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From "Bioeconomy Strategy" to the "Long-term Vision" of European Commission: which sustainability for rural areas?

De la "Stratégie de bioéconomie" à la "Vision à long terme" de la Commission européenne : quelle durabilité pour les zones rurales ?
De la “Estrategia de Bioeconomía” a una “Visión de Largo Plazo” en la Comisión Europea: ¿sustentabilidad para las áreas rurales?
Margherita Ciervo

Résumés

L’objectif de cet article est d’analyser les impacts actuels et à long terme de la stratégie de bioéconomie de la Commission européenne, afin de définir des scénarios possibles pour les zones rurales et évaluer leur durabilité. L’accent est mis sur les principaux secteurs économiques, se référant, en particulier, à l’emploi et au chiffre d’affaires, afin de comprendre quel type d’économie et d’emplois sont destinés aux zones rurales, ainsi que leurs impacts territoriaux. À cette fin, nous avons analysé les principaux documents et données de la Commission européenne concernant la bioéconomie et la planification à long terme pour les zones rurales, ainsi que les données scientifiques récentes pour vérifier l’impact sur les forêts. L’analyse révèle que les zones rurales européennes sont destinées à être converties en producteurs de biomasse à grande échelle pour l’énergie et la bio-industrie, puis en sites de bioraffineries. Ce changement est susceptible d’avoir de graves conséquences sur le paysage, l’environnement, la biodiversité, l’utilisation des terres et l’économie locale. Dès lors, les scénarios pour les zones rurales ne semblent ni durables ni rentables, en particulier pour les pays périphériques (pays du Sud et de l’Est de l’Union européenne).

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Notes de l’auteur

An early version of this contribution was presented at the “The Centenial Congress UGI-IGU: Time for geographers” (Paris, 19th-22th July 2022).

Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 We also suggest reading the Special Issue "Justice and Power in Bioeconomy", edited in 2022 in Fore (...)

1The Bioeconomy Strategy is promoted by several governments, institutions and the biotech industry. It is based on replacing fossil fuels with organic sources for the production of goods and energy in order to sustain industrial production and create economic growth. It deals with an industrial strategy finalised for economic growth without questioning the consumerism and extractivist model. It is grounded in a techno-neo-liberalism ideology "supported by global industrial capitalist elites in order to forge new forms of capital accumulation" (Sodano, 2013, p. 11), as well as in "colonial and neocolonial logics of domination and green extractivism"1 (Ramcilovic-Suominen et al., 2022, p.1).

  • 2 According to OECD (2019, p. 22), bioeconomy “can be thought of as a world where biotechnology contr (...)
  • 3 Among countries that have dedicate bioeconomy strategies, in addition to the European Union (which (...)

2The OECD (2009) published “The Bioeconomy to 2030: Designing a Policy Agenda” at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, which was an important impulse to the development of national and regional bioeconomy strategies across the world, as well as a guide for the use of biotechnology in primary production, industry health and their integration2. Since 2015, some events have pushed bioeconomy concepts to the forefront of politics: The Conference of the Parties (COP21), the United Nation Sustainable Development Agenda and its 17 goals, and the Global Bioeconomy Summit. Today, around 50 countries in the world (including the G7) have implemented national bioeconomy strategies or have policies that move towards the bioeconomy3 (OECD, 2018), but only a minority of them take charge of considering the potentially harmful implications of bio-based transformation for sustainability (Dietz et al., 2018). In Europe, the Bioeconomy Strategy has originated in the European framework programs and strategic agendas (McCormick and Kautto, 2013; Pattermann and Aguilar, 2018) and it was promoted since the 2005 Conference “New Perspectives on the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy” (EC, 2005) and the 2007 Report on the “Accelerating the Development of the Market for Bio-based Products in Europe” (EC, 2007). In 2012, the European Commission sanctioned the "Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe" (EC, 2012), in 2017 the Strategy was revised (EC, 2017a) and in 2018 updated (EC, 2018) by adapting it to European priorities as the New Industrial Policy (EC, 2017b) and the process of digitization promoted as a result. The adaptation, however, did not consider that technological innovations are also associated with significant collateral hazards and new challenges from an environmental, health, socio-economic and geopolitical point of view (EEA, 2021a; Ciervo, 2022b).

3The Bioeconomy Strategy, like the "fossil economy", considers the territory as a "box full of resources" to be exploited without taking into account the objectives, scales, models and production chains, as already demonstrated in other research (Ciervo, 2016, 2018; Blonda et al., 2021; Ciervo, 2022a). Thus, it risks causing the same ecological and agrarian impacts as well as the environmental contradictions generated in rural areas by bioenergy development based on the large-scale production chain (Ciervo, Schmitz, 2017). On the other hand, the nascent popularity of bioeconomy in rural policy discourse is discussedbefore questions are posed about the logicof sustainable intensification, its increasingly dominant positioning as a guiding principle, and its conceivable use as a rural policy instrument" (Mc Donagh, 2015 p. 658).

