The multiple global crises occurring at the beginning of this decade share a common paradox:
COVID-19 has shown how an interconnected world fosters the spreading of viruses and how our vulnerable supply chains are. At the same time, international research collaborations and information sharing have created many vaccines and treatments at an unprecedented speed.
The invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent emerging food crisis are laying bare the extreme dependencies of many countries on either Russian oil or Ukrainian grain imports. Yet again, the only efficient way to curtail both the war and these supply shortages seems to be a more intense international collaboration and concerted effort on these issues.
The underlying paradox is that the openness between nations is both the cause and the solution of these crises.
The paradox between openness and autarky also impacts Canada’s bioeconomy. The bioeconomy is the vision to use biomass and biotechnology in all sectors of the economy, substituting current products with bio-based alternatives and creating new jobs along the way. As the second largest country in the world, with massive forestry and agriculture sectors, Canada scores excellent in terms of available biomass which could be used to create more valuable bio-based products. In terms of biotechnology, Canada faces the challenge that highly qualified people and start-ups migrate to the United States more than the other way around. While Canada benefits significantly from its geographic and cultural proximity to the USA, Canada must make a concerted effort to increase the entry and retention of both national and international graduates into the Canadian job market.
Biomass and talented people have been available in Canada for a long time. It is the rise of genomic sciences that is the main driving factor of the bioeconomy. Genomic sciences look at all genes of an organism, be it human, animal, plant, or microorganism, as well as how they interact with each other and the organism’s environment. Canada has identified this early on and is already a world leader in this field.
As genomic sciences are quite literally the DNA of the bioeconomy, the question of openness versus autarky must be carefully considered by the scientific community and by policymakers. Open availability of genomics information and corresponding research is a key element for R&D. Open genomic data creates a multiplicator effect from itself, meaning that the more genomic information and research available, the more additional knowledge that can be created, which in turn can be used again.
Although the openness of genomic information is a great benefit, there are also strong arguments for curtailing open availability.
- Intellectual Property (IP), which has the primary purpose of protecting the technology a company has developed. Similarly, publishers and databases of genomic information can restrict access to their information behind a paywall as a revenue stream for the curation of the information they contain and create.
- Intrinsic ownership rights, which can clash with both open access and IP. Genomic information of humans, mostly patients, belong to the persons themselves and it might not be in their interest to have their genomic information freely available online. On the other hand, when genomic information comes from plants and animals in the environment, ownership rights of both the country and communities from whose territory the genomic information stems must be respected. This concept is part of the Convention on Biological Diversity and its attached Nagoya Protocol, where amendments due to the developments in genomic sciences are a heated debate.
- Safety and security, as genomic information has a dual use character. The massive amounts of genomic data being generated necessitates machine learning approaches to interpret them. Dual use information can be mined or newly generated from this publicly available information. This was recently exemplified in the field of drug discovery, where public information about chemical toxicity was used to generate more potent biochemical weapons. Furthermore, having the genomic information of a country’s whole population, or just its key leaders, on an open access database could be useful to malign actors. For the same reason, French president Macron, like other world leaders, refused to take a Russian Covid test upon his visit to Moscow. With the breakneck speed of advances in machine learning and genomic sciences, it is crucial to consider what information is released and who has access to it.
How genomic information should be shared is a complex question spanning ethical topics from IP to personal privacy, to human and environmental health, to national defense. Canada has the chance to identify and encourage the sharing of genomic information where it is beneficial, whilst at the same time providing robust protection of genomic information where necessary. Developing policies on the national level during the early stages of the bioeconomy can prevent path dependencies where genomic information that should stay private is in public and vice versa.
The bioeconomy also relies on a biotechnological infrastructure, composed of highly specialized facilities and physical products (enzymes, genetic material, feedstocks etc.)
This whole supply chain should be analysed for vulnerabilities and foreign dependencies. The idea is not to decouple completely, but to find ways to build resiliency. This is a stated goal of Canada’s biomanufacturing strategy, which has already led to significant investments in infrastructure to produce new medicines and vaccines as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there are other key inputs into the bioeconomy to consider the resilience of. For example, Canada does not have a domestic company nor national platform for large scale DNA synthesis, which is a crucial physical resource in the bioeconomy. And as cellular agriculture expands, which promises dairy and meat products free from animal sources, growth media and custom proteins required to produce these food products will require sources highly integrated into Canadian supply chains. Any potential disruption to the source of these key components is akin to Canadian farmers losing access to water and fertilizer for their crops.
The paradox of openness cannot easily be addressed.
Rather, it represents a framework for Canadian policymakers and scientists to structure approaches to two key aspects of the bioeconomy: information openness and infrastructure resilience. Like previous industrial revolutions, the global bioeconomy will expand regardless of what Canadian policymakers are doing. However, policy decisions today can decide whether Canada will be a global leader in the bioeconomy or just a mere follower. Striking the correct balance between openness and autarky will define Canada’s bioeconomy for years to come.