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The Bioeconomy strategy in Horizon 2020

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What the economic crisis has clearly shown is that Europe cannot afford its economic growth with low R&D manufacturing products. Science and enterprises must merge into hi-tech outcomes to become markets leaders. The European Union is pushing a lot on the bioeconomy sector, namely businesses based on biotechnology. But what is exactly bioeconomy? Is it so important nowadays in Europe? And what is the situation in Italy?

What is a bioeconomy

The first public definition of bioeconomy was given by a foreseeing report of the OECD, called “The Bioeconomy to 2030: designing a policy agenda”, published in 2009. In this report, bioeconomy was defined as an economy based on biotechnology. In fact, the report said that “biotechnology offers technological solutions for many of the health and resource-based problems facing the world. The application of biotechnology to primary production, health and industry could result in an emerging bioeconomy where biotechnology contributes to a significant share of economic output”.

While some European countries, such as, for instance, the Netherlands, have a bio-based economic policies since 2005, the European Union started an in-deep thinking about the bioeconomy only during the last years of the Seventh Framework Program (7FP). Finally, on 13 February 2012, it launched a new strategy, “Innovating for sustainable growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe”, where it describes the bioeconomy as “a useful basis for a [multidimensional] approach, as it encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy. Its sectors and industries have strong innovation potential due to their use of a wide range of sciences, enabling and industrial technologies, along with local and tacit knowledge”.

The Bioeconomy Action Plan

As bioeconomy represents the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy, it involves many operational fields of the European Union policies, such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food, paper production, chemical and biotechnological and energy industries. Given this wide range of operational fields, the official strategy has been summarized into a Bioeconomy Action Plan, with twelve main goals:

  • - Ensure investments in bioeconomy related research projects
  • - Increase the share of multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral research
  • - Promote the uptake and diffusion of innovation in bioeconomy sectors
  • - Build the human capacity required to support the growth of bioeconomy sectors
  • - Create a Bioeconomy Panel (see below)
  • - Establish a Bioeconomy Observatory
  • - Support the development of regional and national bioeconomy strategies
  • - Develop international cooperation on bioeconomy research
  • - Provide the knowledge-base for sustainable intensification of primary production
  • - Promote the setting up of networks with the required logistics for integrated and diversified biorefineries
  • - Develop standards and standardized sustainability assessment methodologies for bio-based products and food production systems
  • - Develop science-based approaches to inform consumers about product properties

Facts, figures and budget

According to official European data, the bioeconomy, as defined above, is already a strong reality in the Union. Bio-based products make an estimated annual turnover of 22 trillion euro per year, employing 22 million people (around 9% of the total EU workforce). Between 2007 and 2013, more than 500 small and medium enterprises (38% of the total entities involved) participated in 7FP funded projects about biotechnology. In total, they receive € 136 million.

A small or medium enterprise (SME) is defined by the EU as an enterprise with less than 250 employees and less than €50 million turnover per year. It is fundamental to push on this kind of enterprise: according to the European Commission, SMEs are the 99% of the European businesses, providing 2/3 of the jobs and contributing to more than half of the total value-added created by businesses in the EU. In other words, the future of the bioeconomy passes through SMEs.

Horizon 2020 is meant to foster the 7FP results. The bioeconomy has been clearly introduced as the second “Societal challenge”, titled “Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine and maritime and inland water research, and the Bioeconomy”. The “Societal challenges” are the third pillar of the Horizon 2020 structure, after “Excellent Science” and “Industrial Leadership”. The “Food Security, Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry, Marine, Maritime and Inland Water Research and the Bioeconomy” societal challenge is expected to have a total € 3.8 billion budget.

This amount of funding needs a clear institutional infrastructure. A Bioeconomy Panel has been established in 2013, with a strong presence of women in the Panel's board (15/30); members of the Panel have been appointed to serve for an initial period of two years (2013-15). The panel divided itself into three sub-groups: a Contact Group for the Bioeconomy Observatory (the Bioeconomy Observatory had made its first roundtable in February 2013), a "Sustainable Biomass Supply for a Growing Bioeconomy” Working Group and a “Market-making in the Bioeconomy” Working Group.

Tab.1: Technology development in key global markets


Italian bioeconomy

Italy is not a leading country in the bioeconomy sector. Despite a pale attempt made by the CNCSS, a consortium made by the National Research Council (CNR), the National Health Institute and the IRBM Science Park, to give 6 grants of 10,000 each (and only for the health sector), the main interest in the bioeconomy sector dates back 2006. In that year, an official report by the EU, made under the Sixth Framework Program, described a bad situation. “Only a few Italian companies are involved in the production of biotech products”, while “Italy does not have currently a specific funded research program for Industrial Biotechnology” even if “generally, industrial biotechnology oriented calls represent around 10% of all calls”. This is mainly due to the fact that “Italy has not developed specific legislation/regulations to support the development and/or market penetration of bio-based products”.

An attempt was made through the action of the “Commitee of Biosafety, Biotechnology and Life Science” (with a quite strange acronym such as CNBBSV). In 2006, this Committee published a report to map the situation of the “white” biotechnologies in Italy, namely biotechnologies related to chemistry and energy production. It showed a very poor situation, both in terms of real outputs and R&D. After 2006, there has not been any other reference on the industrialization of biotechnologies. Until the most recent updates (2010), the Committee focused its action in defining more ethically sensitive problems such as the biobanks. The new Horizon 2020 policy and funding could be maybe the last chance for Italy to enter the bioeconomy.

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