Do we need a bioeconomy-strategy in Switzerland?

The US, the EU, China and many other countries got one – only Switzerland doesn't have one yet! This refers to bioeconomy strategies and Green Deal treaties adopted by governments and organizations. Why does Switzerland not yet have formulate a bioeconomy strategy? Do we even need a bioeconomy strategy?

What is bioeconomy?

“Bioeconomy” has a variety of definitions. But essentially, all include the following four elements:

  • Application of biotechnology 

  • Use of renewable raw materials as starting materials 

  • Circular and integrated processes and systems

  • Prevention of monocultures, soil degradation and threats to biodiversity.

Who has a formulated bio-strategy?

All major economies in the world have formulated a bioeconomy strategy (see below). These differ, depending on available resources, industrial and economic conditions. The EU's first bioeconomy strategy was published eleven years ago, revised in 2018 and currently contains five priorities. China has recognized the value of biotechnology with its Bioeconomy Master Plan 2021-2025 and aims to become a global leader in this field. It is therefore not surprising that US President Joe Biden countered last year with a "National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative". Japan also thinks in superlatives. The Japanese government's Bioeconomy Strategy (GOJ) aims to achieve the world's most advanced bioeconomy society by 2030.

Examples of bioeconomy strategies of some countries and their priorities. Country, period, strategic focus and availability of arable land in hectares per capita.

Switzerland No strategy, but various preparatory works such as the 2015 SATW brochure "Renewables instead of fossil raw materials – an opportunity for Switzerland" or the National Research Programme NRP 66 Resource Wood, which was completed in 2018. 0,05 ha p.c.

Europe: 2018. Food. Sustainable resource management. Dependence on fossil resources. CO2 emissions. Jobs and competitiveness. 0,22 ha p.c.

USA: 2022. National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative. Strategic investments in biotechnology and U.S. bioproduction sites. Public health and climate change are at the forefront. 0,48 h p.c.

Japan: 2019. «Japan Bioeconomy Strategy». Sustainable primary production systems. Bio-based high-performance materials such as bioplastics. Healthcare products and lifestyle improvement. Smart Forestry. 0,03 h p.c.

China 2021-2025. «Bioeconomy Development Plan». Biomedical technologies. Modernisation of agriculture, energy and materials from biomass. Protection of biological resources. Biological safety systems. Leadership in biotechnology 0,08 h p.c.

India: 2016. «National Mission on Bioeconomy». Increase biofuel production. Improve the rural economy through the use of bioresources. National Biopharma Initiative. 0,11 h p.c.

Germany: 2020. «National Bioeconomy». Economy and ecology for a sustainable economy. Biogenic raw materials and bioeconomic value chains. Development of rural areas. 0,18 h p.c.

Switzerland is taking its time for one simple reason. Biotechnology has long developed into an important factor in the Swiss economy and at Swiss universities, with a focus on innovative pharmaceutical products, fine chemicals and other high-margin products. Nevertheless, it would be time to develop a national bioeconomy strategy, even if the amount of renewable raw materials is small. The heavily subsidized sugar cultivation is an interesting example: According to the journal "Schweizer Bauer" (Swiss Farmer), 240,000 tons of sugar were produced from 1.65 million tons of sugar beet in 2019 and a quarter of it was sold to Red Bull for sweet drinks. The question arises as to whether there are not more reasonable and, above all, more profitable alternatives for this subsidized Swiss sugar?

The availability of biomass

The availability of raw materials from agriculture and forestry is a decisive factor. A limiting problem is the steady global decline in available agricultural land per capita. The current values are given in the list above and show large differences. In this respect, Switzerland has very bad cards. The arable land per capita is four and a half times smaller than that of the EU. Given its topography, it is not surprising that Switzerland's entire biomass potential is very sobering and modest. The only significant usable biomass source would be wood from Swiss forests. One third of the country's surface is covered with forests, which results in about 1450 square meters or about 0.15 hectares of forest per inhabitant. For comparison, the global figure is 0.6 hectares of forest per capita, but with large differences between countries. The leaders in Europe are Finland and Sweden with 4.45 and 3.5 hectares per capita respectively. The corresponding numbers for Switzerland are among the lowest in Europe. Only Belgium, the UK and the Netherlands have lower values. Malta brings up the rear with 0 hectares per inhabitant.

Switzerland's bioeconomy strategy

Although we have not yet formulated a national bioeconomy strategy, the following can be deduced from the above-mentioned preparatory work:

  • Switzerland has neither the necessary cultivation areas nor the suitable structures and interfaces between agriculture and chemicals for the production of bioethanol and other bulk products.

  • The aim should be high-quality products with small tonnages and sufficiently high added value.

  • Orientation towards the export economy and the needs of a global market is a prerequisite.

Wood-based bioeconomy?

Theoretically, around 8 million cubic meters of wood could be harvested per year. Under the leadership of the Swiss Wood Innovation Network S-WIN, an expansion of wood use is to be considered.

  • What additional tasks could the timber sector possibly take on in the future?

  • What new technologies and processes of wood recycling are there?

  • What are the most attractive value chains? Do we need specific R&D for such a wood-based bioeconomy?

  • Which alliances should be examined?

SATW welcomes and supports this work of the S-WIN, which can serve as a basis for a more comprehensive bioeconomy strategy.

Bio- and Petro-refineries are different

A biorefinery is not the same as a petrorefinery! The highly functionalized and oxidized biomass requires different transformation processes than oil-based feedstocks. It is therefore not possible to piggyback the world's existing refinery installations for bioeconomy. Many of these oil-based assets are also depreciated. Both approaches, however, have so far been based on low-margin, cost-sensitive transformations and products. In competition with conventional refineries perfected over the last hundred years, the new biorefineries are in a difficult position. Cressier is the last remaining oil refinery in Switzerland, operated by Varo Energy Group. With a capacity of 68,000 barrels per day, it covers about a quarter of the daily national demand. This corresponds to less than 0.1 percent of global oil consumption of about 93 million barrels per day.

What does the future look like?

In addition to the availability and prices of oil and biomass, the prices for CO2 emission certificates will also be decisive. The reinsurer Swiss Re had set the CO2 price for its own risk assessments at 100 US dollars per ton at the beginning of 2021. By 2030, the price is expected to be 200 US dollars. It is quite possible that insurance and capital markets will greatly accelerate the transition to a bioeconomy.

Today's world is still based on petrochemicals. Fertilizers, chemicals, plastics, clothing and countless consumer goods are oil-based and will remain so for a long time, because oil-based products make more sense in many areas than the bio-based alternatives. Petrochemicals will continue to be the biggest driver of global oil demand in the coming decades. But a bioeconomy strategy should point the way for which products crude oil or biomass is the most sustainable solution.

The topic of bioeconomy is complex, but the S-WIN initiative can be used to standardize approaches to create a well-founded interpretation of wood-based biomass. This work can later serve as a basis for a more comprehensive bioeconomy strategy for Switzerland, to assess framework conditions and long-term effects of decisions.

Contact us if you would like to help shape the topic!

Hans‐Peter Meyer, Expertinova AG, Head Scientific Advisory Board SATW