Euro Exim Bank

Time to Understand

We talk to Nilsy Desaint from EuropaBio about Biotechnology and the role it plays in a modern world.

Biotechnology has a huge potential in alleviating environmental, human health and economic challenges.

Q. What is EuropaBio and what are its goals?

EuropaBio is the European Association for Bioindustries and was created in 1996 to provide scientific advice for the biotech industry in Europe. EuropaBio’s mission is to promote an innovative and dynamic biotechnology-based industry in Europe and to reposition communications surrounding the benefits of biotechnology to society.

EuropaBio represents 56 corporate members, 14 associate members and BIO regions, and 19 national biotechnology associations- in turn representing some 1800 small and medium sized (SMEs) biotech companies in Europe. Members of EuropaBio are involved in research, development, testing, manufacturing and commercialisation of biotechnology products and processes. Corporate members have a wide range of activities: human and animal health care, diagnostics, bio-informatics, chemicals, crop protection, agriculture, food and environmental products and services. EuropaBio is actively engaged in increasing the understanding of biotechnological applications and their benefits at European level and contribute to the creation of a coherent and beneficial innovation climate for the bioindustry in Europe. 

Q. Can you outline the nature of biotechnology and the industries in which it is used?

Healthcare biotechnology refers to a medicinal or diagnostic product or a vaccine that consists of, or has been produced in, living organisms and may be manufactured via recombinant technology (recombinant DNA is a form of DNA that does not exist naturally. It is created by combining DNA sequences that would not normally occur together). This technology has a tremendous impact on meeting the needs of patients and their families as it not only encompasses medicines and diagnostics that are manufactured using a biotechnological process, but also gene and cell therapies and tissue engineered products.

Today, the majority of innovative medicines, whether manufactured using biotechnology or via a chemical synthesis like a traditional small molecule medicine, as well as many diagnostic products, are made available by applying modern biotechnology in their development and/or manufacturing processes. 

Agricultural biotechnology encompasses a range of modern plant breeding techniques. For centuries, farmers have tried to improve their crops by means of crossing, relying on the random rearrangement of existing genes between two closely related parent plants. Modern agricultural biotechnology improves crops in more targeted ways. The best known technique is genetic modification, but the term agricultural biotechnology also covers such techniques as Marker Assisted Breeding, which increases the effectiveness of conventional breeding.

Industrial biotechnology uses enzymes and micro-organisms to make biobased products in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles and bioenergy. In doing so, it uses renewable raw materials and is one of the most promising, innovative approaches towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The application of industrial biotechnology has been proven to make significant contributions towards mitigating the impacts of climate change in these and other sectors.

Q. Some people have a negative view of biotechnology, associating it with genetic modification and other techniques that they consider unnatural. How would you address these concerns?

Recent polls on biotechnology in Europe show that many people are unaware of what the uses of technology are. According to a 2010 Eurobarometer on food related risks, only 8% of Europeans spontaneously say they are worried about GM in food. Although there is concern about GM and biotechnology, consumers report a low level of knowledge about GM food. This lack of public knowledge applies more generally to the whole biotech sector. In a 2010 European survey, 80% of Europeans declared to be in favour of or were unopposed to biotechnology.  However, findings also highlighted that Europeans are still hungry for facts and communication about the technology.

Genetic modification of plants is a more targeted approach to a technique that farmers have already used for centuries to improve their crops. GM crops have been increasingly cultivated and consumed all over the world for 15 years without any proven negative effects on health and the environment and increasingly benefit farmers as well as consumers. Better awareness of these facts disperses the negativism surrounding genetic modification.

Q. Which genetically modified crops can be grown in the EU today and do they affect biodiversity?

GM crops can only be cultivated in Europe when they receive approval. To date, only two GM crop types have been approved for cultivation in the EU: insect-resistant maize and, since 2010, a potato for industrial use. Numerous studies have demonstrated that GM crops have no adverse effects on non-target insects. On the contrary, several characteristics of GM crops can lead to the decrease of the loss of biodiversity from agricultural practices – GM crops allow for intensive farming, which means that less land is needed to grow the same amount of crops (sustainable intensification concept); they require less insecticides and entail the use of more environmentally friendly herbicides as well as conservation tillage practices.

