Europe hesitates and lags behind

‘You always want to employ the perfect technology right away’, the Americans mirrored us, Europeans, at the occasion of last week’s EFIB final debate, in Düsseldorf. Where EFIB is the acronym for: European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and the Biobased Economy. The perfect technology. And because there always is an even better technology in the waiting room, or because we doubt present technology’s safety, we hesitate at great length about the technology we can employ right away.

The technology we can employ now at a large scale, is industrial biotechnology of the first generation. Which produces biofuels from edible feedstock. Whereas Europe at first massively endorsed this technology because of its reduction of CO2 emissions, it now retracts from this course. Because the second generation announces itself. And because valuable acreage for food production would be used for wrong purposes. Why, we might ask, does Europe shy away from new technology?

Cautious to the extreme
Europe’s hesitations are becoming proverbial. And sometimes, Europe seems to be quite right. When genetic modification of agricultural crops (GMO) came to the fore, almost every country outside Europe wholeheartedly embraced this new technology, with its promises of better crops and quality. It is true: Monsanto, the most important biotechnological company, steamrollered the opposition, which still contributes to GMO’s bad image today. So far, Europe’s fears did not materialize. But Europe remains cautious to the extreme, and does not want to alter its policy.

And now, how about first generation industrial biotechnology? It is true: by using food as an industrial feedstock, inevitably some harvests are being displaced. In the end, one might destroy valuable rain forest or displace poor farmers. But would not the same effects arise as we enlarge cities, create industrial areas and sporting grounds, and lay fallow European land because of excess production? Now, Europe puts a brake on technological development, and meanwhile others master the new technologies. Which they can put to excellent use in the second generation.

Government procurement, no more subsidies
Industrial biotechnology spreads wealth and employment to rural areas. Industrial biotechnology does not merely use edible feedstock, but primarily agricultural and other waste. It is sustainable, and would allow Europe to display and sell its vast technological knowledge. At least the Americans have understood how to tackle these problems. Their heavily subsidized first generation biorefineries will be transformed to second generation plants. No more subsidies are paid. But all government agencies will have to buy biobased products to the maximum, provided these are on the market. In Taiwan, a new bill required shops to use at least 20% biobased plastics at a short notice. Suddenly, biotechnological industries appeared. In Italy they put a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags, and that policy starts to deliver results as well.

Maybe, Europe will create opportunities of its own in the Common Agricultural Policy review. Or make use of the sheer volume of consumer demand for green products. Or decide after all to board the swiftly accelerating train of technology development. For that was one of EFIB’s most remarkable aspects. Business was booming. This, in the end, might even convince European authorities.

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