4The assumption of sustainable economic growth with the related promises of environmental sustainability and job increase are also at the basis of other European agendas, including those that specifically concern the rural world. However, the analysis presented in this paper shows that it is a simple storytelling not grounded in reality.

5The objective of this paper is to analyze the possible impacts of the Bioeconomy Strategy on the rural areas in the near future and in the long term. To this aim we have analyzed: 1) the European Bioeconomy Strategy, notably the fifth objective, that provides for strengthening of European competitiveness and the creation of jobs, particularly in coastal and rural areas; and 2) the document "A Long-term Vision for the EUs rural areas up to 2040" that is strictly connected. This document, presenting the institutional future plan for rural areas, gives a systemic prospective and helps to understand that the provisions underlying the Bioeconomy Strategy, far from referring only to it, are inherent in the vision and policy of the European Commission all around. Moreover, the Long-term Vision makes it clear that the changes analyzed for rural areas are not a simple consequence of the application of the Bioeconomy Strategy destined to stop with it but, rather, they represent structural and long-lasting changes that underlines a well-defined idea of ​​development for whom rural areas seem designed for. The Long-term Vision agenda gives the possibilities to elaborate a two-step scenario for rural areas. Our study focuses on the following research questions: What kind of economy and jobs are intended for rural areas? What innovations and new business models does it refer to, and what are their territorial impacts? What are scenarios for rural areas in the close future and in the long term? Can they be considered sustainable?

  • 4 Specifically with regard to bioeconomy, we have analyzed the literature of more than forty geograph (...)

6Geographers have a very long and solid tradition in rural studies, also referring to the territorial impacts of the economic activities. Nevertheless, perhaps due to a perceived irrelevance, they do not seem to have paid much attention to the recent broadly transformative agendas of the European Commission which will significantly affect rural areas, such as, for example, the Bioeconomy Strategy4. For this reason, presenting this analyze, we assert the need that the bioeconomy strategies and the related politics for rural areas to be analyzed from a territorial and holistic point of view, and we support the urgency of multiplying studies by geographers.

7This paper is structured as follows: after the background and the methodology, we analyze the Bioeconomy strategy and the Long-term Vision for the EU’s rural areas up to 2040. As regard to the Bioeconomy Strategy, we have used official data to evaluate its effects on the main economic sectors referring, in particular, to jobs and turnover, as well as the recent scientific data to verify the impact on forests. Finally, the scenarios for rural areas are outlined and the sustainability of the Bioeconomy Strategy and the Long-term Vision is questioned, and some brief concluding reflections on the future of rural areas are presented.

Background

  • 5 Science Direct browses 4.660 journals and 33.308 books.

8In science, the interest in bioeconomy has been growing since the end of the first decade of this millennium and then exponentially since the middle of the second decade. For example, searching "bioeconomy", we found, in Science Direct5, 6.959 results: 53 from 1997 to 2010, 349 from 2011 to 2015, 2002 from 2016 to 2019, 1021 in 2020, 1453 in 2021 and 2003 in 2022 (of which 690 in social sciences).

  • 6 For a systematic review of academic contributions to the field of bioeconomy from a social science (...)
  • 7 Kitchen and Marsden (2011) see differences between bio-economy and eco-economy.
  • 8 The weak and strong sustainability refers, respectively, to the anthropocentric and ecocentric appr (...)
  • 9 About the contradictions of bioeconomy spatial governance, we encourage you to read the Finland cas (...)

9The scientific literature explores different approaches, paradigms, visions, definitions, typologies and narratives of "bioeconomy"6 (Levidow et al., 2012; Brunori, 2013; Mc Cormick and Kautto, 2013; Bugge et al., 2016; Priefer et al., 2017; Vivien et al., 2019; Befort, 2020; Duquenne et al., 2020; Albrecht et al., 2021; Dürr and Sili, 2022; Ramcilovic-Suominen, 2023). Some studies concern characteristics of bioeconomy systems (Calvert et al., 2017; Wohlfahrt et al., 2019) and specific projects in rural areas such as, for example, biogas plants (Scarlat et al., 2018; Bourdin et al., 2020); other researches refer specifically to the bioeconomy connection with the forest (Kleinschmit, 2014; Kröger, 2016; Kleinschmit et al., 2017; Kröger and Raitio, 2017; Purkus and Lüdtke, 2020), the rural areas7 (Smolker, 2008; Horlings and Marsden, 2010; Kitchen e Marshan, 2011; McDonagh, 2015; Backhouse et al., 2021; Friedrich e al., 2023), the land grabbing (McMichael, 2012) and the farmer perspective (Schmid et al., 2012), as well as the relationship with sustainability, referring to both the weak and strong sustainability8 (Liobikiene et al., 2019). In this last regard, a systematic review of scientific literature shows that visions about the relationship between bioeconomy and sustainability differ significantly (ranging from positive to negative) and that bioeconomy cannot be considered self-evidently sustainable9 (Pfau et al., 2014). According to the Ramcilovic-Suominen and Pulzl (2018, p. 4178), the "EU is using the brandof sustainable development as a selling pointfor promoting its Bioeconomy Strategy and development direction, while focusing merely on issues such as biotechnology, eco-efficiency, competitiveness, innovation, economic output and industry at large".

