The world’s population is bound to increase further. It is estimated that there will be at least 9 billion people by 2050 and that agricultural production will have to rise by at least 70% to feed them. At the same time, some of the traditional, non-renewable commodities are starting to run out. It is estimated that we currently consume natural resources as if we had at our disposal a planet and a half and that if the whole world consumed the same amount of natural resources as the average of the OECD countries, it would be as if we had three planets instead of one. One possible solution is represented by greater and better development of biological and renewable resources to produce greater quantities of higher quality foods and fodder, but also chemical and fuels thus guaranteeing food safety and quality, reduced environmental pollution and climate change as well as new market and employment opportunities.
Bioeconomy’s priorities include agriculture, forestry, sustainable fishing and aquaculture, food safety and quality, paper and forest production, bioindustry and biorefineries, and the management and promotion of marine resources and internal waters. Bioeconomy is an important pillar of the European economy, with an annual turnover of 2.1 trillion euro and about 20 million jobs, and of the Italian economy, with an annual turnover of about 250 billion euro and 2 million jobs.
The inception of a large-scale bioeconomy may create new jobs, products and processes in Italy, therefore a new competitiveness, especially in rural areas, along the coasts and in abandoned industrial areas or those hard-hit by the current economic crisis. However, this requires research and innovation to strengthen the productive and industrial sectors mentioned above and integrate them, creating new or longer value chains, adapted to the territory, together with specific educational and informational actions.
One pervasive application of the bioeconomy concept in agriculture implies a radical reorganization of the productive processes with the objective of combining a necessary rise in productivity with a reduction in inputs and favorable action towards climate change. Research will have a fundamental role, not only as regards the biological phenomena and their complex interactions but especially in the genetics field, with the continuous improvement of cultivars, the better understanding of biogeochemical cycles and soil functionality, the substitution of chemical fertilizers, in crop protection with minimum commitment of insecticides and fungicides, cultivation techniques that reduce soil erosion, loss of organic matter and energy needs.
The agrifood sector too, that already represents in Europe more than 50% of the turnover of the sectors following the bioeconomy concept, will have huge possibilities for innovation and growth. Innovation concerns the food’s nutritional characteristics and their relation with health and wellbeing - an already dynamic sector attracting great interest - as well as conservation techniques, packaging, logistics, from the perspective of reducing waste and scrap.
In this light, the forest-wood sector at a European level is considered one of the pillars of bioeconomy, even if the situation is more complex in Italy. So far it has been more economical to import wood than to use our own forests. However, it is to be expected, and is already partly the case, that increasing the added value from a non-traditional use of wood (bioplastics, composite materials, ethanol and chemical compounds, mainly from cellulose but also from lignin) will make imports less convenient and will give a boost to using our own forests.
Another aspect of bioeconomy is represented by biorefineries that use specialized vegetable biomass, by-products and wastes from primary agricultural production and the food industry to produce new and innovative bio-based fine chemical compounds (food ingredients, drugs, building blocks, etc.), materials (biopolymers, synthetic elastomers and natural rubber, renewable extensors and additives) and fuels, bio-based products of interest to local and international industries active in the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, chemical and energy sectors. Italy can at present boast of four pilot plants, two demonstration plants and three industrial sites with five cutting-edge industrial products in Europe. First and foremost, direct research and innovation are needed, to guarantee the availability of the necessary, low-cost biomass, respecting the territory’s biodiversity and specificity through the selection of possibly autochthonous, mainly lignocellulosic plants, offering greater productivity, together with the use of marginal or rural areas no longer cultivated and the use of by-products and agri-industrial wastes generated locally by developing techniques for gathering, selecting and stabilizing them.
With its approximately 8 thousand kms of coasts, its maritime tradition, its special position in the Mediterranean, and the range of its industrial and research activities in the marine and maritime sectors, Italy may reap great benefits also from the sea that however must be protected against ecological and environmental deterioration. Fishing and aquaculture, together with marine biotechnologies, including those using seaweed, and the biotechnological promotion of the seafood chain by-products and residues, are central pillars of the sea bioeconomy.
In conclusion, bioeconomy will create greater environmental sustainability together with new opportunities for sustainable growth and competitiveness for leading Italian production sectors including agrifood, chemical, energy, and marine, many of which consist of small- and medium-sized companies. This challenge requires an unprecedented creative effort. It means re-thinking processes not just as regards the physical aspects but also the ecological ones, as well as reducing wastes, transforming wastes into resources, identifying cultivation models that increase production and, in the meanwhile, improve soil functionality and contrast climate change. More efficient, versatile and sustainable industrial processes must be developed that are able to make various products, starting from those with greater added value.
Europe has a rather ambitious strategy as regards the bioeconomy field with large funds to support it. It would be appropriate and desirable that, as some European countries have already done, Italy also defined a strategy in the bioeconomic field. As mentioned above, Italy has enormous potential but a strategy is needed that can be shared to sustain the bioeconomy “vision” with tangible measures and policies of support.