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3rd Aug 2020

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New bioeconomy strategy will have to address job losses

  • The European bioeconomy still employs most people in traditional sectors like agriculture. The more recent fields like bio-based chemicals, biofuels and bio-based electricity account for only a small slice of total employment. (Photo: Tobias Andreasen)

Bulgaria had apparently not received word of the bad news. Neither had the European commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan.

Last February, Bulgaria opened a debate at a meeting of agriculture ministers with a paper stating that the bioeconomy employed around 22 million people in the EU. Hogan also cited that figure.

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  • Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, who was EU commissioner for research, innovation and science at the time, presented the commission's bio-economy strategy paper in February 2012. (Photo: European Commission)

The bad news was that their information was outdated. The figure comes from the commission's bioeconomy strategy paper, published back in February 2012.

At the presentation of the strategy in Brussels, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, who was the EU commissioner for research, innovation and science, at the time, said the bioeconomy was not simply a "niche area", it also promoted growth and jobs.

"With an annual turnover of around two trillion euro, and employing around 22 million people, the bioeconomy is already one of the Union's biggest and most important sectors. Its potential for the future is even greater," she said.

More recent estimates, however, showed that the sector is not a niche, and the figures by the commission's in-house think tank, the Joint Research Centre, revealed the total number of bioeconomy jobs in the EU was never that high. Instead, it has been decreasing steadily.

In 2008, the bioeconomy employed 20.76 million Europeans. Over the next six years, that figure dropped consistently. By 2014, the most recent figure available, the number of bioeconomy jobs stood at 18.59 million.

While the overall job market in the EU shrunk during that period, the bioeconomy sector was hit proportionally harder. A large share of that is due to a relentless drop in agriculture jobs.

Between 2008 and 2014 over a million farm jobs evaporated. The wood production and wooden furniture sector also saw some 380,000 jobs lost.

Strategy had 'weaknesses'

The employment figure is not the only thing that is outdated in the 2012 bioeconomy strategy paper and accompanying action plan. The commission has planned to overhaul the entire strategy.

In November 2017, the commission published a review of its own strategy paper. Although it was worded diplomatically, it was nothing short of a scathing critique of the original paper, which had five goals.

Those five goals were: to ensure food security; manage natural resources sustainably, reduce dependence on fossil fuels; mitigate and adapt to climate change; and job creation.

The review said that the "intrinsic weaknesses" of the strategy and action plan was that goals were only generally described, and that the goals lacked "specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely" targets.

As a consequence, it was "difficult to monitor progress and fully assess, or evaluate, the extent to which the implementation of the actions contribute to the five strategic objectives".

"Also, the sheer number and diversity of (sub-)actions may have resulted in a sub-optimal focus and some overlap," it added.

A western European affair

Another critique was that the goals of the bioeconomy strategy were also the goals of many other EU policies.

"These policies and other factors such as the macro-economic context have had an important influence on addressing these objectives. It is, therefore, not possible in this review to quantify the direct contributions that the bioeconomy strategy and its action plan have made to help achieve these objectives."

The review did say that the strategy has helped increase awareness of the importance of the bioeconomy, but some caveats can be added there too.

The 2012 paper had called on EU member states to come forward with their own national bioeconomy strategies. The review found that those countries with national strategies were mainly those fifteen states that have been EU members since before 2004, while central and eastern EU countries "lag behind".

An east-west division can also be distinguished when looking at annual turnover figures of the bioeconomy sector. In 2014, 88 percent of the €2.2 trillion in turnover was made in the EU15. In part, that is because in eastern EU states the bioeconomy sector is mostly made up of agriculture jobs.

The agriculture and forestry sectors are still too often nothing more but a supplier of raw material, EU agriculture commissioner Hogan said at the February ministerial meeting.

"The bioeconomy has the potential to improve the living conditions of primary producers – our farmers and foresters - by creating additional outlets for higher value-added products as well as spurring innovation in the primary sector. However, in order to achieve this potential, primary producers need to play a more active role in the value creation of the bioeconomy supply chains," he said.

The commission has scheduled publication of the reviewed bioeconomy strategy for the third quarter of 2018.

Annual turnover figures are in millions of euros. (Photo: Tobias Andreasen)
Annual turnover figures are in millions of euros. (Photo: Tobias Andreasen)
Annual turnover figures are in millions of euros. (Photo: Tobias Andreasen)
Annual turnover figures are in millions of euros. (Photo: Tobias Andreasen)
Annual turnover figures are in millions of euros. (Photo: Tobias Andreasen)

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