The bioeconomy can shape the future of Europe’s economic and environmental wealth

Policy makers and consumers will need support and guidance in the decisions to be taken

As the world’s population increases and greater pressure is put on global resources, we need to think carefully about how we manage the ground beneath our feet, and what changes to land use will mean to environmentally responsible businesses.

Despite adopting more efficient practices, our appetite for energy, fuels and materials continues to grow and so too does the cost of fossil fuel. Europe’s policy makers are at a crossroads and know that the choices and policies made today will shape the economic and environmental wealth of Europeans tomorrow.

Fortunately Europe is technologically well positioned to spearhead the development of a new ‘bioeconomy’ with world leading companies in the biotech and biochemical industry and a strong agricultural and forest industry – its now time to ‘go green’.

According to the OECD, biotech offers technological solutions for many of the health and resource-based problems facing the world. The application of biotechnology to primary production, health and industry could result in an emerging ‘bioeconomy’ where biotechnology contributes to a significant share of economic output.

In 2010, the world economic forum estimated the global revenue potential of the entire biomass value chain to be more than €200bn by 2020. In February 2012, the European commission adopted a strategy and action plan entitled “Innovating for sustainable growth: a bioeconomy for Europe”.

According to this, the term ‘bioeconomy’ means an economy using biological resources from the land and sea, including waste, as inputs to food and feed, industrial and energy production. The EU bioeconomy already has a turnover of nearly €2 trillion and employs more than 22 million people (nine per cent of total EU employment) and includes agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food and pulp and paper production, as well as parts of chemical, biotechnological and energy industries.

In April, the commission announced a set of concrete measures to boost jobs, including efforts to exploit the big job potential areas such as the green economy, where 20 million jobs could be created between now and 2020. Consequently it is increasingly understood that going green and enabling biotechnology is not just good for the environment but for jobs and growth too.

Now it is time for Europe to kick-start a sustainable and competitive biobased industry, with significant economic, environmental and societal benefits. The existing emerging biobased industries can lead a decoupling of economic growth from resource use, while leading the transition towards a post-petroleum society in line with the Europe 2020 strategy.

However, the opportunity of this fundamental paradigm shift risks being lost as investments and technologies are deployed elsewhere. Around the world, leading economies (including Brazil, China and the USA) have already started to put in place the necessary policies and investment tools to promote the take-up and commercialisation of these new technologies.

They are implementing significant initiatives such as the US BioPreferred programme which promotes the increased purchase and use of biobased products through product labelling and federal procurement preference – as Europe reviews its public procurement policies the same can be done here.

With increased commercial take-up and societal awareness and acceptance of biobased products the necessary economies of scale can be created as well as benefits throughout the value chain, including for farming communities.

A shift to biobased products can also positively affect societal choices – in Italy a ban on single use plastic bags has resulted in more consumers reusing bags and the use of biobased alternatives that can be used in composting facilities.

Innovative applications are also being developed in medical devices, horticulture, aquaculture and many through public private partnerships (PPP) between industry, academia, societal groups and governments.

The commission’s proposals foresee a ‘biobased industries’ PPP to address effectively both the innovation and investment challenges to deliver biobased products superior or at least comparable in terms of price, performance and availability and with higher environmental benefits to non-biobased products. Such a PPP can also be the platform for engagement with citizens and end consumers on sustainable consumption, as well as working with the commission, parliament and member states to coordinate policies and actions.

Many obstacles and challenges remain and business, policy makers and consumers will need support and guidance in the decisions to be taken – however the choice to go green has already been made…let’s go.

This article first appeared in the June issue of Parliament Magazine.

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NNFCC, press release, 2012-07-10.


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