The recent symposium of the Michael Otto Foundation in Hamburg on the possibilities and limits of the so-called bioeconomy began at an elementary level with a debate over the exact definition of the term. Does agriculture in itself qualify as a form of bioeconomy? In their respective literal meanings at least, the terms bio and economy do have a certain proximity. Does the term bioeconomy specifically describe the shift from a petroleum-based to a plant-based future? The German organization, the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), applies a rather broad approach: “Bioeconomy is defined as the sum of all sectors and services that use biological resources such as plants, animals and microorganisms.” From this perspective, conventional agriculture would be a bioeconomy. Every hobby gardener would be a bioeconomist, as would highly specialized genetic scientists.
HELPFUL TOOL AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE?
The debate at the Hamburg Conservation Talks, which provided the context for the symposium, ended up being more about bioeconomic sciences and the extent to which it can possibly develop helpful tools with which to respond to climate change. In her opening lecture, for example, the author and journalist, Christiane Grefe, referenced a multitude of examples including the sheer analysis of genomes and the cultivation of climate-resistant plants as well as a vision to re-create organisms that have long been extinct.
Grefe believes that the bioeconomy could have the potential to reduce the consumption of raw materials and energy. For example, enzymes used in detergents could reduce the water temperature required during washing. A great risk she identifies is the concentration of power over technology in large corporations – namely those that fund research. Grefe also added: “The finiteness of available space remains, with or without a bioeconomy.” And she inquired how our way of dealing with life changes I we see nature merely as a construction site for economized life.
NO SYSTEMIC APPROACH
The participants at the symposium attempted to solve a peculiar conundrum: How can the opportunities of the bioeconomic sciences be taken advantage of and the risks avoided? Florian Schöne from the German Nature Protection Ring (DNR) for example made a call for what he called “ecological guard rails” for research. In contrast, Juan Gonzalez-Valero from Syngenta very simply said: “Innovation won’t take place where we regulate ourselves to death.” The demand for a transfer of knowledge into the financial world – so that it can initiate the required innovations – was voiced just as loudly as the demand for a cultural-systemic approach. Unfortunately, the presence of civil society representatives in political committees was only marginally provided for, said Steffi Oder from NABU. And there also was fundamental criticism: “Bioeconomy currently serves economic prosperity, but that’s the wrong paradigm. The paradigm must be: We want to solve problems.”
WHAT STINKS AND IS URGLY IS OUT OF THE QUESTION
Hermann Fischer from Auro, a manufacturer of natural paints, recommended an esthetic approach as a guide to what constitutes good practice: chemistry, he said, had helped mankind emancipate itself from nature. Now however, it was to take a different approach, because too much collateral damage had been done. If the principles of the biosphere were to be applied in research, Fischer added, loud, smelly and ugly processes could be eliminated – in plants, no chemical took place in this way. “However, with the help of chemistry, we have created an unaesthetic everyday life,” he complained, quoting the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg: “How dare you?” And then, there was the maybe overriding question: Do science, the economy and society really have a knowledge deficit, or is it really just a deficit in terms of willingness?
The discussions make one thing apparent: bioeconomy seems to be a sector that’s torn apart by opposing interests. It is therefore aimless and a sector that displays little holistic thinking. Frames set by the political sphere could help. The author Christine Grefe made some suggestions: The topic should be directed by the EU’s Circular Economy Act. The bloc’s agricultural policy, which is still waiting to be greened, could also take over the task. Research funding should no longer be unevenly distributed.
It was a day full of enriching discussions, but it was exhausting on the mind and soul. The idea that scientists in research institutions around the world actually want to bring back to life long-extinct species is scary. On the other side, the idea of responding to the challenges of the present with the mechanisms of nature is fascinating.
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