Sustainable economy

Christian Patermann, pioneer of the bioeconomy, explains the potential and limits of an economy that prioritizes biological raw materials.

Industry and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.
Industry and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. Shutterstock

Dr Christian Patermann, 78, was the EU's Programme Director for Biotechnology, Agriculture and Food from 1996 until his retirement in 2007 and a founding member of Germany's first Bioeconomy Council from 2009 to 2012.

Dr. Christian Patermann
Dr. Christian Patermann

Mr Patermann, you are regarded as the pioneer of the bioeconomy. How did that come about?
In 2004, my colleagues and I were struck by an OECD report which revealed that an enormous amount of knowledge had already been accumulated on how animals, plants, insects, microorganisms, enzymes and proteins can be harnessed for human use. And we were aware that these biological resources had a whole range of properties that were quite unique: their renewability, their climate-friendliness and their economic potential. After all, new materials from biological resources were often less toxic, and their production used less water and energy. All these factors led us to ask: doesn't it make sense to think about basing an economy predominantly on biological raw materials? We were modest, though, initially thinking about a new major research topic within the framework of the 7th EU research programme: i.e. bioeconomy. But things turned out differently.

I prefer to talk about bioeconomies than the bioeconomy.

Christian Patermann, pioneer of the bioeconomy

You'll have to explain that to us ...
In the years that followed, various countries very quickly developed their own action plans, road maps and bioeconomy strategies which went much further that our research plans. Today, more than 60 countries have developed concepts for bioeconomies which vary greatly. I therefore prefer to use the term bioeconomies rather than the bioeconomy. In France, above all in Finland, but also in Ireland, Italy and the Benelux countries, we already have large-scale commercial bio-based production lines in the chemical industry, in forestry, above all in the production of biofuels. The same applies to China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Canada and the USA.

But the use of renewable resources can also lead to new conflicts – for example, when it comes to whether crops should be cultivated for food, animal feeds or energy.
Yes, unfortunately the bioeconomy discussion in many EU member states has been too one-sidedly concentrated on biofuels in recent years. That was never our intention. We always talked equally about the four Fs: Food, Feed, Fibre and Fuel. The solution should simply be that the source materials for biofuels come from arid or semi-arid soils or waste products that do not compete with food sources. There is an enormous need for research here. Anyway, I'm glad people are again talking more about non-energetic material flows: i.e. the 4 F's.

Interview: Martin Orth

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