Arizona Ag's Opportunities in the Bioeconomy
Recognized along with colleagues Ashley Kerna Bickel and Dari Duval for the Extension’s Economic Impact Assessment Team Award, George Frisvold, Ph.D., leads what I personally call the “A-Team” in economic research. Their agricultural-based economic assessments on the local, state and national levels have helped define and advance the true contributions of Arizona agriculture’s $23.3 billion industry. Dr. Frisvold and the team approach their economic research with the expected caution, calmness and curiosity required of one mining for nuggets of understanding.
Joining the faculty UArizona in 1997, Dr. Frisvold previously was a visiting scholar at the National Institute of Rural Development in Hyderabad, India, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and Chief of the Resource and Environmental Policy Branch of USDA's Economic Research Service.
His research interests include domestic and international environmental policy, as well as the causes and consequences of technological change in agriculture. In 1995-96, Dr. Frisvold served as a Senior Economist for the President's Council of Economic Advisers with responsibility for agricultural, natural resource, and international trade issues.
He is currently the Bartely P. Cardon Chair of Agribusiness Economics and Policy and an associate editor for two journals: Pest Management Science and Water Economics and Policy. In 2020, Dr. Frisvold co-authored the National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine report, Safeguarding the Bioeconomy: Finding Strategies for Understanding, Evaluating, and Protecting the Bioeconomy while Sustaining Innovation and Growth.
And so, with his research efforts in the bioeconomy recently completed, I decided to ask him in our conversation series just what “nuggets of understanding” we in agriculture can glean from the research and why we can be excited about the future.
Arizona Agriculture: Please give an overview of the Bioeconomy. Kind of the 30,000-foot view.
Frisvold: In their recent report, Safeguarding the Bioeconomy, The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recommended the following formal definition:
“The U.S. bioeconomy is economic activity that is driven by research and innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology, and that is enabled by technological advances in engineering and in computing and information sciences.”
In the last 30 years or so, there have been tremendous advances in biological sciences and information and data sciences, and computing capacity.
The bioeconomy represents the coming together of these advances, not just in terms of scientific knowledge, but in terms of practical commercial applications. This means new goods and services that were science fiction years ago that are fast becoming part of the economy. This includes bio-based products, the use of genetic information, and advances in medical diagnostics and devices. There are applications in food and agriculture, energy, and medicine.
Arizona Agriculture: What does this mean for agriculture and especially Arizona agriculture? Perhaps, this is the “What’s in it for me” question.
Frisvold: Different countries and groups have different definitions of the bioeconomy, but a central theme is developing new bio-based products, particularly those that substitute for fossil fuels. All agriculture and forestry are bio-based.
Arizona agriculture is right at the center of the bioeconomy as it is constantly adopting cutting-edge advances in biological and information sciences. Think of genetically modified crops, using CRIPR technology for gene editing, precision agriculture relying on advanced geographical information systems, growing crops for energy production, or growing guayule to substitute for synthetic rubber in tire production.
Certain advances could pose challenges for traditional agriculture as well. For example, “cellular agriculture,” may use animal cell culture technology to grow animal tissue in a lab, rather than from a live animal. If accepted by consumers, what would this mean for cattle ranching?
Arizona Agriculture: According to your research paper on this, under the Bioeconomy’s agriculture section, we’ll have four main criteria for inclusion: genetic engineering, advanced molecular biology techniques, large informatics databases and computational techniques. Is there one main area or criteria in this section where you see Arizona really excelling? Or all areas? And why?
Frisvold: Arizona has the capacity to excel in all these areas. One key part of the bioeconomy is biofuels and bioenergy. Traditionally there has been a lot of emphasis on bioenergy from corn and soybeans; the Midwest has a huge advantage there. There’s a reason they call it the Corn Belt. But researchers here in Arizona have been working on biofuels from algae and sorghum, so time will tell.
People are also developing DNA-based tissue diagnostics to manage plant diseases as well as applications in genomics in bioinformatics. In Arizona agriculture, the adoption of genetically modified (GM) cotton and corn is widespread. But advances go beyond GM crops. Growers are adopting precision agriculture techniques. They are using data systems not just for production, but also to assure food safety. It is really the marriage of infotech and biotech.
This will also include the use of drones and robotics. For decades, growers have been adopting IPM (integrated pest management) techniques. IPM basically substitutes better information about biological processes for chemicals. Cotton production in Arizona has gone from a high-pesticide using system 30 years ago to a low-use one today. That’s been achieved by advances in both biotechnology and applying knowledge of biological systems.
Arizona Agriculture: In some respects, the Bioeconomy already exists, right? What’s making it so important now?
Frisvold: The examples I’ve just given show that, yes, the bioeconomy is already here. Humans have been growing crops, raising livestock, brewing beer, burning wood for fuel, and using timber for building for millennia. And humans have been gathering biological materials to test their nutritional and medicinal potential for even longer. Economic activity surrounding the use of biological resources remains a fundamental part of modern economies. So why the recent surge in interest in “the bioeconomy?”
