I returned this week from Ravello, Italy where I participated in the 19th Applied Agricultural Bio-Economy Research (ICABR) conference. Ravello is one of the “100 places you must see before you die”. Located atop Amalfi Bay and near Naples, it is a village full of colorful gardens, magnificent palacios, great restaurants, and a modern conference center where our meeting was held.
The conference focused on the bio-economy, the environment, and development. There were many interesting presentations during our meetings, but I want to concentrate on the remarkable keynote speakers we had: Sir Partha Dasgupta, Dr. Chris Patermann, Professor Guiseppe Novelli and professor Matin Qaim.
Sir Partha Dasgupta is one of the important economists of the post World War II era. He is the leading thinker on environment and development, and started a journal with this title. He is alarmed by current rates of environmental degradation—in particular, we extract 30% more biomass (living matter) than is regenerated by nature. This rate of extraction is not sustainable. He suggests that the excessive depletion is resulting from externalities—the unintended consequences felt by others as a result of the actions taken by individuals and organizations. These externalities may result from over consumption in the developed world and high rate of population growth in developing countries. Sir Partha suggests a mix of remedies including collective action and moral persuasion that will lead to eliminating the excess depletion of biomass.
Technological improvement must also contribute to the immense effort required to eliminate depletion of biomass, especially when we realize that we must also pursue strategies that enable developing countries to grow. We need industries that will increase the rate of biomass regeneration and reduce the rate of its extraction, and bioeconomy can make major contributions to this end. The term bioeconomy has many definitions. My working understanding is that bioeconomy includes the segments of the economy that rely on biological processes to produce industrial products.
According to another keynote speaker, Dr. Chris Patermann, who for many years, was in charge of the environmental research program of the European Commission, and is considered the “Father of Bioeconomy in Europe”, the knowledge based bioeconomy will replace chemical processes with more environmentally friendly biological technologies—and will provide improved solutions to medical problems, climate change, depletion of raw materials, and environmental resources. According to Dr. Patermann, the bioeconomy is producing 9% of the EU’s GNP, but it is in its infancy and the EU needs to invest significantly in research and development and incentives for investments that would further build this sector. The EU bioeconomy policy is influenced by political considerations. The definition of bioeconomy in Europe does not include agriculture, which is surprising. Many of the future products of the bioeconomy will be farmed, including fuels and industrial oils. Genetic modification and gene editing have been major enabling tools for the bioeconomy. Unfortunately, banning their use in the EU will reduce the effectiveness of the bioeconomy there. As usual European politics have prevented countries from taking full advantage of a new capability created by human knowledge.
Professor Giuseppe Novelli, President of University of Rome Tor Vergata also gave a compelling keynote presentation in which he explained the significance and potential of new biological knowledge. According to Professor Novelli, a noted biologist, the new tools used for molecular biology discovery of DNA provide a basis for transition from ad-hoc to systematic methods of development of solutions to problems of living systems. According to Professor Novelli, genetic mapping and new genetic tools (GMOs, gene editing, and gene silencing) increase the precision of solutions for medical and agricultural problems. The greater precision of the molecular tools allows us to achieve our goals with fewer undesirable side effects. Furthermore, as our knowledge improves, we are witnessing something akin to Moore’s Law, where the cost of biotechnology research processes declines significantly over time. Professor Novelli doesn’t see the rationale for the much heavier regulatory burden placed on agricultural biotechnology compared to medical biotechnology. He suggests that sound, but lighter, regulation of agricultural biotechnology can significantly enhance human welfare.
Professor Matin Qaim’s presentation provided an overview of the performance of biotechnology thus far. The results of a recent study suggest that GMO varieties increase yields, reduce pesticide use, and increase farmer profitability in corn, soybeans, and cotton. The benefits were greater in developing versus developed countries; in India, much of the benefits of adoption of GM cotton have accrued for the poor, subsistence farmers. There is evidence that adoption of GMO seeds reduced diseases and saved lives of farm workers. Finally, the use of GMO varieties didn’t reduce crop biodiversity over time as measured by number of distinct varieties.
The debate over the future of GMOs and biofuels are only part of the many emerging applications of biotechnology. We learned, for example, that improved geographic information systems and monitoring technologies would allow for better utilization of biological controls that address plant diseases and invasive species. There a growing number of applications that use algae to produce food and fuel simultaneously, as well as, attempts to use various organic methods to produce natural gas. Finally, while the conference emphasized the potential of the new bioeconomy, we enjoy, during our stay in Italy, pleasure of the old bioeconomy: great wines, cured meats (prosciutto), fine cheeses…and wonderful bio-resources (vistas) of Ravello and Capri.