An exclusive interview with John Bell, director for Bioeconomy EU Commission

John Bell

John Bell talks to The BioJournal. In an exclusive interview the director for Bioeconomy at European Commission DG Research & Innovation discusses “the need to move our economy away from its dependence on fossil-based resources”.

“The Commission – he says – is working to ensure a favourable environment for research and innovation, as well as for investments in the bioeconomy”.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso


Dr Bell, the IMF estimated the global subsidies on fossil fuels in 2015 at 5.3 trillion USD, or 6.5 percent of global GDP. In this scenario, how can Europe accelerate the transition to a bioeconomy?

The need to move our economy away from its dependence on fossil-based resources is evident. Indeed the unequivocal message from the COP21 negotiations is that governments will now set the policies to incentivise the transition to a climate-smart economy.

The bioeconomy has a strong potential to be a big part of the solution. But this is not automatic. It requires substantial further investment in research and innovation in primary production (agriculture), as well as in food and nutrition, bio-based processing and bioenergy.

The Commission’s public-private partnership with industry – a new €3.7 billion Public-Private Partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC)– is a major step in the right direction to develop a strong European bio-based industrial sector. This will significantly reduce Europe’s dependency on fossil-based products, help the EU meet climate change targets, and lead to greener and more environmentally friendly growth.

More broadly the Investment Plan for Europe presented by the European Commission is a package of measures to unlock public and private investments of at least €315 billion over the next three years. It consists of three strands: mobilising investment finance without creating public debt; supporting projects and investments in key areas, including research and innovation; and removing sector-specific and non-financial barriers to investment.

The Commission is working to ensure a favourable environment for research and innovation, as well as for investments in the bioeconomy.


But there is not just a matter of subsidies: not taking into account the cost of negative externalities caused by fossil-based products creates market distortions. In other words, who pays for the damage caused by CO2 emissions?

These are political issues that go beyond the scope of a Bioeconomy strategy.


The need for a carbon tax was put forward in Utrecht last April at the EU Bioeconomy Stakeholders’ Conference. Do you think it is possible and it would be really useful?

Taxation policy is one of the most sensitive issues in Europe and a matter for political leaders.


One of the main objectives of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy is to promote the transition to a low carbon economy by 2050. This transition requires society to take up a new active role. In Utrecht you defined society as “the driving force of the bioeconomy”. What is the EU Commission doing to connect bioeconomy and society?

Among others, the Commission fosters stakeholder dialogue via the European Bioeconomy Stakeholders Panel. Bioeconomy Stakeholders Panel brings together people with different stakeholder perspectives; business and primary producers, policy-makers and public administrations, scientists and researchers and civil society organisations. At the Utrecht conference stakeholders also discussed building blocks for a European Bioeconomy Stakeholders Manifesto, which the Panel is further deliberating on, to identify principles and actions that can contribute to the development of a broadly shared societal agenda for bioeconomy. Furthermore, the Commission has for example funded projects that aim to better engage with citizens on bioeconomy, for example via the CIMULACT project, that aims to identify the aspirations and concerns of citizens with regard to the future orientation of research and innovation, also in particular in the context of bioeconomy.


Lately there has been much discussion on the role of the regions in the European bioeconomy. In your opinion, what is exactly their role?

Many EU regions are more and more focused on launching their bioeconomy strategies and the importance of their role should not be neglected. European regions interested in creating new opportunities for their farmers, industries and society will have to play a leading role in mobilising regional/local stakeholders, raising awareness and exchanging knowledge on new opportunities, creating incentives using their European Structural & Investment Funds (ESIF), encouraging new partnerships and fostering synergies with the H2020 programme in order to facilitate investments and create the right policies.

A close cooperation between the European Commission and the EU Member States/regions is of paramount importance to further promote best practices, create networks and exchange of information. For that reason, a new CSA project under Horizon2020, BioReg, will start soon to create a Stakeholder platform of regional and local organisations (regional authorities or mandated agencies or clusters) interested to develop ambitious strategies in support of bio-based products/industries. Building on the “model demonstrator regions”, successful case studies shall be shared and transposed to other interested European regions with the aim to widen the participation of countries developing regional bio-based strategies. Within Europe, bioeconomies are diverse and need a strong push at local and regional level.


With many regional bioeconomies, isn’t there the risk of fragmenting too much the European bioeconomy, creating waste of money and resources?

Bio-based industries and products offer new opportunities for regional and urban development by using local, renewable biological resources and maximising the potential for agro-food, forest and urban waste to be valorised, both for energy and biomaterial uses.

We need more research and technology development at regional level to harness this biomass potential in a sustainable manner and to boost jobs and growth. Innovation is the key. Take the example of municipal bio-waste. The city of Amsterdam has published a vision of how high value recycling of all organic residue streams in the city would be a major element of creating an urban circular economy, generating jobs and economic growth while also saving CO2 emissions. We estimate that if the EU’s 50 biggest cities were to follow Amsterdam’s lead, this could generate €12 billion added economic value, create nearly 100.000 jobs and avoid almost 50 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Coherence with national, macro-regional, investment and European partners is critical.


Approximately a year ago, the European Commission adopted a new Circular Economy Package to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy. What is the Commission doing to reinforce the link between the circular economy and the bioeconomy?

The development of a bioeconomy as a motor for the Circular Economy will determine its success in major systems from agriculture to waste. The Circular Economy package adopted in December identifies biomass and bio-based products as one of 5 priority areas for action. Business-as-usual scenarios show that in the near future competition over the use of land, water, biological resources (waste included) will increase as a result of the effects of climate, technology, economic and policy trends. Europe can benefit economically and environmentally from making better use of those resources. For that reason, a circular economy is at the heart of the resource efficiency agenda established under the Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Using resources more efficiently will also bring new growth and job opportunities. All measures aimed at increasing resource productivity by 30% by 2030 could boost GDP by nearly 1%, while creating 2 million additional jobs.


The Commission is working on the review of the bioeconomy strategy. From your point of view, what are the three pillars on which the new strategy must be based?

The Bioeconomy strategy launched in 2012 is structured around three pillars:

(1) Investments in research, innovation and skills;

(2) Reinforced policy interaction and stakeholder engagement; and

(3) Enhancement of markets and competitiveness.

The strategy also included an action plan to implement it. The expert group reviewing the 2020 strategy may suggest different orientations based on new global economic development (COP21, SDGs, Circular Economy) and societal challenges (i.e. food waste, renewable energy and materials).

The next step is to review progress across the EU Bioeconomy. There are new reasons why a coherent Bioeconomy strategy is needed when we see the pressure on biological systems, the supply/demand and forecast for biomass, the impact of technology, the commitments to meet Circular Economy, Renewable energy, Sustainable Development Goals, investments and other EU policy priorities.

Alongside this widening of the EU Bioeconomy, there is the deepening at national, regional, macro-regional and international level. Any new actions would need to promote the policy schemes to match these opportunities so that Europe becomes the world’s leading sustainable bio-based industrial economy.

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