Commissioner Janez POTOCNIK: Transforming life sciences knowledge into new, sustainable, eco-efficient and competitive products - Conference on Knowledge-based bio-economyBrussels, 15 September 2005

September 16, 2005


Conference on Knowledge-based bio-economy
Brussels, 15 September 2005

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to open this conference hosted by the European Commission together with the UK Presidency. Today and tommorrow we will discuss a new concept that will be of growing importance for the future - the knowledge based bio-economy.

I am also pleased to inform you that the Ministry of Science and Technology of China in cooperation with many national and local governments and with major international organisations is holding at this very moment in Beijing a conference on the “Bio-economy for Everyone” with some 3,000 participants. Both Mr. Xu Guanhua, Minister of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China and myself wish to give a short joint welcome address to participants of both conferences:

“Although there are many differences between China and the 25 EU Member States, we face many of the same challenges. So naturally, we are looking at the same solutions. We are both very interested in finding solutions that lie in the life sciences and biotechnology, because these are sustainable solutions, that can help us find a balance between the needs of our economies and our environment.

As citizens of planet earth it is not surprising that we both turn to “Mother earth,”- to life itself - to help our economies to develop in a way which should not just enhance our quality of life, but also maintain it for future generations. We may learn together and help one another as we seek to find a new way forward to the bio-economy of the future.”

But before I turn to some of the key matters for the concept of knowledge based bio-economy, I will try to put them in a more general context.

Following the unsuccessful referenda on the EU constitution and the stalled discussions on the EU budget, I am not the only one who believes that we are facing a very delicate moment for the European Union.

We can learn a lot from the negative referenda. Most importantly, that we have to distinguish clearly between facts and perception. Let me give you just one example: Enlargement. The fact is that enlargement is a big success.

It makes Europe stronger, internally and externally. And yet, the perception amongst many people is that we are somehow going too far and too fast in the EU.

I would dare to say that the European Union would need to deal today with the same problems with or without enlargement. Therefore, before making any quick conclusions and changing policy, there needs to be a very detailed analysis of the facts.

It might well be that we also have to work on the perception, not just the policy. This is probably especially relevant to some of the issues that will be discussed today and tomorrow.

The EU has an obligation to inform and not least to listen to its citizens. We need to put misconceptions straight, but we also need to listen carefully where we lack support of the people.

The citizens were split on the Constitution, but not on the analysis of Europe’s main challenge. Many, in particular among the young, are seeing in the European Union a threat to their economic and social future. Others believe exactly the opposite: they see the Union as the best way to challenge the realities of globalisation. So the reason behind their worries is one and the same– only their answer is different.

Personally, I am deeply convinced that we have already formulated the right answer to this challenge: the knowledge-based economy. That answer happens to be the priority of the Commission to which I belong.

Building on what Europe can do best: providing excellent education, allowing excellent research, making room for creativity and innovation. That is what our “Lisbon” strategy is about. And the reality is probably that here we are going too slow and not far enough.

There is an overwhelming need in Europe to stimulate growth and productivity, and also to strengthen social cohesion. This can only be achieved by placing the emphasis on knowledge, innovation and on the optimisation of human capital.

Therefore, the EU re-launched the Lisbon strategy this spring. The ambition is to develop a knowledge-based society in Europe by focusing on growth and employment and by strengthening Member States’ commitment.

We must build sustainable leadership in the way knowledge is:

  • Produced, through research;
  • Disseminated, through education; and
  • Applied, through innovation.
This has very significant implications for research: if we are to develop growth and competitiveness, we need to invest more in education and training and in research and development, as well as in innovation.

I believe that it is time to make some courageous moves forward, including the one in the Commission’s proposal for the EU budget, to turn the crisis into a real opportunity. We have to provide more attractive conditions for companies to work, invest, research and innovate in Europe. I sincerely hope that the Member States will reach an appropriate conclusion to their negotiations on the future EU budget in good time, and that we can avoid any interruption in support for the various important European endeavours, including research.

When we speak about the knowledge economy in general, we should obviously discuss one of its important components - the knowledge-based bio-economy. I understand it as finding ways to maximize the potential of biotechnology for the benefit of our economy, society and environment.

Europe must concentrate its efforts on its true strengths if it wants to meet the challenges and make the most of the opportunities of today’s global economy in a sustainable way.

Markets are becoming increasingly global and knowledge-intensive; industries and sectors are constantly being reshaped through these global forces and the knowledge push – even those which have been around for millennia, such as the agricultural, fishery and forestry sectors. Only by raising the knowledge capacity of our firms, can we base our competitive advantage on providing the best new products, processes and services in the world.

This is why our true factor of competitiveness lies in our brains and in our creativity. It is “knowledge” in the broadest sense of the word.

However, realising the knowledge society in the main sectors of biotechnology, nanotechnology and ICT, is a broad project that requires the joint commitment of many policy areas.

In the case of the knowledge-based bio-economy, this also includes consumer and social policies, enterprise, environment, agriculture, food safety, fisheries and forestry policies, rural development policies and even global policies such as trade and cooperation with emerging and less developed countries.

