Simo Tiainen: Circularity is essential for blue bioeconomy

Our starting point is that good water quality and healthy aquatic environment are the basis

Photo: Maria Koleva Simo Tiainen

It is important to underline that the EU has the potential to become a major player in the provision of water-related technologies and services. In this respect, digitalisation can help to significantly increase the efficiency both of water resource management and of production and service concepts, says Simo Tiainen, rapporteur on the EESC's blue bioeconomy opinion. 

Mr Tiainen, what is the potential of the blue bioeconomy in Europe, and are there plenty of opportunities for widening the business activities in this field?

The blue bioeconomy has growing potential in Europe. It can contribute to sustainable growth and creation of new quality jobs. The blue bioeconomy can improve food security and provide healthy and low-carbon footprint food, novel foods and food additives, animal feeds, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, new materials, clean water, non-fossil energy, nutrient recycling and many more benefits. Along with the sector of fishery, algae provide an effective, sustainable and still largely untapped resource for bio-based processes and products. Algae biomass is becoming an increasingly significant resource for a variety of commercial applications in the blue bioeconomy. It is possible for such biomass to be produced in big volumes from the oceans and seas, and it can be used in industry for replacing fossil-based materials. The EESC exploratory opinion was made at the request of the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the EU last February, on how the EU can boost the development of the blue bioeconomy and what measures must be prioritised.

Our opinion was adopted by the plenary of the Committee on 30 October and we will present our conclusions to the Finnish Presidency and to the relevant directorates of the Commission. It is very important that President-elect Ursula von der Leyen asked in the mission letter the next Commissioner from Lithuania - Virginijus Sinkevicius, who will be responsible for 'Environment and Oceans', to write a new strategy as to ensure that the environment, blue economy and the fisheries sector form an integral part of the European Green Deal.

It is important to underline that the EU has the potential to become a major player in the provision of water-related technologies and services. In this respect, digitalisation can help to significantly increase the efficiency both of water resource management and of production and service concepts.

Could you give some examples of good practices concerning the blue bioeconomy?

In Finland, we have very promising business projects that are using algae as raw materials to create ingredients for the foodstuffs and replacing components whose production is not so environmentally friendly. In the same vein, the Natural Resources Institute Finland is running a big project on blue bioeconomy showing how production can be more effective. For the Finnish fishing industry, the most important is the Baltic herring. Currently its price is very low, about €0.24 per kg. The research suggested that with optimal use of all parts of the fish, because now a lot of them are wasted, the theoretical profit for the same volume could be very high.

How definite is the difference between the blue bioeconomy and the traditional maritime economic sectors?

There seems to be no precise traditional definition for blue bioeconomy. In our opinion we are using a broad definition for it. The blue bioeconomy means economic activities and value creation based on sustainable and smart use of renewable aquatic resources and the related expertise. Businesses and activities that grow the raw materials for these products, or extract, refine, process and transform the biological compounds, all form part of the blue bioeconomy.

What risks does the blue bioeconomy pose to habitats and ecosystems concerning the seas, oceans, lakes and rivers?

Our oceans, seas and inland waters are being rapidly degraded by human activities. In particular, coastal and inland waters are deteriorating due to pollution and eutrophication, and the loss of habitats is alarming. All of these changes have a devastating effect on the functioning of aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity, and thereby on potential food production. Careful management of this essential global resource is a key feature of a sustainable future.

In our opinion the starting point is that good water quality and healthy aquatic environment are the basis for the blue bioeconomy. At the moment, the status of waters and aquatic ecosystems is not adequate in many areas of the EU. There is a need to preserve and restore the good status and biodiversity of the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers. This requires a major effort from all the stakeholders, including the EU, national and regional institutions, universities and research centres, all professionals involved, such as the fishing and tourism sectors, as well as civil society organisations. These efforts must include adequate research, training and transfer of know-how. Good management of water resources is an essential part of the solution to almost all major problems in the world, such as overconsumption of aquatic resources and the need to adapt to climate change. Strict environmental regulation in different countries has a major effect on the costs and competitiveness of aquaculture. Restoring the biodiversity of seas, lakes and rivers would open up new opportunities for businesses - particularly for family and small businesses in local markets.

