developed to maximize the use of biobased resources regarded as wastes (such as agriculture and forestry residues), with the long-term objective of gradually replacing fossil-based production with biobased (Philp and Winickoff, 2018; Reime
et al., 2016). A move toward a circular economy, particularly one with an increased use of biobased wastes, would further entangle disparate sectors for those attempting to assess or define the bioeconomy.
Biodiversity, commonly defined as the variety of living organisms within their natural environments, is relevant to understanding the bioeconomy in several contexts. First, the richness of biodiversity provides for a healthy and sustainable planet for life on Earth. Second, the traditional means of leveraging inherent biodiversity has benefits and economic value. Half the yield gains in U.S. field crops since the 1930s have been attributed to genetic improvements, including those harnessing biodiversity through crossbreeding (Huffman and Evenson, 1993). Natural products, derived from plants and animals, remain a basic source of many pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals such as insecticides. Soejarto and Farnsworth (1989) estimate that roughly one-quarter of prescription drugs contain some natural products, and this percentage increases when one considers traditional medicines used in developing countries (Simpson et al., 1996). The molecular structures of natural products also serve as blueprints for or as leads in the development of compounds (Frisvold and Day, 2008; Mateo et al., 2001). In addition to pharmaceuticals, the array of chemical structures provided by natural products has acted as a starting point for many novel herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides (Sparks et al., 2016). Third, the ability to mine and manipulate biodiversity through metabolic engineering and synthetic biology is fueling components of a purposeful bioeconomy that could be regarded as creating a novel, “digital” or “synthetic” realm of biodiversity in the form of biological tools and marketable products.
Biodiversity can be thought of as a rich, indirect resource that feeds into all components of the bioeconomy. Conversely, a loss of biodiversity could represent costs in the form of missed or unrealized opportunities for the bioeconomy. Most U.S. agricultural crops are monocultures. The practice of growing single varieties of crops can increase vulnerability to pests and pathogens and diminish services provided by a flourishing ecosystem. Proponents of the bioecological vision of the bioeconomy often stress the need for diversity with respect to which crops are grown, how crops are grown, and their genetic composition (Bugge et al., 2016).
Traditionally, biodiversity has been leveraged for benefits in different ways across numerous sectors. Desired agricultural traits depend on selection from broad genetic diversity within a species. This diversity is important in the identification of desirable genetic traits that are used and selected for in marker-assisted breeding programs, a process in which genetic sequences guide the agricultural selection process. More recently, the tools of synthetic biology and biotechnology have been applied to convert biodiversity both within and across species to a demonstrable level of direct economic benefit.
Genomic sequencing of a diversity of living organisms enables the identification of genes that could be employed in the creation of genetic pathways and circuits, using metabolic engineering to create high-value compounds. What can be created is limited only by the diversity of pathways that can be discovered. While it is likely that the bulk of the potential of biodiversity remains undiscovered, industry exploration of the biodiversity space began in earnest with the discovery of natural-product pharmaceuticals, and has continued in recent years (Gepts, 2004; Naman et al., n.d.). For example, the recently initiated Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) seeks to sequence, catalog, and characterize the genomes of Earth’s eukaryotic biodiversity over a 10-year period (Lewin et al., 2018).
Reconciling Visions of the Bioeconomy
The above three different visions of the bioeconomy are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Countries formalizing bioeconomy strategies almost uniformly emphasize the substitution of biological resources for fossil fuel–based production (fundamental to the bioresource vision). Many (e.g., Canada, China, Germany, Latin America, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States) simultaneously emphasize the role of biotechnology (Arujanan and Singaram, 2018; Carlson, 2016; Li et al., 2006; Trigo et al., 2013). In contrast, some applications of the bioecology vision explicitly reject GM crops as part of the bioeconomy (Bugge et al., 2016).
While different countries and studies may place a different emphasis on these three visions, there are cases in which one can find examples of all three. For example, the United States has produced several documents emphasizing different visions. The National Bioeconomy Blueprint, with its emphasis on biotechnology and health applications, corresponds most closely to the biotechnology vision (U.S. OSTP, 2012). The 2015 USDA BioPreferred report to Congress (Golden et al., 2015) and DOE’s Billion-Ton report (Brandt et al., 2016), by emphasizing substitution of renewable biological resources for fossil fuels, correspond more closely to the bioresource vision. Lastly, by informing research issues such as risks to biodiversity from climate change, the EBP (Lewin et al., 2018) corresponds to the bioecology vision.
