Timing is everything: Will Bioproducts (biomaterials, biochemicals, and biofuels) finally get their own association in British Columbia?

Everything old is new again. It’s all about timing.  These are only two of a few choice phrases that may describe something that is afoot here in British Columbia. Some major global, national, and provincial forces are in play that are driving the development of a new (to us) association that may be created in order to “advance and promote” BC Bioproducts to the world.

Daily, we are pummelled with news of global warming, the leaching of petroleum based chemicals into the environment, and energy dependency security problems. Simultaneously the global agricultural producers are taking a beating as their crops are either commodified driving the prices down, or their crop-seed stocks are enclosed by patent and the wide varieties of natural genetic stock supplies are cut back, leading to crop failures due to massive consolidation of seed-stock into fewer and fewer genetic strains. It seems like nothing but bad news.

But there are many, many people currently working on these issues in the international arena: energy security, climate change, and sustainable development to name some key ones. And they are making some real progress.

Nationally, here in Canada, we have some things happening that are contributing some energy to these areas: our signature on the Kyoto Agreement; a movement towards alternate energy sources; a focus on sustainable development; and a desire to find a way to let rural agrarian Canada share in the spoils of the new biotech riches.

Provincially, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries is taking the lead in attempting to form an association dedicated to the advancement and promotion of a BC Bioproducts-based industry. They are currently doing some research with the Innovation and Science Council of BC to lay the foundation for a potential new body.

All of these forces – international, national, and provincial –  are conspiring to create a renaissance of sorts. I say renaissance because bioproducts have been since Mankind started burning wood for heat and light. But now we have the beginnings of genetic understanding (I say beginnings because we have a LONG way to go before we REALLY understand things.)

So, what are Bioproducts anyway? Well, there are lots of definitions but a broad one would be: any commercial or industrial product composed in whole or in significant part of biological products or renewable domestic plant, animal, marine, or forestry-based material, that generally does not contain synthetics, toxins, or environmentally damaging substances. (I used this definition by merging two other definitions that I have recently read. It is not a formal definition by any means.)

In short, you take bio source materials such as barley, corn, wheat, soybeans, wood wastes, aquaculture wastes, animal rendering wastes, or municipal wastes, and then through a series of bioprocesses convert it into either biomaterials (including cosmetics, cells, high-value molecules), biochemicals, or biofuels (such as ethanol, biodiesel, or hydrogen.)

By using industrial waste outputs as inputs into other products and services, we lower the total waste, lower our Carbon emissions, develop new bioprocesses (which we can resell), and increase our ability to build sustainable and environmentally sane communities, cities, and countries.

Examples would be converting animal rendering plant wastes or lumber mill wastes into energy; or converting corn into biodiesel, which has extremely positive benefits such as no black filthy smoke, many fewer toxins, and better mileage. Another great example would be using corn-based products to create wood-like substances that can be used to build furniture that has no detectable chemical emissions and which will readily biodegrade.

Like all emerging sectors, in order for our province to seriously develop it, a concerted effort will be required to connect policy development, markets, environmental groups, manufacturers, crop farmers, funders, and researchers.

I look forward to seeing how this initiative develops here in British Columbia. I will write more about it here as things develop.