Corn plantation landscape around Freiburg area. Photo: Alex Giurca
This new opinion article published in Profil by Robert Prazak (article in German) takes a critical stand on the bioeconomy concept, asking if it’s really not just another new form of business making. With Austria close to completing its national bioeconomy strategy next year, the Austrians have the chance to come up with a fair and inclusive strategy for their take on the bioeconomy. Below a summary of the article with some personal thoughts mixed in:
The article presents some expert views representing different Austrian and European organizations. They all agree that bioeconomy is already here, moving quite fast and that it’s something to be taken seriously by us all. Generally speaking all agree that switching from a fossil-based society to a renewable-resources based society all while dealing with issues such as climate change and environmental degradation are top priorities of paramount importance. Re-industrializing Europe on a sustainable basis is another way to put it more bluntly. However, experts warn that the concept of sustainability is reinterpreted under the bioeconomy, a reinterpretation that might not always be in line with what we expect.
Different actors are already emerging, the industry, multinational companies, lobbyists, NGOs, regional actors, farmers, etc. each rushing to consolidate their position under the emerging bioeconomy. Who will profit and who will be left behind is still hard to tell, as the picture of involved actors, their relations and interests becomes increasingly complex. As the authors of the article put it, “[bioeconomy] reminds a bit of a chess game, with different actors trying to occupy different fields…however the situation is not always black and white (…) [and] is becoming increasingly complicated. “
Experts raise concerns about land use for food vs energy production. Extended rapeseed and corn plantations are already widely spread, replacing conventional agricultural fields. Under a bioeconomy, plantations intended for feeding biodiesel plants will continue to spread in the future. Expert opinions are divided on whether this is better or worse for the environment. Nevertheless, the optimal use of agricultural surfaces will become priority in an already
pressured and complex European landscape. However, experts warn that soil fertility is already declining. Under increasing production pressure, depleting fertility and soil degradation will become a serious risk. Critics are concerned about a bioeconomy scenario under which agriculture turns into an “agro-industry” fed by monocultures and where animals and plants become “bio-machines”. Nevertheless, a more optimistic view
suggests that there is a chance if we manage to increase productivity through improved production technology and innovative combinations of different methods. What kind of production methods will be employed needs to be thoroughly scrutinized and discussed. For example, the expansion and control over GMO crops is particularly relevant here.
Robust and transparent policy making is needed in order to reach consensus and formulate realistic sustainability criteria for Europe’s shift to bioeconomy. Furthermore, the shift needs to be fair and inclusive to all sectors and stakeholders involved. Austria’s national bioeconomy strategy is expected next year. For this, Austrians look at their more advanced neighbors in the field, such as Germany, Scandinavia ,and the USA who already have strategies in place for some three years. But some experts question if these are examples Austria should follow and emphasize that this is a chance for Austrians to not follow the same path as some of their neighbors. Here, Germany is given as an example who has invested heavily in areas such as process and technology and considerably less in organic farming and other forms of sustainable agriculture. Experts make it clear that bioeconomy will not necessarily help organic farming spread.
Concepts need to be clearly discussed and risks and opportunities weighted against each other. Whether bioeconomy is a next business model from which some actors will profit while others will be neglected needs to be clearly discussed, and is of paramount importance especially in countries like Austria ( not to mention Eastern European countries) dominated by smallholder structures. This article mainly focuses on the agricultural sector while, yet again, little is mentioned about the forest sector, which plays a relatively major role in the Austrian economy. What the upcoming Austrian Bioeconomy strategy will bring and whether it will be different for the EU and other existing strategies remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it provides a timely opportunity to steer the discussion towards a truly sustainable and inclusive bioeconomy strategy that is more relevant for the environmental, ecological, and social realities from central and eastern European states.