The EU Framework Programme plays a central role in bringing about the knowledge based economy, by providing strong incentives for industry-led research initiatives and public-private partnerships and research cooperation. In April this year, we presented our proposal for the Seventh Framework Programme, scheduled for the years 2007 to 2013.

It is our intention to use it to build the European knowledge-based bio-economy, by including this concept in its second theme “Food, agriculture and biotechnology”. We seek to bring together research, industry and relevant stakeholders to exploit the advances in life sciences and biotechnology to produce and use biological resources in a sustainable, eco-efficient and competitive manner. This takes place at a moment when Europe has to come up with alternatives to cope successfully with an ever increasing energy supply situation, linked to an increasing demand for fossil fuels and an ever-increasing oil price. We must even more active in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

The European bio-economy is a sector of a huge economic importance. There is a common vision and understanding that life sciences and biotechnologies are critical factors for the competitiveness of this bio-economy and for addressing major social and economic challenges:

  • the growing demand for safer, healthier and higher quality food;

  • the growing demand for sustainable production and use of renewable bio-resources for eco-efficient products;

  • the increasing risk - and need to prevent - epizootic and zoonotic diseases such as avian flu, as well as food related disorders such as obesity;

  • threats to the sustainability and security of agricultural and fisheries production resulting, in particular, from climate change.

Already we can say that biotechnology has delivered some important innovations and addressed some of these challenges. To take just one example - the clothes we all wear are cleaned by enzymes operating at low temperatures, usually 40-60°C. New enzymes are currently under development by a European company that would bring washing temperature even lower. If used worldwide, the resulting reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions due to the energy savings would compare to the reduction goals set by the Kyoto protocol of a country like Denmark.

And biotechnology is working on delivering more. Fish oil is believed to protect against cardiovascular disease. Another European biotech company is working towards producing in plants the specific fatty acids found in fish oil, which would have some distinct advantages, not least that of reducing the fish catch needed to produce sufficient quantities of these oils.

The efficiency of enzymes that break down agricultural waste for the production of ethanol-based fuels, has increased strongly, while their costs have been reduced –to only 10% or even 5% of their original price, possibly making bio-based fuels competitive sooner than previously expected.

These are just a few examples; I am sure that many more will be given during this conference.

The European bio-economy cannot compete on a global level by delivering only basic agricultural commodities. It must deliver innovations such as those that I have just described – and more of them. We must look to providing a sound institutional and financial framework, based on a rational consideration of the issues at stake.

Europe has an excellent science, technology and industry base to deliver these innovations:

  • Small European biotech companies have been behind much of the development of genetically engineered crops that are now used world-wide;

  • Europe is a world leader in innovative food technologies and products, for example nutrigenomics or probiotics;

  • Europe is the leader in innovative animal breeding technologies;

  • Europe has a strong chemical and manufacturing industry base, which has been increasingly fostering environmentally friendly products and production processes.

Looking further ahead, what can we do to support the emergence of the knowledge-based bio-economy?

We need to support the convergence of biotechnology and life sciences with other technologies, such as nanotechnologies and information technologies. Linking such policies through multi-disciplinary research will have distinct advantages.

Investment in science is necessary, but not sufficient. All participants in the chain – farmers, industry, regulators and consumers - will need to get together to actually make the bio-economy work: excellent innovations from science and technology; competitiveness for industry; protection of the environment; public health and consumer satisfaction. The relevant technology platforms – industry-led stakeholder platforms launched under the current Sixth Framework Programme - such as “Plants for the Future”, “Industrial biotechnology” or “Food for Life” - will have an important role to play in establishing common stakeholder visions, and hence defining strategic research agendas and action plans for realising the benefits of these new technologies.

Science cannot and will not provide all the solutions: We will need a regulatory, institutional and societal environment that is supportive of the bio-economy and that will provide policy incentives to exploit its benefits in terms of competitiveness, environmental compatibility and potential for rural development.

Finally, Europe is committed to strong co-operation with international partners to address global challenges. We recognise the role of life sciences and technologies in meeting these global challenges, such as those faced by developing countries, the global spread of animal-borne diseases, adaptation to climate change or environmental sustainability and managing the switch from fossil to renewable resources.

The production of bio-resources – through or with plants, animals or microbes – will increasingly need to be based on knowledge if we want to secure our future demand for food, feed, fibres and fuels in a sustainable way.

The bio-economy is complex and it involves different sciences and technologies, different sectors and industries, it touches upon and involves different policy areas. Achieving a common vision among different stakeholders and coherence in policy making is not an easy task! This is why this conference is especially important in bringing together the different disciplines, stakeholders and policy makers to exchange views and voice expectations.

I look forward to hearing a range of interesting discussions, ideas, conclusions and proposals for the future. You may rest assured, we will listen carefully!

Thank you.

Item source: SPEECH/05/513 Date: 15/09/2005 Previous Item Back to Titles Print Item

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