Keynote Remarks at the Bioeconomy and Climate Change Forum

Charles H. Rivkin
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Washington, DC
May 6, 2015

As prepared

Thank you, Eric, for that introduction.

Good morning everyone, and a special welcome to our ambassadors and others from the foreign diplomatic corps here today.

Before I continue, I’d like to thank the many people responsible for today’s event, including our partner, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO. I look forward to hearing from Jim Greenwood, President and CEO, in just a few minutes.

I also want to thank all the people in the State Department who worked on this event for their outstanding support and participation in making this event happen. That includes, in particular, the Foreign Service Institute, as well as the Office of Global Food Security, the Office of the Science and Technology Advisor, the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Scientific Affairs, and of course our own Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

With that, I am delighted to kick off today’s event which will explore some of the innovative and exciting things this extended community is doing to address climate change. This is really one of the most challenging issues of our time but it is truly bringing out the best and brightest among us to respond.

As I thought about climate change and how far we have come, I thought about Homer’s Iliad, the ancient story of Helen of Troy – whose face launched a thousand ships to bring her back to Greece.

But before those ships could launch, they needed a favorable wind. So they consulted a prophet named Calchas, a man who examined animal entrails and observed the flight of birds to make his prognostications. He told the Greeks they would get their wind if their leader sacrificed his only daughter to the gods.

Back then, that’s what passed for climate science. Today, every Greek warrior would simply pull out a smartphone and check his weather app!

Of course, the Iliad’s a myth, set more than 3,000 years ago. But I use it to show just how far science has come and how technology is literally in our hands, letting us do things previous generations would have considered beyond the power of mere mortals. Most importantly, we are using the great discoveries of biotechnology to address climate change in more effective, sustainable and widely applicable ways.

Last fall, I went to Des Moines, Iowa, to attend the World Food Prize, and to speak about biotechnology as a tool for hunger alleviation and job creation. While there, I had the opportunity to join a farmer in central Iowa, sit in the buddy seat of his John Deere S670 combine harvester, and watch him work.

As we moved through the cornfields, his combine gathered, husked and shelled 12 rows of corn at a time, turning them into bushels of instant grain. He checked his progress with onboard computers and GPS technology. These helped him deposit seed and fertilizer precisely, and even showed if he had missed a single ear of corn!

While he was doing this, he spoke about the importance of international markets for American agriculture, and how he had once hosted President Xi Jinping of China at his farm.

In just one ride on a combine, I saw a farmer using technology to enhance his livelihood and engage fully within the global economy. I also saw how biotechnology was helping farmers to use sustainable techniques that reduce our carbon footprint and address climate change.

Of course, climate change cuts across all sectors of the bioeconomy, which not only include agriculture but health, industry and energy. It is one of the biggest threats of our time with a decisive role in everything from pandemic diseases to crop damage, and from famine to widespread destruction of homes and habitats.

One question for our time is this: Can we direct the kind of innovation that has already built the bioeconomy towards addressing these enormous challenges?

The answer is “yes,” if we continue to build on the incredible innovative progress we have made so far – and are making right now – in the biosciences.

It’s “yes,” as long as we share the same consensus mission: to provide for humanity’s ever growing needs while reducing our carbon footprint.

Finally, it’s “yes,” if we ensure that our breakthroughs not only create benefits for society but are sustainable in the global market.

Right now, in the United States, the bioeconomy is worth more than $300 billion dollars and already supports 1.6 million jobs. It can, and it should, grow more because, quite simply, we have no choice: We have to invent our way to solutions or face the consequences.

The good news is, innovation is central to our DNA. That’s clearly evident in the bioeconomy. We are finding ways to transform our waste into valuable resources. We are making our production processes more efficient and sustainable. Instead of addressing disease with chemically derived medicines that respond to symptoms, we are using biologically derived vaccines that work on the causes. And we are creating sustainable biofuels to drive our cars, warm our homes, and light up our workplaces.

But innovation needs support from many corners, from the funding of research to the protection of intellectual property rights; from a free and open internet to the imaginative partnerships that government and the private sector can create so that more people are free to make those powerful discoveries that benefit us all.

