Private sector is part of the solution in bioeconomy, experts say

The bio-based private sector contributes 4.2% to Europe’s GDP. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report The bioeconomy in the post-2020 CAP.

The private sector has a key role to play in promoting bioeconomy in the agrifood sector, high-level experts have told EURACTIV.com. However, they said the risk of depriving the food production system of organic resources must be weighed up.

The bio-based private sector contributes 4.2% to Europe’s GDP. It generates €621 billion added value and around €2 trillion in annual turnover. It also employed 18 million people in 2015, of which more than two-thirds were in agriculture and food manufacturing sectors.

However, the labour productivity gains of agriculture, forestry and fishing remained at €20,000 per person employed in the 2008-2015 period, below the industry average in other sectors of €34,000 per person employed.

Launched in 2013, the EU Commission’s bioeconomy strategy was initially conceived as a way to encourage the foundation of post-petroleum energy independent Europe. But it soon moved towards solving more cycle problems, including in agriculture and food security.

When it comes to sustainability, people, but governments as well, mainly look at energy, cars, buildings, according to Gerda Verburg, United Nations Secretary-General assistant and coordinator of the UN Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) movement.

“They should pay more attention to agriculture, forestry and fisheries because, in the end, these sectors should keep our planet in healthy conditions to feed the world population,” she said.

For Verburg, although it is still work in progress, the bioeconomy concept is an opportunity to “close the circle”, especially in the breeding sector where it is possible to fix the problem of greenhouse emissions that animals produce.

New EU bioeconomy strategy widens scope to solve more cycle problems

The European Commission’s new strategy is seeking to create a sustainable bioeconomy and build a carbon-neutral future. Rather than just find a replacement for petroleum-based products, the strategy addresses broader cyclic challenges, including food and nutrition security.

Private sector involvement

Verburg also said big tech companies and the private sector should be involved in all the possible solutions to assist farmers.

Bioeconomy provides a source of additional income from farmers, foresters and fishermen, but it could also be a profitable business for private companies that bring to market services and products.

“I don’t care if companies are making profits out of the transfer from a non-sustainable production toward sustainable production,” she said, adding that she is much more concerned about companies that continue to push farmers to buy their products.

According to her, it is the fact that some companies are maximising their profits at the cost of people and environment that should raise concerns, rather than the fact that they make use of an innovative approach to support farmers and at the same time develop biodiversity.

“Good for them if they make money out of this, as long as they are part of the solution. And let’s be frank, a company who doesn’t make profits, also won’t make a leap into future,” she said.

The private sector is the main actor in all the new agricultural trends, according to Davit Kirvalidze, Georgia’s candidate for FAO Directory general and former agriculture minister of his country. Asked by EURACTIV particularly about bioeconomy, he replied, “Empower the private sector, and the private sector will know how to do it”.

He added that the private sector had always led the progress while the role of governments is to provide companies with the right regulatory and institutional environment.

Risks

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a Danish economist and Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, stressed that we “do need to understand much better how to approach all the biological resources used in the bioeconomy framework”.

According to him, many risks could come from the use of natural resources for purposes other than food, as has happened with biofuels, which he considers as the wrong way to cope with the energy security problem.

He added that some co-products like animal manure should be kept in the food circle to produce organic fertilisers, rather than be used for energy production.

Animal manure could be treated, indeed, through a process of anaerobic digestion to produce biogas, a renewable fuel which contains methane and that can have an impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have to be very careful that we know what we’re doing so that we don’t simply subtract natural resources from food production with some very negative consequences,” Pinstrup-Andersen concluded.

The European Commission put the use of biofertilisers as one of the areas to develop in the context of the new bioeconomy strategy, unveiled last October.

“I would really like to see manure used as a feedstock for fertilisers. It is part of the circular economy philosophy,” Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen said during the presentation of the strategy.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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