This paper gives an account of the issues at play in Europe with regard to the transition to a bio-based economy. Agricultural crops have always been used for the production of food, feed, fibre and fuel. The Model T Ford—the first mass produced car—originally ran on bioethanol, and wood has been in use as a source for energy ever since the discovery of fire. What is new is that the balance between agricultural uses is changing under the pressure of an increasing need for food and feed, as well as the new need for biofuels and biomaterials. At the basis of this change lie several serious issues related to the current use of bio-based feedstock to secure energy supply, the future depletion of natural resources and global climate change. Innovations in industrial biotechnology are expected to play a crucial role in dealing with these issues in biomass use.
Industrial biotechnology can be defined as bioconversion, either through microbial fermentation or cell-free biocatalysis, of organic feedstocks extracted from biomass or their derivatives to chemicals, materials, and/or energy . Its basic principles enjoy a long and colourful history dating back to at least 7000 BC, when microorganisms were first used in the production of various fermentation products such as wine, cheese and beer. These uses were not implemented on an industrial level. It would take until the nineteenth century for the first steps to be taken that would lead to an industrial biotechnology. In 1860, Nikolaus Otto invented an automobile engine that ran on ethanol while a few years later Rudolf Diesel developed the diesel engine that ran on peanut oil. This first modern use of biofuels, however, declined when worldwide crude oil exploration began in the first half of the twentieth century. Fossilized fuels in the form of coal and petrol were already in use, first for industry, trains and boats, but with the advent of crude oil exploration also for cars. The advantage of fossilized fuels over biofuels such as peanut oil was that they were much less labour intensive and more readily available. In the past 80 years, our society has grown more and more dependent on ‘fossilized biomass’. An exception is Brazil, which had already developed an infrastructure for biofuels some decades ago. With the advent of the age of plastic, this biomass was not only used for our energy production (in the form of oil, but also gas and coal) but also for the production of materials.
With the development of recombinant DNA technology in California in the 1970s, a new era in modern industrial technology was ushered in. Many biotechnology companies and biorefineries sprang up around the world with the patenting and commercialization of recombinant organisms. This meant a new step in the development of biorenewables, and biofuels in particular. Policies like the EU's binding requirement of 10 per cent of biofuels blending percentage in the transportation sector is a main incentive to drive the industry forward. Today, biorefineries are expected to play a major role in sustainable energy, chemicals and materials production . Industry has already captured 5 per cent of the total chemical production sales volume, with an estimated 20 per cent (US$310 billion) of sales in 2010 (Otero and Nielsen). Other innovations followed in quick succession with the development of systems biology, metabolic pathway engineering, synthetic biology, bioprocess- and nanotechnology.
Policy makers encourage the quest for a viable alternative to fossilized oil because of three concerns: a first is energy security. Many of the largest fossil fuel providing countries are politically unbalanced, potentially threatening the delivery of oil. Meanwhile, other untapped oil reserves exist but are very hard to access, such as deep-sea reserves. The recent disaster with the oil platform the Deep Water Horizon in the Mexican Gulf illustrates the high technical and environmental risks involved in mining these kinds of oil supplies. This has created an incentive to develop a source of energy that renders the West less dependent on less accessible parts of the world or less stable forms of mining. A second concern that is in part dependent on this first one is that fuel prices have been rising and may continue to do so, as seen in the increasing global demands for energy and the steadily decreasing oil supplies. A third concern—although often presented as the first in the media—is the production of greenhouse gases as a result of fossilized oil use. This is widely believed to be a major cause of global climate change. In 2004, transportation was said to be responsible for some 21 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the EU15 member states  and if our economy develops as expected, emissions of greenhouse gasses will only continue to increase. These concerns created an economic niche for fuel innovation. Scientists as well as policy makers have targeted biofuels as a viable alternative to fossilized oil.
The theoretical advantage of biofuels over fossil fuels is relatively easy to explain (see figure 1, provided by T. van Maris): when biofuels are burned, only the CO2 bound by the growth of the biomass from which it is derived is released into the atmosphere. This has very different effects from burning carbon that has stayed bound for millions of years (oil, coal, gas). A second advantage is that, in theory, biofuels and biochemicals can be produced infinitely due to their renewable nature: there is a very real, though distant pressure to come up with a solution for the depletion of fossil fuels. A third advantage is that feedstock is generally available and does not need to be produced in politically unstable regions or under extreme conditions. With the transition to biofuels and biomaterials, the problems associated with our current feedstock may be overcome.