Defining the Bioeconomy Landscape
Attempts to assess the contribution of the bioeconomy and develop performance metrics for bioeconomy strategies invariably lead to decisions about which economic activities to include and exclude as direct bioeconomy components (i.e., how the landscape of the bioeconomy is defined). Such categorization is an intermediate step before the contribution of the bioeconomy
to the total economy of a country or region is measured (see Chapter 3 for discussion of measurement issues). As with the varying conceptual definitions of the bioeconomy around the world, there is no consensus across countries, or even country ministries or academic practitioners, concerning the bioeconomy landscape or how to measure it.
Because the bioeconomy is not encompassed in a discrete set of economic sectors but spans multiple sectors, developing a landscape definition is challenging. Yet, most attempts at least have a common starting point. First, certain sectors are considered wholly within (e.g., biotechnology R&D) or outside of (e.g., steel manufacturing) the bioeconomy. What remains is a set of “mixed” (Ronzon et al., 2017), “partly included” (Lier et al., 2018), or “hybrid” (Ronzon and M’Barek, 2018) sectors. For example, the production of soy printer ink (part of the larger printing ink manufacturing industry) would be part of the bioeconomy, as would bioplastics (part of a large plastics manufacturing industry).
Distinct differences in defining the bioeconomy landscape are seen between North American studies and those done for EU countries and Japan. Whereas Box 2-1 reviews differences among definitions of the bioeconomy in different countries, Table 2-1 illustrates the diversity of various approaches to outlining a landscape reflective of these definitions or approaches to measurement, although it is not meant to be exhaustive. This table highlights a number of academic and third-party approaches, including several used to study the U.S. bioeconomy. The final column in the table lays out the landscape outlined by this report (discussed in detail below).
EU studies tend to use a relatively broad definition of the bioeconomy landscape, including sectors in their entirety that produce or fundamentally rely on biologically produced materials. For example, not only are primary sectors (other than mining) included, but also food, beverage, tobacco, and wood products manufacturing. Although EU ministries have identified research and innovation as a key indicator, biotechnology R&D is often excluded from the bioeconomy landscape in EU countries (Ehrenfeld and Kropfhäußer, 2017). In the United States and Canada, there has been greater emphasis on applications of biotechnology, biological R&D, and substitution of biobased for fossil fuel–based products in manufacturing within traditional sectors. Primary sectors (agriculture, forestry, and fisheries) are largely excluded from the bioeconomy, with the exception of GM crops and crops grown for energy production (Carlson, 2016).
Lier and colleagues (2018) conducted a survey of ministries from EU member states tasked with monitoring the performance of the
TABLE 2-1 Sectors Included, Excluded, or Partially Included in the Bioeconomy in Selected Studies
|Industry||Daystar et al., 2018/U.S.||Ernst and Young, 2000/U.S.||Carlson, 2014/U.S.||de Avillez, 2011/Canada||Pellerin and Taylor, 2008/Canada||Hevesi and Bleiwas, 2005/New York||Ehrenfeld and Kropfhäußer, 2017/Saxony||Ronzon et al., 2017/EU||Loizou et al., 2019/Poland||Natural Resources Institute Finland, 2019/Finland||Wen et al., 2019/Japan||Causapé, 2017/EU||Smeets et al., 2013/EU||Philippidis et al., 2014/EU||NASEM/U.S.|
|Beverages and tobacco||—||—||—||+||+||—||—||++||++||++||++||++||++||—|
|Leather and products||—||—||—||—||—||—||++||++||+||—||—||++||++||—|
|Plastics and rubber||+||—||+||—||—||—||—||+||+||+||—||—||+||—||+|
|Other physical, engineering, and life sciences R&D||—||+||+||+||—||+||+||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||+|
|Druggists’ goods (wholesalers)||—||—||—||+||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|Agriculture supplies (wholesale)||—||—||—||+||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|Water treatment and supply||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||+||—||—||—||—||—|
|Nature tourism, hunting, fishing||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||+||—||—||—||—||—|
NOTES: + = a sector in which some activities are included; ++ = a sector that is wholly included; E = an emerging sector in which some commercial-scale applications are anticipated in the near future. Blank cells represent industries not included in the bioeconomy at all.
bioeconomy or developing bioeconomy strategies. Respondents were asked which activities were completely included, partly included, or not included in the bioeconomy sector (see Table 2-2). Combining results from responding countries, 15 different industries were identified, although not all countries included the same industries. Only 3 of the 15 industries were listed as completely included in the bioeconomy by all respondents: agriculture, the food industry, and forestry. For the other 12 industries, countries differed on their level of inclusion. Most, but not all, countries included aquaculture, fisheries, wood products manufacturing, and pulp and paper manufacturing as wholly in the bioeconomy. Some ministries also included hunting, nature-based tourism and recreation, transportation of biobased products, and even some construction activities as either wholly or partly in the bioeconomy, as there was even less agreement here.
