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Guest Commentary | Transforming grain to gold: How area-led industry can strengthen America’s economy, national security

Just as the alchemists of yesteryear sought to convert base metals into gold, today’s most prolific innovators have their sights set on transforming simple sugars into valuable products through a process called precision fermentation.

While alchemists fell short of their aspirations, precision fermentation is not only a successful reality, but is also quickly turning into a multibillion-dollar industry that will create tens of thousands of jobs while helping the planet become more sustainable.

Precision fermentation is a processing technique that converts microorganisms and microbials into in-demand compounds. Precision fermentation processes are already capable of converting corn into ethanol and underutilized corn feedstocks into high-value ingredients, materials, chemicals and more. While innovation in this space remains somewhat nascent, there are untold applications for this technology yet to be unearthed — and central Illinois is at the heart of this industry.

Just last month, the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Hub (iFAB) at the University of Illinois was recognized as one of 31 U.S. Regional and Innovation Technology Hubs, solidifying its leadership in bioprocessing innovation and positioning the region for significant investment over the next several years.

The work happening at iFAB will be transformative, not only for our local and national economies, but also for our nation’s security. The economic and national security implications for precision fermentation innovation span energy independence, food security, sustainable manufacturing, food safety and innovation.

Consider the following impacts that precision fermentation can have:

Energy independence through biofuels:

  • By creating biofuels, precision fermentation can reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil and strengthen our economy by potentially reducing trade deficits and stabilizing energy prices. Energy independence also strengthens our national security by making us less vulnerability to supply disruptions from global hot spots or decisions made by foreign oil suppliers.

Food security with alternative proteins:

  • The global demand for meat is rising, and precision fermentation can help meet that need in a environmentally sustainable way that helps the U.S. capture a significant market share of this new industry. Additionally, ensuring a stable, domestic supply of protein reduces reliance on international food chains, which can be disrupted by geopolitical events, climate change or pandemics.

Sustainability and textile manufacturing:

  • Sustainable textiles created by fermentation can lead to new markets and innovations, with consumers increasingly demanding environmentally friendly products. By producing textiles domestically, the U.S. reduces dependence on potentially unstable regions and ensures the availability of essential materials during global crises.

Innovation in materials with bioplastics and polymers:

  • As global demand grows for sustainable materials, lead in bioplastic production through fermentation processes can allow the U.S. to reduce its carbon footprint, capture significant market share and drive technological advancements. Diversifying the sources of materials also reduces reliance on foreign suppliers, especially for critical industries or technologies.

The bottom line: we are only starting to scratch the surface of precision fermentation’s many benefits, and central Illinois can be a global leader in this technology.

iFAB’s Tech Hub designation and the funding and prestige that accompanies it has transformative potential for the area. That’s why U.S. lawmakers must encourage and accelerate American innovation, not undermine it with short-sighted, overly broad regulations.

Current policy proposals circulating in the Senate would handcuff American innovation while disincentivizing future growth and innovation during a time when it has proven essential to our economy and national security. Illinois’ congressional leaders need to make sure they are backing new technologies, especially those that bring new jobs and economic growth to the state.

Policymakers must consider the big picture, recognizing that through investment and leadership in these key sectors, the U.S. can position itself for both economic growth and greater resilience against global uncertainties in both the near and long terms.