2. Conversion of biomass
Since the bio-based industry is still in its infancy and therefore a high-risk venture, it has been suggested that governments can play a significant role in kick-starting the bio-based industry by providing an infrastructure for subsidies . Governmental bodies, including the EU, have drawn up new policy lines to facilitate the transition to a bio-based economy. Current policies aim to ease the short-term introduction of biorenewables, such as biofuels to the market, by providing subsidy and facilitating bank loans, changing the current energy infrastructure and researching new production methods. Similar incentives have been created for the production of renewable biomaterials. But these incentives do not lead to only one specific innovation trajectory. As illustrated below (figure 2) many technological routes and types of biomass can be considered. This is even more true for the complexities involved in their socio-economic implementation.
Ideally, biomass should only be produced in a sustainable fashion. From this basis, it can be refined further into a cascade of products: food, medicines, chemical specialties, materials and energy. Grass, for example, is commonly available and can be transformed into products with a high added value, such as proteins for industrial use or feed and fibres for paper manufacturing. Leftover products might be digested for the production of energy. The problem is that energy producers start on the opposite side of the biomass production chain. While looking for affordable means to reduce greenhouse gases, they started to co-fire (scrap) wood, and in some cases used paper, in their energy plants. The result was a rise of feedstock prices for paper manufacturing plants. So paper producers started looking for alternative feedstock, such as grass. The question is, how does this affect industries that are presently dependent on those grasslands, such as agricultural livestock? For European livestock, for example, this might result in a life indoors, eating feed that is produced in ecologically vulnerable areas in the world, while cows in spacious Brazil might see pastures decrease. Even for this simple example the variables and scenarios are countless, with one purpose in common: to use the renewable energy from the sun for the conversion of CO2, H2O and nutrients into food, feed, fibre, fuel and feedstock.
The production of biorenewables is based on a conversion process of biomass into platform chemicals, such as ethanol. These chemicals are suited as building blocks for further chemical processing. In 2004, the US Department of Energy presented a list of 12 platform chemicals that can be derived from biomass . The idea is that, just like the platform chemicals of the original fossil fuels, this basic chemical can be used for all applications such as fuel, chemicals, materials, etc. But the platform chemicals derived from biomass might differ from that derived from oil. If ethanol takes the place of a bulk-chemical like ethylene, new (bio) chemical processes that take ethanol as a starting point would need to be developed and substantial investments in new chemical processing plants would need to be made. This would create opportunities for new players on the bio-based market. But if ethanol would be processed into ethylene, old parties could further benefit from the investments already made in existing chemical plants, strengthening the existing chemical industry. In either case, rules of economy apply: the higher the value of the chemical, the better the return on investment.
Policy makers, scientists, economists, agronomic experts, engineers, biotechnicians, ecologists, sociologists and experts in sustainability juggle all the different issues involved in an effort to create scenarios for a sustainable, bio-based economy. Although prior to the industrial use of coal and oil our economy was pretty much bio-based, the present transition, or return to a bio-based economy, is very complex due to various (vested) interests and the obscure nature of the concept of sustainability. For instance, the production of first generation biofuels from crops was accelerated by the European Union's energy policy, which set a target of 10 per cent biofuel use in the transportation sector by 2020. This directive was seen to have undesired effects on greenhouse gas emissions, either due to primary issues such as the production process involved or due to secondary issues such as the problem of shifts of land use. This experience spurred the development of second generation biotechnology that will compete with food production to a much lesser extent, since it uses the wood-like material of crops and organic waste. The processes involved are energy efficient and have a positive impact in abatement of global climate change. The next generations of biotechnology are yet to come. New forms of fertilization processes to produce fine chemicals and biodiesel seem to provide appealing and simple solutions. Still, complex hurdles with regard to technology and energy have to be tackled for this third generation biotechnology.
