Estimating the biotech sector's contribution to the US economy

Journal name:
Nature Biotechnology
Year published:
Published online

US biotech sector revenue is estimated to have grown on average >10% each year over the past decade—much faster than the rest of the economy. A more comprehensive assessment of biotech's economic contribution, however, will require improved data collection, classification and analysis.

At a glance


  1. 2012 biotech revenues in the United States were >[dollar]324 billion.
    Figure 1: 2012 biotech revenues in the United States were >$324 billion.

    (a) Contributions by subsector to total revenues. US biologics revenues were compiled from a published drug-by-drug breakdown of global data12. GM crop revenues include farm-scale revenues, seeds and licensing. B, billions. (b) Breakdown of industrial business-to-business biotech revenues, as reported by Agilent Technologies15, scaled to remove the cost of GM corn from biofuels revenues. Food and ag includes food biotech (e.g., additives and enzymes); ag refers to biochemicals and animal biotech products used in agriculture. Biochemicals are any chemical produced by biological means; biologics feedstocks are otherwise known as active pharmaceutical ingredients. The consumer-scale revenues (i.e., the ultimate monetary value to consumers) from the products of industrial biotech are unknown but are larger than the business-to-business revenues described by Agilent. A version of this figure is available from Biodesic (Seattle; for use under a Creative Commons license.

  2. US farm-scale revenues and market penetration of GM crops.
    Figure 2: US farm-scale revenues and market penetration of GM crops.

    (a) Total US revenues from GM crops and seeds and farm-scale revenues of major GM crops. Seed and licensing revenues were compiled from annual ISAAA Briefs. Revenues were calculated with annual average crop prices as provided by the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS). (b) US market penetration of five GM crops. Data are from USDA ERS surveys. Large annual changes in revenues are driven by crop prices rather than by new products or by changes in market penetration. Versions of these plots are available from Biodesic (Seattle) for use under a Creative Commons license.

  3. Estimated total annual US biotech revenues from 1980 to 2012.
    Figure 3: Estimated total annual US biotech revenues from 1980 to 2012.

    Bars show approximate biologics revenue data and GM crop and industrial revenue estimates and shaded areas are interpolations of individual sub-sectors (Supplementary Methods). The inset shows sub-sector annual growth rates between 2000 and 2012, calculated from the interpolations. Inset shows subsector annual growth rates between 2000 and 2012. The wide annual swings in the growth rate of GM crop revenues are due primarily to fluctuations in prices.

  4. Contribution of biotech revenue to US GDP and GDP growth.
    Figure 4: Contribution of biotech revenue to US GDP and GDP growth.

    (a) Percentage of total GDP growth contributed by biotech revenue growth (red line), and biotech revenues as percentage of GDP (blue line). The 2010 contribution of biotech revenue growth to GDP growth reached an anomalously large 8% due to the low overall growth of the US economy. (b) Current dollar growth of US GDP and US biotech revenues. The 2009 datum is omitted owing to negative total GDP growth that year. Biotech revenue estimates, reported in the year in which they were booked by the industry, are compared with current dollar GDP figures from the US Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis that are not adjusted for inflation.


