Put simply, biotechnology is the use of living organisms to develop useful products. Its basic principles have been employed to alter plants and livestock for domestication for thousands of years.
In Europe today, however, biotech is either perceived at best as a dream, or at worse as a nightmare. Most consumers remain only vaguely aware of the biotech products that are helping Europeans live healthier, longer and greener lives. The short list alone includes vaccines, insulin, rare disease therapies, improved crops, detergents for washing at lower temperatures, bio-plastics, cosmetics and biofuels.
So what can be done to help make this invisible revolution more visible? We‘re living longer and healthier lives thanks to advances in medicine. More than 350 million patients globally are already benefiting from healthcare biotech that is helping to treat and prevent common ailments like heart disease and diabetes. And it is also developing therapies for rare diseases – often debilitating and life-threatening – that affect up to 30 million Europeans. 20% of all medications are made using its methods, and by 2015, 50% of our medicines will come from biotech.
In other aspects of our lives, industrial biotech is helping to minimise environmental impact while boosting manufacturing output and creating more jobs. Europe is a world leader in white biotech, producing about 75% of the world‘s enzymes. In production processes, industrial biotech reduces the need for crude oil by using renewable raw materials, leading to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the WWF estimates industrial biotech will help reduce up to 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030.
With agricultural biotech, Europe’s farmers have been able to increase yields by up to 30% on the same amount of land, helping protect biodiversity and wildlife. These crops also reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by requiring less tillage. In 2011, this was like removing 23.1 billion kg of CO2 from the atmosphere – the equivalent of taking over 10 million cars off the road for a year.
Great things of course often come in small packages, and the 2000+ biotech SMEs in Europe are crucial to delivering innovative solutions for our most pressing societal needs. Europe will suffer competitively if we don‘t give the right financial backing to these firms. We hope that the annual EuropaBio Most Innovative Biotech SME Award will go some way towards providing a voice for the sector, and highlight the importance of a supportive regulatory framework to help it flourish.
We cannot afford to let biotech‘s many positive aspects pass consumers by or – even worse – be misunderstood. It is up to our industry to better communicate the benefits of biotech to Europeans. This year we celebrate the first ever European Biotech Week – showcasing this innovative and vibrant sector. Over 60 events took place across the EU during the first week of October, underlining the importance its various fields now play in our lives.
The European Biotech Week will be an annual occurrence in October from now on to emphasise that biotechnology has grown more important than ever to job creation, improving health and creating a more sustainable environment. Anyone with a curious mind, an interest in how we can achieve better health as we grow older, and a cleaner environment is invited to celebrate and learn more about the incredible world of biotechnology and how it evolves each year. Let‘s make the invisible revolution visible!