  • 10 We empathize that the sample used in this study is more representative of the respondents to the Eu (...)

10Concerns about sustainability also emerged in the European Commission’s public online consultation, to which 197 people (41,6% private, 33% academic, 14,2% public and 11.2% NGO) replied (EC, 2011). Also, a recent research done in Finland, exploring future environmental professionals’ (n = 47) and citizens’ (n = 1020) views of bioeconomy, demonstrates that both are critical of the environmental sustainability of the Finnish bioeconomy10 (Vaino et al., 2019).

11After all, in the 2010s already, the European Union was a major processor and the most significant consuming region of cropland-based non-food products, of which 65% (18.3 Mha) were imported from outside the EU-28 (Brukner et al., 2019) and the Bioeconomy Strategy certainly will increase the biomass land demand and the consequent territorial effects, as well as the dependence on agricultural areas in other world regions and the related effects on the geo-economic and geopolitical level. De facto, a significant rise in biomass demand for bio-based materials and bioenergy will increase, in turn, the competition for land and water resources with a potential negative impact on biodiversity and the environment (Scarlat et al., 2015), the land use pressure of cropland expansion abroad (O’Brien et al., 2015), mainly in tropical regions (Bringezu et al., 2012). The risk exacerbates global land use conflicts that, at least, need systemic monitoring of the European bioeconomy (O’Brien et al., 2017). This happens without the change of industrial raw-material (bioplastic in place of plastic) produces an actual benefice for climate change mitigation (Escobar et al., 2018).

  • 11 In some countries, such as Italy, the word "bioeconomy" is used to designate both the Georgescu-Roe (...)

12Finally, it is important to note that the Bioeconomy Strategy is opposed to the Bioeconomics that, according to Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s theory, is based on the assumption that economic processes affecting the physical world are subject to its laws, primarily entropy, that is to say the irreversible dissipation of energy and matter generated by the processes of transformation11 (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971). Hence the idea of "healthy economic de-growth", of which Georgescu-Roegen (1975) can be considered one of the first supporters. It implies the reduction or elimination of some deleterious aspects of capitalism/consumerism as a waste of energy and materials, planned obsolescence, designs that make repair technically impossible or economically disadvantageous, marketing policies aimed at supporting the replacement of products with marginal functions or changes, use of polluting and non-renewable raw materials, mechanized agriculture supported by pesticides and its replacement with organic agriculture based on solar energy, things of little use and high environmental impact and trends that fuel consumerism. However, many of these aspects are not "side effects" of capitalism but they are intrinsic devices of it and engines of economic growth. Therefore, it is manifest that Bioeconomics is incompatible with the economic growth and, consequently, with the Bioeconomy Strategy of European Commission.

Methodology

13The methodology is based on the inductive approach, specifically on the indirect observation of the phenomenon using official data. At this aim and according to the objective of this paper, we chose and analyzed the main European Commission documents and data set concerning the bioeconomy and long-term planning for rural areas: The European Bioeconomy Strategy, its updates and related documents concerning rural areas (focusing our attention especially on the main economic sectors and job, innovation policies and business model), and the European Commission's dataset on the bioeconomy. To this, an important research proving the environmental impacts on forests of the first phase of the Bioeconomy Strategy is added. This study was chosen for its relevance due to the methodology used which, based on high-resolution satellite records and big data, allows to be independent from official statistics and overcome some limitations of national inventories.

14These documents and studies are divided into four analyses steps (which have been summarized in table 1) and analyzed through a reading grid organized by key themes. The reading grid was designed to identify the vision and policies at the base of the various documents and the provisions regarding the main topics. It was created in a table and based on two levels: conceptual (sustainability vision and economic model) and pragmatic (objective, actions and activities). Then we have created an appendix to the table on some specific issues at the base of the Bioeconomy Strategy (biomass, agriculture, biorefinery, energy, jobs in rural areas, digitization, innovation, participation) in order to verify their presence and any changes in the other considered documents.

Table 1: Official documents and studies analyzed referring to the various topics.

Topic

Documents or studies

1

European Bioeconomy Strategy and rural areas

2012. European Commission’s Bioeconomy Strategy: Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe.

2

European Bioeconomy Strategy impact on the main economic sectors and forests

2018. Ronzon, T., Piotrowski, S., M'barek, R., Carus, M., Tamošiūnas, S. (2018), Jobs and wealth in the EU bioeconomy / JRC - Bioeconomics. European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC) [Dataset].

2016-2018. Ceccherini, G., Duveiller, G., Grassi, G. (2020), “Abrupt increase in harvested forest area over Europe after 2015”, Nature, vol. 583, pp. 72–77.

3

Updated European Bioeconomy Strategy and related policies about rural areas

2016. European Commission’s Cork 2.0 Declaration: A better life in rural areas.

2017. European Commission’s review of the 2012 European Bioeconomy Strategy.

2017. European bioeconomy stakeholders panel, European Bioeconomy Stakeholder Manifesto.

2018. Updated European Commission’s Bioeconomy Strategy: A sustainable Bioeconomy for Europe: Strengthening the connection between economy, society and the environment.

