Yesterday I attended Brazil’s second forum on bioeconomics hosted by the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry (CNI) and Harvard Business Review Brasil, and organised by Infinity Conferences and Events. The first forum on Bioeconomics was last year, an event I also attended and write about (see Brazil’s First Forum on Bioeconomics).
Opening the event was Carlos Eduardo Abijoadi, CNI Director of Industrial Development, whose first comment was to note that the two biggest challenges today were pollution and scarce resources, and that Bioeconomics (Bioeconomia) had the power to be even more revolutionary than that industrial revolution experienced at the start of the twentieth century. Carlos Eduardo defines bioeconomics in terms of three components: biology, economics and sustainability. However, “above all, bioeconomics is about changing mindsets.”
CNI represents Brazilian industry and its mission is to promote innovation and growth in Brazil. It therefore plays a key strategic role in this country, in particularly in working with the government in relation to innovation and competitiveness. Carlos Eduardo made one of the most important announcements of the day – the launch of a new CNI strategic document “Bioeconomia: Uma Agenda Para o Brasil” (Bioeconomics: An Agenda for Brazil). Earlier in 2013 CNI organised three debates attended by specialist consultants, representatives from business, academics and members of the Government which form the main themes of the document, which is also aligned with the strategic work of CNI in other sectors. (See my article Brazil’s Strategic Roadmap for Industry, 2013 – 2022 where you can also download a report summarising CNI’s work in this area in English).
A PDF of the CNI report in Portuguese can be downloaded from their site here.
In Brazil the three most important biotechnology industries are biofuels, biochemicals and bioplastics, but Brazil “also has the potential for being one of the most important players in the world for personalised medicine.” However, in a common theme not only at this forum but last week’s forum on innovation also hosted by HBR Brasil and FINEP, Carlos Eduardo also noted how Brazil has to review its legal and regulatory framework for biotechnology, since at present the current framework is “bureaucratic and inefficient.”
The first keynote presentation of the day was James Philip, Political Analyst and Director of Science, Technology and Industry for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Although the OECD is a global organisation, James focused on presenting the European perspective in Bioeconomics, noting how although Europe had a major strength in research, it was Asia and the Middle East who were now building new plants and better able at implementation, i.e. commercially exploiting the new technologies.
Those of you who know Transition Towns (of which Transition Consciousness is a part) will know the slide above which comes from Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the movement. It summarises research which examines the stories and scenarios of the future we tell ourselves regarding what will happen at the end of peak oil (the era of cheap extraction of oil). James showed a quite similar slide, in terms of when peak oil will occur. For James (and presumably OECD) “we are finished with the era of cheap petrol”. Hence the sense of urgency for the search for new energy sources, including the controversial shale gas.
James presented many technical slides which had a huge amount of detailed research on them. I was interested in his term “cascading use of biomass” which is based on maximising the efficiency of the processes involved in the production of biotechnologies and which can turn waste products into fuel at the end of these processes. One example he gave was from Lanzatech, a company which has developed technology to ferment waste gases into chemical. This removes pressure on the use of land to produce biotechnologies, since no agriculture is involved. And in a comment which has significance for Brazil, in the longer term he saw biofuels as a transitionary step towards other forms of fuel in the future, with them being niche products in the future for aviation and shipping.
Following James’ presentation came what can only be described as an absolute blockbuster from Juan Enríquez, who as as one of the world’s leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences, first defined the term ‘bioeconomics”. He introduced his talk by telling us that it would be “interesting, difficult and controversial” and I can guarantee it certainly was. I will be covering his talk in a second article about the Bioeconomics forum as it deserves special merit for raising what are some of the most revolutionary and difficult ethical and moral issues our current generation of humans may well be facing today – genetically modified humans and the fact that we have now reached the stage whereby humans can now consciously control our own evolution.
Having delivered the main body of his talk, Juan then gave us an update on a number of his commercial ventures he is involved with, some of which he told us about last year but which were still at a very early stage. In the slide below you will see the concept of a biodiesel farm Juan Enríquez presented at the first Bioeconomics forum last year. The picture below that is what he presented this year, the actual farm now being built. A lot of talk at this year’s forum, as there was at last year’s forum, as happens in so many forums and summits in Brazil is focused on the lack of vision of the government and lack of regulatory and legal frameworks, and hence the impact on the length of time it takes to initiate innovation-based projects. Juan really showed in a very startling manner just how much competitive advantage Brazil is losing by being unable to react and support researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs.
This theme of a lack of legal framework was taken up by Bernardo Gradin, President of GranBio, a Brazilian biotechnology company founded in 2011. I think Brazil’s legal problems go deeper than a lack of legal framework. Brazil lacks a fully functioning legal system. Rather than write about this aspect further, if you are interested in the complexities, the FT has recently published a detailed article on the Brazilian legal system which is well worth a read: Brazil: Given the brush-off.
