EU strategy seeks brisk development of bio-economy

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With warnings that Europe is “too slow and too piecemeal” in developing a sustainable economy, the EU executive has unveiled plans to encourage development of the ‘bio-economy’ through investment and innovation.

The European Commission yesterday (13 February) announced its strategy to address food and energy needs as well as promote resource efficiency through a more nimble and sustainable economy.

“We’re too slow and too piecemeal in converting research results into innovation and using these to tackle our biggest societal challenges,” Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, commissioner for research, innovation and science, said in unveiling the strategy.

“Policy actions at European and member-state level are often launched in isolation,” she said in calling for “a stronger framework” that involves scientists, policymakers and entrepreneurs.

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The Commission’s strategy, titled ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe’, was welcomed by conservation and industry groups for its emphasis on investing in research and retaining Europe’s competitive edge in sustainable technology.

“We’re really enthusiast about the strategy,” said Joanna Dupont-Inglis, director of industrial biotechnology at the EuropaBio industry association, which represents industrial biotech firms such as DuPont and Novozymes.

“We feel that in terms in of technology, we have the edge in Europe,” she said, “but obviously there are things we still need to fix.”

Dupont-Inglis said public-private partnerships could boost development and investment in areas such as bioplastics production and biofuel refining.

The strategy offers no additional money. It calls for better coordination or efforts through the Common Agricultural Policy, the Horizon 2020 research programme, along with other EU and national programmes. Geoghegan-Quinn said the strategy will offer “direction” toward sustainable growth.

Grow, but be efficient

The bio-economy strategy broadly reflects the Commission’s current focus on improving resource efficiency, conserving natural resources and shifting to renewable energy while promoting economic growth.

But some provisions are almost certain to be controversial. Geoghegan-Quinn called the development of biofuels "really, really important as we move forward,” saying Europe’s refining capacity needs to grow.

Yet there are mounting concerns – even among commissioners – that fuels derived from plants may not be as benign as first thought when the EU embraced alternative diesel and ethanol in a 2003 directive on alternative fuels.

A draft Commission impact assessment indicates that the greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels such as palm oil, soybean and rapeseed may exceed those of fossil fuels when wider factors – such as the clearing of tropical forests and wetlands to grow biofuel crops – are considered.

“Personally, I’ve always been very cautious on biofuels,” Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate change commission, told EURACTIV in a recent interview. “It’s great to see the potential in new technologies, but we should take very much care in Europe that we are now not establishing a new big industry that we then – after some time – say, wow, that was not so good.”

Other proposals in the bio-economy plan are likely to be less controversial, although implementation is far from a done deal.

For example, the strategy urges turning food waste into biomass energy and fertilisers. Studies show that food and plant waste accounts for as much as 40% of landfill content in the EU.

The Commission’s strategy also envisions innovations and research helping to lift agricultural efficiency while conserving water and other natural resources. Some €4.7 billion has been proposed in the Commission's research programme, Horizon 2020, for sustainable agriculture, maritime research and the bio-economy.

The European Research Council said in a statement it supports the transition to a global bio-economy. “Europe and the rest of the world must urgently reconcile the challenges of securing food, water and energy supplies with the un-sustainability of biological and non-biological resources and the need to reduce emissions.”

In a written statement, the Confederation of European Paper Industries also said it welcomed the strategy “and looks forward to its timely implementation. The EU can create a first mover advantage on global markets, if this bio-economy strategy leads to a true system shift and finds its place in a broader industrial policy agenda.”

Jesús Serafín Pérez, president of the FoodDrinkEurope, said the industry group "welcomes the Commission’s communication ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe’ and now looks to the EU’s institutions to help make this communication a reality. The industry welcomes the recognition that it has a big role to play in the move towards a more innovative and low-emissions economy.”

Nathalie Moll, secretary-general of the EuropaBio? industry association, said: “We have the technological edge here in the EU and, in the face of mounting economic and environmental challenges and burgeoning international interest in this field, it’s vital that we keep it.

“We applaud the Commission for its inclusive approach towards developing this strategy which has involved thorough consultation with the whole value chain and has the support of several key Directorate Generals within the Commission.  The EU’s leadership is helping to ensure the bio-economy will bring big benefits for our economy and for our environment in the process.”

The Danish company Novozymes said in written remarks: “The bio-economy is one of the sectors where Europe has a technological edge. We must build on it to enhance EU competitiveness. Today’s European Commission’s strategy can contribute to deliver the full potential of the bio-economy. Let’s avoid it becomes a pure think piece and implement the proposed actions as soon as possible.”

Biochem,  an EU?funded  innovation  project helping  small and medium business enter the bio?based  economy, also welcomed the Commission document. Steve Fletcher, the coordinator, said “EU policy often reminds us of the importance of  a  healthy  SME  sector. The  BIOCHEM  project  is  giving  SMEs  a  springboard  to  the  bio?economy,  benefiting  both  these  small  European  companies  and  the  sustainability  of  our sector.  In the push to a more sustainable, bio?based economy, SMEs have vital role to play.”

The European Commission’s ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe’ strategy and action plan calls for better coordination amongst EU and national governments to:

  • Boost investments in research, new technology and skills;
  • Increase efficiency and competitiveness in agriculture, food prosecution, forestry and fishing;
  • Improve cooperation throughout the policymaking process.

Unveiled on 13 February 2012, it would mobilise national resources as well as the Horizon 2020 research programme and other EU projects to help carry out the strategy.

  • 21 Feb.: The bio-economy strategy to be presented to member states at a meeting of the Competitiveness Council

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