Exclusive interview with European Commissioner Màire Geoghegan-Quinn: “We must prepare ourselves for a post-petroleum society”


european commissioner maire geoghegan-quinn

“Europe and the rest of the world must cope with an expected 70 per cent increase in food demand, and a 100 per cent increase in energy demand, by 2050. Under these circumstances, we must prepare ourselves for a ‘post-petroleum’ society, one in which we use our natural resources more sustainably”. In this exclusive interview European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Màire Geoghegan-Quinn, talks about bioeconomy and European policies to support it. And tells us that “The Italian government is aware of the benefits of a coordinated bioeconomy strategy and expressed interest in possibly hosting the annual Bioeconomy Stakeholders Conference in Italy in 2014″.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

The better use of biological resources can allow Europeans to live longer, healthier lives, reduce our dependence on oil, address key environmental challenges, transform manufacturing processes, and increase the productivity and scope of the agricultural sector while growing new jobs and industries. As far as you’re concerned, what is the role of Europe in the global Bioeconomy?

Europe and the rest of the world must cope with an expected 70 per cent increase in food demand, and a 100 per cent increase in energy demand, by 2050. Under these circumstances, we must prepare ourselves for a ‘post-petroleum’ society, one in which we use our natural resources more sustainably. For this reason, on 13 February 2012, the European Commission adopted the strategy ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe’. The strategy aims to focus our common efforts in supporting the development of a sustainable and smart bioeconomy. Europe has a leading position in chemical and enzyme industries and a fast growing biotechnologies sector. However, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in order to fully exploit the bioeconomy potential and to ensure that Europe remains competitive tomorrow. Only the European Union as a whole has the resources to ensure a long-term commitment for the development of a coherent and coordinated research and innovation agenda, supporting bioeconomy value-chains across a number of EU policies, such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, environment, industry and energy. At the same time, Europe is very diverse, and it is up to Member States and regions to fine-tune tailor-made solutions in order to exploit their own potential. Several EU Member States have already developed, or are currently developing, national bioeconomy strategies: I strongly encourage them, as well as those who have not started yet, to move forward. While Europe is progressing, the world is also on the move: Canada has set up a bioeconomy strategy, and the US too (the National Bioeconomy Blueprint), while China is moving fast towards sustainable agricultural production, intensification and diversification.

What are the activities of the European Commission to foster the bioeconomy in Europe? What are your plans for 2013?

Maximising the impact of research and innovation on society and on our economies is fundamental. This is the key objective of the next EU Research and Innovation Programme Horizon 2020 and exactly what the EU 2020 Strategy and the Innovation Union Flagship Initiative are calling for. Horizon 2020 already proposes to address the bioeconomy related challenges with the research community, with industries and businesses, and with civil society at large. I do believe, however, that additional targeted actions are required. Policy coherence, for example, is essential for the bioeconomy. As we all know, the use of biomass is subject to trade-offs, not only between food and fuel but also with feed, biochemicals, bioplastics and other biomaterials. This is further exacerbated by the need to increase agricultural productivity while protecting biodiversity, ecosystems and the environment. We cannot continue to focus on individual sectoral priorities. We have to look at the broader picture and create a win-win environment for industries, investors and society. Through policy interaction and dialogue with stakeholders, standards and standardised sustainability assessment methodologies for bio-based products can be established to support the development of the bioeconomy.

As you are aware, Vice-President Antonio Tajani – Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship and three other Commissioners responsible for key policy areas (Agriculture and Rural Development, Environment, Maritime and Fisheries Affairs) have joined in cosigning this Strategy; and the Commission is prepared to play its part. Policy interaction now has to be reinforced to achieve policy coherence through our available instruments: the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, Horizon 2020, the upcoming European Innovation Partnership on Sustainable Agriculture, to name but a few. To further reinforce this policy coherence, the European Commission is in the process of establishing a Bioeconomy Panel that will contribute to enhancing synergies and coherence between policies, initiatives and the economic sectors related to the bioeconomy. In addition to that, the European Commission will establish a Bioeconomy Observatory, in close collaboration with existing information systems, to regularly assess the progress and impact of the bioeconomy and to develop forward-looking analyses. The Observatory will gather data to follow the evolution of bioeconomy markets, to map and monitor EU, national and regional bioeconomy policies, research and innovation capacities, activities and infrastructures, as well as public and private investments in the bioeconomy. In this way, the Observatory will support the development of regional and national bioeconomy strategies. It will also help authorities responsible for rural and coastal development and Cohesion Policy in planning ahead and maximising the impact of existing funding mechanisms. For instance, the bioeconomy could be partly supported also through ‘Smart Specialisation Strategies’ under the future Cohesion Policy.

The European Commission adopted its strategy on Bioeconomy in February. But the term bioeconomy is not that well defined. The European strategy focuses on sustainable industrial processes. The White House blueprint is aimed at fostering all biology-based businesses, including pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Why does the European Strategy not consider the Pharma and Medical devices industries?

The European Bioeconomy Strategy, as defined in the Communication ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe’, is more challenge-driven than technologydriven. The bioeconomy encompasses all sectors and industries producing and/or converting renewable biological resources into value added products: from primary production sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries to all bio-based industries. Its cross-cutting nature offers a unique opportunity to comprehensively address inter-connected societal challenges such as food security, natural resource scarcity, fossil resource dependence and climate change, while achieving sustainable economic growth. The Strategy strongly focusses on research, innovation and skills, as well as on the creation of a favourable policy environment with stakeholders engagement, as the main building blocks to shift towards an economy which sustainably produces and uses renewable biological resources, thus delivering on jobs and growth in Europe.

One of the main objectives of the Bioeconomy Strategy is to promote the transition to a low carbon economy by 2050. It aims to achieve this by improving the resource efficiency and sustainability of its sectors and industries and by substituting fossil resources by renewable ones in the production of value added products where possible. This also applies to the processes and products of the pharmaceutical industry, which rely on biotechnology and fossil resources. In this respect, the use of renewable biomass and its transformation into pharmaceutical products, or by-products, can be considered part of the bioeconomy.

I expect that under the Horizon 2020 Priority ‘Societal Challenges’, some joint activities will take place in the area of the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries between the Challenge ‘Health, Demographic Change and Wellbeing’ and that on ‘Food Security, Sustainable Agriculture, Marine and Maritime Research, and the Bioeconomy’. Interactions are also foreseen between these Challenges and the Horizon 2020 Priority ‘Industrial Leadership’. The latter includes a section dedicated to biotechnology as one of six Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) for the competitiveness and growth of the European economy. Research and innovation activities under this part will focus on advancing biotechnology as a technology that can be used for a wide range of applications, from improving the resource efficiency and sustainability of food production and industrial processes to the development of new drugs and diagnostic tools.

Italy is one of the Countries that does not yet have a National Strategy on Bioeconomy. How do you consider the role of Italy in the European bioeconomy?

Italy plays an important role in the European bioeconomy. The whole agri-food value chain in Italy is worth €152 billion each year, employs more than 1.2 million workers and generates 10% of the national GDP, thus representing one of the largest European agri-food value chains. Furthermore, considering that the bioeconomy is not only about the agri-food value chain, the Italian industry is also at the forefront of both the research and the production of new bio-based products, such as bioplastics and second generation biofuels. The Italian government is aware of the benefits of a coordinated bioeconomy strategy and expressed interest in possibly hosting the annual Bioeconomy Stakeholders Conference in Italy in 2014.

The Italian version is published on http://www.affaritaliani.it/green

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