Biotech chief: EU farm policy needs to feed the bio-economy

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This article is part of our special report Greening the CAP.

The EU's future agricultural policy needs to facilitate access to renewable feedstocks for the bio-industry if Europe is serious about increasing its bio-based economy, Nathalie Moll, secretary-general of EuropaBio, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Nathalie Moll is secretary-general of EuropaBio.

She was speaking to Susanna Ala-Kurikka.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

There is a perception of an emerging gap between the EU and US in the development of a bio-economy. What problems do you see?

We can divide this into three areas – research, demonstration plants and feedstock. In Europe we are very, very strong on research. A lot of the research has started here, a lot of the companies have flooded here but there is still a lot of fragmentation compared to the US.

The [European] Commission is setting a good example by trying to increase the coordination, but there are many small and uncoordinated projects in different member states that really aren't synergising with each other, and that's the big difference. The EU is not the US, but more can be done to bring the member states together, maybe doing joint projects and making more out of the research capital that exists today.

Demonstration plants are another big issue for Europe compared to the US. There is no public financing for demonstration projects at the same level there is in the US. There is some European capital there – some member states occasionally have some money – but there is not a programme just for that. If you look at the US, there's a lot of capital at government and state level for demonstration plants.

You need demonstration plants to transform research into products.

The companies exist in Europe, much innovation and technology is in the EU; but when it comes to the business part, to the marketing part, the product part, they migrate to the US, as they get demonstration plants and incentives over there. There are also penalties if you don't reach certain targets, so it leads to a much better business environment that is much more predictable and appetising, if you like.

The other important point for the EU is feedstocks. Obviously, you can't have a bio-economy without raw materials. You need the agricultural or waste basis to then produce bio-based products.

The EU has a really good position because we are very heterogeneous in our feedstocks and can do more than just biofuels from maize [and] can produce lots of different kinds of bio-based materials compared to the US. But there is a gap in the innovation pathway.

Let's look at the future: the new CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] has to facilitate access to consistent supplies of high-quality feedstocks. So, when they're thinking of the CAP in addition to thinking about activities that farmers could do in addition to farming, they really need to think, if we're going to have an increased bio-based economy in Europe, if we're going to set targets for bio-based materials, we need to have the raw materials to do that.

We need to have a productive agricultural policy so that we are not importing products from the rest of the world in order to have our bio-based economy, because that is not going to be sustainable, efficient, smart or everything the EU 2020 strategy is supposed to be.

At the moment, it is not clear in statements that are made on the CAP that that part has been taken up. The CAP is also about productivity: it's not only for food supplies but also for the bio-based economy.

The EU's innovation commissioner has promised an EU strategy for the bio-economy in 2012. What should this strategy include?

We are really excited about that. We think that it's great that it was included into the EU 2020 and that they are going to have a follow-up strategy. There are five main points that we are hoping that such a bio-based economy strategy would have.

The first is improving security of access to renewable raw materials for industrial uses as we have just discussed. We need the policies that improve productivity and you need to look at logistics. You need to look at a whole set of things that would allow access to renewable materials, including import tariffs. We currently have a number of import tariffs that make us quite uncompetitive.

The second thing would be to support targeted research, training and innovation programmes with clear objectives so that you would have research programmes that look at the entire value chain with public-private partnerships.

The bio-based economy goes from raw materials all the way through bio-processing to the production of bio-products. It's quite a long process if you think about it, so there needs to be research projects that integrate that whole thing: demonstration activities, funding for pioneering bio-production facilities, these kinds of things that public-private partnerships could do.

The third point would be developing new technologies and bridging the gap between research and the market – what we are less good at, I must say. So, it's about finding ways to facilitate access to research-oriented pilot plants and ways of capitalising on the fantastic research basis we have down here and making many products in a competitive way. Unless you are competitive, companies will still choose to go elsewhere in the world.

The fourth really important point is also stimulating market demand for bio-based products. In the US, for example, all federal establishments have to focus their sourcing on bio-based materials. Here in Europe, there is a Lead Market Initiative, a recommendation on the bio-based economy – we need to implement it.

We need targets for bio-based product categories and maybe some tax incentives for certain ones. Another idea is C02 deduction of bio-based carbon. So if you have bio-based carbon in your production chain, you can include CO2 deductions that you're causing by using a bio-based product in that production facility. Having preferences and incentives specifications, things like that, so that we can compete with the attractiveness of the rest of the world.

The last point, and the basis for any success, is improving awareness by communication and education. We need to talk about the benefits and increase social acceptance, including issues like GMOs and indirect land use. We need to dialogue about those and increase the knowledge base.

I don't think that the knowledge is out there, and we'd really need to make a concerted effort. If we want to change our economic model into a sustainable, resource-efficient model, then we need to make sure the public knows what that means, agrees that that's a good idea and helps and contributes.

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