The bioeconomy, anyone?

Public debate on the future development of the bioeconomy is needed.

The bioeconomy, anyone?

Personally I always find it a tricky question to decide which scientific conference to go to. After all, there is an unlimited choice of conferences, but not unlimited time to spend. Most scientific associations have their own dedicated conferences, and adherence to a specific field makes it often an annual obligation to participate. But interdisciplinary conferences or meetings allow an introduction in disciplines that are not familiar, even if you never know on beforehand if this will be useful.

Last week, Be-Basic organized for the first time ECOBIO, a conference on building a sustainable biobased economy. This was a first-time event, and the conference was not organized by a scientific association or society. This makes the event already less appealing. But my research is on the future evolution of the biobased economy, and it was close, in Rotterdam. So I joined, and I’m quite happy I did.

What is it about ?

If the biobased economy, or the bioeconomy, is a foreign concept for you, then you are certainly not alone. The concept has yet to become publicly known. Within the policy debate, it is rather new as well. The earliest appearances of the biobased economy date back to the nineties. But it was at the start of this century that the idea gained traction. The biobased economy is a vision for a future industrial structure where all products are created from organic and renewable materials. This removes the need for fossil fuels, requires no mined minerals, and is based on entirely new production processes for biobased substitutes of fuels, food, plastics, consumer goods, etc. The biotechnology industry is working hard to develop new methods and procedures to make this possible. The European Commission has created a long-term strategic flagship out of this idea, and several countries and regions follow suit. The Flemish region also created a strategy to develop a regional sustainable biobased industry. On top of that, there are initiatives such as a European partnership between governments and industry to channel 3.7 billion euro to dedicated R&D, and this is complemented by regional efforts as well.

And still, not many citizens have heard about it, and even less can clearly tell what it is all about. Many of the publications in the past looked at the technological progress. For an economist, that is interesting, but not sufficient to join a conference either. Much of the past debate was fueled by technology forecasts and an according structural adaptation in industry and agriculture. There are a lot of economic questions that deserve further research. The first addressed are about the appropriate profitable business models that have to accompany the introduction of new biobased processes. But when companies need more organic matter as primary input, the prices for agricultural products are likely to change as well. For instance, a few years ago, the public debate was dominated by the sharply increasing food prices, and the role of increasing biofuel demand in this. This type of debates is likely to happen again in the future, as the biomass demand is extended from biofuel production to the production of a large range of products. So there are plenty of questions: “Is there an effect on land use?”, “Is there enough space to grow all this biomass ?”, “Is it possible to quench all the new biomass demands with organic agriculture as well ?”, or “How is this sustainable ?”.

It was very refreshing to see that ECOBIO combined a lot of these different views on the same stage. There were presentations on highly advanced biomass fermentation, alongside discussions on the merits of microbial soil fertility and the benefits of organic farming. The large focus remained on technology, accompanied by debates about food prices, impact on farmers, biodiversity and sustainability. This is a good evolution. It is clear to everyone that the bioeconomy is not a technological utopia, or optimistic solution for all of Europe’s sustainability problems. The debates are opened now. There is absolutely no consensus about the most suitable technological solutions, about the balance between land use and biobased production, or about the use of GMO. So even if the bioeconomy is an overall European strategic flagship, this is not a uniformly shared vision among all scientists and policy makers.

You might not have heard about this, (and that is a problem).

What about the citizen then ? That may very well be the largest problem in the entire evolution. Social investigations showed that only 8% of the general public has an idea about the Bioeconomy. On more specific topics, public acceptance of innovative biogas solutions or GMO differed widely. Because these topics are not generally known, discussions require mostly long introductions on technology characteristics, value chains and life cycle impacts. But citizens may very well be affected and have an interest in these discussions. They can also be a strong force to guide the choices between future technology pathways in the bioeconomy. So if anything important came out of the conference, it was that the dialogue with the public has to be enhanced rapidly.

That might not be easy. A particular result of the VU University of Amsterdam, was that citizens have developed a particular skepticism about the prefix “bio-“. This is understandably caused by multiple products, being labelled for instance as biofriendly, or biocompatible, even without clear guarantees that these label effectively mean anything. So maybe we should start by finding a new name for “Bioeconomy” ?


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