2018. European Network for Rural Development, Working document ENRD Thematic Group on ‘Mainstreaming the Bioeconomy’ 2018-2019

2019. Council of the European Union, The updated Bioeconomy Strategy "sustainable Bioeconomy for Europe: strenghtening the connection between economy, society and the environment".

2018-2020. European Commission’s Horizon 2020 - Work Programme 2018-2020.

Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine, maritime and inland water research and the bioeconomy. Call - Rural Renaissance.

2022. European Commission’s EU Bioeconomy Strategy Progress Report.

4

Rural areas in the long-term future

2021 June. European Commission’s a Long-term Vision for the EU’s rural areas up to 2040.

2021-2024. European Commission’s Horizon 2024 – Work Programme 2021-2024.

15In perspective, this approach could be integrated with field researches regarding cases of bioeconomy strategy implementation. This would allow us to verify the impacts and critical issues identified in this study.

Results

The European Bioeconomy Strategy and rural areas

  • 12 The Manifesto has been prepared by companies, NGOs, biomass producers and category associations, a (...)

16In the European Bioeconomy Strategy, if the cities are imagined to "become major circular bioeconomy hubs" (EC, 2018, 6), the rural areas are conceived as biomass producers, that is a sort of "biomass’ supply spokes". This consolidates the centre-periphery model that characterizes the relationship between town and countryside and, at the regional scale, the relationship among EU member states (Celi, 2020; Celi et al. 2020, 2022). After all, the Bioeconomy Stakeholder Manifesto12 is considered a significant achievement of the 2012 Bioeconomy Strategy and recalled in the Staff Document referring to "the importance of regional bioeconomy strategies, of rural renaissance and of sustainably managing natural resources" (EC, 2018, 23). However, what does "rural renaissance" mean? According to this vision, it refers to "better utiliz[ing] the available biomass and agricultural land while ensuring sustainable management of natural resources. The bioeconomy can help Europe revitalize rural areas. A European bioeconomy will offer a new perspective on traditional and high-value production in the regions, as well as creating new opportunities and jobs for farming, forestry, fisheries, aquaculture and industry […] It adds investments made into a rural transport system in order to promote biomass availability" (EBSP, 2017, pp. 5, 8). Even more, the new CAP contains the bioeconomy under one of its purposes and consents Member States "to set out interventions adapted to their local realities to promote the development of the Bioeconomy in rural areas, providing the possibility to move from individual projects to a more systemic approach and supporting primary producers in their efforts to innovate and drive the bioeconomy" (EC, 2022, p. 21).

17It is also possible that rural areas become sites to localize the biorefineries for storage and transport to minimize the cost. In fact, according to the Commission Staff Work Document referring to the updated Bioeconomy Strategy, the idea is that "at least the first transformation of biomass takes place as close as possible to the biomass provisioning area" (EC, 2018, 30). So, it is established that, by 2024, the development of an outlook and roadmap for the deployment of biorefineries in Europe in rural settings with the goal, among others, to help establish attractive job opportunities for both the primary producers and young skilled entrepreneurs in the rural territory (ivi, p. 68) will be done. However, the biorefineries concept is not different from the petrochemical refinery. If the latter produces a wide range of fuels and goods from fossil resources, "biorefineries aim to produce multiple bio-based products and fuels using renewable resources as a carbon source and bio-based processes" (EC, 2012, 35). This could mean a further transformation of the countryside in the sense of rural industrialization and, consequently, significant changes in the landscape and life's way, especially in rural areas even today characterized by micro and little farms. Industrialization, especially where it takes the clear trajectory of the short value chain, could represent a source of income and employment, nevertheless it would have to face problems of negotiation and sharing with local communities (Celi, 2020). However, the conflict with the different uses of the territory and other economic activities, such as organic agriculture and rural tourism which are becoming established especially in the countries of the Mediterranean basin, would remain. It is clear that industrialization could have negative repercussions on these economic activities.

18The fifth objective of the Bioeconomy Strategy also includes "to boost local rural economies through increased investment in skills, knowledge, innovation and new business models, as recommended in the 2016 Cork 2.0 declaration" (EC, 2018, 10). However, what are the new business models imagined for rural areas? According to the Cork 2.0 declaration (that is the result of the European Conference on Rural Development), the model is based on economic growth and digitization: "Expecting that the rural economy and rural businesses will depend increasingly on digitization as well as knowledge workers who make the most of the digital transformation and enhance rural production in a sustainable manner; persuaded that economic growth and sustainability are not mutually exclusive and can be fostered by innovation to which rural entrepreneurs, farmers, and foresters must have access and which may concern technologies, practices, processes, social and organizational matters, and be research driven or based on interactive bottom-up approaches" (EC, 2016a, 4). It sets ten policy orientations to guide an innovative, integrated and inclusive rural and agricultural policy in the European Union. Among these are the digitization of rural areas (point 3) and the introduction of e-Governance in management of support programs (point 9). Digitization is linked to plans for the 'Gigabit Society' (EC, 2016b) and the 'Digital Compass' (EC, 2021g) of the European Commission which aim to promote the digital transformation of Europe by 2030. The link between bioeconomy and digitization would lead to a radical change in methods of production and work which, in rural areas, would primarily impact agriculture. This, in fact, would be entrusted to remote observation via satellite and with sensors applied to machines - which, equipped with GPS, do not need a driver and can operate on their own - or drones. These allow you to map plots meter by meter, to detect its water status, degree of compaction, the presence of weeds, symptoms of deficiencies or the presence of diseases and to adapt the interventions of irrigation, fertilization, weeding, application of fungicides in a point-like way (Fava, Bisoffi, 2017). On the other hand, digitization, like any technological innovation, is subject to the so-called “Jevons paradox” showing that incremental efficiency improvements often do not produce the desired reductions in resource use due to effects on the overall consumption expansion (EEA, 2021b).

