Does the Knowledge-based Bio-economy add up?
BIO4EU report contains fundamental flaws
Bioscience Resource Project Commentary: June 10 2007 http://www.bioscienceresource.org/commentaries/brc5.php
Experts do not have an entirely unblemished record of predicting the future of agriculture. In the 1950s it was envisioned that agriculture would be irrigated with water from icecaps that had been melted by nuclear explosions, this water (naturally) would be stored in ponds, also "dug" by nuclear explosions. In the 1970s another generation of experts were predicting an era of remote control tractors and multi-story farms. Electromagnetic ploughing would prepare the soil for crops that would require only half an inch of recycled water per year and specially coated seeds would be blasted from pipes into crop-specific patterns channelled by underground magnetism (1).
More recently, official predictions of the future have been more biological in character and centred on the "knowledge-based bio-economy" (KBBE). This concept has been embraced by the European Union and governments around the world and is based for the most part on biotechnology. One report (2), published in 2004, by the strategy and policy unit of the EU Directorate General for Research, presents its vision of 2025 thus:
Below are some of the features of that future world.
"It is said that money does not grow on trees, but more of our economic prosperity will be based on agricultural produce. Not only will farmers grow food for a larger population, but much of the economy will also be based on the raw materials they grow: new foods, biofuels, and biomaterials. They will become the gatekeepers of the bio-based economy."
"With attractive careers and investment prospects, farming and its spin offs will trigger a migration away from the cities and back to the countryside. This new agricultural class will make up the backbone of a prosperous and lively rural community away from the stress of urban life."
"[food] exports from Europe... will be essential to meeting fast-growing demand in China"
Nevertheless, despite extensive diversion of agricultural land to biofuels and biomaterials, and Europe's simultaneous switch from a net importer of food to a net exporter, Europeans will not go hungry. On the contrary:
"As more wild plants are cultivated and new food products are created, culinary culture will witness an unprecedented renaissance. Consumers will have a bountiful choice of tasty fruit and vegetables with good shelf life. As enjoying and experimenting with food becomes an important part of culture, interest in junk food will wane."
Perhaps as a result of predictions such as this, many countries (even many less-developed nations such as S. Korea, Nigeria and Malaysia) have developed significant programmes aimed at promoting or enticing investment in the biotechnology sector. The European Union, for its part, has funded approximately 400 million euros for plant biotechnology research for the period 1982-2007 (excluding applications like biofuels and pharma crops and spending by individual governments) (3) and this funding is continuing under the recently adopted Framework Programme 7 (FP7).
The BIO4EU Study
In 2005, detecting a deficit of reliable data supporting the KBBE vision, particularly data that was biotechnology-specific and focussed on jobs created and benefits gained, the European parliament commissioned a report (which has come to be called "BIO4EU") into the "status, opportunities and challenges of modern biotechnology" and which was to include an assessment of biotechnologies' contribution to meeting social and environmental goals. This report has just (April 2007) been launched (4).
The BIO4EU report merits careful study from an agricultural point of view as it represents an important contribution to the midterm review of the European Union's Biotech Strategy, which was adopted in 2002. New targets, as part of the review, will be agreed by Industry and Research Ministers this spring, thus setting the orientation and funding of biotechnology policy at EU level for some years to come.
The publication of BIO4EU also provides a useful opportunity to dissect the emerging vision of the centrality of a KBBE to the future of the EU. What is the current status, and what are the current benefits, of biotechnology? Exactly how will biotechnology impact farming, the environment and society more generally? Is growth through modern biotechnology more sustainable than ordinary economic growth? Will it contribute decisively to the overall development of a sustainable society?
The Future Prospects of Modern Biotechnology
A flawed assessment of the current impacts of biotechnologies and a failure to consult potential sources of contradictory evidence would not seem to leave BIO4EU well placed to predict future trends. Nevertheless, such defects do not automatically preclude it from providing useful or accurate predictions for the future.
The remit of the BIO4EU report means that it has licence to take a position on the big picture prospects of biotechnology and the executive summary of BIO4EU includes the following statement of what it considers the sustainability credentials of biotechnology. Modern biotechnology, says BIO4EU "provide[s] an opportunity to break the link between economic growth and pressure on the environment."
