Conference at EESC reveals the untapped potential of the bio-economy in the transition towards a more sustainable Europe

One year after the European Commission had launched its updated European Bio-economy Strategy, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) together with the Commission and the Committee of the Regions (CoR) organised an event on European Bio-economy: Regions, Cities and Civil Society on October 16th 2019, in Brussels.

Maurizio Reale, President of the EESC's NAT Section, opened the event together with Jácint Horváth, CoR rapporteur on Bio-economy, and Wolfgang Burtscher, Deputy Director-General at DG RTD.

In his welcome speech, Maurizio Reale underlined the importance of the bio-economy in achieving the SDGs. He also highlighted the crucial role of Europe's farmers in the sustainable management of our natural resources.

The opening panel, moderated by EESC member Andreas Thurner, discussed bio-economy strategies both at national and regional level and the civil society involvement therein.

In their interventions the regional and local representatives stress that the bio-economy has a huge potential for economic development, particularly in rural areas where it represents an important factor in stopping rural exodus. The regions must have the necessary resources to seize the opportunity to develop their own bio-economy sector. Cross-border projects should also be developed.

Ireland's bio-economy strategy is based on a threefold approach: capitalising on the potential of the bio-economy to address sustainability and circularity, addressing specific actions and key challenges to improve commercial success and social development, and developing a policy framework. Presenting the case of Ireland, Patrick Barrett from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said that the European innovation partnership has a fundamental role in ensuring policy coherence. The Irish example can provide information to other Member States and guide them in building up their national bio-economy strategies, and can thus ultimately help develop a sustainable Europe more effectively.

The European Bio-economy Network (EuBioNet) is a proactive alliance of EU-funded projects dealing with bio-economy promotion, communication and support. The main goal of the bio-economy network is to raise awareness, maximise efforts, increase knowledge-sharing, networking, and mutual learning and to facilitate coordination of joint activities and events, echoed Susanna Albertini from the EuBioNet. In order to achieve these goals, EuBioNet has organised mobilisation and mutual learning activities. People need to be inspired to start developing their own ideas.

In the session on 'Education and training' EESC member Mindaugas Maciulevicius called on the audience to bring up new Gretas, children who are aware about the future of our planet! Being sustainable is fundamental for a working European bio-economy, and, to encourage this, education and support for research and innovation are important.

According to professor Iris Lewandowski from the University of Hohenheim, our mission is to contribute to the empowerment of the European knowledge-based bio-economy by educating a new generation of European experts. The University of Hohenheim is part of an alliance of six European Member States with the aim of building a dynamic European network and creative hub for the development, promotion and implementation of the bio-economy across Europe. Together we can create a leading European intellectual institution for tackling the enormous environmental economic and societal challenges in the 21 century, she said.

From the industry's point of view one of the possible bottlenecks is the increasing demand for skilled labour. Metsa Fibre, a frontrunner of sustainability in the forest sector, is offering expertise in the wood trade and forest management, chemical and mechanical industrial production, maintenance and wood- processing tech. We are constantly changing and evolving by using the latest technologies. Thus the competencies required are continuously increasing, and training and education have become fundamental factors when recruiting new employees, explained Lasse Brandt, Vice-President of Human Resources.

Workers and trade unions see bio-economy as a huge opportunity for job creation in rural areas, especially in the agriculture and fishery sectors. The Bio-economy is interesting for us because we see growth in agriculture and industry, innovation in different sectors, new types of jobs and education, wrapped up Jesper Lund Larsen from the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism.

EESC Member Simo Tiainen moderated the session on 'The Blue Bio-economy in Europe'. Anthony Buchanan, CoR member and Councillor of East Renfrewshire Council, Felix Leinemann, Head of Unit for Blue Economy Sectors, Aquaculture and Maritime Spatial Planning from DG MARE, Jyrki Suominen, Deputy Head of Unit for Healthy Oceans and Seas from DG RTD, and Antidia Citores, Legal, Campaign and Lobbying Manager from Surfriders Foundation Europe, participated at the panel session.

Scotland is strongly developing its blue bio-economy sector in the coastal zones, especially in areas such as wind energy and fishery.

The European Commission is fully aware of the strong potential of bio-economy. The Blue Bio-economy Forum, which is an initiative of the European Commission bringing together industry, public authorities, academia and finance, has debated on the most important challenges and produced important recommendations for the new Commission. The mission letter of Virginijus Sinkevicius, Commissioner-designate for environment and oceans, includes the elaboration of a new strategy for the blue economy. In that context the research and innovation investments will be key for the development of bio-based, recyclable and marine-biodegradable substitutes to fossil- based materials.

The closing panel, moderated by EESC member Andreas Thurner, explored the topic of the bio-economy within the framework of the World Food Day. The growing world population will lead to a higher demand for food and the increase of economic wealth will aggravate the situation even more. 

Food is at the core of the bio-economy, stated Andrea Vettori, Deputy Head of Unit of DG ENV. He called for coherent long-term policies to combat biodiversity losses and to deal with the climate challenge. The systematic innovation, which has been at the centre of the conversation, must be both technological and social. We have been moving from a small world in a big planet to a big world in a small planet, he said, and then concluded, Change needs to happen locally and citizens have to become key partners in the process.

Following this call to action, Galin Gentchev, Policy Officer on Agricultural Bio-Energy and Bio-economy for DG AGRI, emphasised that the real global challenge is figuring out how to satisfy the increasing demand for food in an environmentally sustainable way. The regional and local levels are fundamental in this process and the role of CAP will be to support the agricultural sector in adapting to the shift in demand while at the same time leaving flexibility to the producers on what to produce.

All the regions are potential bio-regions, stated Alin-Adrian Nica, 1st Vice-Chair of SEDEC Commission at CoR, and explained that the bio-economy is a cross-sectorial topic. To achieve our goals we need horizontal approaches and cooperation with the local level. The Member States and the European Union should act as facilitators in order for the bio-economy to thrive at the regional level. Making agriculture sustainable does not mean straying away from technological innovation: precision technology, soil monitoring technology and other things can be great assets for the transition to more sustainable agriculture.

During his closing speech, EESC Member Peter Schmidt reminded the audience of the common theme throughout the event: the idea of a fundamental and systematic change in the agricultural sector. Data shows that hunger has increased in the world. The European Institutions have worked extensively on the issue and organised civil society must do its part in implementing the ideas that are already on the table. The window is now open. We have all the tools, we have to do it, he concluded.