Opinion: The missing link in Canada’s bioeconomy

In its May 2020 report The organic revolution: innovations that transform economies, societies and our lives, McKinsey Global Institute writes: “The direct economic impact of the biological revolution could reach $4 trillion per year over the next 10 to 20 years. More than half of this direct impact could be in agriculture and food, consumer products and services, and materials and energy production.

This represents more than 2,000 billion dollars per year of products and materials resulting from the sustainable transformation of trees, crops (residual or dedicated), grasses and algae.

Pretty much everything we consume that comes from a barrel of oil – from transportation fuel to heating and cooling to personal care products – could instead come from biomass.

How is it going ? McKinsey says, “The current wave of innovation in biology has been propelled by breakthroughs in science itself, as well as advances in computing, data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and biological engineering. Biology is increasingly being used to create new materials that introduce entirely new capabilities, are biodegradable, and/or produced in a way that emits far less carbon.

To learn about these “new materials”, go to the US Department of Agriculture’s Bio-Preferred program. Here you’ll find over 4,000 items certified to be made from at least 30% renewable plants and other agricultural, marine and forestry materials. Everything from insulators, paints, plasticizers and cosmetics to textiles, inks, perfumes and fertilizers. These certified products are eligible for mandatory federal purchases. Talk about market pull.

Where does Canada fit in this whole opportunity? Although some 60 countries have adopted national bioeconomy strategies, Canada is not one of them. The United States has had one since 2012. The United Kingdom has one. Germany has one. The European Commission too. Costa Rica has one; its objective is “to make the bioeconomy one of the pillars of the productive transformation of Costa Rica, promoting innovation, added value, diversification and sophistication of [our] economic, applying the principles of the “circular bioeconomy” and seeking the decarbonization of production and consumption processes. Canada should be embarrassed.

In the United States, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “How about a bioeconomy that makes America the envy of the world? This will create jobs and increase our exports. And the European Commission has committed 9 billion euros from 2021 to 2027 to stimulate research and innovation in the sectors covered by the bioeconomy.

The question for Canada then is, do we have the will to be part of this bio-revolution? We certainly have the resources. With 348 million hectares of forest (nine percent of the global total), 60 million hectares of agricultural land (most in Saskatchewan and Alberta), and dozens of cities wondering what to do with their growing municipal waste, there is no doubt that Canada could be a world leader in the bioeconomy.

To be fair, some Canadian companies are already working in this area, including bio-based plastics and cleaning products, renewable fuels, and large wooden buildings. But many have had to go overseas to pursue funding and marketing.

The 2020 update to 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change suggests that Canada will “examine options to improve the shift to low-carbon fuels” and create “new natural resource jobs supporting tree planting and forest management activities”, but that’s hardly a strategy or pathway to a bioeconomy.

Canada needs a national bioeconomy strategy led jointly by Agriculture Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

And because the money goes where it can find the highest rate of return, the federal government must provide financial markets with the right signals to catalyze bio-based investments. At a minimum, it must implement a federal bioproducts procurement policy similar to the American Bio-Preferred Program.

Canada cannot meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement without renewable fuels, biomaterials and district energy facilities powered by biomass or municipal waste. So why not take advantage of Canada’s natural resource wealth and position ourselves to capture 10% of this global market? That $200 billion a year would create thousands of high-end jobs and put us on a sustainable path to competing in a low-carbon world.

Opportunities for reindustrialization and wealth creation like this do not arise every decade. Let’s hope it’s not already too late for Canada to grab its share of the bio-based market.

Jeff Passmore is the founding chair of Scaling Up, Canada’s annual industrial bioeconomy business conference to be held November 7-9, 2022 at the Château Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. www.scalingupconference.ca.

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