Biotechnology: Is the EU about to up its game?

By Craig Willy & Paul Michaloux, Consultants, Acumen Public Affairs

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made waves with last month’s State of Union address (SOTEU), announcing a remarkable set of measures to boost European economies’ competitiveness. Among them is an upcoming EU Biotech and Biomanufacturing Initiative, and while the content of the proposal remains sketchy, it could not be timelier. 

Already over a decade ago, shortly before his death, Steve Jobs opined that “the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.” Now, with the advent of technologies such as high-precision CRISPR gene editing and big data, including in the field of genomics and artificial intelligence (AI), that prophecy looks to be becoming a reality. 

Biotech applications are already legion in fields such agriculture, waste management, bioenergy, biomanufacturing and health through the development of new medicines, vaccines, antibiotics, personalised medicine and more. One study estimated the size of the global biotechnology market at $1,730 billion in 2022, with expected growth of 14% per year up to 2030.  

Put briefly: biotech, fuelled by innovations in both the life sciences and digital technologies, is going to grow massively in the coming years. Will Europe be part of this wave of innovation and growth? 

It’s important to stress that, behind the economic figures, are biotech’s current and potential provision of real-life individual and societal benefits. Indeed, EU circles are increasingly discussing biotech’s ability to contribute to societal goals, such as sustainability, resilience and strategic autonomy. 

In an age of geopolitical turbulence – Russian aggression, Chinese assertiveness and American unpredictability – the European Union is seeking to increase its “strategic autonomy” by reducing dependencies on unreliable partners. While the concept is not perfectly defined, the EU Council has evocatively described strategic autonomy as “the ability to act autonomously when and where necessary, and with partners whenever possible.” This definition was recently reaffirmed in the Spanish Presidency of the Council’s “Resilient EU2030” vision for European strategic autonomy, which incidentally also recognises the role of biotech. 

The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) has compared European strategic autonomy to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. By such metrics, biotech directly contributes to Europe’s most fundamental physiological and safety needs – namely food, energy, materials and health. At the same time, if Europe has a thriving life sciences sector, biotech can also contribute to the EU having the credibility and capacity to fulfil its more high-level goals in areas such as partnerships, norm-setting and being a global role model. 

Strategic Autonomy compared to Maslow's hierarchy of needs

On health, biotech is fundamental to developing new treatments and tackling emerging health threats. During the COVID-19 crisis, the deployment of mRNA vaccines was instrumental to reducing fatalities and returning to normalcy.  

Biotech is also crucial to making up for Europe’s deficiency in natural resources, a perennial source of dependence upon other countries that has on occasion been disastrous, as with the 1970s oil shocks and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The sector can provide more climate-resilient and high-yield crops, alternative food sources such as through precision fermentation, biofuels and bioenergy, as well as bioplastics and other materials. 

McKinsey research suggests that up to 60% of physical inputs to the global economy could in principle be produced biologically. Achieving this potential would represent a huge win for Europe’s resource independence and the shift towards a sustainable circular economy. 

EU authorities recognise the potential contribution of biotech to strategic autonomy, particularly in a post-COVID era marked by a Russian regime attempting to use its energy resources and disrupt agriculture to blackmail Europe. 

The Horizon Europe research programme includes life science technologies among the six Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) to be supported as enablers of strategic autonomy and sustainability. In addition, the proposed Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP) would provide more flexibility in allocating EU funds to biotech (as well as deeptech and cleantech) and mobilise €10 billion in fresh cash to these sectors. 

In its proposal to facilitate marketing of certain gene-edited crops (created through New Genomic Techniques or NGTs), the European Commission recognises that these can have a positive impact “on strategic autonomy and resilience of the Union food system” (conversely, if Europe is left behind even as other countries adopt NGTs in agriculture, EU strategic autonomy is likely to suffer). 

Europeans have also, since COVID-19, often expressed ambitions of reducing dependence on other countries for medicines and vaccines, particularly if these lead to shortages. The most recent example is the recent Belgian non-paper – backed by 19 EU countries – calling for a Critical Medicines Act to support domestic production of active and intermediate ingredients. It is obvious that a thriving biotech sector will have an essential role to play in Europe’s capacity to produce many existing and future medicines.  

For all this, the EU’s approach to biotechnology – let alone leveraging biotech for strategic autonomy – remains distinctly fragmented. Indeed, the EU’s last general strategy for the life science and biotechnology dates back to… 2002! Needless to say, a lot has happened since then in the fields of biotechnology, digital and geopolitics. 

In some ways, the “separate tracks” approach to biotech policy may be wise politically given how controversial certain applications are, particularly in agriculture. However, there are also costs to this. Science and nature know no such policy divisions and, if Europe is to be competitive in creating cutting-edge agri-food, industrial or health biotechnologies, it will need a thriving and innovative biotech sector in general. For this, a holistic approach may be the most appropriate. 

Other economic powers have certainly grasped the potential of biotech. China’s 2021-2025 national economic plan includes biotechnology among the “emerging industries of strategic importance” and vows to “promote the integration and innovation of biotechnology and information technology, accelerate the development of biomedicine, biological breeding, biomaterials, bioenergy and other industries, to enhance bioeconomy in size and strength.” Indeed, China’s biopharma sector (that is, only a subsector of biotech) is expected to maintain exponential growth to reach €2.14 trillion (RMB16.53) in 2030 and the government is continuing to woo foreign firmsto invest in biotech.  

In the United States, the federal government has also recognised the importance of biotech to meet national objectives. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration adopted “Bold Goals for Biotechnology” in which the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Commerce and Health and Human Services, as well the National Science Foundation, jointly defined objectives for biotech to meet societal goals. These include, within 20 years, replacing over 50% of maritime and rail fuel with low net emission fuels, producing over 30% of U.S. chemical demand through sustainable biomanufacturing and decreasing the manufacturing cost of cell-based therapies 10-fold. 

There are certainly signs of Brussels wishing to up Europe’s game on biotech. The Commission recently issued a Recommendation on critical technology areas for the EU’s economic security which included biotechnologies – including new genomic techniques, gene-drive and synthetic biology – among the four technology areas to be reviewed. The EU’s executive arm wants to jointly conduct collective risk assessments on these areas together with Member States to inform further policy actions. The Commission allusively notes that it “will bear in mind that measures taken to enhance the competitiveness of the EU in the relevant areas can contribute to reducing certain technology risks.” 

The Biden Administration’s goals are suggestive of just some of the possibilities for biotech’s societal contribution as part of a holistic strategy. Will the EU be able to match this ambition? Europe certainly has the regulatory capacity and world-class life sciences sector, in both academia and business, needed to be at the cutting-edge of the biotech revolution. The upcoming EU Biotech and Biomanufacturing Initiative may be an opportunity to adopt a holistic approach, engaging all stakeholders, to mobilise the life sciences to maximise Europe’s sustainability, resilience and strategic autonomy. 

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