Three factors have contributed to this. First, advances in genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, and high-throughput molecular operations facilitated by robotic technologies have changed the way biological research is done and really opened the door for many commercial applications. Second, switching from exhaustible fossil fuels to renewable biological resources to produce electricity, fuel, and chemical-based manufactured products has become a priority in many countries. This shift to biological resources has been motivated by different policy goals: rural economic development, addressing climate change and energy self-reliance. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, countries are thinking more of getting energy from domestic agriculture rather than from imports for Russia and others. Third, genetic materials and biodiversity have increasingly been viewed as inputs to the discovery and production of new pharmaceuticals and other biobased products.
Companies with histories in agricultural, chemical, and pharmaceutical production merged, reorganized, and acquired seed companies (and their stocks of crop germplasm) to expand into the development and sale of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties. The boundaries between the agribusiness, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries have been blurring. Companies are vying to be dominant players in not just one, but all three of these.
So, the bioeconomy represents new kinds of jobs using new kinds of technology to produce new bio-based products for companies organized in new ways.
Arizona Agriculture: What can we prepare for to take advantage of some of the Bioeconomy’s benefits?
Frisvold: This starts with education. What we found in the NASEM report is that there are a relatively small number of “hubs” (metro areas) that account for the bulk of biotechnology R&D and employment. These, in turn, are places with major research universities. Not everyone is going to be a university or spinoff company researcher, though. So, you must work down. What jobs are going to be possible for people with a bachelor’s degree? What types of training and certification opportunities could be made available at the community college level?
Next, is the biological science curriculum at the high school level adequate to prepare young people? So, looking at strengthening biological science learning at the high school level (or even earlier) is not too soon.
Good schools are also important as a means of attracting scientists to Arizona. A high-tech, science-based workforce is going to want high-quality education for their kids.
Arizona Agriculture: How should the UArizona prepare, or how have they been preparing, especially in their research, education and extension roles?
Frisvold: The UArizona is already right in the thick of things. Researchers are getting competitive federal grants for research; extension is helping farmers and ranchers adopt cutting-edge technologies.
4-H has an ongoing role in earlier-stage education in agriculture which relies so much on the biological sciences. In general, though, I think there is an underappreciation of how cutting-edge agriculture is in terms of science and technology applications.
If you look at the things I listed – genomics, genetic engineering, informatics, computation, climate change mitigation, renewable energy, energy self-reliance – agriculture is absolutely central. So, “selling” agriculture to younger folks is not just quaint and traditional but cutting edge in terms of advanced methods to address pressing social issues.
Arizona Agriculture: Says nationally-recognized farmer Larkin Martin, “Agriculture suffers from a lack of data interoperability. Pieces of software are often a special purpose. File formats are not standardized, often proprietary, and often incompatible across different pieces of software. Software is also designed primarily to quietly gather information from the farmer rather than assist the farmer with private business decisions.” I hear this often from our producers managing sophisticated agriculture operations. To move forward in a Bioeconomy, especially with large informatics databases and computational techniques, do we have the promise that some of these software/data-gathering challenges can be fixed? And how can farmers and ranchers be assured their data sharing is protected?
Frisvold: There’s a lot going on in this question, so let me unpack it a bit. There are two issues here. First, there has been a growth in lots of apps and decision tools that are cumbersome to use and not well integrated. Will this improve? Second, these systems gather a lot of personal and business data. How can we know the data provided will be secure and not misused? Let’s go to the first question. Many apps and decision tools advertise themselves as “one-stop shopping” for organizing data for planning and decision making. This promise is never really fulfilled. I’ve studied how people use different data sources for things like water management or wildfire management. What I’ve found is that people end up using multiple sources, because no single thing is sufficient. This leads to the problem that different systems are not standardized or compatible. You have multiple businesses developing different applications, so this shouldn’t be too surprising. How this often gets resolved is one company gets very large and crowds out the competition. This means that you have more compatibility but fewer choices.
The second question has to do with the security and uses (and potential misuses) of data people provide to businesses. I was part of the writing team for the NASEM Safeguarding the Bioeconomy report. The report was actually commissioned by the Office of Defense National Intelligence. One of ODNI’s concerns was potential future misuses of genetic and medical information that is being collected and compiled. Farmers and ranchers should always investigate how firms say they are using of sharing data that is provided to them. Look at the fine print. In addition to company practices, there are also risks from hacking by third parties. So, look at company track records with data security and security breaches. Cybersecurity is just part of doing business in the 21st Century. There might well be business opportunities for Arizona’s younger generation providing cybersecurity services for agricultural producers.
Arizona Agriculture: What excites you about the potential of the Bioeconomy and especially as it relates to agriculture and our economy?
Frisvold: As I said above, agriculture is absolutely central to many of the recent scientific and economic changes we’ve seen in the last 30 years. Also, agriculture is seen by many outside of agriculture as a key to solving many of society’s pressing problems.
This is refreshing as agriculture is often viewed unfortunately as backward or a culprit. I am currently working with colleagues in my department and in the Department of Biosystems Engineering to measure the economic contribution of Southern Arizona’s bioeconomy. It should be done sometime this fall. Nationally, we had estimated that the bioeconomy contributes about $1 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) to the U.S. economy in today’s dollars. I’m curious to see what we find for Southern Arizona. I think it will highlight how important the bioeconomy is for the region’s overall economic health. It will also highlight how much activity is going on in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Arizona Agriculture.