  • 13 It is based on the idea that "ICT tools can play a key role in rural growth through a variety of im (...)
  • 14 The topic calls aim to address the adoption of ICT-based solutions. The focus is "on innovative tec (...)
  • 15 The call aims to collect best practice ICT applications and share them in a network of independent (...)
  • 16 We refer to the following key strategic orientations: promoting an open strategic autonomy by leadi (...)

19The digital revolution and new value chains in rural economies are also supported by Horizon 2020-WP 2018-2020 and Horizon 2024-WP 2020-2024. Among the Work Program 2018-2020, priorities are developing smart, connected territories and value chains in rural and coastal areas. This priority addresses the territorial dimension of R&I activities in primary production, the food and bio-based industries, most of which are located in rural and coastal areas: "R&I activities aim at the better capitalization of territorial assets, taking account of long-term drivers to open new sustainable avenues for business, services and value chains in support of rural and coastal communities, promoting new partnerships between producers, processors, retailers and society" (pp. 8, 9). In this regard, there is significant in the fact that in the Horizon 2020, there is a call for "rural renaissance" where the concept of "renaissance" is strictly connected to the digitization of the rural area and agriculture activities as is clearly shown by some specific capitals: Taking advantage of the digital revolution13: ICT Innovation for agriculture – Digital Innovation Hubs for Agriculture14 (DT-RUR-12-2018), Enabling the farm advisor community to prepare farmers for the digital age15 (DT-RUR-13-2018), Digital solutions and e-tools to modernize the CAP (DT-RUR-20-2018) (EC, 2020a). On the Horizon 2024, three out of four of the key strategic orientations of the strategic plan for the targeting of investments in the program's first four years refer explicitly to the digitization16 (EC, 2021f). Therefore, it is clear that the rural areas are intended to be converted into biomass producers for energy and materials (with reference to agriculture and forest) according to the technological innovation model, with digitization and biotechnology such as biorefineries sites for the production of a wide range of products, fuels and energy, and the sites of the connected infrastructures need to develop the supply chain. Considering large-scale production and distribution, the farmers are destined to become mere producers of raw materials for food, non-food and energy industries.

20In view of this rural areas’ transformation plan regards potentially more than 341 million hectares (agricultural land, forest and natural areas) would be impacted, which represent 83% of the total EU area in 201817, where about 30% of the EU's population lives. It is clear that the Bioeconomy Strategy is destined to have a vast and pervasive impact on the environment and the land use.

Impacts on the main economic sectors

21Despite what is said, the reality is different. The official data from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission's science and knowledge service, show us that from the implementation of the Bioeconomy Strategy, the jobs in biomass producing and converting decreased while turnovers were augmented (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Development of people employed, turnover and value-added in the production and transformation of biomass.

Figure 1: Development of people employed, turnover and value-added in the production and transformation of biomass.

Source: https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS.

22This apparent contradiction is mainly in the primary sector. Referring specifically to agriculture and fishery workers, the Commission Staff Working forecasted that 2.2 million jobs will be needed by 2015 (EC, 2012, 24). Nevertheless, the 2018 Bioeconomy Strategy Staff Working Document already recorded that "the overall EU labour force decline in agriculture, which drove down the EU Bioeconomy jobs in a proportional fashion" and predicted that "these employment trends are expected to continue to 2030" (EC, 2018, 30). Certainly, they can be considered confirmed until 2020. From 2008 to 2020, employment in the primary sector has significantly decreased. On the contrary, in the energy and fuel sectors connected to bio-based products, both the employment and turnover have significantly increased (bio-based electricity + 211% of employment and +264.6% of turnover; liquid biofuels +82% of employment and +91.2% of turnover). In regard to industry sectors, we have three differentiated situations: an increase both in employment and in turnover (i.e. bio-based chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics and rubber; food, beverage and tobacco); a decrease in employment and an increase in turnover (i.e. paper, wood products and furniture); a substantial decrease both in employment and in turnover (bio-based textile) (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Bioeconomy sectors in EU27 between 2008 and 2020: employment growth (a); turnover growth (b).

