“The bioeconomy is key to reducing environmental impact and dependence on fossil fuels”
We interviewed Néstor Etxaleku, leader of the Food and Bioeconomy Area at Zabala Innovation
Sustainable development is the driving force behind all types of entities and organisations, and the bioeconomy plays a key role in this regard. To find out more about the ins and outs of this much-needed field, we talked to Néstor Etxaleku, leader of the Food and Bioeconomy Area at Zabala Innovation. Sector trends, circularity, climate change and European proposals are some of the aspects that our expert analyses in this interview.
Bioeconomy: are we aware of what it means and how we can benefit from it?
To begin with, we can say that the bioeconomy is an economic model based on the use of renewable biological resources and their transformation into new products or services with greater added value, such as bioenergy (the directly identifiable forest biomass pellets or biofuel of vegetable origin, hydrogen or biogas from the treatment of waste from other productive sectors) or other bioproducts such as food additives from fibres or natural oils, new bioplastics or the use of lignin to obtain new molecules.
The bioeconomy emerges as a response to current environmental and social challenges to guarantee the supply and fair distribution of food, mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce the use of fossil fuels. In addition, it can generate new opportunities for economic development and employment, especially important in rural areas.
What are its strategic lines and how do they influence our daily lives?
The bioeconomy aims to promote both sustainable development and circularity. Through its implementation, the total amount of waste and its associated impact is reduced. It also saves energy, minimises soil, air and water pollution, thus helping to prevent damage to the environment, climate and biodiversity.
Some of the main lines of action are the renewal of the industrial fabric and processes associated with sectors such as agriculture, forestry, aquaculture and other associated industries, especially related to rural areas; the restoration of degraded ecosystems and the maintenance of biodiversity; improving the sustainability of food systems, as well as increasing their safety, quality and consumer confidence; increasing circularity and the development of innovations based on bio-based raw materials within the EU, or reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and reducing current dependence on fossil resources, among others.
Is climate change very present in the work of your area?
Yes, it is one of the bases that set the trends in the Food and Bioeconomy area. On the one hand, the bioeconomy is key to reducing dependence on fossil fuels, transforming manufacturing and promoting new sustainable, circular production models with high added value, whether in the field of energy or bioproducts. On the other hand, the food system has become one of the main elements in the fight against climate change. What we eat, and how it is produced, plays a crucial role, as the food sector accounts for around one third of global greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of global warming are increasingly impacting on the world’s food security.
Is the ‘Farm to fork’ philosophy fully in place or are there still many improvements to be made?
This strategy is directly aligned with the priorities set out in the European Green Deal. The strategy aims to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly, so it is a very topical philosophy with many actions still to be implemented.
It has been seen that food systems cannot be resilient to crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic or the current war in Ukraine if they are not sustainable. Therefore, there is still a need to redesign food systems that today account for almost a third of global GHG emissions and consume large amounts of natural resources. This results in biodiversity loss and negative health impacts (due to both under- and over-nutrition) and does not allow for fair economic returns and livelihoods for all actors, in particular primary producers. In this sense, the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy is still very much alive and kicking.
Which European programmes best promote improvements in the food and bioeconomy?
The most prominent is Cluster 6 of Horizon Europe, the European Union’s main R&D support programme. This cluster covers a broad spectrum that reflects its own title: ‘Food, Bioeconomy, Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment’.
There are also other related initiatives such as the CBE-JU programme ‘Circular Biobased Europe’, which focuses on the use of bio-based raw materials, the PRIMA programme, which seeks to improve three of the main axes of food systems in the Mediterranean region (water management, farming systems and the food chain) or the LIFE Programme, where new technologies or promising solutions can be tested from an environmental improvement point of view.
Is the whole value chain taken into account in policies, or are some actors still excluded?
One of the main efforts being made in recent years is precisely to involve all elements of the value chain in projects. It is no longer a question of generating solutions from one of the actors without taking into account the needs or concerns of the other members of the value chain.
With the concept of the “multi-stakeholder approach”, the aim is for projects to include the opinion of all members of the chain, from farmers and livestock farmers to end consumers, including the support of research centres and universities, transfer centres, processing companies, etc.
What are the innovative trends in this field?
The main trends are related to trying to reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the food system, while at the same time trying to create new business opportunities. Some are associated with less use of chemical pesticides, reducing nutrient losses and the use of fertilisers, reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock farming, improving the nutritional intake of food and the diet of citizens, adapting crops and species to the new climatic situation with a greater focus on biodiversity… This is always under the approach of a circular bioeconomy that allows us greater efficiency in the use of biological resources, as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Which areas create the most synergies in your work?
The Food and Bioeconomy area has direct synergies with the Environment area (in the search for new, more sustainable processes, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and reduction and use of waste) or with the Energy area in the search for the replacement of fossil fuels with new alternatives (new energy sources derived from biological origin, such as biomethane, and the promotion of the use of renewable energies in the primary sector). But it is also a very transversal area with synergies with other areas such as Health or Digitalisation.
Do Zabala Innovation’s clients operate in an increasingly competitive environment?
Of course, the context in which the sector is moving is highly competitive as there are a series of elements that have a direct influence. On the one hand, the necessary adaptation to the aforementioned climate change, but also overcoming the rising price of raw materials, and being able to guarantee food supply while maintaining the highest standards of quality and food safety. This has been clearly seen in recent years in situations such as the pandemic or the current war in Ukraine.
And in this environment, how do you help them to make their projects succeed?
At Zabala Innovation we try to understand our clients’ needs in order to accompany them throughout the innovation process. It is a matter of working together in the early identification of the opportunities where their innovative ideas best fit and helping them in the search for the most suitable partners to complement their experience. We also help them in the preparation and management of dossiers to ensure that projects can succeed, transforming ideas into innovative new products and processes. Our experience of more than 35 years helps us a lot in this regard, and we are very proud when their proposals get the funding they need to contribute to a more sustainable world.
In this video you can learn more about the work of Zabala Innovation’s Food and Bioeconomy Area.