The bioeconomy promises to lengthen our lives, address environmental issues, and clean up manufacturing.
In theory, the bioeconomy sounds amazing. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology, which released a blueprint boosting the idea yesterday, says the bioeconomy can help us “live long and healthier lives.” It can address environmental issues, increase agricultural productivity, and free manufacturing processes from their dirty history. It can create jobs.
But what is it?
According to the White House, the bioeconomy encompasses “economic activity fueled by research and innovation” in the biological sciences, including biofuels, genetically modified crops, and medical treatments. The United States isn’t the only country interested in investing in this type of work; the European Commission developed its own bioeconomy strategy [PDF] earlier this year. But there was a notable difference: The European vision of the bioeconomy is closely tied to responding to climate change.
One of the clearest examples of the bioeconomy and its growth potential is the biofuels sector. That's also an example that shows up across multiple definitions of the bioeconomy—from universities, governments, and independent organizations. U.S. biofuel producers already have the potential to churn out more than 13 billion gallons of ethanol per year. The biofuel industry says it’s responsible for creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But for the government, the more interesting aspect of the biofuel industry is what’s going to happen next. Scientists all over the country are working to develop crops that provide better feedstocks for biofuels—plants that grow faster and contain a higher proportion of cellulose or algae that produce biofuels directly. They’re also working on creating enzymes or bacteria that secrete enzymes to improve the biofuel production process, making it faster and cheaper. In some cases, they’re doing this work using synthetic biology techniques—designing organisms to do exactly the task they’re needed for by tinkering with genetic code.
The bioeconomy also includes such innovative projects as biodegrable plastics, allergen-free peanuts, cancer-fighting antibody therapies, enzymes that improve laundry detergent, oil-eating microbes, and drought-tolerant corn.
There are two pitfalls that accompany boosterism for these activities. Because so many of these bio-based activities rely on plants, they’re accompanied by the concerns that they’ll degrade land quality, speed deforestation, and threaten biodiversity. But there’s also the more existential problem of trying to support a group of activities so hard to define. As with “green jobs,” it’s hard to measure exactly what the bioeconomy is, much less whether it’s growing and how.