Trust in the bio-based economy
In this responsible innovation project, researchers identified the expected social barriers to the transition towards a bio-based economy and how these can be overcome.
Technology philosopher Lotte Asveld of TU Delft and technology sociologist Jurgen Ganzevles of Radboud University Nijmegen focused on three specific examples: a high-rise pig farm, a biogas plant and an application of synthetic biology. Through interviews and media and literature research, they analysed what went well, what proved to be a barrier, and the arguments that played a role in the public debate.
The development of the bio-based economy is expected to have a major impact on agriculture. For example, farmers will become entrepreneurs who run a far broader operation than predominantly food production. Because biomass is often difficult to transport over large distances, it is economically attractive to bring production and processing together. Processing installations will therefore be built close to or even on the farmer’s land. Up to a certain point, the chemical, agricultural and energy sectors could even be integrated.
If the bio-based economy is to be successful, intensive cooperation is required between stakeholders such as farmers, foresters and chemists. These are new partners, strangers to each other, with very different perspectives. They may have different expectations of the quality of biomass, or may need to adjust to a new role. Farmers, for example, accept that biomass is highly variable in composition as it is a natural product. Chemists, however, require a constant quality for the industrial process. Foresters are used to viewing pruned wood as waste, when it does not matter whether this is mixed with stones or clods of earth. For the processors, however, pruned wood is a raw material and therefore the purity is important.
Name differences; emphasise shared interests
Differences in expectations, requirements and interpretations need to be made explicit, but the shared interests also need to be emphasised, say the researchers. Only then can a value chain develop in which the partners trust each other and can work together effectively. Knowledge brokers or codes of conduct could play a role in realising this.
The emerging bio-based economy will also need to build up a healthy relationship with society in general. The further industrialisation of rural areas clashes with the ideas of people who value a relatively undisturbed agricultural landscape. The use of genetic technology or synthetic biology is accepted in an industrial setting, but meets objections from the environmental movement in open countryside.
The researchers have come up with a range of recommendations to deal with these problems: to guarantee safety, reduce inconvenience, involve local residents in the change, design plants so that they are in keeping with the landscape, keep plants small, and focus on the common objective: to substitute harmful fossil fuels with sustainable biomass and to close the value chain by taking what nature provides.