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Bio-Economy Network highlights need for Canada-wide plan

BEN to focus on reg environment and forum for government to meet associations
David Nesseth
EcoLog, 12/7/2012 2:43:00 PM

A new Bio-Economy Network for cross-sector and policy environment support is aligned to capitalize on the emerging potential for bio-based products in the global marketplace, says a network of Canadian bio-technology associations.

Known as BEN, the network formed December 4, 2012 at the Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit in Ottawa. The network already represents 800 member companies that support more than two million jobs in Canadian sectors such as auto parts, biotech, chemical, agriculture and forest products that collectively earn $266 billion in total annual revenue.

Catherine Cobden, executive VP of the Forest Products Association of Canada, is the chair of BEN. She told EcoLog News that the new network has been watching “aggressive” bio-economy strategies from the U.S., China and the European Union. It doesn’t want Canada to end up in a vulnerable position due to fierce global competition.

“Maybe we need to take stock of where we are,” Cobden says. “Here in Canada we have natural resources that are the envy of other countries. We want to work across traditional boundaries and position Canada for the future.”

The current bio-economy represents one-third of the global economy, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In Canada, the bio-economy represents $86.5 billion, more than 7 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product. 

A bio-economy typically refers to economic impact from scientific and research activity focused on biotechnology, as well as the manufacturing and commercialization of products and processes using renewable biological sources. These bio-based products could affect sectors such as medical treatments, diagnostics, energy, chemicals, agriculture and industrial materials.   

BEN will focus on creating a supportive regulatory environment, including standards, and provide a forum for government to meet engaged and co-ordinated associations working together.

Canada’s government has issued funding for venture capital bio-projects and research, including $500 million in March of 2012. It has also created some bio-economy guidance from other levels of government, namely Ontario’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs. But in BEN’s eyes, a more focused national strategy has yet to emerge.

Cobden points to strategies such as the National Bioeconomy Blueprint in the U.S., and the European Commission 2020 Bioeconomy Strategy as examples of where Canada could follow suit.  

When Barack Obama’s administration released its National Bioeconomy Blueprint in spring of 2012, the White House included a description of the importance of a bio-ecomomy.

“A more robust bioeconomy can enable Americans to live longer and healthier lives, develop new sources of bioenergy, address key environmental challenges, transform manufacturing processes, and increase the productivity and scope of the agricultural sector while generating new industries and occupational opportunities,” the White House announcement stated.

Until Canada has its own bio-economy strategy, Cobden and company hope to use BEN as a way to facilitate discussion and get maximum value from the bio-economy that exists in Canada today.

“Some key trading partners have already developed comprehensive bio-economy strategies and Canada must not be left behind,” said Scott Thurlow, BEN member and president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, in a December 4, 2012 statement. “We would like to position Canada as a bio-investment destination and to take advantage of the staggering promise of the bio-economy.”

BEN believes that a bio-economy based on renewable feedstocks represents a key opportunity for Canadian jobs and future economic growth.

“A major part of the future is diversifying the products that we produce,” Cobden says. She used the example of finding additional uses for the trees required in the processes by Forest Products Association of Canada members.

“A lot of the new products we were looking at creating were inherently part of the value chain of other sectors,” Cobden says. “These sectors have had the same awakening and see an interesting future.”

For example, Cobden says, if she were to create bio-methanol she could reach out to the methanol sector through the network. 

“We’re interested in how our worlds are coming together,” Cobden says.

Not only can sectors work together to improve profits, they can put their heads together for greener products too. Think of car seat foam made from soybeans, engine oils made from oilseed crops, or even new plastic composites from agricultural sources.

BEN has only had a couple of meetings so far. The network is still determining mandate and policy priorities. It intends to look at the investment climate and market potential for its network, and perhaps even kickstart government funding, which has been there for agriculture.

BEN is federally-oriented at this point, but Cobden says that may change as it assesses the landscape.

Nine industry associations have joined BEN and other associations are invited to sign up to explore new business modes and partnerships across sectors, Cobden says.

As of December 2012, BEN includes:

•       Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association
•       BIOTECanada
•       Canadian Bioenergy Association (CanBio)
•       Canadian Renewable Fuels Association
•       Chemistry Industry Association of Canada
•       CropLife Canada
•       Forest Products Association of Canada
•       FPInnovations
•       Bioindustrial Innovation Canada /Sustainable Chemistry Alliance.

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