  1. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Emerging Policy Issues in Synthetic Biology. (OECD, 2014).
  2. Aggarwal, R.S. What's fueling the biotech engine—2012 to 2013. Nat. Biotechnol. 32, 3239 (2014).
  3. Morrison, C. & Lähteenmäki, R. Public biotech in 2014—the numbers. Nat. Biotechnol. 33, 703709 (2015).
  4. Carlson, R.H. Biology is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life. (Harvard University Press, 2010).
  5. Sagal, M. Synthetic Biology for the Next Generation, A Symposium Under the Auspices of The National Academy of Sciences (12–13 June 2012).
  6. La Merie Business Intelligence. Blockbuster Biologics 2012 (9 May 2013).
  7. International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations. The Pharmaceutical Industry and Global Health: Facts and Figures 2012 (IFPMA, 2012).
  8. Carlson, R. Causes and Consequences of Bioeconomic Proliferation: Implications for U.S. Physical and Economic Security (Homeland Security Institute, 2011).
  9. James, C. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012. ISAA brief 44 (ISAAA, 2012).
  10. Carlson, R. The market value of GM products. Nat. Biotechnol. 27, 984984 (2009).
  11. Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies, National Research Council. Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (The National Academies Press, 2010).
  12. Brookes, G. & Barfoot, P. The global income and production effects of genetically modified (GM) crops 1996–2011. GM Crops Food 4, 7483 (2013).
  13. Klümper, W. & Qaim, M. A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops. PLoS One 9, e111629 (2014).
  14. Fernandez-Cornejo, J., Wechsler, S., Livingston, M. & Mitchell, L. Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States (USDA ERS, 2014).
  15. Solomon, D. U.S. Congressional Briefing: Tooling the Bioeconomy (US Congress, Washington, DC, November 5, 2013).
  16. National Mining Association. The Economic Contributions of U.S. Mining (2012) (National Mining Association, 2014).
  17. Battelle/BIO. Battelle/BIO State Bioscience Jobs, Investments and Innovation 2014 (Biotechnology Industry Organization, 2014).
  18. Anonymous. How big is the bioeconomy? Nat. Biotechnol. 32, 598 (2014).
  19. Biotechnology Industry Organization. Unleashing the Promise of Biotechnology (BIO, 2011).
  20. Office of the Chief Economist and Office of Energy Policy and New Uses. Biobased Economy Indicators (USDA, 2011).
  21. Batchelor, S. New Opportunities: Renewable Chemicals and Biobased Products (NASEO Winter Policy Outlook Conference, 8 February 2012).
  22. European Commission. Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe (European Commission, 2012).
  23. Carlson, R. From national security to natural security. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (11 December 2013)
  24. Pimentel, D., Zuniga, R. & Morrison, D. Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Integrating Ecol. Econ. Control Bioinvasions IEECB SI 52, 273288 (2005).
  25. Goodell, J. Goodbye Miami. Rolling Stone (20 June 2013).
  26. Anonymous. You're going to get wet. The Economist (25 June 2013).
  27. Campo-Flores, A. Flood fixes vex coastal areas. The Wall Street Journal (13 June 2013).
  28. Williams, V.J. Identifying the economic effects of salt water intrusion after Hurricane Katrina. J. Sustain. Dev. 3, 2937 (2010).
  29. BenDor, T., Lester, T.W., Livengood, A., Davis, A. & Yonavjak, L. Estimating the size and impact of the ecological restoration economy. PLoS ONE 10, e0128339 (2015).
  30. Carlson, R. The pace and proliferation of biological technologies. Biosecur. Bioterr. 1, 203214 (2004).
  31. Carlson, R. The Causes and Consequences of Bioeconomic Proliferation: Implications for U.S. Physical and Economic Security (Homeland Security Institute, 2012).
  32. US National Security Council. National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats. (Office of the President of the United States, 2009).
  33. Ledford, H. Garage biotech: life hackers. Nature 467, 650652 (2010).
  34. Carvalho, D.O. et al. Suppression of a field population of Aedes aegypti in Brazil by sustained release of transgenic male mosquitoes. PLoS Negl. Trop. Dis. 9, e0003864 (2015).
  35. Ezezika, O.C. & Singer, P.A. Genetically engineered oil-eating microbes for bioremediation: Prospects and regulatory challenges. Technol. Soc. 32, 331335 (2010).
  36. Gisbert, C. et al. A plant genetically modified that accumulates Pb is especially promising for phytoremediation. Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 303, 440445 (2003).
  37. US Office of Management and Budget. North American Industry Classification System (NAICS)—updates for 2017. Fed. Regist. 79, 2962629629 (2014).

Download references

Author information


  1. Bioeconomy Capital LLC and Biodesic LLC, Seattle, Washington, USA.

    • Robert Carlson

Competing financial interests

R.C. is the Managing Director of an investment fund that operates in biotechnology.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Author details

Supplementary information

Additional data