The Bioeconomy – What’s It All About?

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Our Bioeconomy Expert Dr Gesa Reiss explains what the bioeconomy means.

“DON’T worry I won’t break out into a song but having been with the LEP for a year, I’d like to share some of the highlights as well as the bewilderments I experienced as the LEP’s Bio-economy Development Officer over the past 12 months.

Definitions of the bioeconomy vary depending on the source. Basically it’s about creating a credible low-carbon option to our current fossil fuel based economy by using renewable biological resources from land and sea, and converting these resources into products such as food, animal feed, materials, chemicals and energy. Adding value to bio-waste, including for example harvest residues, household food waste or by-products from food processing, is also part of the bioeconomy. This is called waste valorisation, a process which will become increasingly more important as local authorities thrive to divert waste from our landfill sites.

Industries that produce bio-based products include, for example, forestry, agriculture, horticulture, food & drink, water utilities (sewage), industrial biotechnology and bio-energy. Industrial biotechnology (IB) uses enzymes, yeast and algae to make products – beer comes to mind though nowadays IB is used for more sophisticated things, e.g. for producing antibiotics and enzymes or cleaning up contaminated sites such as crude oil spills.

In the UK, the bioeconomy is estimated to be worth £36 billion and generates GVA similar to the combined value of the construction and financial services industries. For Yorkshire, the figures read GVA £8.7 billion and employment of 105,000 people, most of which are employed in the farming and food sectors.

Highlights

In terms of my highlights over the past 12 months there are too many to name but to me personally it’s everyone’s enthusiasm and support in my post that I appreciate most.

Other highlights include the formation of Agri-Food Yorkshire, which brings together 15 separate business networks from the sector, the creation of two Agri-Tech Centres of Excellence at the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus at Sand Hutton, York and the Food Enterprise Zone at Malton. And of course there is the LEP’s £10 million capital fund to support the development of infrastructure in our bio-economy.

I’m also completely enthralled by the potential the bio-economy has to disrupt some of our established though carbon-rich systems. Take our current energy systems; for example. I’m visualising hydrogen powered tractors using GPS to plough fields in Yorkshire. Add to that farm-based anaerobic systems, including domestic sewage, that produce the bio-hydrogen to fuel these tractors as well as facilitate electricity on demand through energy-balancing systems based on bio-hydrogen linked to small wind turbines. Yorkshire farms that are completely off-grid. The stuff of Sci-Fi ? Not really, the technology exist right here in Yorkshire. It just needs a little tweaking. And this is only one story about the amazing opportunities the bio-economy has up its sleeves.

Having outlined the basics of the bio-economy. Now a list of my top four bewilderments, in no particular order:

Number 1: Burning stuff

Incinerators, at the time hailed as simple, effective solutions to our growing waste and energy problems, are now essentially depriving the bio-economy of valuable feed stocks over the next 10-15 or even 25 years. Last time I checked there were six incinerators in Yorkshire and counting. This ‘technology lock-in’ will pose major challenges to developing capacity for waste valorisation in our region. That said the bio-renewables sector is currently in its infancy so demand for waste is volatile. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. On the positive side, researchers are already looking at ways to extract valuable components from bio-waste before it gets incinerated.

Number 2: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

When it comes to economic development it’s a numbers game. Yorkshire & Humber has 17% of the UK cereal area, 36% of the pig herd, and 18% of the cattle herd. There were 8,916 farms in the area covering 841,404 hectares (12% of UK farmland). Turning waste to energy could be worth £500M a year to the UK by 2030. And so on. However, many of the databases these stats are using are difficult to compare and few contain Yorkshire let alone LEP specific data. In the case of waste, it’s chaotic, i.e.no single source of data is available to identify the quantities of waste produced and definition of waste is inconsistent. Hence it’s often a finger in the air scenario which makes it difficult to present robust business cases for investment or offer spot-on support packages.

Number 3: Innovation

Government loves it, LEPs want it and apparently universities are doing it all the time. So innovation seemingly is the Holy Grail and Yorkshire certainly has an outstanding R&D infrastructure to enable innovation. Yet we are struggling to commercialise R&D and support businesses through the innovation process. In my view, we need a more effective business-led knowledge transfer interface – my favourite example is the set-up offered by the Innovative Farmers Network – and for funders and government to acknowledge that innovation can happen exclusively within a business.

Number 4: So what ?

Globally we need to produce 50% more food by 2050 to feed 9 billion people. In the UK energy demand will grow by 20% by 2030. People’s health is declining with obesity being the main issue.  Ecosystems are degrading and natural resources are increasingly scarce. By law the UK has to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. Seems status quo isn’t an option. The bio-economy, in particular if it’s embedded in a circular economy, does provide such sophisticated solutions to many of the outlined societal challenges whilst providing major opportunities for high value economic growth. In Yorkshire, I don’t think that we collectively – the emphasis is on collectively – have acknowledged this, perhaps because the switch seems hugely complex and resource intensive or perhaps it’s not in the interest of some people and organisations to embrace change. Or maybe we need to up our efforts in promoting the huge benefits a circular bio-economy can provide to all – the economy, environment and society.

With our reputation as global leader in the bio-economy strongly developing, I’m looking forward to my second year with the LEP. “

 

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