The Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. In Dutch Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM)
On September 6th, the Rathenau institute and the RIVM organised a stakeholder meeting on the role of synthetic biology in a sustainable bio-economy. As part of this, they invited the Dutch iGEM teams to give a brief presentation about their work and to prepare a topic for debate. We believe such meetings represent the perfect opportunity for engaging the people who make decisions on the levels of government, and we gladly participated.
Besides giving an outline of our iGEM project, we discussed two findings that we encountered many times over during our research for Synenergene: the problem of low oil prices and inconsistent government policy. The first makes it hard, if not impossible, for biofuels to compete with fossil fuels, resulting in many SynBio efforts focussing on the production of others compounds that can be produced in a cost-effective way, like fragrances, food additives, and cosmetics. Although the production of such compounds can certainly contribute to a more favourable carbon footprint compared to traditional production methods, it also means we’re not able to work on what is without the doubt the most important stuff a society consumes from both an economic and emissions perspective: fuel, aka liquid energy. We argued that low oil prices prohibit the full transition to a bio-based economy, and that biotechnology in and of itself is unlikely to ever match the costs of pumping oil out of the ground in terms of cost-effectiveness unless the peripheral costs of burning fossil fuels are properly taken into account. This translated to extra taxes on fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gasses, and more subsidization on biofuels and consuming CO2.
The second obstacle, inconsistent government policy, pertains to how the Dutch government has the tendency to change policy regarding biotech subsidization and legislation every two years. This makes long-term venture capital investments, required for the development of new technologies, unattractice. As such, many promising biotech spinoffs and companies often settle abroad where the investment climate is friendlier, dampening the development of the Dutch biotech sector. Since the room was full of policy makers, we decided to bring up this issue as well. The description of these obstacles led to the debate that followed in which people argued on both sides of the statement that low oil prices are preventing us from ever transitioning to a fully sustainable bio-based economy. Afterwards, drinks were served and policy-makers were befriended in case we need the right SynBio bills to pass at some later point in our careers - a very succesful event indeed!
To learn more please check out the RIVM site.