Four perspectives on how Europe can scale its bioeconomy

Europe’s bioeconomy is replete with renewable innovations that could cut our dependence on fossil fuels. However, the difficulty lies in scaling these products. Only high volume substitutes at reasonable cost can set biobased products on a course to cutting petrochemicals. The industry is still far from this position.

There are multiple views on how exactly the EU could mainstream biobased goods. Here, we detail different perspectives on approaches towards scaling the EU bioeconomy, looking at views from large businesses, policy analysts, natural scientists, and civil society researchers.

Business: more derisking policy

US company Cargill is one of the world’s biggest agribusinesses. In recent years, it has been expanding its portfolio into biobased materials and chemicals. 

In a 2023 interview, Cargill’s business development director Rob Beekers said that for biobased goods to go mainstream, Europe needs more and bigger biorefineries that produce “backbone” chemicals in use across multiple industries that right now are produced using fossil resources.

Growing Europe’s biorefinery capacity however demands private investment, something that will only be forthcoming if the EU implements policies that derisk the sector. 

Business-friendly policy intervention is needed as the bioeconomy currently poses higher risks compared to traditional fossil fuels and chemicals: raw materials supply chains are not secured, petrochemicals are still cheaper, and government regulations over the marketing of biobased goods are weak. 

Pilot plants are the missing link

There is one area where investment is sorely needed: demo plants. In Europe, there is a lack of incentives to invest in pilot facilities where startups can demonstrate the economic feasibility of their ideas. This is both the highest-risk segments of the biobased value chain but also the most important. It is extremely capital-intensive to bring new, untested products out of the laboratory yet most biobased products in Europe fall under this category.

So far, public funding from the EU for this transitional segment of the biobased R&D pipeline has not been forthcoming. This stands in stark contrast to the bloc’s support for other parts of the pipeline like basic innovation, such as through their Horizon programme, as well as for more mature technologies – the European Circular Bioeconomy Fund (ECBF) invests in relatively market-ready products, for example.

According to Beekers, this lack of pilot facilities is a major reason why the region is seeing a pile-up of biobased products at the lab stage, preventing promising products from reaching the consumer. Even the European Commission recognises the problem, with its Director of Healthy Planet, DG Research & Innovation John Bell describing the lack of support for the lab-to-demo transition as a ‘valley of Death’ for bioeconomy innovations. 

The private sector has been averse to filling the funding gap. Partly, this is a cultural issue: compared to the US, Europe has a smaller pool of venture capital and the funds that do exist are more risk averse. Yet according to Beeker, the EU could do a lot more to ease private investor anxieties.

Beeker gave an example of a policy intervention that could boost the amount of refineries available. Since the most high-risk ventures for investors are greenfield biorefinery developments, Europe should identify existing industrial clusters that may be suitable for hosting new biorefineries, alerting investors to potential safe investments. In particular, green electricity and hydrogen production could house biorefineries as they offer secure sources of sustainable energy for operations. 

Policy researchers: more coherence and legal certainty

Policy analysts tend to agree with Beekers that the EU has few logistical policies in place to help technology transition between lab and commercial production. 

University of Birmingham research fellow Asha Signh and co-authors conducted a 2021 study on 90 EU policies relevant to biobased products and found for biomass production. In line with Beekers’ comments, the authors found there was a lack of specific funding mechanisms and capacity building programmes for small to medium sized enterprises looking to scale into more complex operations. 

Another point made by policy analysts are the gaps in regulation: for example, the EU has guidelines for which end application industries should prioritise first in using waste biomass. This is known as the cascading principle – a ranking of end use applications for biomass running from most sustainable to least sustainable uses. However, the EU does not provide equivalent guidelines for biomass in general, such as those taken from crops. 

Analysts also tend to agree that regulating biobased goods needs more standardisation across the EU: for markets to build around biobased products, consumers need to know how their impacts compare to goods based around petrochemicals. A labelling system on their circularity and sustainability impacts would help here. 

