Opening Keynote of Svenja Schulze at the conference "Biological Transformation of Manufacturing"

At the conference Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze holds the opening speech.

- Check against delivery - 

Professor Neugebauer,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning to you all and thank you very much for inviting me here. As former Minister for Innovation, Science and Research of North Rhine-Westphalia, of course such an interesting topic for a conference made me twice as eager to accept.

Professor Neugebauer and I have known each other for many years. It is good to find our paths crossing again at this event. I am sure that Joseph von Fraunhofer, your organisation's namesake, would have enjoyed this conference very much. He was not only a researcher and inventor, but also an entrepreneur. He excelled in combining precise science with practical utility. Fraunhofer was a self-taught scholar with his roots in practice. As an optician and telescope manufacturer, he could touch and see the tools of his trade on a daily basis. But I can well imagine that he would have been equally fascinated by the microscopic instruments of modern biotechnology, and of course by the things that can be made with them.

As a science minister, I have had many opportunities to address the topic of bio-based manufacturing. As you know, North Rhine-Westphalia is one of Europe's main business locations for the energy, pharmaceutical and chemical industries. So the area has always had considerable potential for the bio-based economy, even to the extent that we drew up our own bioeconomy strategy.

But I don't have to indulge in memories to talk about this topic. The German government has also formulated an ambitious bioeconomy goal. The coalition agreement states as follows: The transformation to an economy based on renewable resources is to be driven forward with the aid of the bioeconomy. To this end we will establish a platform to launch a dialogue at an early stage between industry and civil society stakeholders on the requirements of an altered resource base."

As Federal Environment Minister I am naturally very enthusiastic about this, since working on how we can make our lifestyle renewable and environmentally sound is my bread and butter. You may be aware that the EU has put forward proposals on how we can reduce unncecessary plastics. The best example is the familiar drinking straw, which contrary to its name is not made of straw but generally of plastic.

We use it once then throw it in the bin. Yet the alternatives are improving all the time: Drinking straws can be made of glass, metal, bamboo - even apple fibres. Each of these options is reusable and bio-degradable. In some cases, I understand, even edible.

A trend is emerging here - reflecting the fact that our national economy needs to reduce dependence on oil-based products and use or manufacture bio-based, sustainable raw materials instead. There are so many model examples in nature, we simply have to copy them. To name a few:

  • Maize and rapeseed oil are replacing fossil fuels.
  • We are producing plastics from grass.
  • We are using fungi instead of polystyrene.
  • A sugar-cane based film is being made as an alternative to polyethylene from crude oil.
  • We are making film from milk proteins and packaging from seaweed.
  • And, a practical fact for every household, modern washing detergents save energy, because they can clean as effectively at 30 degrees Celsius as earlier products at 90 degrees Celsius.

The application potential of bio-based manufacturing is enormous. And we are only just starting to explore it. The biological transformation is a major opportunity for our economy and our environment. Today, green tech has already become of the fastest growing sectors, employing 1.5 million people here in Germany. At the same time, however, these new bio-technology processes have repercussions for society, raising questions that must be addressed. For however much these innovations may enhance our quality of life, we have to remember that there are always going to be negative or unintended consequences. We have to ask what are the adverse effects and how can we manage them?

I am not here today with answers. I am coming to you with questions. I would like an honest discussion on this topic. Allow me to pose three questions for discussion, questions which are important to me as environment minister.

The bioeconomy has an ever growing demand for renewable raw materials such as wood, starches and plant fibres in order to manufacture new products. I have to ask myself: Firstly, what effect is this having on biodiversity? Secondly, what strain does the bioeconomy place on soils and water bodies; how much additional fertiliser and weed killer must be used because of it? Thirdly, what does the bioeconomy mean for our food safety? I know I am addressing sensitive issues with these questions. But let's just think about them again for a moment.

