Press release First structural overview shows performance of Flemish bioeconomy

Flax flower

For the first time, the numerous flows of renewable raw materials and processing in the Flemish economy have been mapped and their economic value for Flanders has been estimated. The study was conducted by ILVO and VITO at the request of Flemish Minister Jo Brouns and his predecessor, both responsible for Work, Economy, Innovation & Agriculture. The annual repetition of this study makes it possible to implement a targeted, stimulating policy and to evaluate its impact. The B2BE Facilitator, the platform set up a year ago to link suppliers of raw materials to potential processors, can also use the data from the extensive study to optimize its operation.

Flemish Minister of Work, Economy, Innovation & Agriculture Jo Brouns: "The transition to a sustainable and bio-based economy is essential. This way we avoid waste and fossil raw materials while converting the valuable components from organic material into materials, food, medicines, etc."

The ILVO and VITO study shows a great deal of interest to make that switch in the Flemish economy. The bio-based economy grew twice as much as the overall Flemish economy between 2014 and 2018. Moreover, the chemical sector, which traditionally relies heavily on fossil raw materials, appears to be the second largest consumer of biomass after the food industry. Jo Brouns: "With the Flemish bio-economy policy plan, we are further building bridges between these sectors and strengthening our technical know-how. A real win-win situation for Flanders, for the sectors and for society."

Renewable raw materials?

Renewable raw materials or biomass come mainly from agriculture but also from forestry, landscape management, fisheries, aquaculture and the waste and residual flows from processing. In the bio-based economy, often called bioeconomy for short, that organic material is converted into a variety of products such as food and materials as well as intermediate products such as isolated molecules and renewable raw materials.

Agriculture is by far the biggest producer of biomass

It is striking that the forestry, fisheries and waste treatment sectors produce only 2% of the biomass in Flanders. Their share is negligible compared to the biomass production by Flemish agriculture and horticulture (98%). That sector produces on 46% of our land area 21 Mton biomass main streams of which the majority is vegetable (70%) and another 21 Mton so-called biomass co- streams, largely in the form of animal manure (82%).

The (Dutch-language) report shows a detailed overview per producing sector of these main products and secondary flows.

Chemical industry is the largest non-food processor

The processing sectors and their biomass and product flows are more difficult to map and will be explored further in subsequent editions of the monitoring program. Broadly speaking, the sectors are food (incl. beverages, feeds, oil and fats); textiles, paper, wood, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, bioenergy and waste processing.

The food industry remains the main consumer of agricultural and horticultural biomass. A nuance here is that certain sectors that fall under food industry do not always produce (only) food. An example is the oil industry, which produces oil for both food and technical applications.

After the food industry, the chemical sector emerges prominently as a customer. It uses biomass to produce large volumes of mono-fatty acids, fertilizers, bioethanol and biodiesel. However, the chemical sector is still largely dependent on fossil raw materials and is therefore a "hybrid" bioeconomy sector.

Economically, the sector shows high performance and strong growth

Economically, the Flemish bioeconomy did well in 2018. The food sector creates the highest added value, turnover and employment. In turn, the bio-based pharmaceutical sector has the highest labor productivity (€450k/employee). In relative terms, the Flemish bioeconomic sectors are all doing significantly better than the European average and often better than our neighboring countries. In terms of agriculture, Flanders is second only to the Netherlands.

In the period 2014-2018, the added value of these sectors also increased significantly, with the beverage sector (70%) as the main outlier. The food, wood and bio-based pharmaceutical sectors also experienced strong growth. The overall Flemish economy did well during that period, but the Flemish bioeconomy did more than double.

The figures from 2020 onwards will make it possible to evaluate the effects of the covid crisis and the war in Ukraine. International trade is also very important for the Flemish bioeconomy.
Toegevoegde waarde

Demand exceeds supply: biomass to the highest bidder?

This study clearly shows that the demand for biomass in Flanders far exceeds the supply. It is therefore important to consciously choose the applications for which this valuable biomass will be used. One useful framework for this is the principle of closed material loops. The goal is to use as little "new" primary biomass as possible by making products last as long as possible through reuse and recycling. A second framework is the cascade principle, in which first human food, then feed and only in last place energy production stand as a meaningful application for biomass.

VITO researcher Dieter Cuypers: "In reality, however, in the free market you see the economic logic at play: the highest bidder wins and that is not necessarily the most sustainable one. Each project should be evaluated critically through a systemic lens so that investments in the bioeconomy effectively contribute to a more sustainable world."

In this regard, it is important not to focus unilaterally on climate and on replacing fossil resources with just any biomass, but to look at all the valuable components that the various biomass flows contain and choose the most meaningful valorization path for them. Dieter Cuypers (VITO): "Today in the market there is a lot of enthusiasm for biofuel and bioplastics, but from the point of view of biomass these are not the most interesting applications. Biomass is a broad concept and chemically contains a wealth of interesting atoms: carbon as well as protein, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc. It's truly wasteful to reduce that wealth of possibilities to carbon atoms for biofuel and plastics."

Monitoring 2018 and 2019

In 2020, the Flemish Government launched the Flemish policy plan on bioeconomy that aims to accelerate the development of this young sector in Flanders. To implement a stimulating policy based on figures, the competent department of Economy, Science and Innovation (EWI) commissioned VITO and ILVO to monitor developments in the bioeconomy. The recent report is a baseline measurement based on figures from the year 2018. It uses official sources and statistics, supplemented by sector-specific info when this was available and released for publication.

The overview is not exhaustive; some processes or flows need further exploration. This will be done in the annual updates implemented by ILVO with the B2BE Facilitator as client. The 2019 monitoring is in the works, with a focus on unraveling the flows going in and out of chemistry, plastics and bio-based pharmaceuticals.


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