Although not treated as an economic activity or sector, most ministries identified “investment in research and innovation” as a key indicator of performance for their bioeconomy (Lier et al., 2018). This is different from the approach taken by Sweden, which explicitly includes research and experimental development in biotechnology as a sector as part of the bioeconomy (Statistics Sweden, 2018). Similarly, Ehrenfeld and Kropfhäußer (2017) found that 18 percent of firms within the Central German bioeconomy were categorized under scientific R&D industry codes.
Trade-offs are involved in adopting narrower versus broader definitions of what activities are included in the bioeconomy. If one adopts a broad, highly inclusive definition, the bioeconomy is dominated by mature economic activities (e.g., manufacturing of wood furniture) that (as yet) involve neither applications of biological research or biotechnology nor the substitution of biological for petrochemical resources. Adopting a broader definition has the advantage of including the totality of such sectors as agriculture, forestry, wood manufacturing, and food processing. These sectors are already characterized and defined in national income accounts and recorded regularly in government statistics. This facilitates measurement, but measures of the bioeconomy heavily weighted toward such mature sectors may indicate that the bioeconomy is a shrinking share of economic activity, incomes, and wages over time.
In contrast, a narrower definition, based more on biological innovations, may be better equipped to track innovation and dynamism within mature sectors. For example, under a narrower definition of the bioeconomy, forestry may not be included. Yet, as adoption of future biotechnology applications (NASEM, 2019) progresses, activities within the forestry sector would increasingly be included in the bioeconomy. Likewise, innovations in cellular agriculture could bring more activities within livestock production or food processing under the umbrella of the bioeconomy.
TABLE 2-2 Results of a Survey of European Union Ministries on Which Industries Are Included, Partly Included, and Not Included in the Bioeconomy Sector at the National Level
|Pulp and paper||++||++||++||++||++||++||—||++||++||+||++||++|
|Transportation of biobased products||+||++||++||++||+||—||—||+||+||—||++||—|
NOTES: + = a sector in which some activities are included; ++ = a sector that is wholly included. Blank cells represent industries not included in the bioeconomy at all.
SOURCE: Lier et al., 2018.
Yet, if one adopts too narrow a definition of what to include in the bioeconomy, it becomes more difficult to anticipate changes brought about by scientific discovery and technological innovation, which in turn makes it more difficult to track the growth and performance of the bioeconomy in consistent ways over time. For example, advances in biological innovations and biological applications of informatics are leading to rapid technological change in agriculture. Thus, decisions concerning what is included in or excluded from the bioeconomy will need to be determined and adapted regularly. This will create challenges for data collection, measurement, and tracking of bioeconomy performance across countries and over time.
Moreover, the third element of the committee’s Statement of Task was to “outline metrics commonly used to identify strategic leadership positions in the global economy and identify areas in which the US currently maintains leadership positions and is most competitive.” Defining the bioeconomy too narrowly could make international comparisons of bioeconomy performance more difficult as other countries harmonized toward broader definitions of and metrics for bioeconomy performance. For example, extensive efforts are under way to develop harmonized measures of the bioeconomy among EU countries (Bracco et al., 2018; EC, 2018; Parisi and Ronzon, 2016). As discussed above, EU countries tend to include more entire economic sectors in their definitions of the bioeconomy relative to North America. Data on these aggregate sectors are collected in a common way across countries. It would therefore be possible (though nontrivial) to construct measures of the U.S. bioeconomy that would be comparable to those being developed by other countries. Quantitative measurement issues are discussed in detail in Chapter 3.
