This year marks the 15th anniversary of BIO’s World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, as well as the 25th anniversary of BIO as an organization. Over the last quarter century, the health of millions of people and our planet has improved because of biotechnology innovation. The carbon reduction achieved by biofuels alone is the equivalent of taking 164 million cars off the road.
But in the current political environment, the economic arguments to support our work may be even more persuasive than the environmental benefits. Industrial biotech generates more than $140 billion annually in business-to-business revenues. The total annual economic impact of bio-based production in the United States is nearly $400 billion. That’s not BIO’s number; it’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s … and it’s only getting higher.
The cost of renewable feedstocks is coming down while investments in production capacity are going up. Every day, we read about new breakthroughs in biological processes that can convert sustainable resources into high-value products. Synthetic biology allows us to optimize the production of renewable chemicals and bio-based products. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, says: “Make every detail perfect and limit the number of details to perfect.” Synthetic biology makes that possible.
The pace of innovation and new commercial applications being discovered in industrial biotech labs are truly remarkable, but we’re still at the tip of the iceberg here. The only thing that can stop our progress is bad public policy. For 25 years, no organization has played a more powerful role than BIO in making sure our leaders embrace thoughtful policy, so the science of biotechnology can progress. I know because I was one of those lawmakers inspired by my BIO education.
I was an eighth-year U.S. Congressman representing suburban Philadelphia in March 2001 when an episode of 60 Minutes aired. Correspondent Steve Kroft was interviewing an American fertility doctor named Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, who claimed he could clone a human being – and planned to do so within the next 24 months. I recoiled at the thought. As a former child welfare caseworker, I felt that no child should be brought into the world as a “copy” of someone else and that every human deserved to be the unique offspring of two parents.
I chaired the U.S. House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation and called a hearing on the issue. That’s when I was visited at my office by then-BIO President Carl Feldbaum. He told me that BIO shared my concerns about reproductive cloning. But he also explained to me the enormous promise of therapeutic cloning, which holds the potential to cure everything from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s disease.
Not only did BIO’s advocacy convince me, it made me a champion for the science. When the issue of therapeutic cloning came before the House for a vote, I gave one of the most passionate floor speeches of my political career in defense of “the most promising opportunity to cure the diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries.” We persevered, we allayed fears, and we won the argument on allowing stem-cell research.
Today, another breakthrough technology – gene editing – is rapidly emerging and offers real promise to heal, feed and fuel the world. Industrial biotech companies are already successfully using gene editing technologies for commercial and environmental applications. For instance, synthetic spider silk is an almost mythical material – stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar. But you can’t farm it, because the spiders that produce it eat one another. Companies have searched for years for a way to mass-produce spider silk. Now industrial biotechs have found a way, using gene editing as part of the toolkit. Potential uses for new synthetic spider silk products range from fashion to cosmetics to medical implants.
Gene editing can produce crops that withstand drought and disease. It can produce foods that are more nutritious. It can create viral resistance in animals or increase their tolerance for heat in tropical climates. It could also help degrade traditional plastics and create next-generation bioplastics that are safer for the environment. It could help reduce atmospheric methane that contributes to climate change. It may even be able to help engineer plants that can detect and signal the presence of pathogens or bioweapons.
Gene editing is a highly disruptive technology that evokes many hopes and questions. So we’re at a critical point where BIO must once again take a leadership role, just as the organization did in the stem-cell debate. We must educate Americans and help foster public acceptance of gene editing across all sectors – health, food and agriculture, and industrial and environmental biotech.
Governments around the world are now making decisions about how to approach regulatory oversight for gene editing. I spend a lot of time with lawmakers and members of the administration, helping them understand how this technology could offer the human race our greatest hope to cure disease, sustain our planet and invigorate our economy.
BIO has established a number of board-level committees that cut across all areas of biotechnology to help coordinate our work. BIO is making sure we have a fully-resourced effort to influence public and political perceptions while we’re still early in the conversation.
When it comes to gene editing, BIO will lead. We’re working with our elected officials to educate them about the science and its potential benefits to humans and to ensure a sensible regulatory and oversight policy environment. The potential of this technology is enormous; so, too, is our responsibility to educate the public about our industry’s commitment to responsible use to solve the world’s most intractable problems.