Figure 2: Bioeconomy sectors in EU27 between 2008 and 2020: employment growth (a); turnover growth (b).

Source: https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​.

23We focus our attention on the sectors whose economic activities have or can have a closer connection with the rural area, as to say the primary and energy sectors. In the primary sector, employment is significantly decreased in agriculture (-23.4%) and in fishing and aquaculture (-17.9%), while in forestry the decrease was milder (-2%); the turnover always increases. Referring specifically to agriculture, the number of people employed decreased from 11,358,120 in 2008 to 8,702,820 in 2020 (fig. 3a), while the turnover growth increased from 374,617 million euros in 2008 to 435,964 million euros in 2020 (fig. 3b).

Figure 3: Agriculture (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).

Figure 3: Agriculture (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).

Source: authors elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html.

24This dynamic results from the production model's statement based on the land concentration, agricultural mechanization and agro-industrial field (Grillotti Di Giacomo, De Felice, 2018). Observing the agriculture job data (fig. 3), we deduce that the Bioeconomy Strategy implementation, far from reversing or curbing unemployment, has rather accentuated the trend. In fact, from 2008 to 2014, the number of people decreased by 1,282,530 units (213,755 per year), while from 2014 to 2020, it diminished by 1,372,770 (228,795 per year). From a qualitative viewpoint, we observe that the decrease has substantially concerned the non-salaried job (fig. 4). This confirms that the familiar and traditional agriculture of micro and small-sized gives way to medium and large enterprises, which are that most resort to salaried jobs.

Figure 4: Evolution of the number of jobs in agriculture (IN 1000 AWU, annual work unit).

Figure 4: Evolution of the number of jobs in agriculture (IN 1000 AWU, annual work unit).

Source: EC, 2021e, p. 55.

25The farmland data on national level show that this phenomenon, although general and concerning almost all countries (except Czechia and Denmark), is particularly marked in Estonia and Finland where the number of micro and small farms is decreased by more than 80% and in Austria, Bulgaria, France, Lithuania, Netherlands and Slovakia with a fall of over 40% (fig. 5). Moreover, from the observation of the data emerges an apparently unusual phenomenon because, contrary to expectations, the small properties are not always "reabsorbed" by the large. For example, in some cases, with the shrinkage of small property, there is no percentage increase in large or medium-sized property – that even decreases (Austria and Greece) – or there is only a very modest percentage growth in those large structures (France, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Italy). This suggests that the land left "free" is not used for agricultural purposes. In this regard, the case of Greece is particularly emblematic as it reduced its agricultural surface area in all size classes.

Figure 5: Utilized agricultural area of the European Union Member States: percentage changes during the period 2010-2020.

Figure 5: Utilized agricultural area of the European Union Member States: percentage changes during the period 2010-2020.

Source: authors elaboration based on data of https://ec.europa.eu/​eurostat/​statistics-explained/​index.php?title=Farms_and_farmland_in_the_European_Union_-_statistics#Farms_in_2020.

26In the energy sector, employment and turnover grew between 2008 and 2020. In bio-based electricity, employment has been increased by 211% and turnover by 264.6%; in liquid biofuels, employment is augmented by 82% and turnover by 91.2%. Referring specifically to liquid biofuel, the number of people employed increased from 14,601 in 2008 to 26,579 in 2020, as well as the turnover increased from 7,909 million euros in 2008 to 15,123 million euros in 2020 (fig. 6).

Figure 6: Bioethanol and biodiesel (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).

Figure 6: Bioethanol and biodiesel (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).

Source: authors elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html

27Referring specifically to bio-based electricity, the number of people employed increased from 11,806 in 2008 to 36,717 in 2020 (fig. 7), as well as the turnover grew from 7,347 million euros in 2008 to 26,788 million euros in 2020.

Figure 7: Bio-based electricity sector (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).

Figure 7: Bio-based electricity sector (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).

Source: authors elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html.

28From a qualitative viewpoint, we observe that the most significant growth of people employed in biofuel sector was recorded before the implementation of the European Bioeconomy Strategy. In any case, overall job growth in the energy sector (+ 36,889 units) is equivalent to just 1,39% of the workers lost in the primary sector (-2,655,300 units). Therefore, the existence of hypothetical compensation among the agriculture and energy sectors cannot be argued either. What appears clear is a net loss of jobs (fig. 1). This loss essentially concerns the related economic activities of rural areas (fig. 2).

29On the European scale, the bioeconomy sectors have developed differently across the European Union Member States: agriculture and agro-food are dominant, especially in Eastern and Southern countries; forestry biomass, wood products and paper are mainly developed in Northern European countries; biochemistry and biopharmacy benefit from the long-standing experience and R&D investments in Western European countries (Ronzon et al., 2018). The current biorefineries' localization also confirms the international labour distribution. In fact, we can observe a concentration of biorefineries in the occidental countries, particularly French, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium (fig. 8).

Figure 8: Distribution of chemical/material biorefineries in the EU countries.

Figure 8: Distribution of chemical/material biorefineries in the EU countries.

Source: EC, 2021a, p. 172.

