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Biotechnology: From transforming healthcare to transforming our planet

green bean sapling hold by tweezer in lab with color coded DNA

Beyond medical applications, biotechnology is the dark horse technology that will be key in addressing planetary challenges. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Brynne Stanton
Lead, Bioeconomy, World Economic Forum
Cassandra Padbury
Project Fellow, Bioeconomy, World Economic Forum Geneva
Becky Donaldson
Project Fellow, Bioeconomy, Capgemini Invent
Chris Yates
Project Fellow, Bioeconomy, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Biotechnology

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  • Biotechnology’s reach extends beyond the generation of life saving treatments to provide innovations that address critical planetary challenges.
  • Alternative forms of biotechnology are responsible for often subtle yet transformative contributions to our daily lives.
  • Biotechnology beyond medicine is actively helping us to achieve the SDGs in an inconspicuous yet powerful fashion at a time when meaningful progress is crucial.

Medical biotechnology (red biotech) has been transformative to our overall health and life expectancy, but leveraging biology as technology isn’t limited to breakthroughs in medicine alone. Biotechnology is being applied in ways that provide substantial impact on advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Whilst specialists and non-specialists alike are often familiar with biotechnology delivering critical breakthroughs for life-threatening diseases, alternative forms of biotechnology are quietly making waves and delivering innovative, high tech solutions to some of the biggest challenges brought on by the current climate crisis. The enabling technologies underlying both groundbreaking healthcare treatments and environmentally-conscious industrial alternatives are identical, yet the latter is often overshadowed by their medical counterparts.

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Here we’ve highlighted under-the-radar forms of biotechnology, with an eye towards showcasing these innovations as they pave the path to providing sustainable, scalable alternatives to some of the most pressing, climate change-induced challenges society faces.

Transitioning to a circular economy

Advocates of the circular economy assert that harvesting and processing raw materials is typically more energy intensive and damaging to the environment than keeping products or materials circulating through reuse and remanufacturing. At the same time, global supply chains are becoming increasingly volatile due to climate change and geopolitical conflicts. The circular economy offers opportunities to address resource challenges, sustainability challenges and supply chain volatility. However, it can be challenging to achieve economic viability due to the low quality and non-homogenous nature of many common waste streams.

Another branch of biotechnology, white biotech (also known as “industrial biotechnology), focuses on sustainable alternatives for industrial processes. This approach offers eco-friendly methods to treat and upcycle waste streams. For example, “bioleaching” is a process whereby microbes are used to extract metals from ores and electronic waste thereby removing these hazardous molecules from the environment.

To address the challenge of economic viability, precision engineering and high-throughput screening tools are leveraged to ensure the microbial-based processes are consistent, reliable, and robust across a range of environments. There are several companies at various stages of commercializing microbial processing for e-waste but the core technology has already been scaled to produce copper and other metals from low-grade ores. Akin to the example provided here, innovations in white biotech are poised to play a pivotal role in advancing SDG12: Responsible Consumption and Production.

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Phasing out fossil inputs

Fossil fuels play a central role in powering our daily lives, from heating and transportation to the goods we use, and serve as inputs in the production of cosmetics, appliances, and other common commercial goods. However, the burning of fossil inputs is also recognized as the single largest contributor to climate change globally, and accounts for nearly 80% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Preserving at least 60-90% of remaining fossil fuels is required to prevent catastrophic, irreversible levels of global warming. Given the undeniable contribution to the climate crisis, it is vital for all sectors to reduce their reliance on fossil inputs and adopt alternative commercial processes that enable the world to transition towards renewable energy and fuels.

Embracing biotechnology as the world’s go-to commercialization technology serves as a pro-environment alternative that permits industries to move beyond fossil inputs and deliver progress on the SDGs. Mobility represents one area where biotechnology has already been quietly delivering sustainable commercial alternatives. Serving up another example of white biotech, bioethanol is produced via precision fermentation and leveraging largely agricultural byproducts. Furthermore, it can be blended with conventional fuels up to 10% without requiring engine alterations. With a projected market size of over $80 billion in 2023 alone, bioethanol represents an alternative form of non-medical biotechnology that is leading the pack to deliver both SDG7: Affordable & Clean Energy and SDG13: Climate Action.

Ensuring food security as the climate changes

The worsening climate crisis is also impacting the ability to feed an expanding global population, and in 2022 the Horn of Africa experienced its most severe drought on record. Resulting in crop loss and extreme hunger, 1.3 million individuals migrated from the region and abandoned their farms. Alongside climate-induced disasters, conventional agricultural practices contribute significantly to global emissions, with fertilizer production and overuse releasing nocuous chemicals and GHGs into the environment.

Although not widely recognized, agricultural biotechnology (green biotech) is equipping us with tools to address these challenges. Specifically, introducing insect-resistant traits into crops in Kenya allowed growers in this region to stave off catastrophic crop failures during extreme drought while using only one-quarter of the usual insecticide. Meanwhile green biotech also provides alternatives to industrially produced conventional fertilizers that traditionally rely on fossil inputs.

In each of the above examples, precision genome engineering tools are harnessed to bolster nature-encoded activities that enhance yields. For the latter, such tools are leveraged to enhance a microbe’s natural ability to pull nitrogen from the air and reconfigure it into fertilizer that is molecularly indistinguishable from the industrially produced counterpart (the latter being responsible for roughly 1% of the world’s annual GHG emissions). Owing to these and other rapidly evolving agricultural innovations, green biotech is crucial for progressing SDG2: Zero Hunger.

Harnessing the power of biotechnology

The examples above represent only a fraction of the underrecognized ways in which biotechnology is progressing the sustainable development goals. With numerous potential solutions on the horizon, overcoming key technical and systemic barriers are paramount in delivering upon the full potential of a truly sustainable and commercial bioeconomy. The World Economic Forum’s Bioeconomy Initiative aims to do precisely that: advance the bioeconomy into the commercial mainstream to deliver scalable, sustainable alternatives and improve the state of the world by facilitating collaboration across geographical, sectoral, and societal barriers.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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