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The US bioeconomy is worth $950 billion, and growing, thanks to these federal policies

The bioeconomy is already a strong sector for the U.S. Here’s how we ensure it's decarbonized.

Carbon neutral bio fuel decarbonization concept

Biofuel. Source: Shutterstock/Scharfsinn

Biotechnology — or the use of technology to convert plant and biological material into commodities — is not new. 

Doug Friedman, CEO of BioMADE, the Bioindustrial Manufacturing Innovation Institute, and strategic adviser for the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, told GreenBiz that U.S. biotechnology "is pushing on 40 years" as an industry.

Today, the U.S. bioeconomy — including agricultural biotech, biobased products and petroleum-alternatives — is valued at over $950 billion

Components of the bioeconomy

Biomanufacturing can affect the efficacy of many things important to a business plan, from "supply chain security, to sustainability, to environmental impacts, to workforce issues, to new technologies, to new chemicals and materials, and really everything in between," said Friedman. 

And he stresses the malleability of biotechnology. Pharmaceutical production dominates the biotech space, which is why Friedman’s current organization, BioMADE, was created.

"BioMADE is a manufacturing innovation institute," said Friedman, "focused on really helping the United States gain and expand a foothold in the manufacturing of chemicals, materials and other products outside of the healthcare universe, using biology and biological systems."

Specifically, biomanufactured products include everything from biofuels to biobased plastics.

For example, biobased, petroleum-alternative products are most commonly found in plastic and foam alternatives. Ford and Jose Cuervo Tequila are partnering to explore the use of agave byproduct as a more sustainable bioplastic than the petroleum-based norm.

Another major sector for the bioeconomy is agriculture. Agricultural biotechnology includes engineering plants to produce crops with specific biological benefits, such as weed resistance and exaggerated heat tolerance. 

"Biotech crops are helping farmers reduce their soil tillage, reduce pesticide applications, and increase crop yields per acre with the same or fewer inputs," said Lynne Finnerty, senior director of agriculture and environment at Biotechnology Innovation Organization, in an email. 

In France, Michelin and IFPEN unveiled an industrial-scale facility to produce biobased butadiene, a main ingredient in rubber. Biobased butadiene can replace the petrochemical-based butadiene traditionally used to make rubber tires. The facility can produce about 20 to 30 metric tons of biobased butadiene a year, a number on its own woefully inadequate to make a tangible impact.

"The butadiene market is measured in millions of tons per year,” said Friedman, "so how do you get to that next step so that it can have a commercial impact… to achieve the results that you want societally from biotechnology?"

Policy and the bioeconomy

The federal government and the biotechnology industry have a long history of partnership.

"The federal government has played an incredibly important role in biotechnology for decades," said Friedman, citing the development of synthetic biology technology as the product of that private/public partnership. "That happened because the federal government made some key investments across [multiple departments] over a period of decades."

That partnership shows no signs of slowing. The White House is prioritizing the sector’s development and commercialization with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and President Joe Biden’s September 2022 Bioeconomy Executive Order. 

The Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded $9.4 million to accelerate the development of biofuels in February, funded by the IRA. 

"Investing in bioenergy technologies provides a path forward to meet the growing demand for sustainable aviation fuel and other low-carbon biofuels," said Jeff Marootian, DOE principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency, in the press release.

And locally, state governments are vital to the sector’s growth. "States play a huge role in permitting and development work," explained Friedman. 

BioMADE itself is a product of a private/public partnership with the federal government. "BioMADE exists because the U.S. government decided that industrial biomanufacturing needed to be a national priority," said Friedman.

The organization has since made strides in accelerating the bioeconomy.

"We’ve been working very closely with the state of Minnesota, which last year established a pool of funds up to $100 million to help establish a biomanufacturing campus… to allow companies to build their production scale manufacturing facilities there," said Friedman of the first-of-its-kind project.

What’s needed to move forward

"The regulatory environment for commercializing biotech needs to be more clear," said Friedman, when asked how policy can accelerate the commercialization of the decarbonized bioeconomy, "There is just a lot of uncertainty about how to navigate… how do I get from here to building a manufacturing facility?"

Finnerty agrees: "The administration needs to follow through with concrete policy action, including streamlining and expediting regulatory pathways for technology — the regulatory phase of developing and commercializing a new biotech plant trait takes an average of 16.5 years."

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