What then specifically are the technologies that will enable this remarkable delinking of the economy and the environment in agriculture? BIO4EU's list of emerging technologies for agriculture and primary production comprises the following: plants for non-food purposes (both GM and non-GM, including biofuels, bioplastics and molecular pharming), GM animals (for organ transplantation, novel compounds and pets), animal cloning (for food, pets, sports animals and endangered species), improved diagnostics, biosensors, GMO monitoring and improved vaccines.
There are several points worth noting about this list, the first being that, although listed under agriculture, many of these applications have no significant connection with farming (sports animals, pets, endangered species, xenotransplants). Secondly the list is partially redundant, cloned animals for instance, will likely be GM animals since the purpose of cloning is likely to be in propagating transgenic animals. But perhaps the most significant feature of this list is that, with the exception of novel crop traits for food, feed and fuel, all of these applications have extremely limited potential, either to provide employment or to impact significantly on the environment. Molecular pharming, xenotransplants and biosensors, may make a modest contribution but BIO4EU again provides little evidence, or argument, that any of these are going to revolutionise farming, let alone liberate us from the constraints of our environment.
For biofuels, GM and other "resource-efficient biotechnologies", which might theoretically make a significant contribution to sustainability, one expects that a proposition as bold and prominent as BIO4EU's linkage-breaking argument would have been discussed and supported at some length in the report. This is not the case however and the de-linking proposition is never explained further.
Furthermore, BIO4EU does not consider worth mentioning that, even restricting the discussion to carbon emissions, the linkage-breaking argument has a number of obvious and potentially fatal constraints. Among them, land availability, the conversion efficiency of crops into fuel, effects on food prices and a dependence (particularly with respect to biofuels) on technologies that are not yet available and perhaps may never become available. Neither does BIO4EU discuss some of the more general issues raised by this proposition, such as that improvements in resource efficiency may loosen the connection between growth and environmental damage, but they in no way break the fundamental linkage. Also not discussed is that much of the discussion of second generation biofuels is of farm "waste". It is doubtful however if there exists such a thing, at least that is not merely an artefact of farm inefficiency. In efficient farming systems there is little waste as residues are principally used to maintain soil fertility.
On economic issues also, BIO4EU sometimes pushes the envelope of optimism to breaking point. Included in its list is GMO detection (for the purposes of labelling) as an example of important economic opportunities of modern biotechnology. Aside from the fact that it is hard to see the GMO detection industry ever becoming a dominant force in the EU economy, GMO detection is seen both by most of industry and most consumers (though for different reasons) purely as a burden. Including GMO detection in a list of economic benefits seems no different to arguing that crime has benefits since it boosts the economy by increasing the need for police officers and prisons.
As a further example of the future benefits of modern biotechnology, BIO4EU proposes that vaccines produced by modern biotechnology will displace antibiotic use in agriculture thereby avoiding further spread of antibiotic resistant pathogens. On one count at least, this is a strange assertion. BIO4EU elsewhere expresses total confidence in EU regulatory procedures, and it is curious therefore to find (unreferenced) the implication that current EU regulators are failing to protect public health from spread of antibiotic resistance.
Although extremely positive in its tone, BIO4EU thus provides little hard evidence for the future importance or sustainability of the KBBE. It is therefore interesting that two other recent analyses have taken a more sober view of the future prospects of biotechnology. A recent study (3), by Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), of industry and Commission figures on job creation and competitiveness in agribiotech reports that industry competitiveness in both the EU and US is proving disappointing, market diversity and innovation are being stifled by concentration, and that, even in the US, which has historically invested much more into biotechnology there are few products on the market. On job creation, there are fewer than 97000 biotechnology jobs in the European Union, of which 80% are in the health sector. Furthermore, despite 25 years of EU research funding being channelled into agribiotech, EU research has contributed to few products, and globally, only two GM crop traits (Bt and Herbicide-tolerance) have achieved significant commercial success. The promises of other products have largely failed to materialise.
A recent report of the Institute for the study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society (7) on the future of modern biotechnology in healthcare presents a not dissimilar picture of biotechnology in medicine. Despite a high level of public investment and strong support from governments, extreme optimism and dashed hopes have characterised the field.