3. Societal discontent: the debate on sustainable development
The vision of a bright, new biorenewable world may be too idealistic. The need for biomass increases pressure on land and water resources while there is already much pressure to produce enough food for an increasing population. This may create competition between the production of food and feed on the one hand and fuel on the other . In Europe a very high percentage of the arable land surface is already in use for agriculture; this percentage is much lower for other parts of the world such as North America or Africa. If biomass for biofuels were to be grown domestically, then the relative pressure on agriculture would increase more in Europe than anywhere else. Some claim that to provide for a mere 10–20% of the current European countries' fuel usage, one would have to use about 70–100% of the current European arable land surface [7,8], which raises the question of whether we can rely on our own agricultural land to provide for our biofuel needs. This bleak picture is not uncontested. The land use change and agriculture program (LUC) of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis points to a large amount of potentially available land in Europe that could provide more than the biomass we require .
In spite of lingering controversies, the general view is that European fuel needs using domestically grown biomass put too high a pressure on food production. This is confirmed by various research institutions as well as the United Nations . This creates a push to develop initiatives to grow biomass for European biofuels and other biorenewables outside of Europe. From this view, crops for biomass production should be grown in developing countries, since these have more available arable land surfaces. An added advantage is that the production potential of tropical developing countries is much higher than that of temperate countries [11,12]. But an appeal to these more readily available land surfaces may affect the already problematic food production in these countries. The competition for land may also affect local biodiversity: the production of biomass for biofuels and biomaterials is already a cause of damage to the environment, since rain forests are cut down to make space for planting oil palms, although the bulk of the palm oil industry does not go to biofuels but other products such as lipstick . Still, there are concerns that less food and feed might be produced in areas where this is a critical issue already and local communities may be forced to either move, or radically change their culture and lifestyle, to be able to adjust to the drastic changes to the existing, often low-tech and traditional forms of agriculture. These would be the necessary consequence of a transition to cultivating biomass for biorenewables. Apart from current controversies that may be unjustified, the demand for biomass for fuel production could lead to a further global increase of food prices in the coming few years. And the products concerned will probably only benefit the developed world. Next to this displacement problem, we do not have clarity on the economic compatibility of biofuels. This means the expectations might be set too high.
As a result, more and more critics raised doubt about the potential of biorenewables, most specifically biofuels. From 2008 onwards, NGOs and others have expressed serious concerns with regard to the protection of rainforests and other ecosystems but also to the rights of the population of the developing countries. An often repeated claim is that we need to invest in the first generation to develop the second generation. This way the infrastructure for second generation biofuels would be already in place. This claim is often repeated, but not sufficiently supported. These and other issues spurred a debate in the media, hampering the transition to a bio-based economy since major stakeholders became reluctant to further invest in a transition to biofuels and other biorenewables.
As opaque as some indications may seem, there is also reason for optimism. If the infrastructure for growing biomass for the production of biorenewables would be created in a socially responsible fashion, this could also have a positive influence on the welfare levels in developing countries. And although scepticism over the use of first generation biofuels to counter global climate change is well motivated, first generation biofuels derived from sugar cane were promising. This is also true for second and third generation biofuels, in which genetically modified yeasts can also convert the non-edible parts of plant material into biofuel. This means that non-productive parts of crops can be made productive. And the competition with other uses of agricultural land would be lifted. Although it would become necessary to use more fertilizers with possible detrimental effects for the environment this does prove to be a step forwards.
Scientific response to the critical debate in the media often followed the assumption that as long as the deficit of public and societal knowledge cutting edge science and technology was resolved, the public would accept the view that these developments were beneficial. But more knowledge does not lead to a greater acceptance, rather to a deeper entrenchment of the opinion already held . This phenomenon is a well-known classic in social psychology: prejudiced opinion causes people to perceive information selectively which again leads to a deeper entrenchment of that opinion  even going as far as to subconsciously create the proof of their own prejudice . Still, the development of technologies that potentially affect the environment or society needs to be paired with an involvement of the public .
