More than 370 people gathered at the 1st Baden-Württemberg Bioeconomy Congress in Stuttgart on 29th and 30th October 2014. The event, which was jointly organized by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts, the University of Hohenheim and BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH, was aimed at stimulating discussion on ways to reconcile the pursuit of economic growth with the desire for greater sustainability.
“The Baden-Württemberg government has made sustainability a central guideline of its actions.” Science Minister Theresia Bauer opened the conference with this statement. She pointed out that developing technologies that can reconcile economic growth with sustainability was both a challenge and an opportunity. Bauer said, “We need holistic solutions. I am therefore convinced that the bioeconomy is a way of resolving the tension between economic growth and sustainability. Our efforts to find out how economic success can be decoupled from resource consumption are likely to lead to the development of completely new business models.”
In order to address these highly complex issues, the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts established in 2012 an expert panel to determine the state of bioeconomy-related knowledge in Baden-Württemberg, from which recommendations for a bioeconomy research strategy emerged. The results speak for themselves: Researchers from all over Baden-Württemberg, including researchers from the newly established competence network “Modelling the Bioeconomy”, will carry out 45 projects focussing on three bioeconomy-related areas, i.e. biogas, lignocellulose and algae. The projects will be funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts with a total of 13 million euros.
"We are starting a movement that will enable companies and research institutions to engage intensively in the implementation of the bioeconomy in Baden-Württemberg. BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg will be actively working towards this goal as well as providing the necessary support. This conference is the starting point on a journey that will be jointly pursued by all relevant stakeholders,” said Dr. Ralf Kindervater, CEO of BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH.
“Baden-Württemberg has become involved in bioeconomy activities at a very early stage of the game,” said Ingolf Baur, a well-known presenter of TV science programmes, at the beginning of the congress. Whether and how the bioeconomy, which refers to economic activities that use renewable raw materials instead of crude oil and other fossil fuels, could be the dawn of a new and better world, was the subject of extensive discussion at the two-day congress.
Many speakers expressed their belief that consumers will play an important role in the establishment of a bioeconomy. “Bioeconomy is not just a raw material strategy. Simply attempting to replace energy resources with biomass would just lead to illusory progress. It is also essential to provoke a change in consumer behaviour.
Energy efficiency is very important. Value chains, and even better, value networks, must be taken into account as well. People’s consumption patterns need to change too,” said Dr. Joachim von Braun, chairman of the German government’s Bioeconomy Council.
Asked by Ingolf Baur whether she thought it would be sensible to leave it up to consumers to chose more sustainable products or whether the government should intervene, Science Minister Theresia Bauer replied: “We need to support development from both sides. Consumer research is very important here. There are still many improvements to be made, both here in Baden-Württemberg as well as in Germany as a whole.” Werner Moser, Sales Director at Mattes & Ammann GmbH & Co. KG, a Swabian knitted fabrics manufacturer, added: “And in many cases consumers go for the cheaper product.” Moser described the often strange situation of sales negotiations where buyers initially tend to show a great deal of interest and sympathy for the company’s efforts to improve sustainability, but end up taking a different stance and are tough on price.
Where will we get the biomass we need for the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a biobased economy from? This crucial question was debated during the panel discussion on the first day of the conference. Dr. Ralf Kindervater, CEO of BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH, emphasized the importance of concentrating on biogenic waste such as green cuttings and other organic waste resulting from landscape maintenance measures, as this type of biomass does not compete with crops used for food production.
Prof. Dr. Thomas Hirth, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) and chairman of the Baden-Württemberg Bioeconomy Strategy Circle, added that Germany is a resource-poor country and as such is dependent on the import of raw materials. He called for the use of an optimal mixture of regional waste, raw materials and imported biomass. Hirth asked, “Does biomass have to be used for the production of energy? By this I mean that we should attach far greater importance to the use of biomass for the production of goods rather than for the production of energy.”
Ingolf Baur asked whether this also meant that the Baden-Württemberg government might reconsider its strict stance on green genetic engineering if it were needed for the optimal provision of biomass. Therese Bauer gave the following reply: “I personally believe that we do not need green genetic engineering in agriculture, in other words on our fields. Having said that, I nevertheless believe that genetic engineering is necessary in greenhouses, i.e. in closed systems. It remains to be seen whether we will have to adapt our way of thinking in either of these cases.”
A number of companies presented innovative concepts that use raw materials. For example, the company wet-green GmbH from Reutlingen uses a by-product from the olive cultivation industry, i.e. leaves, to produce an ecological leather tanning agent. The company Mattes & Ammann produces, amongst other things, stinging nettle fibres for use in the water-intensive cultivation of cotton. The use of nettle fibres saves large amounts of water. Initial trials on the Swabian Alb and the Great Hungarian Plain have been so successful that the company decided to continue the project. The company BARK CLOTH_europe presented a concept that also integrates raw material suppliers in the value creation process. The German-Ugandan company has revived an ancient Ugandan tradition for producing non-woven fabrics from tree bark.
The panel discussion also addressed arguments against the implementation of a bioeconomy. The moderator Ingolf Baur quoted a representative of the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) who once claimed that Germany would use modern engineering and technological progress to repair what the engineering world has already destroyed.
“I agree that modern engineering alone cannot solve all problems, but I am also convinced that it is an important factor in the process. I can’t imagine any other way of solving problems,” says Bauer. Bauer also discussed the criticism that a bioeconomy would turn biological creation into a mere raw materials supplier: “The collaboration between the life sciences and engineers throws up extraordinary opportunities. But it goes without saying that here too, opportunities and risks have to be weighed up against one another. I know that we are changing nature. But who knows, maybe this will also make us treat it with greater respect than we have done before.”
Although Baden-Württemberg has established the Bioeconomy Research Strategy, it is just the start of a long journey, as Bauer noted. Further steps are already in the planning stages. A new round of funding will be launched in summer 2016 and existing and new bioeconomy-related projects will be eligible to apply for funding. The Baden-Württemberg government also foresees the involvement of small- and medium-sized companies early on in the bioeconomy development process. “Information needs to be shared right from the very start. We will continue to hold stakeholder conferences on a regular basis. This is all aimed at expanding our knowledge of what is happening in the field of bioeconomy and intensifying the cooperation between different parties,” said Bauer in her opening speech.
The University of Hohenheim and BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH will be important strategic partners to the Baden-Württemberg government in the implementation of a biobased economy. “I congratulate the University of Hohenheim for having had the courage to establish a master’s programme in bioeconomy as an interdisciplinary programme jointly offered by Hohenheim’s three faculties.” Bauer also praised the activities of BIOPRO: “BIOPRO has ten years of experience in the transfer of technology from science into industry. I think it is wonderful that BIOPRO is now also working in this particular area, especially as the effective establishment of a biobased economy depends not only on the availability of biomass, but also on communication and networking.”