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Bioeconomy: the new revolution

© Getty
© Getty

The industrial revolution made the world wealthy through a simple idea: to replace the physical labour of humans and animals with energy from fossil fuels. Two-and-a-half centuries after the revolution started, however, it is in trouble. The oil that powers much of the world’s economy is running out, and the greenhouse gases given off by the fuels are harming the planet. 

The past decade has seen the rise of an idea that might alleviate the problem: ‘Bioeconomy’ – the use of biotechnology to expand the economy in sustainable ways. If scientists can develop products from crops, trees and organic waste to do the same things as fossil fuels, we could have less pollution and continued improvements in living standards.

Biology is attracting attention now because the world’s challenges in food, energy and the environment have grown with the industrialisation of developing economies. This brings hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and creates business chances for trading partners. But it adds pressure on resources and the environment.

The planet is already heating up, and the world’s new middle classes in China and India now want to drive cars, releasing greater quantities of greenhouse gasses and putting more pressure on the world’s oil supplies. At the same time, the world population is rising and demanding ever more food. As a result, said Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, ‘by 2030 the world will need 40 to 50 % more food on the planet – and 20 % more energy.’

However, meeting many of these needs requires the same thing: more farmland. The world’s new middle classes want to eat more meat, for example, which requires more land to produce than crops because of the increased need to grow animal feed. The result: an impossible pressure on land and other resources.

Better living… through biochemistry

The bioeconomy could help get round this. In some ways it is older than the fossil fuel-based economy: the alcohol in beer or wine is produced through fermentation and has been around for millennia. Today, ethanol, which is the scientific name for drinking alcohol, is added to fuel to help power cars.

Taking a wide definition, the EU bioeconomy is already worth EUR 2 trillion and is responsible for 22 million jobs, according to the EU’s Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

'It's the food on our plates, the water from our taps, the newspaper in our hands,’ she told ‘Bioeconomy in the EU’, a conference in Dublin. ‘And, more and more, it will be the fuel in our cars and the source of power for our workplaces and homes.’

Biofuels for cars are the best known new biotech product, as they directly address the problem of having much of the world’s oil supply in politically unstable countries. Produced in a sustainable way, they can also contribute to mitigating climate change, because the carbon dioxide produced when burning them is offset by that used up during photosynthesis as the crops grow. So far, biofuels account for around 3 % of the world's fuels for road transport, but critics say they take land away from food production.

‘Each euro invested under Horizon 2020 is expected to trigger EUR 10 of added value in the different bioeconomy sectors by 2025.’

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science

More recently, the use of other bio-products is increasing. New bioplastics made from maize or vegetable fats could in future be used to make everything from cups to chairs. Bioplastics are biodegradable, meaning that within a few weeks they can be turned into compost either on a garden compost heap or in a special composting installation. A side product to the composting is biogas, which can be used to produce electricity and heat. The compost then fertilises soil on farms to help new crops grow, starting the cycle again.

More speed needed

Still, the urgency of the planet’s resource challenges requires faster change than can happen through private industry and market forces. That has prompted governments to try to kick-start the process. China included the bioeconomy and biotech sector as priorities within its 12th five-year economic guideline, from 2011 to 2015. In 2012, US President Barack Obama announced a ‘National Bioeconomy Blueprint’, that said the use of biology ‘can allow Americans to live longer, healthier lives, reduce our dependence on oil,’ and address environmental issues – while at the same time creating new jobs.

In the EU, the Commission launched a new strategy last year called ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe’. The Commission proposed EUR 4.7 billion for research and innovation in the area of ‘food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bioeconomy’ under Horizon 2020, the seven-year research and innovation programme that starts in 2014. Each euro invested under Horizon 2020 is expected to trigger EUR 10 of added value in the different bioeconomy sectors by 2025, according to Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn.

However, it is hard to persuade today’s hard-up governments to support something as little understood as the bioeconomy. CommNet, a European network of scientists and other people interested in the bioeconomy, did a survey of people involved in the field and found that 65 % of respondents thought the word bioeconomy was poorly understood by society, with 31 % saying it was not understood at all. Only 3 % said it was understood.

Even financiers do not get it, so the European Investment Bank (EIB) is guaranteeing loans to small businesses in the bioeconomy, so that banks are not just scared off by the science. ‘The banks don’t understand anything real anymore,’ said Hans-Harald Jahn, head of the EIB’s natural resources and agro-industry division. ‘We take some of the risk out of the balance sheet of banks if they lend to certain projects. That reduces their constraints.’

Public involvement has an important role to play in helping the new industries of the bioeconomy find their feet.

‘We have to keep working on demand-side activities to stimulate the long-term competitiveness of bioeconomy sectors, including the role of intellectual property and developing a new public-private partnership on bio-based industries,’ Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn told the Dublin conference. ‘There is still much to do.’

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