Chapter 11

Laying the Foundations for a Bio-Economy

The title of this chapter is, of course, behind the times; we already have a thriving bio-economy.  Without high-yield agriculture, the scope and accomplishments human society would be severely limited, and without access to the fossil remains of prior life on Earth, now mined as petroleum, coal, and methane, we would be without considerable volumes of materials, fertilizer, and fuel, and would be impoverished further still.  Increases in agricultural productivity are just one example of improvements in biological technologies, which is particularly relevant here because the US Department of Agriculture claims that agriculture relies more on technology to achieve productivity growth than any other sector of the economy[1].

How Big is the Present Bio-economy, and How Fast is It Growing?

In public discourse the words "biotechnology" and "biotech" are often used in very limited and inconsistent ways.  Those words may be used to describe only pharmaceutical products, or in another context only the industry surrounding genetically modified plants, while in yet another context they refer to a combination of biofuels, plastics, chemicals, and plant extracts.  The total economic value of biotechnology companies is therefore difficult to assess.  It is a further challenge to disentangle the component of revenue within the sector due each to public and to private firms.

Estimates of total revenues in the US range from $80 to 150 billion annually, where the specific dollar value depends on which set of products are included.  The various surveys that provide this information differ not only in their classification of companies, but also in methodology, which in the case of data summarized by private consulting firms is not always available for scrutiny.  Further complicating the situation is that data from private companies are self-reported and there are often no publicly available documents that can be used for independent verification.  One estimate, based on data from 2004, suggests that approximately 85% of all pharmaceutical "biotech" companies are private, accounting for a bit less than 50% of employment in the sector and 27% of revenues[2].

These data are explored in more detail below, but a rough summary is as follows:  As of 2006, biotech drugs accounted for about $65 billion in sales worldwide, with about 85% of that in the US.  Genetically modified crops accounted for about $6.6, with 50% of that in the US. Industrial applications (including fuels, chemicals, materials, reagents, and services) contributed another $50-90 billion in the US, depending on who was counting and how.  Annual growth rates over the last decade appeared to be 15-20% for medical and industrial applications, and 10% for agricultural applications.  After sifting through many different sets of numbers, as of late 2007 I estimate that "biotech" revenues within the US were about $133 billion - economic activity that was the equivalent of 1% of GDP - and were growing at a rate of 15-20% annually (see Table 11.1).  The US GDP was just shy of $14 trillion in 2007, and grew at an estimated 2.2%[3].

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For more, see Biology is Technology (Amazon).  At the time of this posting, the hardback edition is sold out, the Kindle edition is available, and the paperback is on the way.

1.    See the USDA report, "Productivity Growth in U.S. Agriculture", http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eb9/
2.    Hodgson, J., Private biotech 2004 -- the numbers. Nat Biotech, 2006. 24(6): p. 635.
3.    See "The World Factbook", The Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html

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