Firstly, biodiversity conservation does not always fully coincide with sustainable development. For instance, I can grow maize in order to produce a biofuel. The benefit here is that I am replacing a fossil fuel with a bio-based energy source. I am also being sustainable, because I am not taking more maize from the field than can grow back. Nevertheless, my field is now a maize monoculture, where once perhaps, was a flowering meadow. No plant diversity means no insect diversity. And without insects, we'll soon be looking at empty shelves in our supermarkets. To give you a concrete example: Honey bees are the third most important animal used by humans. They are dependent on flowers as their source of food. Each year throughout the world, wild bees and honey bees secure food valued at 500 billion euros through pollination. Poorer biodiversity means fewer insects and less food. We do not want that. We are dependent on biodiversity, and not, incidentally, solely for food production. Natural diversity also makes our ecosystems more resilient. It is important that we remember that too. Therefore, our goal must be to ensure that more bioeconomy does not lead to less biodiversity. How to do that is something the scientific community and policy-makers need to discuss.

My second question was about the strains the bioeconomy places on soils and water bodies. Of course, I see it as positive that the age of fossil fuels will end in the foreseeable future, and that renewable raw materials can fill the gap. But "renewable" raw materials are still neither "unlimited" nor "cost-free". Because when we grow crops as raw materials, we consume soil, water, fertilisers and pesticides.

We have to think very carefully about what use we make of fertile farmland, and consider whether we really need to spread more fertiliser on fields that have often seen excessive use already. It is not simply a national or European question. On this issue, we have to think in global terms. It helps no-one to outsource bioeconomy production sites to developing countries with less stringent environmental legislation. That would simply mean that local people and ecosystems suffer while the actual value added is generated in the developed countries. We must, therefore, aim to ensure that more bio-based manufacturing does not place greater burdens on our soils and water bodies. And that neither the positive results nor the adverse impacts come at the expense of the world's poorest people.

My third question asked whether the bioeconomy jeopardises our food production. We cannot use soils for everything at the same time. So we have to decide whether to cultivate, for instance, rapeseed or cereals. The decision will ultimately depend on which crop earns the farmer more money. That's how the market economy works. The problem is well known and the following has been suggested: To ensure that food crops do not have to compete with bio raw materials, we should produce biomass from waste only. I can give you an interesting example in this context:

The University of Hohenheim has discovered a way to manufacture nylon tights from waste chicory root. How is that done? Chicory is usually planted in May. In October, the root is dug up and stored in a cool forcing house. Over several months, the leaves that end up in our salad start sprouting. The root itself is thrown on the compost heap or incinerated.

The University of Hohenheim found that these roots contain the valuable substance inulin, which in turn can be processed into the even more precious substance known as HMF, Which is very useful in the plastics industry because it can be made into such things as nylon tights. A win-win situation, you might think. Not only can we enjoy our chicory leaf salad, we can also extract a valuable substance from the waste. Unfortunately there is a major 'but' to this: The HMF is far and away more valuable than the chicory leaves. Why should farmers waste months growing a chicory crop, when they can get a high price just for producing the root. You can buy a head of chicory in the supermarket for around 89 cents. A farmer won't get rich on that! On the other hand, he can use the same hectare of land to harvest three tonnes of chicory roots which, thanks to their valuable constituent, are worth nearly 6 million euros.

The outcome is obvious: Under the normal rules of the market, producing chicory for food is not worthwhile. And that's not all. There are a great many other food crops which are far less profitable than the chicory root. This means that maize, wheat, carrots and many other food crops have a new competitor. In the end, the farmer will plant the crop that is the best earner. Who knows what valuable constituents are to be found in other plants. The chicory root might just be the beginning. We must therefore aim to ensure that developing the bioeconomy does not lead to lower food production. We have to discuss this and many other questions openly and honestly. We will only fully tap the potential of the bioeconomy if social acceptance of these new opportunities is not undermined by negative examples.

I know that the Sustainable Development Goals play a key role in your discussion of bio-based manufacturing. I am pleased about that, since it shows that you are not approaching the debate solely from a technical viewpoint. Ultimately, new technologies have to benefit people. If we proceed with sufficient care, the bioeconomy will not stumble at this hurdle. I would like to thank the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft once again for its Futuras in Res conference series, which brings together representatives from science, politics and industry. I wish you all a very successful second day at the conference.

Thank you very much.

29.06.2018 | Speech Research