30Consequently, the job loss essentially affects Southern European countries, while the job increase principally benefits the Northern and Western countries, with the significantly Germany, above all concerning liquid biofuel and bio-based electricity (fig. 9a). This is also true in terms of turnover (fig. 9b).

Figure 9: Number of people employed (a) and turnover (b) for liquid biofuel and bio-based electricity sectors, in the European Union (2020).

Figure 9: Number of people employed (a) and turnover (b) for liquid biofuel and bio-based electricity sectors, in the European Union (2020).

Source: author’s elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html; URL of the original map: https://d-maps.com/​carte.php?num_car=2232&lang=it

31In any case, we point out that the ratio of the number of people employed in biofuel and bio-based electricity sectors to total employed population is very low both at the EU level (0.03%) and at the single country level, including Germany (0.05%) which, in absolute terms, has the highest number of employed in the above-mentioned sectors (22,515.14). The country with the lower ratio is the Netherlands (0.004%), while the country with the highest ratio is Estonia18 (0.11%).

Environmental impact on forests

32According to the Bioeconomy Strategy, it would be possible to accomplish economic growth with no or very low resource depletion and environmental impacts, as well as to improve the knowledge base and foster innovation to achieve productivity increases while ensuring sustainable resource use and alleviating stress on the environment. To this aim, the Strategy will support the implementation of an ecosystem based management and will seek synergies and complementarities with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) and EU environmental policies on resource efficiency, sustainable use of natural resources, protection of biodiversity and habitats, as well as provision of ecosystem services (EC, 2012, p.10). Actually, decoupling economic growth, resource depletion and environmental impact, as well as 100% circularity, is objectively impossible, as the analysis of Georgescu-Roegen demonstrates and, based on the scientific evidence, the European Environment Agency also recognizes. This latter acknowledges that the "great acceleration" (Steffen et al., 2015) underway in biodiversity loss, climate changes, pollution and loss of natural capital is intrinsically linked to economic growth (EEA, 2021a). The European Parliament has also taken note of the "great acceleration". It has presented a study that leads to the consideration that "sustainable growth might actually be an oxymoron", and it has opened an official debate on beyond growth (EPSR, 2023). After all, also for this aspect, the reality shows a different situation.

  • 19 The research is based on the "the combination of high-resolution satellite records and cloud-comput (...)

33A recent research - based on high-resolution satellite records and big data - has correlated the increasing demand for forest services and products, driven by the bioeconomy, with the increase in the harvest forest area and biomass loss19. The results show that the intensity in harvest (as say, the percentage of harvested forest area per year) was very stable in magnitude and spatial pattern across most EU26 countries from 2004 to 2015 (Fig. 10), while it increased in the mean value for the years 2016–2018: 43% concerning the mean of the years 2004–2015 and 49% for the mean of the years 2011–2015. For 2016-2018, the increase in harvest biomass (compared with the average of 2011-2015) was 69%. The researchers underline the connected potential negative implications for climate change mitigation deriving from the loss of forest carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services.

Figure 10 - Harvested forest area per year. Percentage of harvested forest area (expressed as the relative amount of forest area affected by management practices) per year in a 0.2° grid cell, excluding forest losses due to fires and major windstorms and areas with sparse forest cover. Grey areas represent countries not included in the analysis.

Figure 10 - Harvested forest area per year. Percentage of harvested forest area (expressed as the relative amount of forest area affected by management practices) per year in a 0.2° grid cell, excluding forest losses due to fires and major windstorms and areas with sparse forest cover. Grey areas represent countries not included in the analysis.

Source: Ceccherini, 2020, p. 2.

  • 20 The central point is that biomass is treated as "carbon neutral", and this encourages Europe "not j (...)
  • 21 In order to avoid adverse effects on climate and biodiversity, a group of scientists undersigned, i (...)

34The increase in the annual harvested forest area in 2016–2018 (relative to 2004–2015) was also accompanied by an expansion in forest losses due to natural disturbances from fires (+210%) and windstorms (+90%) (although these events were not included in the harvest-area statistics shown above) (Fig. 11). The substantial expansion of the forest sector during the last years is confirmed by all economic indicators of wood demand and market. According to Checcherini et al. (2020, p. 5), forest products and related secondary activities grew by 13% in 28 EU countries from 2012 to 2016 (including the UK), probably due to new legislation (at both EU and country levels) promoting the use of wood for the bioeconomy, specifically for bioenergy. This is the case of the legislative provisions to make burning wood for electricity easier in Eastern Europe for example, and at the European level, the "FIT for 55" legislation supports much greater use of bioenergy20. "Fit for 55" is thought by scientists to be very dangerous for the environment, as it also encourages global deforestation by requiring that more land in the tropics is used to meet Europe’s demand for agricultural products and wood21. We can imagine that this trend will only increase with the further development of the Bioeconomy Strategy.

Figure 11 - Temporal trends of forest harvests. Time series of forest biomass and area loss due to forest fires, major windstorms, and harvested.

Figure 11 - Temporal trends of forest harvests. Time series of forest biomass and area loss due to forest fires, major windstorms, and harvested.

