Bug power to our economy!

Thursday, 11 September 2014 00:57 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Why not get bugs to power our economy!? We can and we should and the sad aspect is that we have discussed very little about this. Of course liquor is generated courtesy of bugs and production taxes are perhaps an important source of revenue. Knowing that there is another unequal amount of State revenue consequently spent on health and accident expenditure, this perhaps is not the best way to use bugs to power the economy. A discussion is emerging. On 18 September there will be a conference with a difference in Colombo. It is the National Biotechnology Conference on the theme ‘Biotechnology for Wealth Creation’ and the venue is Hilton Residences. This conference is organised by COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation) with the National Council of Biotechnology. A mission-oriented conference It is a mission-oriented conference. Sri Lanka’s percentage of high-technology contribution to its manufactured export income stands at a paltry 1.5%. A closer examination of this 1.5% indicates that this number too may be an exaggeration! It is sad as some of the Asian economies have over 40% in high-tech exports. A planning target for COSTI is to have six roadmaps in six key advanced technology areas that would enable 15% high-tech based manufacturing export revenue. One of the six advanced technology areas is biotechnology and the big question to answer is what proportion of 15% this sector can yield and how to make it happen! Considering that the global biotechnology industry has a potential value of $ 453 billion by 2016, Sri Lanka should be ready to capture a proportion. Creating wealth Why do we need to create wealth via biotechnology? Looking at the import and export picture for Sri Lanka is not happy viewing. You may plot the values as a percentage of GDP and the two curves appear to be parallel to each other, though a closer look can indicate the dilemma. As a percentage of GDP we spend more on our imports than what we realise to GDP via exports. At times you may breathe a sigh of relief saying month on month imports are down and exports have been up, giving some consolation to reducing the trade gap. The issue is that a gap continues to exist. When we take a closer look at what we export and what we import, it is easy to understand why closing the gap in the current context is going to be quite a difficult task. We need to expand our export portfolio and not with more commodities. If we continue to tweak with the hope of getting more from what we have been doing all along, the system in my view would be gasping for breath quite soon. This is going to be aggravated by the fact that our requirements continue to soar in quite expensive directions. Biotechnology The Scottish scientist J.B.S. Haldane had famously stated: ‘If you can get a bug to do it for you, why do you need to do it yourself?’ This statement is the cornerstone of biotechnology. Biotechnology is ‘the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make useful products’, or ‘any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use’. OECD has the following definition which is more in line with wealth creation: “The application of science and technology to living organisms, as well as parts, products and models thereof, to alter living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods and services.” Since ancient times we have seen biotechnology in action. In the tombs of Pharaohs one can see hieroglyphics of baking bread. Cheese had been with us for an equally long time. We have our own curd. The use of yeast and fermenting foods are classical biotechnologies. Biotechnology really became a force to reckon with when the subject molecular biology took off after we understood our genes and further moved up with gene manipulations. Biotechnology has been considered as a technology wave that appeared with much promise from the 1980s onwards. GM foods Today we can identify three biotechnology sectors – medical biotechnology (red biotechnology), industry (white biotechnology) and agriculture biotechnology (blue biotechnology). Current global industry value predicted for medical biotechnology by 2018 is $ 224, industrial biotechnology by 2015 is $ 228 billion and $ 12 billion by 2015 for agriculture biotechnology. Agriculture biotechnology should be having a really a big value if the people had supported GM foods. Genetically modified or GM as it is well-known had run into significant public opposition thus preventing much of the possible growth in the sector. GM foods is a classic example to demonstrate that successful science will not always find acceptance by the general public and that scientists should be understanding social issues as well instead of blindly placing faith only in science. Proper communications too is vital. Nevertheless, with a growing population and dwindling land area to grow, some scientists are happy with the thought that it is ‘a matter of time!’ Energy Biotechnology has the potential to resolve the growing energy problem too. Microorganisms can be made use of in turning plant material to fuel. Already a semi commercial plant of cellulosic bio-ethanol plant has come on stream in USA. Biotechnology is ready to step in, in meeting mankind’s many requirements once the fossil fuels are exhausted – be they in plastics or in pharmaceuticals. Bio refineries can step in, instead of refineries such as what we have at Sapugaskanda run with not oil but rice as the feed stock. No need to get too excited about rice as feedstock to a bio refinery, as we are already using rice in brewing today. Unlike brewing, bio refineries will cater to a wide range of products and fuels, thus can really fire a bio economy. The opportunities are there for us to go there first as we lack some of the resources that the others have and as such the conventional pathways are expensive for us or are not within easy reach. Hence we should be seeking different pathways. Benefitting from biotechnology Sri Lanka is really well placed to benefit from biotechnology. Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hotspot and under these conditions herbal biotechnology is enticing to carve out a niche area. One should understand that this is not about exploitation in the name of growth but sustainable biotechnology. While spending enormous time on energy and resources trying to grow the ‘usual business as usual’ we have never made a concerted effort on emerging sectors. Planning had been pretty conservative. The recent effort on nanotechnology is a clear exception, though this has come through some committed championing by a few. The human resources we develop in universities vanish asking the question, ‘If I do biotechnology, will I be able to find employment?’ Again, it is not surprising to hear at interview panels, ‘What is the use of studying soil bacteria?’ when one is prompted about one’s final year project. An industry cannot happen without adequate human resources even if raw materials are in abundance. There is the need to co-plan for development as well as built mechanisms to retain talent. As in so many situations in Sri Lanka, we start examining after the horse has bolted from the stable. We just cannot afford that with these new roadmaps. India A good example for us is India. In biotechnology it is going from strength to strength. You will find specialised biotech parks as in Hyderabad. Novel bio products have emerged from private sector labs. There have been exciting collaborations between universities and academia. As per policy support, there is a specialised department with powers with the designated subject – Dept. of Biotechnology in Delhi. Billionaires have been created to the Indian economy through biotechnology and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of Biocon started her journey from her garage to become the richest woman in India through biotechnology! Initial patent busting projects have now being transformed into original ‘blockbuster’ products. For us, as we tentatively seek a new pathway, many a lesson to learn from India awaits. Going into new areas and looking at diversification of export portfolios is the way to come out of the import-export trap. Biotechnology offers many pathways. The Sri Lankan human genome has been mapped at the University of Colombo. Perhaps it is time to decipher the information to see whether we actually have the innovation gene embedded. Then we can be assured that harnessing bug power can be pulled off! [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]