Last week, President Biden signed an executive order to bolster the bioengineering industry, launching the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative.
Biotech permeates almost every industry and presents opportunities to make them more sustainable. Specifically, as the White House Fact Sheet puts it, with biotechnology, we can program microbes to make specialty chemicals and compounds, a process called “biomanufacturing.”
In turn, these advances have allowed industries to “embrace biomanufacturing as an alternative to petrochemical-based production—to make things like plastics, fuels, materials, and medicines.”
This initiative’s potential expands across sectors, fueling the bioeconomy in the health, agriculture, and energy industries in order to mitigate climate change.
Through a myriad of measures such as expanding market opportunities for bio-based products, supporting the research and development of biotech, training its workforce, and streamlining regulations, the federal government ultimately aims to propel us into a bioeconomy.
Essentially, a bioeconomy is circular, sustainably producing renewable biological resources, and converting these resources and their waste into commodities like food, feed, bio-based products, and bioenergy.
It's important because not only does it create a value chain that hinges on sustainability, but, as seen in the case of Italy, it has a butterfly effect on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and restoration efforts.
In 2017, Italy developed a national bioeconomy strategy. In 2018, agriculture and food were at the center, estimating a value of more than $400 billion. In 2019, the strategy was revised with the goal of increasing the performance of the Italian bioeconomy by 15% by 2030.
And in 2021, a paper accessing the country’s regional performance for sustainability goals, noted that Italy’s growing bioeconomy prompted improvements along the three pillars of sustainability: 1) reducing dependence on fossil fuels and finite materials, 2) reducing loss of biodiversity and changing land use, and 3) contributing to environmental regeneration, along with spurring economic growth and supporting jobs in rural, coastal and abandoned industrial areas.
A Congressional Research Service primer on the bioeconomy presents the Italian bioeconomy as a case study on the value of bioeconomics. Its importance, as explained in a 2022 analysis, is to decouple industries from fossil fuels and ultimately lower our emissions.
In the case of bioplastics, the analysis – published in the journal Sustainable Horizons — reports that conversion limits ecological degradation and marine pollution, and effectively, rethinks the entire value chain by focusing on recyclability and resource recovery.
The executive order is aimed at ensuring the industries remain in America as they develop cutting-edge technologies to, for example, address cancer.
However, while biotechnology is typically thought of as an industry that mainly serves healthcare and pharmaceutical purposes, the White House is stressing that it can help achieve other administration goals beyond increasing cancer survival rates.
Among the biotech measures outlined in the executive order, it also aims to boost sustainable biomass production and create climate-smart incentives for American agricultural producers and forest landowners, appropriating $2.8 billion in funds to the Department of Agriculture for 70 partnerships for climate-smart commodities and rural projects.
The executive order could serve as one of the first catalysts in the lofty goal of “rethinking” value chains to contribute to our net-zero efforts.
“The power of biotechnology extends far beyond health care,” said a White House official in E&E News. “It will enable us to reinvent America’s supply chains, transitioning away from chemicals that rely on oil towards cleaner, safer, and more reliable alternatives that we make right here at home.”
The executive initiative from the Biden administration will funnel billions into areas like sustainable aviation fuels, providing a boon to companies like LanzaJet, Gevo, Aemetis, and several other U.S. startups.
This acceleration comes from new funding for initiatives like the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge, organized jointly through the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Transportation and USDA. Its goal is to leverage the estimated 1 billion tons of sustainable biomass and waste resources in the United States to fuel the development of domestic supply chains for fuels, chemicals, and materials.
These supply chains are being developed now by companies like Mobius, which is creating taxonomies for identifying the valuable components in food waste and creating ways to process them.
The White House claims that these efforts will lower prices for American families, especially in times of global supply chain turbulence.
Benefits extend beyond biochemistry to the burgeoning U.S. market for cultivated meat. An array of companies including Upside Foods, Just Foods' Good Meat, (FootPrint Coalition-backed) Wildtype, and Aleph Farms, are looking to bring cultivated meat -- meat grown from cell cultures rather than from a living animal -- to U.S. consumers before the end of the year.
One of the problems these companies face is scaling up to meet demand with enough facilities to replace the thousands of pounds of meat that are currently grown on factory farms around the country.
Part of the solution could come from $1 billion in bio-industrial domestic manufacturing infrastructure that the Department of Defense is funding over the next five years (and the same funding could boost operations for Cemvita and Solugen).
Couple that dual-use manufacturing build out with work from the Department of Agriculture to make $500 million available in funding for alternative fertilizer production, and the nation is taking big steps toward the construction of the infrastructure it will need.
“America has an opportunity to lead the world in building a new, healthier, and more sustainable approach to making meat," said Eat Just chief executive Josh Tetrick in an interview with PlantBased News. "It's critical for our food security, for our manufacturing and technology base, and for our moral leadership. I applaud this week’s bold move by the White House.”
And (not to lose sight of the forest for the trees) the nation's forests are getting a second look as a potential source of sustainable, renewable building materials. Earlier this year, the USDA announced $32 million for wood innovation and community wood grants, leveraging an additional $93 million in partner funds to develop new wood products and enable effective use of U.S. forest resources.
The DOE also plans has nearly half-a-billion dollars in grants and funding for research efforts in biotechnology, bioproducts, and biomaterials along with money to explore the conversion of biomass to fuels and chemicals, including R&D for improved production and recycling of biobased plastics.
Taken together, it's a massive commitment to an industry that will have to play an important role in reducing reliance not just on fossil fuels, but on all the products that come from derivatives of the oil and gas industry globally.