By Alex Giurca and Sebastian Weickert
Our graduate school organized an excursion to Berlin in order to visit bioeconomy policy experts. Each of the experts were kind enough to make time for us and discuss their understanding and expectations of the bioeconomy in Germany. We visited a diverse mix of stakeholders such as the Federal ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Germany, the Social Democrat Party (SPD), The Green Party (Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen) and the German Farmers’ Association (DBV). We prepared a lot of questions, opinions were mixed and discussions were interesting. Here are some of the main key messages we took with us after our excursion to Berlin:
A bio-based economy is high on the political agenda…
It was clear that the bioeconomy has reached the hallways of the Bundestag. All experts we talked to had something to say about the concept and agreed that it is a viable solution out of our current environmental and societal predicaments. Besides environmental problems such as biodiversity loss and climate change, many experts cited concerns related to increasing population. World population growth has massive implications for energy production and consumption, food security, city design and infrastructure, resource provision and sustainability impacts. Discussions around food versus feed are more important than ever under the bioeconomy. How to design policies and bioeconomy strategies that address all these issues remains a challenging task for policy makers.
Agreeing on common bioeconomy objectives is difficult…
Germany was among the first countries in the world to produce a national bioeconomy research strategy in 2010, followed by a national policy strategy some years later. Additionally, different federal states like Baden-Württemberg published their own bioeconomy strategies. However, reaching consensus on objectives and visions about what the bioeconomy is and what it should entail is easier said than done. As one expert put it: “ [we have a] strategy deficit: what is our target? In many strategies we have a vision, but we have no objective, we don’t have any milestones”. This seems to be the case between and within the different federal ministries, political parties and the different stakeholder organizations. The broad scope and crosssectoral character of the bioeconomy transition implies large structural changes to production and consumption patterns that will inevitably affect some stakeholders more than others. Thus, it is not surprising that some set more ambitious objectives and are more vocal about the bioeconomy, whereas others are more cautions with their claims. For example, the initial ambitious objective of completely eliminating fossil fuels from products, energy and materials has toned down, the discussion meanwhile focusing on adding more bio-based resources and products to supply chains.
Not only federal ministries and political parties struggle to reach consensus on bioeconomy objectives but NGOs as well. WWF for example has been working for some years now to ratify a ‘European Bioeconomy Stakeholders Manifesto‘, only to be opposed by national WWF offices in Scandinavia, where the bioeconomy strategy focuses on increasing forestry production. The stakes are high for all, and differ considerably between countries and stakeholders. The farmers’ association on the other hand has no bioeconomy position paper at all, claiming that their main topics of concern are not really the focus of the national bioeconomy strategy. Again, reaching a bioeconomy vision that truly represents all interests is difficult.
It’s not only about production…
Many criticized the current (over) emphasis on production and substitution, claiming that there is too little discussion about changing consumption patterns. For example, representatives of the federal ministry see a problem with claims of limitless (bio-based) resources that current bioeconomy strategies seem to imply. Similarly, the Green party called for more focus on consumption reduction. This is also reflected in the WWF’s plastics campaign, an important focus of the organization. Although, the WWF sees bio-plastics as a viable and more sustainable alternative to traditional plastic materials, they emphasize that these alternative products will not necessarily solve our problems related to consumption, energy usage and pollution. As our interview partner put it: “The problem is not only what [plastic] is made out of, the problem is that it’s there.”
This is where the concept of circular (bio) economy comes in. Some experts saw the concept as paving the way for better use of resources by keeping them in the supply chain without losing value too fast. According to one expert, the concepts of bioeconomy and circular economy are “(…) 100% compatible, they virtually address the same objective”. However, some expressed concerns that the circular economy debate focuses too little on the origin of resources and is more concerned with circularity further down the supply chain.
Communication and stakeholder involvement
All experts agreed that more and better communication is needed, and that the public needs to be included in the discussion. Very few people have ever heard about bioeconomy, yet alone formed informed decisions about its implication and potential impact on their lives. According to our experts, change has to come not only from producers but from consumers as well. For example, the farmers’ association argue that meat consumption will be high as long as the market demands it. Consumers need to know that better alternatives exist, in all areas of life ranging from nutrition, to housing, transport or energy production.
One member of parliament mentioned that different concepts such as Green-, Circular-, Bio- economy all want the same thing and are essentially good concepts. However, “ (…) policy makers should make up their mind and be clear about their objectives; all these different names make it difficult to communicate.” These difficulties with communication have made some experts question the appropriateness of the very name “bioeconomy”. The same expert mentioned: “sometimes we think it would have been easier if we didn’t call it bioeconomy at all”.
The way forward?
The bioeconomy concept is clearly still in flux. Experts all share a common bioeconomy vision, and agree on the urgent need to tackle environmental and societal issues. The high interest in the Global Bioeconomy Summit 2018, which brought together some 700 participants from around the globe, bears witness of this increased interest. However, clear objectives for the bioeconomy transition have yet to be defined. Once common objectives are defined, other difficult questions will have to be raised, such as how to monitor the bioeconomy? And more importantly, what indicators to select? These are just some of the questions that policy makers are confronted with when trying to design tools and regulations specifically addressing the bioeconomy. According to experts, defining these milestones will require a coherent bioeconomy policy-framework, as well as the establishment of inter-ministerial and multi-stakeholders working groups for initiating public dialog . For this, the bioeconomy discussion needs to move beyond academic and policy circles and involve large industrial players and the general public. We all want to eat. We all want to enjoy nature. We all need energy. We all want to preserve the biodiversity of our planet. We all need transport. We all want to reduce our dangerous footprint on the atmosphere. We all need jobs. We all want to live a safe and healthy life. We all have a stake in this.