Following the coffee break in which I had a little time to speak with James, we went into an in-depth panel session hosted by the very excellent William Waack, one of the most senior journalists in Brazil, from Rede Globo. As you can imagine, there were a huge number of questions from the audience, and neither James nor Juan pulled their punches when it came to their opinions about Brazil. From James we heard that “ethanol is for drinking not driving” and from Juan, the inability of Brazilian companies to be unable to claim intellectual property on discoveries and developments in biotechnology was a “collectively stupid idea”. Was Juan in favour of shale gas? “Absolutely” although this reply was nuanced, with Juan noting how firstly there was a risk of environmental damage, and secondly that in the US, the source of electricity for electric cars comes from fossil fuel, therefore making an electric car as polluting overall as a large pickup. This ties in with a theme that James talked about a lot and that was the question relating to the sceptical attitudes of the public, and the fact that there was a huge amount of resistance to change.
I like William Waack a lot as a journalist, and he does some really excellent interviews on Globo News. The final question of the session that William chose came from me, describing my question as “challenging”. I wrote the question with a huge amount of seriousness since I care a huge amount about the development of Brazil, not just for the sake of the people of Brazil, but also as it has such an important role to play for the protection of some of the most diverse ecosystems for the entire planet. I wanted to know how the recent revelations on spying from both the NSA and in the UK GCHQ would change global dynamics relating to biodynamics, and also the implications on cloud computing and big data? The US and Canada have been spying on some of Brazil’s biggest industrial and strategically important organisations, but also, in an era where data relating to our genomes starts to be recorded, there are also implications for we on a personal level too. At this forum, CNI have played an important role in bringing foreign organisations and Brazilian organisations together, but for me this new reality whereby for example US business can have access to every piece of data recorded by Brazilian businesses surely must affect the global dynamics? How can we have a discussion about protecting Brazilian intellectual property, when long before any new discovery comes to be filed for protection, the NSA is downloading all the data, listening in via the microphones on cell phones, and watching everything by hacking video cameras? (It should also be noted that both US senators and also journalists with in-depth knowledge have all said that the current revelations are just the “tip of the iceberg”.)
Bernardo answered first, and he said that for him “I don’t care” (cue much laughter in the audience, apart from me). He was not concerned about it, but to be honest, I had a quick chat with him afterwards and I think the directness of the question may have caught him off-guard slightly, and it was more a case of not having a fully prepared answer. For James, industrial spying had always taken place, in particularly during the cold war when “Russian fighter aircraft would look very like US planes. Systems adapt to it, and attention is greater now as the media have access to information.”
Although Juan also made light of the subject but starting with the observation that “spying was the world’s third oldest profession” he did make the most considered observation that the more important issue was “privacy, because if you take all the resources that the President of the United States had available in 1970, the entire US spying organisation, the consulates, etc, he would still have a lot less information than the street salesman in São Paulo has today using his or her smart phone.” Not only this but the amount of data in 5 years will be double that of today. “When you tie in the issue with facial recognition, it becomes an issue of how much do people know about us?”
In the afternoon, the forum continued with discussions on new materials and new manufacturers, the contribution of bioeconomics to agribusiness, and the role bioeconomics plays in the promotion of human health, looking at both risks as well as opportunities. People attending the forum are some of the most important players in Brazil, coming from industry, finance, law, academia and governmental organisations, and as such it is setting an agenda that will affect people not just in Brazil, but the world over in the years to come, such is the importance of the evolution of Bioeconomics. I will make my concluding comments in the second article in this series, after I cover Juan Enriquez’s presentation that stayed with me well into that evening as I mulled over the implications of what he was presenting. Whereas for organisations such as the OECD they can only perceive “resistance to change” in people’s attitudes, I am interested in the transition of consciousness, and Bioeconomics really does represent a shattering new paradigm that we will have to live with, whether we are a part of the conversation or not.
Involving people in this conversation is one of the great strengths of the Transition Towns movement, and I would also like to add to the credit of both CNI and Harvard Business Review Brasil. In the UK I really am not so sure that a person such as myself, an independent blogger and commentator, would be invited to such as high level and important event, and I really am extremely grateful to CNI, HBR Brasil and Infinity Conferences and Events for also inviting me to participate, and to provide an independent voice and reflections. It is through open dialogue we will be able to understand what lies ahead for us collectively as human beings, ones who now have such profound technologies which can either be deployed for the greater good of humanity and the ecosystem, or be deployed from a mentality of fear, domination and control. Time and again, many speakers mentioned how Brazil has the potential to be a key player, and it will be through this forum in particular that those in Brazil navigate such complex and unchartered territory.