As discussed in Chapter 1, the committee has adopted the following definition of the U.S. bioeconomy:
The U.S. bioeconomy is economic activity that is driven by research and innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology, and that is enabled by technological advances in engineering and in computing and information sciences.1
This definition encompasses all products, processes, and services that interact with or are built specifically for “research and innovation in the life
1 For the purposes of this report, the term “life sciences” is intended to include the biological, biomedical, environmental biology, and agricultural sciences.
sciences and biotechnology.” It is intended to be flexible enough to anticipate the inclusion of new advances and applications within the life sciences and all of biotechnology, such as the use of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) technology for genome editing or developments in cellular agriculture. Additionally, the committee’s definition references the impacts other disciplines have had on the life sciences. As explored in Chapter 1, the fields of engineering have enabled high-throughput experimentation, while the computing and information sciences have greatly enabled the collection, analysis, sharing, and storage of biological information. These enabling technologies have changed the face of research in the life sciences and will continue to open up new avenues for R&D.
The emphasis this definition places on biotechnology is reflected in Table 2-1 and Figure 2-2, as all biotechnology R&D is included in the landscape laid out by this report’s definition. Additionally, the table includes Es representing sectors with emerging applications that are currently in the R&D phase but have potential for commercial application in the near future. As these applications continue to develop, there will be a need for continual reassessment of whether new and emerging fields, or existing fields undergoing technological advancement, belong in the bioeconomy. An example is forestry, which currently would not be included in the U.S. bioeconomy based on the fact that the extent to which biotechnology or the use of produced biomass for fermentation is used in relation to the industry in the United States is not thought to be significant at this point. However, a recent report of the National Academies (NASEM, 2019) lays out a potential future for the use of biotechnology in promoting and protecting forest health, which would therefore make forestry an important contributor to the bioeconomy.
A number of new and exciting products and biotechnologies, all of which would be included in the above definition of the bioeconomy, are outlined in both the National Academies’ report Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology (NASEM, 2017) and the Engineering Biology Research Consortium report Engineering Biology (2019). Examples of biotechnology products (and the companies that produced them) that fall within the bioeconomy include platform technologies for creating engineered strains of microorganisms designed to perform specific biosynthetic functions (CB Insights, 2017; Kunjapur, 2015); microorganisms developed to clean up the environment by recycling metal or acting as environmental biosensors; clothing made from biosynthetic spider silk (Kunjapur, 2015); and meat alternatives made with biosynthetic protein additives from yeast, such as the hemoglobin used to add a “meaty” flavor (Brodwin and Bendix, 2019). To further clarify how the above definition informs the bioeconomy landscape, material examples from different sectors, and the rationale for their inclusion, are presented below.
According to the committee’s definition, the U.S. bioeconomy includes most crops, because many crops grown in the United States interact with biotechnology or research in the life sciences during their life cycle. The committee identified four main criteria for inclusion within the agriculture sector: (1) the use of genetic engineering when creating a strain or seed, (2) the use of advanced molecular biology techniques for marker-assisted breeding programs, (3) the use of large informatics databases and computational techniques for either breeding applications or enhanced land-use capabilities (i.e., precision agriculture), or (4) the use of plant biomass in a downstream bioprocessing and/or fermentation process utilizing recombinant and synthetic DNA technologies. The computational approaches mentioned in the third of these criteria include breeding capabilities such as accelerated breeding techniques and examination of genomes to plan genetic crosses. Additionally, computational techniques can enhance land use when drone or artificial intelligence technologies are used to help with everything from water management to weed and pest scouting. The committee would exclude any crop varieties that do not meet these four criteria from its assessment of the U.S. bioeconomy.
The committee also applies the first three of these criteria for agricultural animals. In March 2019, the United States gave approval to AquaBounty, a biotech company that grows GM salmon, to start growing and selling those fish in the United States (Bloch, 2019). Already approved and sold in Canada, AquaBounty salmon are enhanced to grow at twice the rate with half the nutritional requirements of normal salmon, with no loss in nutritional value to the consumer (Bloch, 2019). While products from genetically engineered land animals have not hit the U.S. market, a great deal of research has focused on engineering desirable traits into animals and insects. For example, researchers have engineered cattle that are heat-resistant to help them survive in warmer climates (Ledford, 2019), as well as cattle that are “polled” (meaning without horns), making it safer for both their human handlers and the cattle themselves, as the process of dehorning is painful and dangerous (Akst, 2016). Insects are being developed as both a food source and a means of pest control. Examples include a company using farmed insects for protein in products such as pet food (Burwood-Taylor, 2019) and a genetically engineered moth used for pest control for cabbage (Zhang, 2017). These products are included in the bioeconomy, and will start to make larger economic contributions as they clear regulatory hurdles.
