A Bio-Based Society?
21 Sep, 2007 12:32 pm
Biotechnology may not be the first thing people think of when asked for a solution to the major issues of our time such as pollution, global warming or the depletion of fossil resources. But here?s an interesting idea: what if we could step away from fossil fuels and started making products from renewable resources instead? What if plants, or better yet, agricultural waste would do the trick? Just think of it: we would have environmentally neutral resources to fuel our cars or heat our homes. And we could grow it in our own backyards.
Things are never that easy, however. If we think things through a bit further, urgent questions appear on the horizon. Just as we use an enormous amount of oil today, we would have to grow an awful lot of plants tomorrow. Where do we grow them? On land which is today used to produce food - but then where would the food come from? How do energy and emissions balances play out if we take a product’s total life-cycle into account? What impact will the move towards a bio-based society have on employment or mobility? There are no easy answers here, especially since it depends in part on a science yet to be discovered and social structures yet to be developed.
Technologies don’t just grow on trees. There is a long line of development from scientific investigation to end product, involving research, finance, development and regulation. Technologies evolve, they can be enhanced or inhibited or steered into certain directions. Who decides on the direction to take? Whose concerns are taken into account? And what are the potential implications of these decisions? At a point where considerable investments are being made in research towards new products and processes, the wider issues need to be considered. We certainly won’t find the answer in a crystal ball; but we can set out the general conditions under which the technology can be developed responsibly.
For just this reason, a group of expert scientists, philosophers and policy makers gathered in Brussels in 2004, 2005 and 2006 to discuss the potential implications of the bio-based society. Their aim was to draft a commonly agreed agenda that provides concrete directions for research into the bio-based society. The meetings were organised by the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation, a major Dutch research consortium involved in research on micro-organisms (yeast, fungi and lactic-acid bacteria).
The participants decided on the following recommendations. First of all, we need to be clear about the evidence base on which to take decisions. Which facts and figures do we have to make comparisons? And which do we still need? What is the current state of the art in science? Once we have the answers, we can build a roadmap for future developments, showing the different choices in the technology and discuss the implications with a wide group of stakeholders. What do consumer and environmental organizations or industries think? And how can we ensure that the decisions that are taken are acceptable to the citizens of our society? Timely negotiations on the impact of emerging technologies may stimulate involvement instead of engendering resentment. But public involvement has proven to be very difficult to achieve, and therefore further social research into new methods is needed. Finally and perhaps most importantly, if reducing the environmental burden is the aim, then sustainability should take a central role: combining economic considerations with concern for our society and environment.
These meetings resulted in an action plan. But it shouldn’t stop there. The Kluyver Centre aims to follow up on these recommendations by further investigations into the scientific opportunities as well as the social considerations. There may be a long way to go before the bio-based society becomes a reality. We believe that taking into account the wider issues with each of the steps we take, will help to address some of the environmental and social issues in moving towards that aim.
The full report of the Future Issues workshops recently appeared in the special issue “Talking Biotech with the Public” from the Biotechnology Journal. It can be downloaded for free from their website throughout September 2007. In this way the publisher Wiley-Blackwell wants to show its commitment to an open public dialogue. To download, please follow this link:
Benner, M. and H. Loefgren, 2007. The Bio-economy and the Competition State: Transcending the Dichotomy between Coordinated and Liberal Market Economies. New Political Science, 29(1): p. 77 - 95.
Hatti-Kaul, R., U. Törnvall, L. Gustafsson, and P. Börjesson, 2007. Industrial biotechnology for the production of bio-based chemicals - a cradle-to-grave perspective. Trends in Biotechnology 25(3): p. 119-124.
Schuurbiers, D., P. Osseweijer, and J. Kinderlerer, 2007. Future societal issues in industrial biotechnology. Biotechnology Journal, 2(9): p. 1112-1120.