Is bioeconomy compatible with the circular dimensions? You mentioned production of new materials, but nowadays many garment companies for example are using bio-filaments that are programmed to shorten the durability of textiles, let's say up to two years?

There is considerable global pressure to improve the use of all biological material and thereby also reduce waste. The concept of circularity is the essential part of blue bioeconomy. It is estimated that 30-70% of all harvested fish biomass becomes low-value by-product or is completely wasted. This comprises potentially useful and valuable material, which could potentially be used by industry for food and non-food purposes. High-value functional ingredients for specialised products can be developed from these materials.

Another good example of the circularity are recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) which offer several benefits, such as minimum water requirement, effective control of effluents and waste, small space requirement and control of production conditions. RAS technologies have potential especially in freshwater systems.

How should climate-resilient aquatic food systems be developed, and what is the role of innovation in this regard?

One example of this is the algae biomass, which is becoming increasingly significant as a resource for a variety of commercial applications in the blue bioeconomy. Algae provide an effective, sustainable and still largely untapped resource for bio-based processes and products. Algae are rich in nutrients and dense with energy, and there is a growing interest in harvesting, cultivating or processing algae to create a wide range of high-value products, including food, animal feed, nutraceuticals and bio-based products. There is need for innovations to boost this area.

The future food system must be part of the solution to climate change, not part of the problem. Fishing and aquaculture are effective ways of producing protein from the point of view of climate emissions. Therefore, sustainable fishing and fish farming should be promoted. Furthermore, strengthening the resilience of fisheries and aquatic production systems is essential. Fishing activities must adapt to the changed conditions such as extreme weather conditions and ice-free winters. In aquaculture, one potential way to prepare for temperature peaks is through offshore cultivation, which can in some cases benefit from the increase in average sea temperature. Recirculating aquaculture systems can help the aquaculture industry to adapt to climate change. Fish breeding programmes can improve the tolerance of cultivated fish to higher temperatures.

What concrete pilot actions in the different marine and aquaculture areas of the EU does EESC propose?

In our opinion we are proposing that the Commission should launch specific pilot actions aiming to improve the status and production capacity of aquatic ecosystems in selected locations of the EU, taking care that they represent the diversity of existing situations and the development potential of blue bioeconomy. These pilot actions should be carried out in coastal and inland water areas, including islands, that are moderately or badly affected by human impact such as excessive seasonal tourism, pollution, nutrient load from land-based sources, modified watercourses and excessive exploitation of aquatic resources. The exact actions should be coordinated with the current projects taking place in this field.

How can the blue bioeconomy contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals?

Many of the UN's SDGs are closely linked to water and aquatic environments. These goals address the key global challenges we face and outline how to achieve a more sustainable future with reference to fundamental issues such as food security, climate change and the prevention of environmental degradation. The goals are highly interconnected and are considered in our opinion from the perspective of sustainable business opportunities based on water and aquatic natural resources. There is a strong nexus between water, energy and food in particular.

And how can the sector address the food security challenges?

The global demand for food will increase significantly in the future. Fisheries and aquaculture provide nutritious food. Currently, fish represent about 17% of the global animal protein supply and 6.5% of all protein for human consumption. Aquaculture has significant potential for further growth. Considerably more biomass could be produced sustainably in European aquaculture by increasing the number of species used, including the lower-trophic marine species, for example algae and molluscs.

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Simo Tiainen is a Member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Mr Tiainen is part of the Diversity Europe Group (Group III), which is made up of representatives and stakeholders of civil society, particularly in the economic, civic, professional and cultural fields. He has 15 years of working experience in the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK) in his homeland Finland and has been working many years as a director of the Brussels office. Prior to this, he served in the European Commission and in the research sector. He is the rapporteur on the EESC blue bioeconomy opinion, recently adopted by the Committee.

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