The economy can move to biobased if regulatory, legal and financial policies are aligned. Responsibility for this is to be taken up to national Cabinet level. And the EU Green Deal and Common Agricultural Policy must be reviewed together to make agricultural innovation possible. This is what Louise Fresco, president of Wageningen University & Research, said during the Global Bioeconomy Summit, the annual conference on sustainable economic development for policymakers, scientists, entrepreneurs and other social actors from all over the world. This year’s summit took place online because of corona.
According to Fresco, there are positive developments underway that bring the acceptance of biobased innovations in society closer: “There is a real understanding among most consumers worldwide that they want their food to be healthy, safe and sustainable, but also affordable. The second thing to realise is that for the first time, the agricultural and the food sector are meeting the energy sector to find solutions together. The transition has to be made towards recycling and upcycling in order to really utilise the carbon that we have.”
Legislation to follow science needed
What is needed according to Fresco, is to a discussion with society at large about how to shape a circular and biobased society: “What innovations are needed and how can the people’s mind be changed? For instance, will we be able to reuse nutrients from the sewerage or the waste from cows? That is a huge psychological stap that does not happen overnight. But we need to work on that from a scientific ‘and regulatory point of view.” Fresco refers to CRISPR-Cas, the innovative technology that makes easy genetic modelling possible: “Currently, CRISPR is not feasible in Europe for political reasons. We need legislation to follow science.”
Green Deal not easy to implement
As far as European regulations are concerned, neither the Green Deal nor European agricultural policy provide sufficient support for circularity and the reuse of raw materials. Fresco: "When I look at the Green Deal, I see many things that are not easy to implement. If you say that a large percentage of the food produced must be organic, it means that you have to compromise on yields and that more agricultural land is needed.”
According to Fresco, that is at odds with the aim of increasing biodiversity. Another possible issue is Europe’s ambition to produce food more locally. This 'farm-to-fork' strategy would take income away from farmers elsewhere in the world.
What does not help either is that European agricultural policy is still based on income support for farmers. "It does not look at the entire food chain at all. As long as Europe does not do that, the policy will remain fragmented. My message is always: integrate the Green Deal and European agricultural policy but do so in a realistic way - evidence-based.
To the question of whether scientists can make a greater impact, Fresco replies: "To a certain extent. One of the problems is that too few people with a scientific background are involved in political decision-making at EU or national level. Too few people are capable of interdisciplinary thinking and evidence-based thinking. These two elements are seriously lacking in many ways".
She also warns that while alliances between policy and science are necessary, they are difficult to establish and are time-consuming. "We need a lot of things to be in place. For example, we need CO2 pricing so that other products get the room they need. And we really need to look at international fiscal measures, such as reducing VAT on sustainable products. Last but not least, it is important for countries to coordinate matters at Cabinet level: the transition towards sustainable production cannot be given into the hands of just one minister.”