4 November 2010

EU bio-economy plans to rely on productive farmers

Europe has many strengths but production is still uncompetitive compared to other countries, such as the US

Facilitating access to renewable feedstocks will be a test of how serious Europe is in promoting the bio-based economy, according to Nathalie Moll, secretary-general of EuropaBio. The EU biotech industry chief spoke to EurActiv in an interview.

Background
The European Commission selected bio-based products as one of six sectors to be supported under its Lead Market Initiative for Europe (LMI), launched in December 2007. The initiative promised to help bring new non-food bio-based products and materials like bio-plastics, bio-lubricants, enzymes and pharmaceuticals to the market.

An accompanying action plan identified standardisation, labelling and certification as potential actions to break down “perceived uncertainty about product properties and weak market transparency” and proposed to look into promoting green public procurement for bio-based products.

In March 2010, the Commission announced an €80 million research programme for biorefineries, which contributes to the LMI. The initiative, funded with €52 million of Commission money and €28 million from other research partners, aims to develop new ways to convert biomass into second-generation biofuels, chemicals and other materials.

The EU executive also promotes next-generation biofuels in the Bio-energy European Industrial Initiative, part of the European Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan. The initiative aims to build around 30 plants to demonstrate advanced biofuels and highly efficient combined heat and power from biomass at a cost of around €9 billion over the next ten years.

For Nathalie Moll, Europe’s ambitions to promote the bio-based economy will hinge on an efficient farming sector.

“Obviously, you can’t have a bio-economy without raw materials. You need the agricultural or waste basis to then produce bio-based products,” Moll said.

“We need to have a productive agricultural policy so that we are not importing products from the rest of the world in order to have our bio-based economy.”

Industrial biotechnologies have become a buzzword for chemical companies looking to tap into the growing market for green products. Applications are numerous and can range from biofuels and bio-plastics made from farm waste to the production of pharmaceuticals or preservatives used by the food industry.

But Moll says she is concerned that the upcoming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will fail to take productivity concerns into account. “The CAP is also about productivity. It’s not only for food supplies but also for the bio-based economy,” she stressed.

According to Moll, Europe has many strengths but production is still uncompetitive compared to other countries, such as the US.

“The EU has a really good position because we are very heterogeneous in our feedstocks and can do more than just biofuels from maize [and] can produce lots of different kinds of bio-based materials compared to the US. But there is a gap in the innovation pathway.”

EU Innovation Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s upcoming bio-economy strategy should therefore look at policies to improve productivity and logistics in Europe, she said, including import tariffs to help the European bio-industry to compete with cheaper imported products.

The strategy should also support “targeted research, training and innovation programmes with clear objectives,” Moll said. “There need to be research projects that integrate the whole thing: demonstration activities, funding for pioneering bio-production facilities, these kinds of things that public-private partnerships could do.”

Bringing research to market
The European bio-industry has been calling for further political support in order to close a widening gap between Europe and the US in terms of bringing research to market.

“It’s about finding ways to facilitate access to research-oriented pilot plants and ways of capitalising on the fantastic research basis we have down here and making many products in a competitive way,” Moll said.

Maive Rute, director of biotechnologies at the European Commission’s research department, gave assurances that the European Commission was no longer looking at biofuels, food or bio-based materials as separate issues and had realised that they are pieces of the same puzzle.

“One trend is very clear: that we now understand better the need to have a more coherent view on [the] various parts of the bio-economy,” Rute said. “We cannot solve one without looking at the others.”

Stephan Tanda, a member of the managing board at Dutch chemical firm DSM, agreed. He called for a coherent strategy, from “very ambitious goals for renewable content to (…) preferential sourcing policies where governments, which often are half of our economy, buy products based on their renewable content”.

“The biggest challenge in the short term is to get (…) large-scale biorefineries built and optimised and in the long-term ensure that the biomass is grown by farmers all across Europe,” he said.

Moll also stressed the need to stimulate market demand for bio-based products, calling for US-style incentives like the obligation on federal establishments to focus sourcing on bio-based materials. The EU so far has a strategy for bio-based products under its Lead Market Initiative, but this now has to be implemented, she argued.

“We need targets for bio-based product categories and maybe some tax incentives for certain ones,” she said.

Moreover, Moll believes bio-based products should also benefit from a CO2 deduction. As the plants grow, they absorb carbon dioxide and therefore contribute to fighting climate change, she explains. When the total emissions of a product are calculated, this amount of CO2 should be deducted, she argues.

To read the interview with Moll in full, please click here.

Next Steps

  • Autumn 2011:

Commission to present strategy for the bio-economy.Links
European Union

Business & Industry

Source: EurActiv, press release, 2010-11-04.

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