In the coming decades, humanity is expected to face several major challenges, including an increase in the world’s population, in particular in emerging countries (China, India), a further concentration of people in towns and cities, the ageing of the population in developed countries, and an increase in incomes and related changes in consumption habits. This will cause a growing demand for food, energy and health services, to be obtained at reasonable costs, in a context characterized by increased global competition and resource scarcity, at the same time without compromising the fight against climate change.
In such a context, innovation has been placed at the heart of the EU strategies as emphasized by the Europe 2020 strategy and by the Innovation Union flagship initiative (European Commission, 2010a, b). In this context, the concept of the bioeconomy (or bio-economy or bio-based economy) has been put forward as the guiding perspective concerning primary production based on the management of biological resources. The bioeconomy has been defined in a number of different ways in various policy documents issued in recent years (see e.g. Clever Consult BVBA, 2010; OECD 2009). The word bioeconomy itself has often been introduced in the economic disciplines, yet for rather different concepts. The EU communication “Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe” and its accompanying working document (European Commission 2012a; b) qualify the Bioeconomy as encompassing “the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy. It includes agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food and pulp and paper production, as well as parts of chemical, biotechnological and energy industries. Its sectors have a strong innovation potential due to their use of a wide range of sciences (life sciences, agronomy, ecology, food science and social sciences), enabling and industrial technologies (biotechnology, nanotechnology, information and communication technologies – ICT, and engineering), and local and tacit knowledge.” A narrower definition is used by the OECD (2009): “…the bioeconomy can be thought of as a world where biotechnology contributes to a significant share of economic output.” In projecting the future of biotechnology and the bioeconomy up to 2030, this study identifies three key elements characterizing this sector: a) an advanced knowledge of genes and complex cell processes; b) renewable biomass; c) integration of biotechnology applications across sectors.
The bioeconomy in the EU (using the EU definition) presently accounts for an annual turnover of 2046 billion euro (of which 965 from food and 381 from agriculture) and 21 505 thousand employees (of which 4400 thousand in the food industry and 12 000 thousand in agriculture) (Clever Consult BVBA, 2010).
The bioeconomy is believed to be able to play an important role in creating economic growth and providing responses to global challenges, hence contributing to a smarter, more sustainable and inclusive economy. However, the different scientific contributions with regard to the potential for the future development of the bioeconomy (Carlson, 2007, OECD, 2009; May, 2009; The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2009) show rather diversified estimates of development, in particular in relation to the many variables that can affect such development.
The OECD (2009) identifies 4 drivers for future development of the bioeconomy: 1) public support to biotechnological research and training of young researchers; 2) public regulation; 3) management of intellectual property; and 4) public acceptance of biotechnologies. Innovation in public policy is recognised to have a central role across such determinants due to the apparent inability of market mechanisms and the present policy framework to guarantee a suitable response to future needs. The BECOTEPS (2011) white paper emphasises that a “successful bioeconomy needs coherent and integrated policy direction”, with key areas including investment in research, encouraging innovation, strengthening entrepreneurship in the bioeconomy, providing a skilled workforce, guaranteeing an innovation-friendly regulatory framework which balances both risks and benefits, and a good two-way communication with the public embedded in R&D projects to ensure societal appreciation of research and innovation. The documents of the main European Technology Platforms highlight, in particular, the need for an increased understanding of the concerns of consumers and citizens, as well as initiatives aimed at improved communication. The recent communication about resource-efficient Europe encourages to consider the whole life cycle of the way resources are used, including the value chain, and the trade-offs between different priorities.
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(Author: Davide Viaggi