The economic fruits of frontier life science research
We may live in the high-tech information age, but our prosperity is still very much derived from the fat of the land. In fact, the bio-economy – all those sectors which derive their products from biomass – is worth an estimated €1.5 trillion a year. Given this, it is not surprising that the KBBE is set to become one of the most important components of the EU’s efforts to forge the world’s most competitive knowledge-based economy. It will take the bud of promising life science and biotech ideas and nurture them to full blossom.
Without the rapid progress in the life sciences and biotechnology we have experienced, the knowledge-based bio-economy (KBBE) would not be possible. Indeed, few areas match the bio-sector for the breathtaking speed at which it is advancing. What may have seemed like a pipe dream – for example, regenerative medicine – just a few years ago is becoming an imminent reality.
In a few short years, we have mapped the human genome (the sequence of the billions of elements of DNA that constitute the genetic basis of our bodies) and those of plants, animals and microbes. Our growing genetic knowledge is paving the way for new gene therapies and regenerative medicines, agricultural products, foods and even materials, such as biodegradable plastics.
The appliance of science
This cutting-edge sector can lead to applications and products in a wide range of fields, such as pioneering drugs and medical treatments, new agricultural products and practices, novel foods, biodegradable materials, as well as emission-reducing biofuels.
Advanced biotechnology will, in all likelihood, lead to tailor-made foods targeted at specific consumer needs and tastes. In addition, industrial biotechnology is breaking new ground in understanding microbial biodiversity and bio-processes that could lead to valuable bio-products and bio-materials.
“As citizens of planet Earth, it is not surprising that we turn to Mother Earth – to life itself – to help our economies to develop in a way which should not just enhance our quality of life, but also maintain it for future generations,” said EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik.
Vision in full bloom
Unlocking Europe's huge potential in the KBBE requires a coherent long-term vision and consensus. It also requires proactive action on the scientific, economic and political fronts.
“The European bio-economy cannot compete on a global level by delivering only basic agricultural commodities,” Potocnik pointed out. “We must look to providing a sound institutional and financial framework, based on a rational consideration of the issues at stake.”
The European Union can do much to help Member States to work together in a cohesive and coherent fashion. This requires a holistic approach that transcends the narrow confines of scientific disciplines – blending, for example, the bio- and nano-sciences – and cuts across policy areas: from research and innovation, to trade and health and consumer affairs.
In addition, it involves bringing all stakeholders on board to chart a common course into the future. Europe cannot afford to focus exclusively on the scientific and research aspects to the detriment of social dialogue so as to ensure that science delivers what people need and complies with an acceptable ethical consensus.