Additional examples of animal products included in the bioeconomy include “lab-grown meats,” also known as “cellular agriculture.” While not the same as a classic “meat alternative,” “lab-grown” meat is “the use of animal cell culture technology to grow animal tissue directly from animal cells, rather than from a live animal” (Saavoss, 2019). This is a process by which
muscle cells are cultured from biopsies to produce the exact composition of animal meat without the need for animal husbandry—another example of meat that relies heavily on new biotechnologies and would therefore be included in the bioeconomy.
Any medical products or services resulting from R&D, or innovation, in the life sciences fit within the committee’s definition of the bioeconomy. All pharmaceuticals require R&D before being approved and allowed onto the market. The research required to produce a final product frequently includes the drug discovery paradigm of using biological information and processes to obtain an initial product that is iteratively tested, screened for safety and efficacy, and produced at scale. Increasingly, engineering approaches are used to identify a starting drug molecule. These processes include automated screening of large chemical libraries to identify a starting drug molecule and in silico screening of molecules in the binding regions of important protein targets. All of these steps require “research and innovation in the life sciences,” meaning all pharmaceutical products, and the processes used in their discovery, are included in the bioeconomy.
The use of biological R&D is equally important for the creation of medical devices. Some medical devices require the extensive use of newly developed biotechnologies and the most current biological research. For example, there are many iterations of the brain-controlled robotic arm, including a new version that does not require invasive surgery but instead uses a noninvasive brain–computer interface (Durham, 2019). Other devices under development—such as cell-based biosensors for diagnosis and lab-grown organoids—rely heavily on advances in human biology. Because all medical devices have life science R&D in their life cycle, their inclusion in the bioeconomy is warranted.
As with the downstream fermentation processes in agriculture, any product or chemical produced using a biosynthetic or semibiosynthetic route utilizing recombinant DNA technology is included in the bioeconomy. However, any chemical manufactured through strictly chemical synthesis is excluded under this definition. An example that highlights the biosynthetic versus chemically synthetic processes for producing a chemical is the common industrial additive 1,3-propanediol. Using GM bacteria to convert a sugar-based starting product into the desired chemical (Biebl et al., 1999), this product can be produced at large scale for a number of common fiber applications, such as added durability for carpets and rugs (DuPont Tate and Lyle
BioProducts, 2006). This example illustrates a chemical previously produced through chemical synthesis that is now being produced primarily through a biosynthetic process. Currently, it is difficult to parse out what fraction of the total production of a manufactured chemical is made through a fermentation versus a chemical synthesis process, making it challenging to measure the contribution of certain chemicals to the bioeconomy.
Cross-Cutting Tools, Kits, and Services
Any tool, kit, or service that supports or enables the advancement of biotechnology or life sciences research is included in the U.S. bioeconomy landscape, with the recognition that it can be difficult to decouple tools or services that function both within and outside the defined parameters of the bioeconomy. A clear example of a supporting tool is any software used specifically in life sciences laboratories. Software such as SnapGene, which is used to view and analyze genetic sequences, would be included because it is a computing technology that functions primarily to advance research in the life sciences. In contrast, standard word processing software, while still useful in a scientific setting, would be excluded because of its wide range of other uses. Another tool with examples both within and outside of the bioeconomy is datasets and databases. The number and size of datasets have continually increased as the technologies for acquiring data have advanced. This makes life science–specific datasets, such as databases of genomic sequences, a valuable component of the bioeconomy (as discussed further in Chapters 5 and 7).
Life sciences–specific instrumentation, such as pipetting robots, is also included in the bioeconomy. Other instrumentation important across all bioeconomy sectors is DNA sequencing and synthesis technologies. Many of the products and services described in this landscape rely on the ability to sequence and synthesize DNA with increasing speed and at increasingly lower costs (NASEM, 2017; also discussed in more detail in Chapter 5). It is important to note that some instruments, such as mass spectrometers, are critical to the bioeconomy while also serving scientific purposes that are completely outside the scope of the bioeconomy. Mass spectrometers are the workhorse instruments in the field of proteomics, an important field of life science. Additionally, the instruments are critical to the field of chemistry in helping with many tasks, including the analysis and identification of small-molecule products. Because of these differing functions, parsing out the economic contributions of mass spectrometers to the bioeconomy becomes difficult.
