April 30, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

The bioeconomy in the news (or not)

At meetings of the BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre here at Nottingham the word ‘bioeconomy‘ crops up now and again, which is not surprising, as synthetic biology is supposed to be part of this new economy. In a blog post written in December last year the BBSRC’s Chief Executive Jackie Hunter pointed out that: “One can think of the bioeconomy as encompassing all the economic activity derived from bio-based products and processes. Such products and processes can provide sustainable and resource-efficient solutions for a range of industrial sectors including food, agriculture, chemicals, energy production, health and environmental protection. The size of the bioeconomy is truly staggering – in the EU alone the bioeconomy is estimated to be worth two trillion euros accounting for 22 million jobs, which is about 9% of the EU labour market.”

Origins of the term

While thinking about this, I came across an announcement in the context of a recent synthetic biology conference, Synbiobeta, which said: “Speaker Rodrigo Martinez, Life Sciences Chief Strategist at IDEO, is not new to the intersection of art and science. He originally coined the term ‘bioeconomy’ with Juan Enriquez in 1997.”

So I became curious and wanted to dig a bit more into the history of the term ‘bioeconomy’, where it comes from and what its current appeal may by. I first looked at Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary. Wikipedia has a short entry on the concept which repeats the origin story told above and informs us that Martinez coined the term “at the Genomics Seminar in the 1997 AAAS meeting”. We also learn that ‘bioeconomy’ stands for bio-based economy, had an early rival in the expression ‘biotechonomy’ and refers to all economic activity derived from scientific and research activity focused on biotechnology”.

The OED has not yet incorporated the word in its dictionary but one can find an entry for ‘bioeconomics’ which means ”The interaction between economics and biological systems (including human families), usually taking into account the economic value of natural resources; any of various fields of study concerned with this; (now usually) spec. a mathematical field of study concerned with the optimization of the biological and economic productivity of living resources (such as plant or animal populations) which are used commercially”.

Bioeconomy in the news

I then went and looked for the term in my trusty news data base Lexis Nexis. As one can see, a first little surge in usage occurred around 2008 and a second in around 2012, but the term really got a boost in 2014. However, amongst the 644 articles published last year only 14 were written for Major World Newspapers, of which 10 appeared in the New Straits Times, Malaysia, and two appeared in a UK national newspaper, namely in The Guardian. So, the bioeconomy is not yet a popular news item. Interestingly, the names Martinez and Enriquez are never mentioned in the news coverage I looked at since 1990.


Figure: Bioeconomy in All English Language News (Lexis Nexis)

In the news the term ‘bioeconomy’ was first used in 1992 by Bernadine Healy in the context of early speculations about the promises of biotechnology. In 1993 we find reference to ‘bioeconomy of the lakes’. Here the meaning of bioeconomy seems to be closer to the OED’s ‘bioeconomics’. The same goes for one reference made to bioeconomy in 1995 in the context of a book by Stephen Budiansky Nature’s Keepers.

In 2003 we find a new spelling of the term as ‘BioEconomy’ and from then onwards the term is increasingly used in the context of talking about the promises and later perils of biofuels and bioenergy, with a peak in 2008. This was the time when, in 2001, in the US government released a policy document entitled ‘‘Fostering a Bioeconomic Revolution’’, while in 2002 and 2004 the European Union began to focus on a ‘‘knowledge-based bioeconomy’’.

Things changed in 2012, when the focus seems to have shifted a bit from biofuels and environmental concerns to synthetic biology, innovation and growth. 2012 was the year that the UK Parliament highlighted the ‘huge potential’ of the UK’s bio-based economy and when the EU published ‘‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe”, “in which the bioeconomy is described as ‘a unique opportunity to comprehensively address inter-connected societal challenges such as food security, natural resource scarcity, fossil resource dependence and climate change, while achieving sustainable economic growth'” (for more information on various policies see this recent article by Goven and Pavone).

In the news around 2012 we find talk of “life as a technological project”, “plant based plastics”, a “post-oil bioeconomy” and much more. However, out of 1308 articles published between the beginning of 2012 and the end of 2014, 406 still refer to biofuels and only 42 to synthetic biology and 43 to genomics. It should also be pointed out that of these 1308 articles 874 are Newswires and only 176 are proper newspaper articles. This shows again that the drivers of bioeconomy news, just as with synthetic biology, are industry and academia, not yet popular interest or controversy.

Growth and responsibility – can they go together?

One of the biggest promoters of the bioeconomy in Europe is Horizon 2020, where it is seen as a way to stimulate growth and assume responsibility for how humans live on this planet: “Over the coming decades, the world will witness increased competition for limited and finite natural resources. A growing global population will need a safe and secure food supply. And climate change will have an impact on primary production systems, such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. A transition is needed towards an optimal use of renewable biological resources. We must move towards sustainable primary production and processing systems that can produce more food, fiber and other bio-based products with fewer inputs, less environmental impact and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. […] With its cross-cutting nature, the Bioeconomy offers a unique opportunity to address complex and inter-connected challenges, while achieving economic growth.”

Creating such a bioeconomy, which can square the circle between growth and responsibility for us and the planet we live on, can therefore also be seen as being at the heart of Europe’s and Horizon 2020s’ parallel drive for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). However, as public dialogue and deliberation are at the heart of RRI, a lot still needs to be done to foster such public involvement in the context of a media silence on the topic.

[This Making Science Public post also contributes to my social science work on the BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre. You can find other posts on synthetic biology here]

Image: Flickr image labelled for reuse






Posted in biotechnologyresponsible innovationsynthetic biology