How are we to develop a landscape in which a bio-based economy booms? And how can we create a healthy business case for bio-based products? There is strong potential for a bio-based economy in the Netherlands and across Europe but more incentives are needed to drive this forward and trigger a widescale roll-out. TNO and The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies identified the opportunities for and obstacles to this transition.
A bio-based economy offers huge opportunities for sustainable economic development in the Netherlands and in Europe. “The Netherlands is leading the field in developing a bio-based economy,” says Rob Weterings of TNO and first author of the Dutch report, Among golden mountains and green business. “We Dutch are strong in food and chemicals, are innovation-driven and have many promising business cases. Yet success is not guaranteed. Before the new bio-based value chain is commercially viable, chances will have to be seized.” In a bio-based economy, high-value bio-based raw materials, like rapeseed and wood, are used for high-value purposes. However, present policy encourages their low-value use, namely in energy production. “Traditionally, this has been a logical policy, but if bio-based business is going to be profitable,” says Weterings,” this must change at European level; it cannot be resolved in the Netherlands.” A fine challenge for Europe, the Dutch government and the top sectors.
Europe currently lacks a stable and inviting investment climate for bio-based activity. In addition, investors who enable demos on an industrial scale are needed, and food crops must not be used on a massive scale as an industrial raw material. A bio-based economy need not be based on food crops, it can rely on other crops, on algae or on waste streams from, say, hospitality and catering or on prunings from woodland managed by the Dutch forestry commission, Staatsbosbeheer. Public acceptance is playing a role with regard to genetic modification, which appears to be a controversial issue in the Netherlands and Europe. Consumers or end-users are important players. In short, many obstacles need to be tackled. In the Netherlands there is a need for a proactive innovation policy that substantially accelerates the development of promising business cases.
Financing industrial demos
When it is clear which bio-based value chains are viable and promising, it will be easier for government and industry to take good investment decisions. “Many promising initiatives are taking place on the Green Chemistry Campus in Bergen op Zoom,” says Weterings, “Companies from various sectors are cooperating here on the continued development of technologies intended to make bio-based products profitable. Their development takes time. Pilots at R&D level are already underway, but what is really needed are demos on an industrial scale. In Europe, funds for this are difficult to find. Capital providers have their eyes on the United States or South-east Asia. Still, it is good that regional pioneers are clustering their initiatives, because that strengthens their cooperation and raises the likelihood of their attracting investors.”
Action plan for industrial biotechnology
The development of industrial biotechnology can play a vital role in the emergence of a bio-based economy in Europe. But this sector’s potential is still being underutilised. Elsbeth Roelofs, business consultant sustainable innovation, TNO: “In the European project BIO_TIC, opportunities and obstacles are being identified with European and regional stakeholders. They are looking at the areas of research & technology development, market & industry and society (laws and regulations, policy and, for example, ethical aspects such as the discussion about the use of genetic modification). The next step is to compile an action plan capable of persuading relevant stakeholders to take action so that industrial biotechnology can boom. In this project, TNO is playing an important role in the design of the method for the roadmapping process, in the completion of the roadmap for research & technology development and in the mobilisation of stakeholders.”
Source: TNO, press release, 2013-02-28.