Bioeconomy – which options for Switzerland?

The oil-based economy is a dead end, and a shift to a bio-based economy has been under discussion for 20 years. But where do we go from here and what are the realistic options?

In the days before the automobile, as much agricultural land was needed to feed horses as to feed people. Disposing of horse manure in cities like Paris or London was a major challenge, even though only wealthy people could afford a horse. Today we consume almost 100 million barrels of oil per day. Instead of horse droppings, we are concerned about the green-house gases such as CO2. The oil-based economy is a dead end, and a shift to a bio-based economy has been under discussion for 20 years. But where do we go from here and what are the realistic options?

The basis of any bioeconomy: agriculture and forestry

The foundation of a bioeconomy is the primary sector. Usable arable land, however, is limited. Data from the World Bank Group shows that per capita available arable agricultural land decreased by about 20 percent worldwide between 1961 and 2018. According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, nearly 700 square kilometers of arable land disappeared in Switzerland over the past 30 years and currently stands at 14,525 square kilometers, or 1800 square meters per inhabitant. Switzerland's degree of self-sufficiency in food is also steadily decreasing and stood 57 percent in 2019.

Switzerland - rich in poor raw material deposits

"Feed, fuel and heal the world" is an often-circulated, optimistic slogan for biobased value chains. However, this is contrasted by dwindling global bioresources. Switzerland has always been a country rich in poor raw material deposits, which is why mining in Switzerland has never really paid off. What was true for mining more than a hundred years ago is also true for biobased raw material resources today. Switzerland's biomass resources were quantified in 2017 by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). The bottom line is that we have a small quantities of all raw materials, but from an industrial point of view too little and at best enough for niche activities. The only notable renewable raw material not affecting food production is wood. Out of an economically viable 8 million cubic meters, only 4.8 million cubic meters are harvested per year. The initiation project NRP 66 "Bioeconomy Switzerland", Resource Wood 2018 concluded with the recommendation to develop a national bioeconomy strategy and to establish a competence center for bioproducts. However, even these quantities of wood are far too small to serve as a feedstock for a bioeconomy.

Opportunities, new applications, new products

There is no need for a center of excellence for bioproducts, as the necessary competencies are available at our universities, EMPA, PSI and other institutions. But the key question is, which markets, applications and products should be prioritized? The conversion and refinement of imported biobased feedstocks or the export of related processes are obvious possibilities. The table below provides examples of lesser-known markets and applications where biotechnology can contribute to the bioeconomy. A corresponding national bioeconomy strategy and corresponding comprehensive data analysis and situation analysis can only be accomplished in a larger association - e.g. with SATW (Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences), SBA (Swiss Biotech Association), scienceindustries, the Federal Office for the Environment FOEN and other partners.

Table: Examples of lesser-known Bioeconomy examples

Animal protein replacements. Besides plant-based meat and dairy products, cell-based meat and dairy products are expected to reach markets soon.

Biocement Microbially-mediated construction processes, construction biomaterials, microbially induced calcite-precipitation (MICP), cement and concrete additives.

Biofibers and Biopolymers Biopolymers and bioplastic material for applications ranging from medical applications to food packaging.

Biolubricants Environmentally safe products for wind turbines, which use ~1’000 liters of lubricating oils ~200 kg of grease per year.

Biomonitoring Use huge moss’ surfaces for pollutant adsorption replacing imprecise or expensive measurement technology.

Bioorthogonal reactions Expanded genetic code and non-canonical amino acids for a mirror image biology for artificial enzymes.

Bioremediants Detoxification environmental pollutants, bioremediation and restoration of soils, water and air.

Halogenated products Replace chemical halogenation procedures by highly specific and selective enzymatic halogenation.

Hyperthermophylic organisms Hyperthermophylic (> 80°C) microorganisms for the production of organic chemicals.

Leather like textiles “Victimless-leather” based on mycelia from mushrooms or cell-based leather production.

Microbial fuel cell (MFC) Microbial fuel cells oxidise biomass and organic matter into bioelectricity through microbial activity. For phosphate recovery for example.

Solar powered biotechnology Directly or indirect use the solar light for the production of e.g. unsaturated fatty acids or other products.

Sustainanable clolors Colors for food textiles and other applications. Diatomeas or fungi for example can be sources of colorants.

Harnessing the leverage of blockchain

Innovation isn't just needed in the lab but also new ways of thinking about how we collaborate. We need new breakthrough tools and methods of collaboration. Expertinova AG works with the Blockchain Lab at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, and with the collaboration of the Swiss Industrial Biocatalysis Consortium (SIBC), to develop a blockchain-based platform to radically accelerate product and process development. A similar approach was taken when six large Swiss companies founded the SIBC in 2004. But the information technology tools and methods proved to be inadequate. The planned Blockchain project aims to create a space for a usable collective intelligence that enables and accelerates the finding and implementation of sustainable solutions and products for our society as well as a sustainable future.

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