From the government corner, we need to address macro policies that respond to climate change. We need to agree on global commitments that count, metrics that matter, and standards that improve conditions.

The Obama administration has already shown its ongoing commitment in this space. It recently announced a target of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025 compared with 2005.

Last November, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China made an historic Joint Announcement of our intended targets, with China agreeing for the first time to a peak year for its CO2 emissions of around 2030 and to an ambitious target of 20 percent clean energy in its energy mix by 2030.

This December in Paris, we are looking to establish, for the first time, an ambitious, durable climate regime that applies to all countries, is fair, and focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience.

Our commitment to address climate change is as widespread as it is focused.

We launched the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, which works to produce more food, adapt to a changing climate, and reduce greenhouse gases.

We support the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Climate Technology Center and Network, and the Green Climate Fund, both of which support the efforts of developing countries in different ways to adapt to climate change.

That includes work to protect forests, support resilient agricultural sectors, and reduce greenhouse gases, while generating economic opportunities for their citizens.

We also invest billions in research and development of low carbon technologies and energy efficiency.

On other fronts, my Bureau has a leading role in making sure investors, entrepreneurs, researchers and the entire bio-economic extended community can be more connected, integrated, efficient and profitable.

For example, we advocate in world forums for a free internet to keep open channels of information, commerce and trade. We are integral to the negotiations in two ongoing multilateral trade deals that will not only break down barriers to trade and investment but set new environmental standards for member nations.

We also foster innovation by establishing legal frameworks that protect intellectual property rights, minimize corruption, and reward entrepreneurship.

The government has unique assets in at least two other ways. First of all, we have convening authority: We can assemble political leaders, scientists, economists, university leaders, business leaders and multilateral bodies to pursue mutually agreed upon goals.

Secondly, we have 270 embassies and posts around the world – our shoes on the ground, you might say – to extend our messages and outreach with citizens, political leaders and civil society organizations everywhere.

While the U.S. Government works to play its part, there are roles for a wide array of other actors in the bioeconomy, including other governments, multilateral bodies, businesses, universities, entrepreneurs, and scientists.

As I glance around this room, I can see a good representation of that global community. I look forward to hearing more about the stories you have to tell.

We have so much to build on; so many success stories in biotechnology, as we work to combat the effects of climate change. As I mentioned, one of the consequences of climate change is the increased risk of insect-borne disease exposure, such as dengue and malaria, in places such as Florida and Texas. The National Science Foundation has supported research that reengineers microorganisms to produce an anti-malarial drug. It’s called artemisinin and new companies are already putting it on the market.

That’s a perfect illustration of the bioeconomy at its best: Funded innovative research addresses a serious problem, using cross-disciplinary biosciences. The private sector brings it to market and makes it available globally. The problem is addressed.

As I learned on my trip to Iowa, the agricultural sector continues to benefit from innovation. We are making more sustainable use of land and water. We are developing drought tolerant varieties of corn, nutritionally enhanced rice, and disease resistant oranges. These are crucial breakthroughs as we also try to feed a global population that will reach an estimated 9 billion by the year 2050.

These and other stories prove to me that, despite the size and scale of our challenges, we are rising to meet them head on. I believe it’s because, throughout human history, we have made productive use of innovation since we first learned to rub two sticks together.

Back then it was sticks. Now we’re creating genetically modified mosquitos that don’t carry malaria. We are turning algae into jet fuel. We are making apples that don’t brown and potatoes that produce fewer carcinogens when fried.

Of course, with innovation comes change – and inevitably resistance. Charles Kettering, an American inventor and former head of research at General Motors, who owned 186 patents, once said: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.”

The bioeconomy is all about progress, from the cellular level to the macro-economic level, as we work to grow an ecosystem of invention and reinvention that creates the products and processes for a more sustainable future. We may not seem as powerful and impressive as those ancient Greek warriors, waiting for their favorable wind. But if you compare the stakes we face, we can make the case that we’re more modern heroes. By creating a viable, sustainable bioeconomy, we are not only enhancing and sustaining society; we are contributing to a more ecologically balanced planet. For my money, that beats getting Helen back from Troy any time!

Thank you.