Biotechnology: Toward a Sustainable Future

Sustainable development is no small undertaking for international companies looking to meet today’s energy, food and environmental needs without compromising the Earth’s resources or its future. The innovative solution these corporate leaders are turning to is biotechnology, whether it’s to augment agricultural productivity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create an innovative disease therapy or diminish the use of pesticides.

That biotechnology is providing the building blocks for a sustainable future is no surprise to BIO and its member companies. Many have been touting the value of biotechnology in ensuring a sustainable future for years.

“Sustainable development has been increasing in importance,” says Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president of the Food and Agriculture Section at BIO. “I think biotech companies across the board recognize the importance of making products, whether it’s flat-screen televisions or drought-resistant seeds or new drug therapies, in a manner more sustainable than they’ve done it in the past.”

The focus has been on finding strategies to slow the use of nonrenewable resources, such as oil and mineral ores, to allow time for substitutes to be found and to avoid using renewable resources, such as water, soil and trees, faster than they are replenished. At BIO, sustainability cuts across all sections and has prompted the Food and Agriculture and Industrial and Environmental sections to work collaboratively on initiatives to promote sustainability.

Many of BIO’s members are well versed in sustainability because they use it as a guiding principle in managing their companies and developing innovative products. It is a driving force in their marketing efforts as well, especially as consumers become wary of resource-depleting practices. Biofuels are a good example of sustainability principles in action: As world leaders worry about exhausting finite oil reserves and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, biotech companies have promoted biofuels as a trusted and “green” alternative to traditional gasoline.

“Biofuels could play a big part in our low-carbon future for this country and around the globe,” says Brent Erickson, executive vice president for the Industrial and Environmental Section at BIO. “We’d actually be taking carbon dioxide out of the air through plants, which we’d then use to make biofuels. It is a sustainable solution to our energy needs for the long term.”

Groundbreaking biotech research is making it possible for companies to come up with novel ways to create biofuels from new sources such as sawdust, rice hulls, almond hulls and municipal waste, Erickson says. But industrial biotechnology is doing more than just making biofuels. It is also transforming a wide variety of industrial processes that make everything from detergents to blue jeans, vitamins to antibiotics. Its greatest promise, however, is its ability to alter the manufacturing process itself, ultimately reducing pollution, conserving natural resources, trimming costs and speeding new “greener” products to market.

“Industrial applications of biotechnology are transforming manufacturing processes in a profound way,” says Erickson. “They are providing the green technology tools needed for sustainable development in the industrial sector, eliminating wastes and pollutants and safeguarding our natural resources.”

Similar work is being done by companies that are concerned about feeding the world. Sustainability has been a byword for two decades both down on the farm and in Washington, where it made its national policy debut in the 1990 Farm Bill.

While some groups have been reluctant to accept biotechnology as part of the solution, it is increasingly clear to business and government officials alike that environmental and energy challenges demand a sustainable approach — one in which biotechnology principles are used to solve the world’s most intractable problems.

“We have clear statistics showing that biotechnology has increased yields, which translates into more food, and that translates into more income for the farmer, which is not only important here in the United States but in developing countries around the world,” says Bomer Lauritsen. “Agricultural biotech, with an eye toward sustainability, lessens the environmental footprint of agriculture through improved soil, cleaner water, fewer pesticides and reduced use of fuel.”