Fourth Industrial Revolution

How countries are redefining their bioeconomy for the future

Costa Rica prioritizes rural industries in its bioeconomy goals including agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

Costa Rica prioritizes rural industries in its bioeconomy goals including agriculture, fisheries and forestry. Image: Unsplash/Paul Einerhand

Faisal Khan
Director, Precision Medicine Lab
Megan Palmer
Senior Director, Public Impact, Ginkgo Bioworks
Matthew Chang
Executive Director, National University of Singapore
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  • Emerging technologies, particularly synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, are pivotal in accelerating the growth of bioeconomies globally.
  • Countries are adopting unique bioeconomy strategies tailored to their natural resources and technological capabilities, which shows that national policies are critical in advancing bioeconomy goals.
  • The bioeconomy is increasingly recognized as a key driver for green transformation and resilience in public health and the broader economy, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bioeconomy is the production, utilization, conservation and regeneration of biological resources, including related knowledge, science, technology and innovation. It aims to provide sustainable solutions – information, products, processes and services – within and across all economic sectors and enables a transformation to a sustainable economy.

Emerging technologies such as synthetic biology present opportunities to accelerate the growth of bioeconomies across the world while simultaneously catalyzing sustainable transformations of the global economy.

Bioeconomy policies in various countries have roots in traditional industries such as agriculture, aquaculture, livestock and forestry, as well as discussions on the sustainable use of biomass and the responsible use of biodiversity and the circular bioeconomy.

Over the past decade, with the rapid developments in emerging technologies such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence (AI), many countries are updating their policies with a tech-driven focus on leveraging their natural endowments of biological resources and transformational technologies towards greener goals in a much more scalable manner.

For instance, discussions around reusing residual agricultural biomass or urban wastewater as organic fertilizers on farms are rapidly evolving. Now, the focus is shifting from only converting biomass into biological alternatives towards high-value compounds such as squalene, which are otherwise unsustainably obtained from sharks or transforming paper waste into nylon precursors, normally derived from fossil fuels.

Dozens of countries now have holistic bioeconomy policies that integrate bio-based components across sectors and incorporate their goals for sustainability and circular economies.

The focus of these national or subnational policies depends on a wide range of factors, including their unique endowment of natural resources (that includes biomass and biodiversity), their technological competencies in and around modern-day biological sciences – a convergence of big data, biology and engineering – as well as their ambitions for the future.

Numerous international and multilateral forums exist, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Global Forum on Technology, the Engineering Biology Research Consortium Global Forum, the Global Future Council at the World Economic Forum, the international Genetic Engineering Machine Competition and its associated Responsibility Conference, and the Global Bioeconomy Summit.

These fora are driving these conversations forward. More and more countries are thinking throughand developing their own unique bioeconomy policies and roadmaps, which are critical for an equitable distribution of knowledge, skills and technologies that can aid in fostering local economies.

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Exciting examples outside the usual centres

Outside the United States, China, the United Kingdom or Japan, several emerging countries are making remarkable strides in national bioeconomy strategies.

Building on its Biodiversity Law of the 90s and numerous others after that covering biodiversity, livestock development, integral waste management and organic agriculture and lately the decarbonization plan in support of the Paris Agreement, Costa Rica has made a unique inter-ministerial effort to further a holistic bioeconomy agenda.

The country’s bioeconomy recognizes rural development as a priority, fostering primary industries such as agriculture, fisheries and forestry and safeguarding local communities. This focus is balanced with goals towards an advanced tech-driven bioeconomy and a unique approach to the urban design concept of bio-principled cities.

Malaysia has developed a comprehensive bioeconomy programme, emphasizing a biomass-driven approach to developing high-value bio inputs for various economic sectors, including agriculture, horticulture, chemicals, materials and healthcare.

The Nordic countries, endowed with substantial forests and marine biomass, naturally drive their bioeconomy policies through thesetwo sectors. They do that through primary production (agriculture and aquaculture), the use of technology for bioprospecting, improved production and sustainable processing of these resources.

South Africa, through its bioeconomy policy, has sought to expand the production of an already substantive agricultural sector, capitalizing on its rich biodiversity through responsible bioprospecting and fostering its knowledge and technology base in the biotechnology domain.

The future is tech-driven

Initially regarded as a sub-domain under circular economies, the bioeconomy is increasingly considered a key driver of green transformation across economic sectors. A bioeconomy driven by the latest technology can even offer various routes towards rural development and job creation at different skill levels, which are critical considerations for developing economies across the globe.

Oil-importing countries rich in biodiversity and biomass are beginning to leverage technologies such as synthetic biology to come up with new ways of creating high-value products using natural as well as residual (waste) biomass from different sectors such as high-performance biomaterials, bioplastics, pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals with countries such as Brazil and Argentina leading ahead of many in the bioenergy space.

Countries with advanced scientific and technological capabilities are looking into “biologizing” the industry by going a step further from value addition to replacing petrochemical-based sources of energy and chemicals with biological ones powered by advanced tools such as genomics, systems biology and synthetic biology.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, many countries had their faults exposed regarding supply chains and disaster preparedness in the face of a pandemic. Several countries have now highlighted how a strong bioeconomy infrastructure has helped or could have helped build resilience in public health and the broader economy.

However, these technologies face unresolved challenges, especially regarding the immature regulatory environment, biomanufacturing industry standards and scalability.

Bioeconomy still offers an exciting scaffold that can help governments weave together the existing bio-based parts of their economy with the opportunities provided by the latest technology, such as AI and synthetic biology. At the same time, it sets a clear and holistic direction towards a sustainable transformation, with every city, country and region playing its part towards a healthy and prosperous planet.

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

Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionEconomic Growth
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