Over the last decade, sustainability standards related to environmental integrity, worker safety and health, waste stream management, child labor practices, and product stewardship have become axiomatic. Leading companies expect their suppliers to meet these standards in the processing of food, manufacturing of chemicals, and assembly of clothing and consumer electronics. The industrial biotechnology industry needs to join with its downstream customers in the effort to bring the same level of transparency to its supply chain.
The challenge presented by food security, land use change, carbon accounting, and climate change requires a sustained and intensive effort, especially in the face of declining support for biofuels among policy makers, heretofore the industry's most solid foundational support. If the biobased economy is to reach its potential, companies will need to commit to being actively engaged and helping to lead the way to more sustainable agriculture. The industry needs to help the public see agriculture as a system that can be optimized for everyone's benefit, and at the same time help suppliers understand their new responsibilities for transparency and continuous improvement.
At the macro scale, the industry needs to take a leadership role in accelerating progress toward meeting the challenges of doubling food production by 2050 with less land, water, and environmental degradation. Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, is a leading voice on global food security and agricultural sustainability.7 He and his collaborators have identified a number of steps that can help meet these needs, including closing the yield gap around the world, using resources more efficiently, reducing food waste and promoting diets lower in meat.8,9 Foley, like most opinion leaders on food security, questions the use of food crops allocated to non-food uses. The industry needs to deal with this issue squarely. “Feeding people comes first” needs to be an unquestioned industry position. It is fair game, however, to make sure that the debate treats industrial uses equitably. For example, recent studies suggest dietary choice may have as much to do with land use change as does biofuel production.10
Unfortunately, the food vs. fuel debate is filled with misinformation. A principal fallacy is to assume that a reduction in ethanol production would necessarily equate to lower corn prices or more corn being available for food. Recent calls by some governors to waive the RFS in the face of the drought exemplified this. Missing from the assumption that a decline in ethanol production would release an amount of corn directly into the food supply is the reality of supply and demand. It is far more likely that corn production would adjust to lower demand. In fact, data show that ethanol production has had little effect on corn availability, but has instead driven greater corn yield through innovations in genetics, farming practices, and other levers. Over the last 10 years, corn yield improvements have largely matched ethanol expansion, while US exports of corn, beef, pork, chicken, and other agricultural commodities have either increased or remained unchanged.11
At the micro scale, Field to Market's Fieldprint Calculator will enable real-world system optimization. Self-selected groups of producers or industry-sponsored groups can aggregate their results, test practices on different plots, and become a learning collective in pursuit of better performance and profitability. Grower groups could also experiment with new cropping systems and rapidly test new practices. For example, recent studies have shown significant agroecosystem improvements through extended cropping system diversification.12 Initiatives such as this provide excellent information to stimulate active dialogue among critical environmental stakeholders.
Environmental advocates would respond extremely well to industry-led initiatives to improve performance—to make things better. With the Fieldprint Calculator, producers can integrate continuous improvement into their management practices. This could have a major positive impact on the industry's image and go a long way to neutralizing some unfounded criticism.
In the end, a biobased economy will flourish only in a world of abundance. Biotechnology and modern agricultural practices have already lifted agricultural yields tremendously. New arguments are emerging suggesting that slowing population growth, more efficient farming methods, and less than predicted increases in the consumption of meat are all combining to make an era of “peak farmland” possible. With peak farmland, the direction of land use change could be positive, i.e., with land reverting to nature.13 In remarks on December 18, 2012, Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Environment at Rockefeller University in New York, recounted his experience publishing “good news” about land use.13
Whether looking at the problem from a macro- or micro-scale perspective, there is no doubt that the industry's future prosperity depends on full engagement in the important work of sorting out the choices faced by society. Over the coming decades, everyone on the planet will be dealing with constraints, with boundaries, and with challenges for system optimization. The industrial biotechnology sector will have to deal with transparent sustainability obligations, just as every other industry does.
For the first 15 years of its existence, the industry progressed along the typical life cycle for emerging technologies and will now face the challenges of more mature industries. Leading companies like DuPont, DSM, Novozymes, and BASF have been plowing these fields for a long time. Among new entrants, NatureWorks has done an excellent job. Now the time has come for a more strategic, robust, and collective engagement. At the moment, because the supply chain for the biobased economy is still in formation, we lack a muscular voice to drive a coherent narrative that rises above the biofuels fracas. The sector is in need of an effective advocate to bring forward information and address the bigger picture. So, as BIO celebrates its 10th anniversary World Congress of Industrial Biotechnology, it should rally in defense of the RFS. But it should also spur its members to engage the challenges of building a sustainable feedstock supply chain.