Q. What do you consider to be the most useful applications of biotechnology today?

Biotechnology is one of the most innovative and useful industries out there today, with the capability of providing solutions to some of society’s most pressing needs- from jobs and growth of the economy to healthcare needs, food security and an alternative to fossil fuels . Whilst biotechnology alone is not a silver bullet for all of society’s needs, it is an important piece of the puzzle in identifying Europe’s strengths, fostering them and creating a more sustainable future where resources are used in a more efficient way.

This is a point that has been reiterated by policy makers and investors and more recently reflected by the European Commission’s labelling of biotechnology as one of six key enabling technologies for growing the European economy. Already the European Bioeconomy has an estimated worth of more than €2 trillion annually and employs 22 million people, often in rural or coastal areas and in SMEs.

Healthcare biotech is already benefiting more than 350 million patients around the world through the use of biotech medicine to treat and prevent every day and chronic illnesses including heart attacks, stroke, multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, leukaemia, diabetes, hepatitis and other rare or infectious diseases. Healthcare biotech enables the development of therapies for rare diseases that are often debilitating and life threatening and that effect 20 to 30 million Europeans and their families. Healthcare biotech already accounts for more than 20% of all marketed medicines and it is estimated that by 2015, 50% of all medicines will come from biotech. It increases the effectiveness and safety of treatments as well as reducing the use of ineffective treatments and adverse reactions through its approach on Personalised Medicine that works to diagnose what one patient’s problems are precisely and then work to better adapt the healthcare solutions to suit their specific needs.

Industrial biotech uses enzymes and micro-organisms to make products which improve the effectiveness of detergents so that clothes can be washed at lower temperatures and the production of paper and pulp, food, clothing, chemicals and bioenergy is done in a more environmentally efficient way using less energy, less water and producing less waste. In Europe, we are world leaders of industrial biotechnology, producing approximately 75% of the world’s enzymes. 

New products in the agricultural biotech R&D pipeline are very promising. By offering new, improved and adapted agricultural crops such as drought or saline resistant plants, agricultural biotech offers new solutions to farmers around the world.  Other advances include developing crops that should deliver consumer health benefits such as biofortification with nutrients such as zinc, additional protein or omega 3.

All of these bold technologies promise a brighter future for Europe and the world. But for this to happen, the industry requires sounds policy decisions that support innovation and risk–taking as well as a public that is well informed about how biotech is creating a healthier, greener, more productive and more sustainable economy. We need to act now to develop the skills, support and infrastructure necessary to ensure that Europe not only retains, but also grows its jobs and scientific excellence in biotechnology and that it does not fall behind other competing economies like the US, Brazil or Asia.

Q. What are the main long-term benefits of biotechnology?

Biotechnology has a huge potential in alleviating environmental, human health and economic challenges. It offers sustainable agricultural and industrial practices as well as innovative health care solutions.

Biotechnology, in its agricultural and industrial applications, boosts the use of renewable resources thus slowing down the depletion of fossil fuels and decreasing CO2 emissions. Bio-based materials which are biodegradable and environmentally friendly help preserve the ecosystem through a sustainable use of raw materials.

In addition, improving seeds through biotechnology brings direct economic benefits to the farmer in terms of saved costs and increased production; and ultimately to the consumers who have then access to safe, affordable and quality food. This is key when we know that the world population’s growth will lead to an increased demand for food by 70% by 2050.

Another societal challenge – the unmet medical needs of the population – can also be addressed by the innovative solutions of biotechnology. These healthcare solutions allow for more personalised treatments to suit individual needs and increasingly provide insights to curing rare diseases. The fast advancement of healthcare biotechnology brings to new drug discoveries and investment in this sphere is essential in securing the economic future of Europe.

The development of biotechnology projects leads to a competitive, knowledge-based economy. The benefits of this technology are spread beyond healthcare, agriculture and industrial manufacturing. Many biotechnology companies are SMEs and thus are the backbone of European business and innovation. The growing opportunities that biotechnology provides to the economy create jobs and ease the transition to a more sustainable society.