An interview with Iris Lewandowski: “It is needed for industry to look for more sustainable resource supplies and more efficient production processes”

Iris Lewandowski is one of the leading people of the European bioeconomy. In July 2018, she was appointed Chief Bioeconomy Officer (CBO) of the University of Hohenheim. Presently, she is Scientific Speaker of the European Bioeconomy University (EBU), an alliance of six leading European Universities in the field of the knowledge-based bioeconomy, dedicated to cooperation in bioeconomy education, research and knowledge transfer. She is also co-chair of the German Bioeconomy Council and co-chair of the Baden-Württemberg federal government’s advisory board “Sustainable Bioeconomy”. In this interview with Il Bioeconomista she talks about bioeconomy at German and European level and about the BBI JU demo project GRACE, which she is coordinating.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

We are living in very tough times, with the devastating effects of climate change, the pandemic, and the tragedy of the war in Ukraine, which also is affecting European energy supply. How do you see the bioeconomy contributing to overcoming these challenges?

We need to make our production and supply systems for food, energy and raw material more resilient and design them in such a way that they can operate within ecological limits. The bioeconomy can contribute here by reducing the demand for the import of raw materials and energy. If we apply circularity to farms by recycling plant nutrients, in particular nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), from residue streams such as slurry, we can reduce the farmer’s need to purchase fertilizers. In turn, this reduces the demand for the import of both the energy required to produce N fertilizers via the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process and also the fertilizers themselves. Generally, the bioeconomy uses biobased, renewable resources that can also be produced regionally and so it supports regional and less crisis-prone supply chains. As fossil resources are replaced, greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions are also reduced. Through the enhancement of regional supply chains, the bioeconomy supports our farmers by providing new income opportunities. It helps them secure the supply of regionally produced healthy food, integrated bioenergy and raw material production, and making us less dependent on imports. However, farmers can only do this if they are rewarded for the diversification of agricultural production required for the sustainable and ecologically sound production of raw materials and fair prices are paid. The bioeconomy provides business models for this.

Germany already provides a significant contribution to the European bioeconomy. However, Germany also has a highly developed chemical industry, which may struggle to meet the requirements of the transformation to a sustainable economy. How can such conflicting positions be reconciled in the endeavour to make economic development sustainable?

The bioeconomy embraces all sectors that (can) make use of biogenic resources or biological knowledge and biotechnologies. Therefore, it offers the chemical industry diverse opportunities to switch to a more sustainable, renewable resource and, in doing so, also reduce its CO2 footprint. Bioeconomic principles such as circularity, can – together with the use of biotechnology – support the transition to more efficient and sustainable production processes in the chemical industry. Thus, the bioeconomy and the chemical industry do not stand in opposition to each other, but the transformation process in the chemical industry will need to be supported by bioeconomic approaches. This will require willingness on the part of the chemical industry. However current developments, such as the shortage of raw materials and disruption of supply chains due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have already highlighted the necessity for industry to look for more sustainable resource supplies and more efficient production processes. 

What role do local regions play in this transition, in light of your direct experience in Baden-Wuerttemberg?

In the bioeconomy, we are developing regional and sustainable value chains. These function best when all involved stakeholders cooperate and identify with the region. In the case of Baden-Wuerttemberg, we are among the strongest bioeconomy states in Germany and one of the leading bioeconomy regions in Europe. One major reason for this is the strong commitment of scientists, entrepreneurs, industry and politicians in this region. We have a strategic vision and have established consistent bioeconomy policies. This started off with a large bioeconomy research program, which was developed together with universities and research institutions and launched by our Ministry for Science, Research and the Arts. After that, the Ministries for Agriculture and Environment developed a state bioeconomy strategy to support implementation, for example of biorefineries and pilot plants. This development involves regional farmers, companies and politicians working closely together. It is often a community’s mayor who sees opportunities for the bioeconomy in his or her town or city and supports the stakeholder dialogue.

Hohenheim is a leading university in Europe in the field of the bioeconomy. It is also one of the partners in the European Bioeconomy University (EBU) initiative. What is this initiative exactly and what is its state of the art?

The European Bioeconomy University (EBU) is an alliance of six European Universities active in bioeconomy education & research. These are: the AgroParisTech (France), the University of Bologna (Italy), the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU; Austria), Wageningen University and Research (the Netherlands), the University of Eastern Finland (Finland) and the University of Hohenheim (Germany). The University of Hohenheim initiated and presently chairs the EBU. Our mission is the empowerment of the European knowledge-based bioeconomy through the education of a new generation of truly European experts. It aims to foster rigorous, relevant and responsible research and transfer knowledge into society and the economy. Specifically, we are developing a joint Master-level European bioeconomy qualification program, the EBU label, and designing formats for entrepreneurial and online education. Together with our associated and network partners, we are also developing joint PhD and postdoctoral training and research programs. The EBU provides a platform for scientific exchange and the development of policy recommendations. Its ambition is to function as a European think tank, which can be accessed by all relevant stakeholders both in Europe and also globally. 

You are involved in many European projects, also as coordinator. One of these is the BBI JU demo project GRACE. What are its objectives and which results have been achieved to date?

The objective of the GRACE project is to demonstrate large-scale miscanthus and hemp production on land with low productivity, which has contaminated soil or which has been abandoned. The idea is to contribute to the development of long-term strategies for the supply of sustainably produced raw materials for the growing European Bioeconomy. In the project, ten different demonstration cases are used to show how biomass cultivation can be linked to the near-industrial-scale production of various biobased products. The project demonstrates how on-farm biorefineries can help to increase farmers’ income and improve their participation in the value creation of biobased value chains. Practical methods for establishing the biomass crops on marginal land have been further developed and demonstrated, along with the large-scale testing of novel miscanthus genotypes that are better adapted to marginal production conditions. Products resulting from the demonstrated biobased value chains include building materials, platform chemicals, special chemicals e.g. for application as bioherbicides, cosmetics and health products. 

There is much talk today of the need to achieve closer integration between the member states of the European Union. How important do you think this integration is on the research and innovation front?

We see the bioeconomy as a model for a future-oriented, sustainable form of economy, which can only succeed if all sectors and stakeholders along the value chain cooperate. The bioeconomy is evolving quickly. And it will develop better the better we join forces and ensure that all European researchers contribute with their individual strengths and learn from each other. It is also necessary that we join forces in the field of education. That is why we founded the EBU and why we are cooperating in the BBI JU project BIObec. This project aims to develop European bioeconomy education centres that help to educate experts who can drive the transition to a sustainable bioeconomy in Europe as a whole.

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