Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Sustainable food, materials, and energy will flow from a technology-driven bioeconomy - Professor Erik Mathijs

Having a bioeconomy is one of the best ways to provide the world with enough food, materials, chemicals and energy, says Prof. Erik Mathijs.
Having a bioeconomy is one of the best ways to provide the world with enough food, materials, chemicals and energy, says Prof. Erik Mathijs.

A strong bioeconomy, which uses technology to maximise the use of renewable resources, is the best way to ensure the sustainable production of food, materials, chemicals, and energy, according to Professor Erik Mathijs, chair of the foresight expert group for the Standing Committee on Agricultural Research, which presented its fourth foresight report at Expo Milano on 19 June.

Your report concentrates on how the EU can develop a strong bioeconomy that produces renewable resources and ensures they are re-used in a sustainable way. How will this benefit Europe?

'It’s important for a couple of reasons. One is that we want to get rid of the fossil-based economy and replace fossil fuels, mostly oil, with bio-based products. This is perfectly possible. This could be from an energy perspective, also from a materials perspective. For example, plastics are now largely made out of fossil fuels. We could perfectly make plastics out of bio-based materials, like starch or sugar.

'Another reason is, of course, for climate change reasons. Fossil fuels are not renewable, so they will be running out.

'And thirdly, it will help us increase resource efficiency, which is an important objective of the EU. Some statistics say that 30 % of food is being wasted, so that means that we are really not using resources efficiently. If we can reduce that, that, of course, will solve a lot of problems.'

Do you think the bioeconomy is one of the best ways to feed the world in the future?

'Not only to feed the world but also to provide materials, chemicals, and energy.'

In your report you look at three different future scenarios for the use of biomass resources - that is, resources derived from living organisms - in Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

'We have three scenarios. One we call bio-modesty. That’s a world where demands (for biomass resources) will not be very large because alternative technologies like solar, wind, and so on are breaking through so fast that they generate really cheap electricity. So in that world, actually, we will stop using biofuels (fuels from agriculture and waste) and stop using fossil fuels.

'The opposite scenario is one in which there is a high demand for biomass.This happens because alternative technologies do not break through fast enough and we rely on biomass to make our climate change goals happen. This scenario is called bio-boom.

'In the third scenario, high demand (for biomass resources) is not matched by high supply growth - for example, because society resists some technologies, like nanotechnology, or GMOs, or using insects for feed and food. This scenario is called bio-scarcity.

‘We could perfectly make plastics out of bio-based materials, like starch or sugar.’

Professor Erik Mathijs, Chair of the 4th SCAR Foresight Expert Group

'You might think that bio-scarcity is not such a rosy scenario, but that all depends on who you are. This is actually the scenario which is the best one for farmers, because food prices will be the highest. The situation could be very different in the north of Europe compared to the south of Europe.'

What would a sustainably run bioeconomic farm look like in the future?

'It will be using ecosystem services to replace fossil fuel-based technologies. To give an example, some crops fix nitrogen from the air. This is a substitute for using mineral fertiliser for which you need a large amount of fossil fuels. So rather than using mineral fertilisers, we use more of these plants in our systems that actually get the nitrogen out of the air.

'Another example is plant combinations. These are really interesting because one plant will produce a substance that repels a bad insect or a pest for another plant. So these interesting plant combinations, if we can put them into the field then we will rely less on pesticides.'

What about machinery?

'We are in the middle of a big transition to a new energy landscape in which we are replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. We’re basically replacing the combustion engine with electricity and that’s a big change.

'You have to do heavy-duty work in agriculture and forestry, so that means that you need machines that can generate an awful lot of power. Currently, batteries are still not powerful enough to deliver that power. It’s another example of a recommendation that needs a lot more research.'

And fish farms? What might they look like in a bioeconomy?

'In this bioeconomy concept you would combine an aquaculture system with, for example, a tomato farm. So you would be making combinations in which, for example, the manure of the fish would be used as a substrate to grow something else. So again there are really smart combinations possible.

'The very famous example is that you can grow mushrooms on coffee residue. Once you’ve done that, you not only have mushrooms but the soil in which the mushrooms are grown also has the roots of the mushrooms, which are high in protein, and you can then use them to feed fish. So you feed the fish and the fish produce manure which you can then use for something else. That kind of circular way of thinking in which waste is actually food for something else.'

What are the challenges?

'For fish farms there are several challenges because they are intensive farms, like pig and poultry farms. One is that most of the fish that are being grown in aquaculture are carnivores, so we need other fish to feed them. That’s not really sustainable. We need fish that can be fed with plant-based feed.

'The other thing is that as we are concentrating a lot of production in a small area, so the disease pressure can be quite high. So there is also a lot of research needed to avoid the use of antibiotics, just to name one example.'

What needs to happen to make the bioeconomy a reality?

'The main message that we are putting forward is that to achieve this kind of strategy that Europe has proposed - where it wants to deliver food security, sustainability, jobs, competitiveness, and so on (by 2050) - it needs to be very careful in terms of putting a governance framework into place... in such a way that it will foster the diversity that characterises Europe.'

More info