Recommendations on National Bio-economy Strategy1

At the end of April 2016 a coordinating committee consisting of three parties (the Thai Cabinet, the National Legislative Assembly, and the National Reform Steering Assembly) resolved to speed up the Bio-economy Reform Strategy in order to include it in both the National 20 Year Plan and the 12th National Economy & Social Development Plan.
Thailand is very rich in biodiversity and has been ranked eighth in bio-resources with more than 13,500 species of plants, fifty-two percent of which can’t be found anywhere else. Thailand, however, has never had a serious strategy covering the use of this biodiversity to develop the economy of the country. This contrasts with other countries that have been doing so for a long time. For example China made the bio-economy a national agenda in its 12th National Economy Development Plan (2011 to 2015), and the European Union (EU) established the strategy “Innovation for Sustainable Growth: A Bio-economy for Europe” in 2012.
Since our bio-base is clearly a major strength of our country, I think it is important for us to have a bio-economy strategy, and that it will be a strategy that helps move Thailand forward to become a high-income country.  More importantly, our bio-resources can be processed to add a higher value than at present.  If, for example, Thailand exports value-added processed bio resources in the form of chemical products, polymer bio plastics, or pharmaceutical products instead of exporting bio resources as raw materials, as has been the case in the past, it will result in an increased income level for Thai people.   
What can the government do to transform Thailand from a contract manufacturing country to an innovative country based on knowledge of biotechnology and bio-resources? I have the following suggestions: 
1. Create a standard bio-resources database covering every region in the country
Thailand has a rich biodiversity but Thai people can’t use bio-resources to their full advantage because no information is available showing what exists. I think that establishment of a bio-resources database is the first thing that the government should do, covering all regions of the country, with brief information on bio-resources that exist, regardless of whether it’s not possible to give much detail.  But it’s important that the general population know what bio-resources Thailand has, their characteristics, and where they can be found so that there is an overall picture. This database must be created and standardized so it can be easily accessed and used.
2. Identify valuable bio-resources
As Thailand has a great number of bio-resources, but a limited budget, it is not possible to develop all bio-resources at once. For this reason, the government should identify bio-resources that have potential by reviewing existing technical and research knowledge, for example research studies by Thais, including that from universities, the private sector and abroad. These sources should be used to determine bio-resources in the Thailand that have been already developed, and to what extent. Another source to look into is the Thai non-academic (that is, those that aren’t based on western study approaches), for example knowledge gained from local wisdom and practice that has been proven to be true over time, not based on legend. This knowledge may be used in conjunction with academic knowledge, to produce further innovations. When potential bio-resources have been found, an order of priority must be set up, based on fixed criteria, so we know where and how we should devote our national resources to foster the bio-economy in Thailand.
3. List the “the commercialization of innovation” as a national agenda
Investment of budget and human resources should be based on selection of bio-resources that have high potential for developing innovations that have commercial value. Therefore, the government must nominate this issue as a national agenda (innovation agenda), focusing on finding innovations that can rapidly turn into practical outcomes. The government sector needs to select and buy know-how that can be easily combined or merge with local existing know-how and lead to a leap-across innovation, so that we do not waste time starting from the basic research.  I believe that this idea is one that is feasible, and will result quickly in results.
4. Create an atmosphere supportive to innovation
This issue is not just about developing of the economy based on bio-resources, but it is about developing the country and other areas of the economy as well, such as:
    (1) Creating an atmosphere of not violating intellectual property, enforcing fair and strict laws in order to protect the owners of intellectual property, either individuals or the business sector, so that they will continue to work on innovation;
    (2) Changing the mindset of Thai people from choosing the easy way to get by, to one of being more daring to innovate;
    (3) Reforming educational institutes to produce graduates who are innovative and have potential to innovate.
Besides the above considerations, there is another issue that needs to be taken into consideration, i.e. the political machinery.  Realizing that the present regime is temporary, we therefore need to come up with ways to ensure that the strategies we set up will continue to be implemented until it reaches its goal, and not disappear when there is a change in government as we always have witnessed in the past.

1Translated from the Thai version of “ยุทธศาสตร์เศรษฐกิจชีวภาพ” by Kriengsak Chareonwongsak published in Mix Magazine, August 2017.


Kriengsak Chareonwongsak

Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Center of Business and Government.