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An on-going debate

Nevertheless, many people still hold a sceptical view of the biobased economy. The main problem is production of biobased resources. How interesting, our sceptical citizen would say, such an industry which would respect nature. But how about resources? World agricultural yields are difficult even without industrial use of crops. Mankind logs tropical rainforest because demand for crops like soy is rising. Soy cropping is on the rise in Brazil, partly because maize for biofuels replaces soy in the United States. In Africa and elsewhere, foreigners buy large acreages (‘land grabbing’) in order to sustain food and biofuel supply for countries like Saudi-Arabia, China and India, land that does not serve to feed the African people any more. And meanwhile, a billion people are malnourished, and a billion and a half can just about feed themselves. Would it be responsible, then, to allocate an increasing share of agricultural yields to energy and materials?

These questions belong to a heated debate, the outcome of which is pending. But six arguments in this debate make a case for the biobased economy.

1.    Agriculture can cope
Materials production comes first in the biobased economy, energy production comes second. For the time being, energy demand is met with oil and gas, and as time progresses, the energy problem will be solved by renewable resources like solar energy. The distinction between energy and materials is relevant as there is much more demand for energy than for materials, and because the energy problem can be solved in other ways than by use of biofuels (see below, question 5). Any disturbances in world food markets and logging of rain forests are a result of the large demand for biofuels, rather than the much smaller demand for biomaterials. This will not change easily, because even if all plastics in the world would be produced from biomass in ten years’ time (a process that will rather last fifty years), world agriculture would probably be able to cope with that. It should be borne in mind that world agriculture also produces products like timber, cotton, and fragrance.

2.    Waste is the first resource
The biobased economy will develop many technologies for reprocessing agricultural and agro-industrial waste, and manure. So far, utilisation of biomass waste is very low, in Europe, too. Points in case are side products of agriculture and forestry: trimmings, roadside grass, beet leaves. And waste products of the food industry. And manure. Also bear in mind biomass waste in used products: demolition wood, swill (waste from supermarkets and restaurants). The biobased economy will process all these waste streams. This will ease waste problems and create new value. In the near future, waste will not exist anymore; it will have become a resource for the biobased economy.

3.    The biobased economy will carry a new income to the farmer
In the biobased economy, yields will be valorised to the maximum. We illustrate this with the ‘value pyramid’ of biobased resources. In the top we find the most valuable substances, usually also the least abundant in the plant, and at the bottom there are the least valuable, much more abundant components. In the biobased economy, harvest is processed with priority to the top levels: farma, fragrance, food. Anything not fit for those goals will be processed to e.g. cattle feed and materials. The remainder, being the largest proportion in weight but having the lowest unit value, will be turned into biofuels and energy (mainly biogas). This route accomplishes maximum economic value and minimum waste. As a rule, the last remaining component, consisting of minerals (digestaat), can be returned to the land; it is required to supply the farmer with enough basic components like potassium, phosphorus and carbon. The main challenge for this cascading scheme is that every step should be profitable in itself. For the different steps in the scheme will come to the market at different speeds. Process steps in which little value is added, often may come to the market with little preliminary R&D. Projects aiming to add more value, invariably need more R&D, money, and above all time, than originally foreseen. Development of higher-end values, in other words, will never synchronise with other process steps, for both economic and technical reasons!

4.    Industry needs the biobased economy
Industry hails the biobased economy. Multinational corporations like Unilever, DSM and AkzoNobel have put sustainability in the centre of their strategies, and dominate the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for many years already. They look upon the biobased economy as a guideline to the complete transformation of their products and processes, including packaging. Their customers support them in this course; they increasingly demand sustainability in their purchases, at all levels. Moreover, western corporations know very well that nothing short of excellent technology can save them in their competition with industries in developing economies and low-wage countries. Green chemistry supplies this excellent technology to them.

Europe is good at all subjects needed for this transformation. European knowledge and technology, in particular in areas relevant for this, belong to the finest in the world. Europe’s agricultural knowledge and technology are renowned for their quality. Europe is good at water technology. And good at catalysis and process technology. European companies are focused on the biobased economy and supportive of its new technology, more than anywhere in the world. We have an excellent logistics system with international harbours for biomass imports. In total, an excellent starting point for the acquisition of a strong position in the biobased economy. It would seem to be at odds with the present crisis, but that is mainly financial in nature. European consumers have embraced sustainability, and European companies look upon the biobased economy as a prime opportunity for further business development and innovation.

5.    Energy and materials are mutually supportive
The primary goal of the biobased economy is not energy production from biomass. Biomass cannot contribute heavily to the solution of world energy problems. In the long run, this will not pose a problem, as solar energy develops at such a speed that in thirty years’ time, it might cover most of the world’s energy needs. In the meantime, energy production from biomass might ease the way for the ascent of the biobased economy: standards and rules have to be developed for a sustainable production of biomass; trade relations have to be forged; infrastructure has to be constructed (harbours, roads, factories); technology has to be developed for breaking down into valuable components the most difficult types of biomass, like lignin. The motor of the biobased economy is to valorise the yield to the maximum (i.e. produce food and materials); nevertheless the remainder will always be used for energy or biofuels. The different categories therefore do not exclude each other. Biobased economy, in particular green chemistry, at present rides piggyback on the energy sector, but in course of time it will disentangle itself from that background and develop further, while agro will approach chemistry. Agro then will take over the role of oil in the production of chemicals and materials.

6.    Innovative use of biomass is the first priority
In Europe, there is much criticism of the use of maize for the production of bioethanol for the American gas guzzlers. For starters, that is a waste of valuable agricultural products. But so much more can be done with maize than just process it into bioethanol. A better approach would be to extract proteins and starch first for food and feed, and as a resource for materials. Better for CO2 balance and for value creation. Part of the harvest we keep for food production; part of it will be used for materials production (e.g. starch plastics or nylon); and the remainder can still be used to produce energy and biofuels. The biobased economy presupposes innovative and highly efficient utilisation of biomass; present practices sometimes fall short of that principle, but in course of time it will ever more impose itself.

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