4. The ethical sensitivities on Genetically modified organisms
One subject of enduring controversy is the societal criticism on the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Ever since their inception in the 1970s, GMOs have caused strong divisions among scientists, policy makers and the public. Heralded as one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the century, the debate over their use peaked in the 1990s during the ‘great GM food debates’ [18,19]. But if the recent furore over the European Commission's decision on allowing European Union member states to ban the cultivation of GM crops is of any indication, the long-standing debate over the use of transgenic technologies will not be solved tomorrow. There are particularly large differences in opinion regarding the use of GMO in various industries. This also holds political consequences. In general, people often adhere to a division between red, green and white, or grey, biotechnology (see figure 3). In that context, there is large public support over pharmaceutical (red) and industrial (grey or white) biotechnologies but very little for agri-food (green) biotechnology (see figure 3).1 For example in the UK, researchers found that the greater public acceptance towards GMOs in pharmaceuticals and strong reluctance towards transgenic crops was greatly influenced by the media. In the controversy over GM tomatoes, it appeared that many individuals believed GM tomatoes contained genes and that regular tomatoes did not. These issues would become a driving factor towards important changes in the regulatory framework . In the case of industrial biotechnology, Europeans who were surveyed responded very favourably to the production of biodegradable plastics, bio-fuels and biopharming .
It is thought that strong stakeholder support for grey or white biotechnology is mainly caused by contained use of GMOs while concerns about green biotechnologies are discussed in the context of the deliberate release of transgenic organisms, in this case GM crops, in the environment . In a bio-based economy, the manufacturing of bioproducts (biofuels, bio-energy and bio-based chemicals and materials) will involve transgenic microbes but also transgenic crops that have various enhancements for yield, stress tolerance, oil composition, etc. The use of GMOs however only increases agricultural yields by a small percentage, while changes in farming practices have a much more dramatic effect on yields. Agronomic practices are the largest single factor in reducing emissions from farming. Consequently, regulatory hurdles might emerge, especially if these crops accidentally enter the food chain as has happened in the past [23,24]. Still, it has been suggested that the use of GM crops with traits such as enhanced yield, modified cell wall composition and stress tolerance might be more readily accepted than crops that produce toxins or might be ecological disruptive due to their evasive nature .
5. The art of modelling
The factors involved in creating a bio-based economy are countless and vary from choices for food, feed or fuel, land use and water use to effects on the environment, soil, climate, society and local economy, the number of variables and sustainability issues. Models are a necessary tool to predict the impact of the different biomass scenarios. Numerous modellers are making an effort. The results however seem to vary tremendously, given the numerous conflicting statements and figures about arable land and competition with the production of food. And even if there were one perfect model, this problem would not be solved. To quote a Dutch journalist: ‘[…] the advantage of computer simulations [is that] if you fuss them long enough you get the “accurate” results you are looking for’. An example of problems of misrepresentation was also dubbed the ‘hockey stick controversy’ , referring to the sharp upwards turn in a graph on global climate change. The recent developments and controversies around the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are illuminating  (and on modelling ). Inputs like land use data, vegetation patterns, technology choice, technology developments, are crucial and assumptions seem unavoidable. Modelling results should always be approached with common sense. Scientists seem to be well aware of the relativity of the outcome of models. But further down the decision making and publicity chain, this awareness is lost and outcomes start to develop a life of their own.
The further development and introduction of biorenewables is too complex to resolve with models that presume one can pinpoint one simple cause to the problem and then remedy it by removing that cause. There are many factors playing a role, including the type of plant material used, the place where they are grown, the companies that grow them, the net effect they have in terms of carbon emissions, the process by which plant material is made into fuel or chemicals, the feasibility of currently quoted blending percentages, etc. Next to more technical issues, there are problems such as the aforementioned problem of land use with regard to food production, societal reception of technology  or the technological hurdles involved. There is lack of a clear multidisciplinary approach, and this stands in the way of a joint vision that is necessary for developing a clear action plan. At the moment, it is very much a situation of every stakeholder for himself. This is more problematic since it seems there is much to gain. Biorenewables have a beneficial potential that is not merely economic in nature. And since nobody has the mixed expertise to gain an overview of these widely differing issues, there is a lot of parroting in the field. This situation is even more confusing since different terms in the debate are defined differently per stakeholder.
The implementation of biorenewables serves many different stakeholders' goals. This is not only an advantage, since it obscures the view of which drivers are active in creating incentives for the introduction of biorenewables. It is not clear which types of biorenewables will yield the best results. The further development and introduction of biorenewables necessitate the development of a common language. Attempts to this aim have already been developed by the introduction of a term such as ‘sustainability’, but the meaning of such concepts remains unclear .
