by Lucie McMurtry, Industrial Biotechnology Manager, EuropaBio
DNA Day is celebrated on 25 April and this year marked 70 years since the publication of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 by James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin in 1953. In addition to being one of the most notable scientific discoveries of the 20th centuries, unravelling the structure of DNA also paved the way for the development of biotechnology in research and industry. Our understanding of DNA enabled us to develop solutions for human health; improved access to the quality and quantity of food and feedstuffs and supports the move towards a bio-based and zero-waste economy.
Opportunities of the bioeconomy
Also on 25 April 2023, the Council of the EU approved conclusions on the opportunities of the bioeconomy to promote a more sustainable, competitive, and resilient Europe. In particular, the conclusions note that the bioeconomy can play a key role towards achieving the EU Green Deal’s environmental and climate goals, while also being crucial for European competitiveness and food security. The key role of research and innovation and the need to improve the alignment between scientific advances and industry policy was also stressed.
Bioeconomy refers to the use of renewable biological resources (biomass) from land and sea, such as crops, forest products, fish, animals, and micro-organisms, to produce food, materials, and energy. Biotechnology, on the other hand, integrates life sciences and engineering to support the development of biomanufacturing processes at scale. Like the double strands of a DNA molecule, biotechnology and the bioeconomy are two parts of a whole. Biotechnology is a key enabler for the bioeconomy, while the bioeconomy provides the foundation for a value chain in which biotechnology can play a role from start to finish.
Europe was a global forerunner in developing the bioeconomy, publishing its first Bioeconomy Strategy in 2012, and an updated version in 2018. While these strategies predate the Green Deal, it is crucial to continue building on their momentum to ensure policy coherence between EU goals on bioeconomy and relevant Green Deal initiatives, in particular those relating to circular economy and food systems. This is recognised in the Council conclusions, which correctly call on the Commission to “better integrate bioeconomy into all policies and ensure policy coherence” as well as to update the EU Bioeconomy Strategy and associated action plan.
Investing in our planet
Other than coinciding with the Council meeting, DNA Day also falls in the same week as Earth Day, which in 2023 has the theme “Invest in our Planet”. While the structure of DNA may seemingly have little to do with environmental protection, biotechnology, and the bioeconomy more broadly, can do much to support environmental and climate goals.
The United States recently announced an Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy which aims to grow the US economy while improving quality of life and of the environment. As part of this, the Biden administration has outlined bold goals for biomanufacturing and biotechnology targets linked to climate change solutions, food and agriculture innovation, supply chain resilience, human health, and further cross-cutting advances.  Some examples of the targets outlined include making at least 30% of chemicals through biomanufacturing processes and displacing more than 90% of plastics and commercial polymers through recyclable-by-design polymers produced from bio-based feedstocks. These ambitions are supported by over $1 billion in funding from the Defense Department.
A broader US initiative addressing climate goals is the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which offers funding, programs, and incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The EU response to the US IRA is seen as the Green Deal Industrial Plan (GDIP), which aims enhance the competitiveness of Europe's net-zero industry and support the fast transition to climate neutrality.
As part of the GDIP, the recently published Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA) is seen as a critical tool for the EU green transition and strategic autonomy. However, despite announcing that the NZIA establishes a framework of measures for strengthening Europe’s net-zero technology products manufacturing ecosystem, it focuses narrowly on renewable energy technologies. The rest of the manufacturing ecosystem, including biomanufacturing, is excluded.
The narrow focus of the NZIA might make sense when considering the scope of the US IRA. However, beyond defossilising our energy supply and ensuring its resilience, it is crucial to also consider the efficiency and overall impact of our industrial and manufacturing production processes as a key component of our net-zero ambitions. The update to the EU Bioeconomy Strategy called for in the Council conclusions should therefore aim to be as bold as the US Executive Order in order to support the double strands of bioeconomy and biotechnology and to invest in our planet.