In addition to various tools and instrumentation, any services that exist to advance biotechnology and the life sciences are included in the scope of the bioeconomy. Examples include the bioscience patent lawyers
that help move new biotechnologies through the complex system of patent laws (Carlson, 2014). Bioscience patent lawyers provide an expertise that is specific to the bioeconomy by understanding both patent law and the biotechnologies they are guiding through the patent process. The specificity of their expertise differentiates the services of these lawyers from other, more general services that are also important to biotechnology and the life sciences but require no biotechnology-specific knowledge or training. These lawyers are included in the bioeconomy because they provide an indispensable service that directly and specifically helps move new biotechnologies onto the economic market.
Moving Forward in Defining the Landscape
As discussed in relation to specific products, it can be difficult to measure the economic activity related to the bioeconomy for products that have multiple uses. At high levels of aggregation used to report U.S. GDP, several U.S. sectors would be treated as mixed or hybrid sectors, with some activities within and others outside the bioeconomy: agriculture (GM crops); utilities (biomass electricity); food and beverage and tobacco products (bioengineered products); chemical products (pharmaceuticals, biobased chemical products); plastics and rubber products (e.g., bioplastics); professional, scientific, and technical services (biotechnology R&D); and ambulatory health care services (e.g., certain medical laboratory services).
At finer scales of sector definition than those used to report GDP, industries are classified in the United States, Canada, and Mexico in terms of North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes and in the European Union according to Nomenclature générale des Activités économiques dans les Communautés Européennes codes. The process of defining the bioeconomy landscape (whereby sectors are excluded, wholly included, or partially included in the bioeconomy) can be repeated at this finer scale. For example, R&D in biotechnology (NAICS 541714) or biomass electric power generation (NAICS 221117) would be considered within the bioeconomy, while printing ink manufacturing (NAICS 325910) would be a mixed sector, with soy ink production being included in the bioeconomy.
Even at finer scales of definition, many sectors of the U.S. economy will still be mixed (i.e., only some activities included in the bioeconomy). A common approach for addressing this is to conduct industry surveys to determine which type of production within a sector may be “biobased” (e.g., Golden et al., 2015; Ronzon et al., 2017; Wierny et al., 2015). For example, plastics manufacturers might be surveyed to determine how much of their employment and production is devoted to bioplastics, and this subset of bioplastic production would then be included in the bioeconomy. Another approach would be to seek changes in the definition of NAICS codes to
better capture bioeconomy activity (see Chapter 3 for further discussion of NAICS codes).
This chapter has reviewed the history of the study of the bioeconomy as a topic of research. It has highlighted the variety of approaches taken by scholars and governments in defining the bioeconomy as a concept. In researching and understanding definitions used by other countries and academics, as well as previous definitions used by the United States, the committee decided to take a broad approach to defining the bioeconomy while making sure to include new enabling technologies.
Conclusion 2-1: The committee has adopted the following definition: “The U.S. bioeconomy is economic activity that is driven by research and innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology, and that is enabled by technological advances in engineering, computing, and information sciences.”
For the purposes of this report, the term “life sciences” is intended to be inclusive of the biological, biomedical, environmental biology, and agricultural sciences. The above definition is meant to be inclusive of new and emerging technologies and products in the life sciences. This chapter also has recognized the importance of wording other definitions based on the economic view of the government or group writing the definition. With this in mind, it is important to point out the differences in narrow and broad definitions of the bioeconomy.
Conclusion 2-2: Trade-offs are associated with adopting narrower versus broader definitions of what activities are to be included in the bioeconomy.
If one adopts a broad, highly inclusive definition, the bioeconomy is dominated by mature economic activities that are not driven by life science and biotechnology research and innovation or are not substituting fossil fuel–based with biological resource–based production. One must also be careful lest the definition make it more difficult to anticipate changes brought about by scientific discovery and technological innovation, which will in turn make it more difficult to track the performance of the bioeconomy in consistent ways over time.
The third part of the committee’s Statement of Task was to “outline metrics commonly used to identify strategic leadership positions in the global economy and identify areas in which the U.S. currently maintains
leadership positions and is most competitive.” In light of the above considerations, the committee drew the following conclusion:
Conclusion 2-3: Defining the bioeconomy too narrowly will make international comparisons of the performance of the bioeconomy more difficult, as other countries are harmonizing toward broader definitions and metrics for bioeconomy performance.
The broader definitions of other countries inform a landscape that is more inclusive and can be more easily compared across economies relative to a narrower definition. The next chapter continues to explore tools for measuring the U.S. bioeconomy, in addition to methods of comparison for leadership in the bioeconomy among different countries.
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