The Bioeconomy. In Europe this sector is currently worth € 2 trillion with 22 million jobs and yet this word is still relegated to technical language, as if it were an academic oddity, a marginal production.
What’s more, its very definition is still misunderstood. A cultural delay that could be very costly especially for Italy, a country boasting cutting-edge examples in this field. How can such barriers be overcame? We asked this question to Fabio Fava, professor of Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology at the Alma Mater University in Bologna and Italian representative for the bioeconomy for the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme Committees.
“Actually, the OECD and Europe have two slightly different interpretations of the term bioeconomy” replies Fava. “To me the best bet is the European one since Europe is the bigger investor in research and innovation and has a wider picture of the field. It regards bioeconomy as a set of strategies to enhance the biological resources necessary for the production of raw materials from which food, chemical compounds and fuels can be extracted. In short, not just a mere market segment, but a way of reorganizing the general production system, taking into consideration environmental issues and resource limitations.”
Sometimes it happens that extremely advanced approaches are impressive on paper but a little far-fetched in practice. Is bioeconomy a good theory or a functioning reality?
“I’ll reply with an example. Seven or eight years ago biorefineries did not exist. In Europe there are 37 of them and their number might rise considerably, with Italy leading the way in the field. And biorefineries are just one of the pillars of the bioeconomy, a new and fast-growing sector, where research and innovation are making good progress.”
It took quite a number of years for this process to take off.
“I believe that the most significant commitment includes the Seventh Framework Programme right up to Horizon 2020. It is important to notice that lately the bar has been raised with the introduction of the package of the sea issues: the whole of the marine chapter, from the protection of coastal areas to the production of biological resources is now part of the bioeconomy. We are talking about microorganisms, algae, enzymes, but also transport and maritime tourism that is worth US$ 40 billion a year in Italy alone.”
Might such a vast interpretation of the bioeconomy not be too disorientating?
“Quite the opposite, I find it unifying. It is about bringing together issues and problems that, if taken separately, can have a limited value but when integrated into one comprehensive strategy represent a top-ranking whole that might restructure the economy, propelling it into the future.”
Sustainability can be defined as the ability to last into the future, respecting renewable resources’ regeneration time. But for this very reason, is it not difficult to accommodate all the various requirements? Is it possible to keep production competitiveness while diminishing the production impact on the various ecosystems involved?
“It’s certainly complex. But the impact of another kind of production would not be any lighter. Quite the opposite is true: with the bioeconomy approach, problems come to the surface and it is possible to find ameliorative solutions. The European Union is investing heavily in research and innovation not only to strengthen single sectors, but to integrate them in quality supply chains in various locations.”
Give us some examples.
“Let’s take the food industry. In Italy, the yearly turnover is € 132 billion, with a slight loss incurred at the beginning of this crisis but now it is picking up again. In Europe, it is worth a trillion euros, i.e. half of the whole of the bioeconomy and represents the first manufacturing sector (in Italy it ranks second after the mechanical industry). Is that a good result?”
It would seem so.
“And I think that it could be even better, because the by-products, the discarded material, often become refuse: a colossal waste. 30% of processed material is not turned into food and is only partially used, with a lot of it ending up in landfills. In Italy, there are about 12 million tons of waste from the agro-industrial sector that companies do not know how to utilize. In fact, whether they become animal feeds or waste in landfills, they have to pay for their removal.”
Could biogas be generated instead?
“Biogas is a fashionable option and it is a possibility. But it is far more interesting if we consider turning them into chemical compounds and biobased materials and then with the residue producing biogas, which is worth much less on the market. We have to consider integrating this circuit to biorefineries, the industrial locations where cascade goods are produced, just as it is done in the oil refining process. Here all resources are used, including waste from other processes, to make high-quality chemical compounds and raw materials. Then, only at the end of the process, the residue is used for the production of biogas.”
Such mechanism could expand with considerable advantages for the environment. But the quantity of available materials to feed the virtuous circle could be a limitation. And the quality of such waste as well, since a good level of homogeneity makes the organization of the production cycle easier.
“This is why first and foremost there is a need for assessing and organizing the combination of waste material available. I have already touched upon the agro-industrial field.
Forests are another case in point. In Italy, forested areas are growing and currently cover 10,5 million hectares, about a third of the country. Therefore, in theory, there is an abundance of wood, but such potential is only barely utilized. As a result, we rely on imports to support the national timber industry instead of using the raw material we have at home. Just to give you some figures, forests provide a turnover of half a billion euros and 200,000 jobs, as opposed to a system of timber processing that at national level is worth € 28 billion and 410,000 jobs.”
Clearly there is a problem between the relation of the value – low – attached to forest preservation and the cost – higher – of the workforce. If we are not able to include the benefits from land reclamation, hydrogeological instability protection and tourism in the value of forests, the figures do not add up.
“To those benefits, sometimes difficult to quantify, I would add the biological resources obtainable from woodland that can feed the bioeconomy. Indeed, in Italy we have patents – second generation biofuels – allowing us to start not from starches but from cellulose. It is always a problem of synergies; in other words, understanding the possibilities of integration amongst the various supply chains.”