However, labelling the sustainability impacts of biobased products would require a systematic way of monitoring and measuring the industry’s performance, not just on carbon emissions but on other aspects of environmental protection such as biodiversity, water pollution, and particulate matter pollution. 

This was another EU policy gap that is noted by analysts. There are few ways of assessing exactly how biobased industries are helping meet environmental goals. This is important to scaling because one aspect of growing the market for sustainable goods. For example, a trusted monitoring and labelling system could allow biobased producers to show why their products justify a price premium over those made from fossil resources. 

Scientists: More lab research, more sustainability

The above perspectives regard the scaling problem as basically coming down to a lack of adequate economic and legal policies.

However, Kevin O’Connor, a professor of applied microbiology and biotechnology who also sits on the scientific committee of the Circular Bio-based Europe Joint Undertaking (CBE JU), says that there are still certain scientific questions that need answering before we can solve the scaling problem. 

O’Connor argues that the next step for biorefinery development is to design facilities that can process multiple kinds of biological feedstocks. How to make this work is still a question for laboratory scientists. Breakthroughs in this area could make biorefineries more economically viable since they would no longer be reliant on seasonal feedstocks and able to operate year-round. 

In general, although policy stances among scientists are diverse, many tend to agree with the EU on the need to shift away from cultivated crops towards waste as a bioeconomy feedstock. Again, more technological innovation could help. 

There is strong interest in the scientific community in precision fermentation because it is capable of transforming low-value agricultural and municipal waste materials into high quality, high value biobased goods – a barrier that has prevented large amounts of waste from being valorised so far. 

Right now, a lot of the research around precision fermentation is focusing on how to effectively modify bacteria in order to maximise their production of high value biochemicals, even from feedstock of low and uneven quality. 

While Beekers argued that it would be extremely difficult to build a bioeconomy based primarily on waste, many scientists working in the area argue that ways must be found to increase yields from secondary materials for sustainability reasons. 

This is supported by a tendency among scientists that work around the bioeconomy to measure the sustainability gains made by switching to biobased goods. They emphasise that cultivated feedstock at the scales needed would burden the environment. In particular, expanding agricultural land for industrial crops tends to increase water pollution and biodiversity loss. 

In general, scientists tend to favour more safeguards for sustainable biobased scaling. A survey of German scientists involved in a regional bioeconomy programme found many viewed current EU bioeconomy policy as strongly favourable to economic growth and less geared towards sustainability, social equity, and environmental protection. This view expresses the idea that a sustainable bioeconomy will involve not just the rollout of new feedstocks and technologies but also reformed social institutions and relations.

Civil society groups: more democratic input

According to some civil society groups and policy researchers, there has not been enough discussion on what exactly we want from the bioeconomy and whether current policy directions are taking us into a truly sustainable future.

According to this perspective, economic policy and technological innovation are necessary but not sufficient to implement a truly sustainable, scaled bioeconomy. Rather, they argue that policy and research needs to be guided by a democratically accountable vision for what exactly the bioeconomy should be trying to achieve, who should benefit from these, and provisions for those who may lose out. Different answers to these questions will result in very different routes to implementing the bioeconomy.

For example, most of the national and regional policies being proposed and implemented around the bioeconomy in Europe are organised around the objective of economic growth, in particular the growth of private enterprise and the intensification of resource extraction, rather than sustainability per se. 

As a result of these dominant priorities, the implementation emphasis so far is almost exclusively on policies that ramp up private investment and derisking for companies. This is opposed to an emphasis on public funding – another possible route into bioeconomy scaling. 

According to many civil society groups, there is still a lack of policies for channelling democratic participation in designing and implementing bioeconomy: a way for the public to engage with and express their ideas of the kinds of sustainable economies they want to live and work within and the kinds of technologies needed to realise this. Once the interests of diverse public groups are taken into account, the bioeconomy could look very different from the one currently envisaged at the highest levels of EU policymaking.