Barely six years old, the EU’s Bioeconomy Strategy, currently under revision, is slowly but surely propagating green shoots of sustainable economic recovery in innumerable and unexpected ways, writes Joanna Dupont.
Joanna Dupont is the Director of Industrial Biotech and Cross-Sectoral Strategy at EuropaBio.
Plastic packaging for cheese made from milk waste, car tires made from dandelion rubber, bikes made from bamboo, coffee cups made from coffee grounds, car fuel made from wheat straw, T-shirts made from trees: These are just a few of the bio-based products developed in recent years.
And yet, this is just the beginning. The bioeconomy, circular by nature, is not only at the forefront of making valuable products and processes from biomass rather than from fossil carbon. It’s also leading the quest to turn trash into cash and is a future lifeline for many sectors struggling for survival in the face of globalisation and digitalisation.
The rationale for enabling the development of the bioeconomy is as compelling as it ever was: by 2050, the world population is expected to reach nine billion people, which will put unprecedented pressure on the environment and its natural resources.
Coupled with the combined threats of climate change, biodiversity depletion, water and land shortages and increased levels of pollution, new solutions are urgently needed. An innovation-driven bioeconomy, with increased sustainability as its end goal, will provide renewability, circularity and multi-functionality whilst creating jobs, growth and prosperity in rural, coastal and urban areas.
But while unprecedented progress has been made since 2012 in some areas of bio-based research, innovation and investment, not least as a result of the EU’s €3.7 billion Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking, a number of factors have put the brakes on driving commercial success of new products and processes.
An abundance of scientific excellence and a conspicuous lack of bio-based scale-ups had become a familiar story in Europe, with many companies heading for more predictable investment environments overseas to commercialise the results of their work, taking jobs and growth with them.
Compounding this is a communications challenge. For many vital influencers of the developing bioeconomy, including consumers themselves, the concept has been difficult to get to grips with. This could be due, in part, to the fact that the bioeconomy is so broad that it means very different things to different people.
This is improving and, increasingly, a burgeoning number of member state and regional bioeconomy initiatives are ensuring that examples of the ‘’backyard bioeconomy’’ are accessible, relatable and tangible for their communities. Then there is the low level of understanding of just how many of our everyday products are currently made with fossil carbon, from soap to shoes, to sofas to smartphones and beyond, which could instead be made from locally grown biomass.
A further challenge, for emerging bio-based industries themselves, is a constant need to reduce costs whilst still operating at small scale, to create new markets and to demonstrate sustainability criteria in a marketplace flooded with fossil-carbon alternatives facing no such hurdles.
But, the very fact that the bioeconomy intrinsically links land and natural resources with production and consumption can, itself, be cause for concern. NGOs have helped to highlight some practices which are of concern, in particular with regard to cultivation practices for certain energy crops.
Indeed, to be truly sustainable the bioeconomy should arguably only use biomass in a smart and efficient way and, ideally, for purposes where no other renewable alternatives are available to tackle the threats and resource shortages that we face.
Differentiation is, however, important and consideration of the alternatives available, in the context of the demands of a growing population and the other grand challenges we face, is essential.
In other words, we must consider these debates in the context of the potential consequences of maintaining ‘business as usual’ and acknowledge that in the dialogue around the development of the bioeconomy there will not always be a perfect solution or agreement on the direction or speed of travel.
But what there should be is a consensus on the need to enable future generations to tackle the challenges that they will face, as highlighted so well by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and to have sufficient, sustainable, renewable food, feed, fuel, fibre and other materials to meet their needs without compromising the climate, the environment or its ecosystems.
To prepare for the future, a concerted effort is needed to ensure that the solid foundations of research and innovation in the bioeconomy are built upon. But future bio-based innovators must also be afforded the chance to emerge, reach economic self-sufficiency and thrive.
This means creating a predictable coherent, policy environment, to attract the investors waiting in the wings, and market stimulation measures to help bridge the omnipresent commercialisation ‘’valley of death’’. Bioeconomy pioneers are hopeful for an ambitious but achievable revised bioeconomy strategy to ensure that the next six years are even more transformative than the last.