Dr. Bruce Dale, Professor at Michigan State University, shared with us his thoughts on chemical engineering and biotechnology and whether or not we can achieve a biobased economy.
1. How does your work as a professor of chemical engineering relate to biotechnology?
Chemical engineers apply physics, chemistry, math and biology to meet human needs. So biotechnology is one tool for us to use to meet these needs.
2. How will biotechnology help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?
Plant material (“biomass”) is the only large scale, potentially sustainable source of the liquid fuels so important to our civilization. Biotechnology provides some very important tools for the conversion of biomass to biofuels.
3. How close are we to achieving a biobased economy? What needs to happen in order to make the transition?
It took us decades to get our society locked in a petro economy. It will take decades to get us unlocked. But we can and must do it. There are no insurmountable technical barriers. What we most need is an unwavering commitment to free ourselves from our oil addiction.
4. In a biobased economy, are food and fuel resources in competition? Why or why not?
If we continue business as usual, absolutely yes. If we are the least bit smart, creative and adaptable, absolutely not.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has released a report, “The Bioeconomy to 2030: Designing a Policy Agenda,” calling for an increased world commitment to “reverse the neglect” of agriculture and industrial biotechnology. The report states that while approximately 75 percent of the future economic contribution of biotechnology and large environmental benefits are likely to come from ag biotech and industrial biotech, they only receive 20 percent of research investments.
The report recommends a boost in ag biotech development by “increasing public research investment, reducing regulatory burdens and encouraging private-public partnerships,” and calls for the increased use of biotechnology to address global environmental issues.
Two interesting findings in the report:
“The use of biotechnology in agriculture is an evolving success story. By 2015, approximately half of global production of the major food, feed and industrial feedstock crops could come from plant varieties developed using one or more types of biotechnology.”
“Much of the future growth of agriculture will be in developing countries. These countries will need to increase their capacity to use biotechnology in order to develop improved food, feed and fiber crops that are adapted to local growing conditions.”
A new study by PG Economics finds that cost savings and yield gains from ag biotech crops have contributed as much as $44 billion to global farm income in past 10 years. The report shows ag biotech “insect resistant maize has delivered important economic and environmental benefits but only a small part of the potential benefit is currently being realized.”
Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics and author of the report writes:
“GM insect resistant maize adoption by EU farmers has contributed to reducing insecticide spraying, improved the quality of maize and significantly boosted farmers’ incomes. The technology has made important contributions to increasing yields, reducing production risks and improving productivity. These benefits are, however, being denied to farmers and citizens alike in several maize-growing EU Member States, with the biggest losers being the very countries which have effectively banned the use of the technology: Italy, France, Germany and Austria.”
Click here for the press release and full report.
Dr. Daniel Mataruka
Dr. Daniel Mataruka of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) has written an original article for the CBI blog on the role of ag biotech in Africa. Dr. Mataruka writes:
“During the past decade, Africa’s population increased from 760 to 970 million, pushing farmers to encroach on fragile ecosystems. Climate change is increasingly manifest through erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged drought spells, and unprecedented floods, making rain-fed agriculture even more risky, thus aggravating food insecurity among resource-poor smallholder farmers. Compounding this scenario are post-harvest pests that devour their meager harvests. Indeed, the challenges are great, sometimes disillusioning, but certainly not insurmountable. Under these circumstances, GM technologies have a role in addressing challenges that were previously elusive to classical breeding on its own.”
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Noel Kingsbury is a horticulturalist and writer. His latest book, Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, will be published in October by Chicago University Press.
People are simply not objective or “rational” when it comes to what science they believe, as illustrated by the different attitudes to GM in the US and in Europe. It has been the misfortune of GM technology to have arrived at a time when there is such distrust of science and the wholesale privatization of the crop-breeding industry (it used to be largely state-owned in the US, the UK, and many other European countries). READ MORE »