Bioeconomy in Spain: A country with great potential, but still far from the commitment seen in other European regions

Reflections from experts on the situation in Spain and the challenges of the bioeconomy in Europe.

"Cooperation between regions and countries in research projects can help narrow gaps and promote the exchange of knowledge"

In 2012, the European Commission gave the green light to the European Bioeconomy Strategy, with a focus on guiding the European economy towards a greater and more sustainable use of renewable resources. This strategy identified five main goals it should contribute to, including ensuring food security, sustainable management of natural resources, reducing dependence on non-renewable resources, mitigating the effects of climate change, optimizing Europe's adaptation to the new climate scenario, and promoting job creation and competitiveness within the European Union. The strategy was updated in 2018 with an action plan aimed at developing a sustainable and circular bioeconomy in the service of society, the environment, and the economy of Europe.

The main objective of this strategy is to accelerate the deployment of a sustainable European bioeconomy that maximizes its contribution to the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this context, the ShapingBio project was born with the mission of supporting and accelerating innovation in the bioeconomy and the deployment of new knowledge in the European Union and its member states.

Despite the significant role that the bioeconomy plays in addressing global challenges, there are barriers preventing wider adoption of innovation derived from this sector. Among these barriers is the limited exchange of data and knowledge among different sectors such as agriculture, food, or the chemical industry. Additionally, the bioeconomy faces challenges such as dispersion in terms of funding and a lack of precise political regulations. This is why the snapshot of the bioeconomy in Europe varies depending on the region under analysis.


Major Investments, Scalability, and Infrastructure: Challenges of the Bioeconomy in Europe

In September 2023, Barcelona hosted the latest edition of BIOSPAIN, a benchmark event in the biotechnological sector at the national and international levels organized by AseBio, in collaboration with Biocat, the Generalitat de Catalunya, and the Ajuntament de Barcelona. It served as a meeting point where the situation of the bioeconomy in Europe, its potential, and the challenges hindering its innovations were analysed by various experts.

"The main problem of the bioeconomy is the additional cost associated with the use of these processes compared to conventional ones that emit more greenhouse gases," expresses Sergi Rodá, Project Manager at Nostrum Biodiscovery.

On the other hand, Guillermo Barco, co-founder and Chief Research Officer of Mediterranean Algae, points out that the bioeconomy "cannot be understood without sustainability and circularity." In this regard, he emphasizes the importance of the bioeconomy being based on these pillars "to ensure that it fulfils its role as a tool to address current challenges."

Both experts agree that innovations from the bioeconomy require significant investments in research and development, infrastructure, and human resource training. "It is challenging to invest in the generation of bioproducts when those of fossil origin are cheaper. However, we must be able to envision a future in which such materials are depleted and make a gradual transition to the efficient use of biomass," declares Javier Mena Sanz, Scientific Coordinator-Biorefinery R&D at CLaMber.

Finally, one of the main challenges facing the bioeconomy is scalability, as argued by Kristie Tanner, R&D Project Manager, Quality Systems Manager at Darwin Bioprospecting Excellence: "Many highly promising biotechnological developments remain at a laboratory-scale validation, and this is caused by several bottlenecks: technical issues when scaling up the process; lack of sufficient specialized infrastructures and equipment; lack of process optimization to achieve a cost-efficient scenario, and inefficient technology transfer between SMEs and the large companies that intend to exploit the technology."


Spain, lagging behind other European regions in its commitment to the bioeconomy

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the situation of the bioeconomy in Europe varies substantially depending on the regions. This fact poses a "significant obstacle," in the words of Guillermo Barco. "In Spain, as in other places, there may be disparities in terms of investment, resources, and research capacity compared to more advanced bioeconomy countries, such as Germany or the Netherlands."

Javier Mena does not hesitate to acknowledge that Spain has great potential in the field of bioeconomy, but it is "underutilized, and, as in all revolutions in history, we are late." This assertion is reinforced by the example of the "biogas boom happening in our country." "In other European regions, they have been utilizing biomass to generate biogas for decades and have almost reached their respective limits. However, in Spain, we have done it so poorly, and we have so much potential for improvement that only now, with Natural Gas reaching highs due to the war in Ukraine, Spain is waking up."

"On a social level, part of the population shows little interest in the development of the bioeconomy and does not believe that climate change is a political problem. This is reflected in parliament, where there is clearly a division between parties that believe and strive to promote the development of this industry and those that do not. This harms the companies and research centers that are developing technologies for a new bioeconomy, which lack funding and have to resort to applying for European scholarships/grants," criticizes Sergi Rodà.

"I think Spain is very lucky to have access to a wide range of funding options (regional, national, and European) and an impressive network of bioeconomy experts, researchers, technology developers, and innovative industries that, if able to work together efficiently and overcome scalability bottlenecks, will contribute to further growing the Spanish bioeconomy in the upcoming years," adds Kristie Tanner.


The Future of Bioeconomy in Europe: Policies Needed to Promote Research, Innovation, and Investment

Given the current state of bioeconomy in Spain and Europe, the four experts unanimously emphasize the crucial need for the establishment of policies that promote research, innovation, and investment in bioeconomy-related technologies. They point to the necessity of creating regulatory frameworks that encourage sustainability and responsible use of biological resources. Cooperation between regions and countries in research and development projects is seen as a key factor in bridging gaps and fostering knowledge exchange.

Support for research and development and the use of biobased materials must also be fundamental tools for Europe to promote bioeconomy, as well as streamlining the validation of developed bioproducts to enter markets as quickly as possible. This is of vital importance as current bottlenecks and bureaucracy are impeding innovations.

There are even discussions about imposing economic restrictions on large companies responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions to increase their interest in more sustainable technologies and energy sources.

Bioeconomy is essential to address the current challenges facing Europe. Until a few years ago, the investment in biological origin technologies incurred significant economic costs. However, scientific and technological advancements over the past three decades have allowed a shift through competitive bioprocesses with the capacity to enter markets. This goal can only be achieved through a strong and tangible political and social commitment to innovations derived from bioeconomy.



Bioeconomy in Spain: A country with great potential, but still far from the commitment seen in other European regions