6. Defining the rules of the game, a game in itself?
Many of the reports on sustainable biofuels attempt to draw up lists of criteria for sustainable development, but rather than clarifying the appropriate normative criteria for the further development and implementation of biofuels, they seem to have stretched the concept of sustainable development beyond its limits. The lists of criteria for sustainable development appear to include almost any conceivable normative dimension. Rather than creating a clear action perspective the different parties involved, the implementation of such criteria seems to frustrate progress.
Both the media and policy makers demand predictability, but the scientific world cannot easily deliver clear cut predictions on the future in their own field, let alone the societal impact of its products. Cutting edge science and technology is changing every day: yesterday's conclusions are no longer valid today. As an example, third generation biofuels on the basis of biomass derived from algae seemed an unviable option at first, but due to new innovations in the field, such an approach to produce ethanol more directly from CO2 and sunlight seems highly promising. It is still under investigation of course, but this development was a surprise, even to most scientists involved. One way to deal with such unpredictabilities is to keep an open mind in this stage of transition, rather than narrowing it down to just one dimension. To arrive at an approach that integrates all complexities involved, it is best to set out with a helicopter view of the field of industrial biotechnology.
Often, analyses of the debate on the sustainable development of biorenewables try to resolve the issue by creating aforementioned models in which the complexity of the factors involved is reduced or simplified. But with these reductions, something essential is inevitably lost. Scientific development and technological innovation are unpredictable and the introduction of their products to society even more so. The experiences of two public experts-stakeholder-debates organized by the Kluyver Centre in cooperation with the NWO (The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) and citizen's initiative Parrhesia,2 and of a Dutch Climate project3 showed that we need a less unilateral approach. The complexity of both science and technology and of the socio-economic structures in which they are embedded should not be disregarded. This complexity is central to the nature of the problem. One can solve complicatedness, but one can only live with complexity. To this aim, one should try to work with a coevolution of science innovation, societal change and economic progress. This calls for an unprecedented paradigm shift for both science and industry and policy making. Biofuels and other biorenewables should not be framed as a solution to either the climate problem, or the problem of energy dependency, or the problem of energy scarcity. They should be multi-framed to accommodate for all these goals and to integrate all relevant stakeholders.
The petrochemical industry has entered an era of change. Fossil fuels created an opportunity for a relatively cheap energy source and resulted in high value products from side lines. The world has come to rely on fuel and plastic and the clock cannot be easily turned back. Now, an alternative feedstock for the production of chemicals and materials is required. The chemical industry is retracing its steps and is seriously considering biorenewables for feedstock. There is much to gain with biorenewables but well-developed chemical process engineering has to team up with biotechnology to develop these in a sustainable and socially robust fashion. Scientists and engineers are not the only parties who need to prepare for the future. Society's infrastructure will need to be adjusted, and clarity needs to be gained on the true effects of a bio-based economy. This cannot be achieved at once. We will have to adjust our world while entering the process of transition towards a bio-based society.
The advantages and disadvantages of biorenewables are emphasized differently in different parts of the world. In Europe, biorenewables were the rabbit pulled out of the hat for the problem of global climate change: in the United States, biofuels were promoted with reference to energy security and self-sufficiency rather than the climate problem. For Brazil, it offers a possibility to further develop local economy, increase the export market and become a major player in the international world. But in essence, biofuels have a potential to serve all these goals.
The papers in this special issue aim to give an exposé of all these different perspectives and different ways of framing the debate on renewable biofuels. Like the patterns of an oriental tapestry and like society itself, it is an open-ended and asymmetric exposé, meant to mirror the issues at play in society, to show what direction solutions to these widely differing problems could take.
We would like to thank Patricia Osseweijer for her useful comments and Prof. Dr Julian Kinderlerer for his contribution to an earlier version of this text.
↵1 Although this division in three is becoming increasingly inapplicable since current developments in biotechnology overlap.
↵3 Klimaat voor Ruimte: See http://www.klimaatonderzoeknederland.nl/nl/25223002-Home.html.
One contribution of 9 to a Theme Issue ‘Biorenewables, the bio-based economy and sustainability’.
- Received November 3, 2010.
- Accepted January 7, 2011.
- This Journal is © 2011 The Royal Society