If we managed to exploit the agro-industrial waste, of the woodland and the urban waste cycle to their full potential, would we have enough raw materials to feed an advanced network of biorefineries?
“It is difficult to work that one out. I reckon there is a potential mass of over 30 million tons of organic matter each year. It is a considerable amount but the objectives are just as great and a total reutilization is improbable. It is also true that while some by-products such as those from the agro-industrial sector guarantee a constant and homogenous flow ready to feed a biorefinery, with other wastes, such as urban ones, the quality is more uncertain and heterogeneous. All this suggests we should integrate the system with a share of dedicated materials.”
A sensitive subject: non-food crops. A question attracting increasing opposition.
“If we do not wish to get entangled in an ideological debate, we must evaluate cases on an ad hoc basis: it is difficult to compare problems in poor areas in Africa or in South America with those of a rich European region. Let us take into consideration Italy. In Italy, the cultivated area keeps shrinking and in the last few years alone it has lost, taking into account abandoned and non-cultivated land, one and half million hectares. We are talking about a huge area that is no longer used for food production. In all fairness, I do not think it is a problem if these abandoned areas are utilized to generate income from biomasses destined to biorefineries. In these cases there is no conflict between land uses, it only offers a chance to create low environmental impact jobs instead of unemployment.”
Environmental impact is also questioned: if these products come from afar or if they require a lot of energy, the outcome can be debatable.
“There is no doubt about it. Nevertheless, Europe has provided clear guidelines on these matters to evaluate for example greenhouse effect impacts. Advanced biorefineries utilize raw materials produced locally and respecting the environment: the integration concept does not work if a crop is cultivated in Sicily and then the product is sent to France.”
But if bioeconomy development scenarios are so full of money-generating opportunities and jobs creation, why is it so difficult to turn them into reality? What is stopping their development?
“The delay is due to two main factors. First: governments’ lack of information (and training) on bioeconomy and on its real potential, especially in Eastern and Southern EU countries. Second: little accurate technical information on the potential and opportunities offered by each productive pillars, from agro food to biorefineries, and inadequate relationships with the environment – even in Western and Northern European countries.”
Does the difficulty in accepting production plants by affected people have anything to do with it?
“Yes, absolutely. And on this matter we go back to communication problems, in this case ‘wrong communication’: people go as far as talking about ‘biological bombs’ while these plants use totally safe technology. The problem is that many people do not even know what a biorefinery is and are completely unprepared when faced with groundless fears. Partly, it is also our fault. As academics, we mainly focus on publishing our research in prestigious magazines that are obviously read by experts. We need to knock down this barrier and offer all-round and open communication.”
So, in your opinion, there are pieces of good news to communicate that are not being communicated.
“They are not well communicated, perhaps only when an important plant opens, such as the Porto Torres Biorefinery in Sardinia with its dedicated thistle crops. Moreover, visiting that area, I have discovered an extraordinary landscape: fields covered in thistle’s purple flowers, a grandiose view. So, what is needed is a more detailed portrayal, a flow of information enabling people to understand the advances being made and future prospects.”
Beyond Italy and Europe, could you tell us something about the global panorama? Which are the strongest competitors?
“America, as a continent, is a big producer and enjoys a long tradition in the field. Brazil is a case in point; it started producing bioethanol a long time ago. China has enormous potential – it is rich in raw materials and land bought in Africa – but it is pursuing traditional markets. Europe only started 10 years ago but with a very innovative approach based on multi-product biorefineries able to produce chemical compounds, materials and fuels. This choice offers greater economic and environmental sustainability compared to traditional single-product biorefineries. Thanks to the stimulus that in 2007 started off the Seventh Framework Programme in particular. We do not aim only at producing biofuel. We obtain it in our integrated cascade biorefineries at the end of a process where other high added-value products are created.”
How much has the EU invested?
“A lot. We started with € 200 million invested within The Seventh Framework Programme and member states (mainly north western ones) have given just as much. Moreover, recently a € 3.78 billion package has been created to specifically support research and innovation in the biobased industry for the 2014-2020 period. Over 100 partners, both in the public and private sector, support this package known as biobased industry Public Private Partnership. More than two thirds of these funds, that is € 2.7 billion, come from the industrial sector. So, this sector has done its share. It is interesting that companies have managed to find an agreement to take part in such an ambitious biorefinery programme.”
What’s the outlook for the future?
“By 2020, the biorefinery product market is expected to be worth more than € 500 billion globally, with Europe controlling 40% of it. The research and innovation ability in all sectors involved will be a crucial factor. I am thinking about those that do not spring to mind immediately. For example, the evolution of agricultural machinery: it will have to be conceived and designed to meet new needs in order to lower raw materials costs and to harvest agricultural residues exploited by biorefineries.
Another opportunity for Italy: we are well-placed in the production of agricultural machinery.
“And we must carry on improving our technology: we are heading towards agricultural machinery controlled by Gps. Once again, synergy will be key. In this game, we have excellent trump cards to play, we just have to do it.”
Image: © Symbiot / Shutterstock