Source: Checcherini et al. 2020, p. 4.

35Effectively, for the future, the Commission modelings estimate Europe will import more wood for energy and dedicate 22 million hectares to energy crops by 2050 and will lose about 17 million hectares of cropland and 10 million hectares of other natural lands (Fig. 12). The latter is biodiversity and carbon-rich ecosystems and consist, inter alia, of non-productive grassland, agriculture land set aside, fallowed or abandoned and other types of vegetation not classified in other categories. In this case, the conversion in energy crops produces a significant negative impact. According to Searching et al. (2022, 8), the loss of semi-natural grasslands or highly managed forests could be one-half.

Figure 12: Changes in land use in the baseline scenario (dashed line) and in the mitigation scenario (solid line).

Figure 12: Changes in land use in the baseline scenario (dashed line) and in the mitigation scenario (solid line).

Source: EC, 2020b, p. 103

36Even forest exploitation is very impactful from the ecosystem viewpoint. However, it continues to grow despite the European Commission's awareness that replacing old-growth and diversified forests with fast-growing monocultures "would affect biodiversity, carbon retention in soil and risks of forest fires" (EC, 2020b, p. 104). Lastly, considering that the Commission modeling estimates no substantial increase in the use of wood for bioenergy between 2015 and 2030 (even if the use of wood in bioenergy production has already grown since 2015), we can imagine that the level of destruction already done today can be significantly higher than expected by the Commission.

The Long-term Vision for the EU's rural areas up to 2040

37The profound changes triggered by the Bioeconomy Strategy are bound to intensify further in the future according to the Long-term Vision for the EU's rural areas up to 2040. The changes include, on the one hand, the transition from traditional agriculture (practiced especially in South countries) or industrial agriculture (present especially in continental countries) to digitized agriculture; on the other hand, the transition from the economies focusing on the primary sectors to the economies characterized by industrial and energy sectors.

38The Long-term Vision for the EU's rural areas is part of the Commission's political priority and is set against the backdrop of the so-called "green and digital transition" with the idea of developing an innovation ecosystem in order to improve the rural quality of life, create high-quality jobs in rural areas in all sectors, achieve balanced territorial development and stimulate economic growth. It proposes a Rural Pact and a Rural Action Plan, which aim to make rural areas "stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous" by 2040, in order to increase the low attractiveness supposedly due to "a lack of connectivity, underdeveloped infrastructure, and absence of diverse employment opportunities and limited access to services"22.

  • 23 "Broadband coverage, including 5G, is key for businesses and people to work remotely and adapt to i (...)

39The Rural Pact will engage actors at the European, national, regional and local levels to support the goals of the vision. The Long-term Vision for the EU’s rural areas is founded on the bioeconomy, conceived as the driver of the "innovative business solutions" and the digitization that is considered a "key enabler for the diversification of economic activities in rural areas". Digitization is applied not only to production and economic activities but also to transport (multi-modal intelligent mobility systems), e-services (e-health, retail, online banking, travel information and access to public administration), waste management solutions and smart energy (EC, 2021b)23.

  • 24 The aim of the Drone Strategy 2.0 is developing drones to contribute, through digitization and auto (...)
  • 25 "The development and transition of the industrial and service sectors in rural areas is therefore k (...)

40The digital transformation of rural areas is supported by the Rural digital future plan through enhancing digital connectivity, digital technology (such as artificial intelligence, robotics, internet of things solutions and digital innovation hubs contributing to the development of rural areas) and "human capital" (improving competencies for the digital transformation of rural areas including digital skills and entrepreneurship), as well as "measuring progress towards closing the digital gap between urban and rural areas by re-arranging existing indicators, notably from the Digital economy and society index, in a Rural digital index" (EC, 2021b, 19). In terms of transport, rural areas are considered in the Drone strategy 2.024 (EC, 2021b) to produce utility services (field inspections and measurements) and improve the accessibility of rural areas (for delivery of small goods in rural areas as small packages, prescribed medicine to patient homes, mail, food, etc.). This transformation is supported by European funding as well as national and private funding, while other European programs (CAP, Cohesion Policy, Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe) will consent for further digitization of the agricultural sector through "capacity building (including in digital skills), research and innovation, and demonstration including in the fields of Internet of things, robotics and automation, big data management and use" (EC, 2021c, p. 4). So, if we sum the Long-term Vision agenda to the Bioeconomy Strategy, a precise two-stroke scenario opens up in rural areas: 1) to begin with, according to the Bioeconomy Strategy, they will become biomass producers for energy and industry; 2) then, according to the Long-term Vision, they will also welcome industries and energy production plants25 (fig. 13).

Figure 13: The future of rural areas according to the Bioeconomy Strategy and the Long-term Vision of the EC.

Figure 13: The future of rural areas according to the Bioeconomy Strategy and the Long-term Vision of the EC.

t1= European Commission Bioeconomy Strategy
t2 = European Commission Long-term Vision

41The spatial reorganization also passes through the creation of "startup villages" (having a population approximately equal to or lower than 15,000 inhabitants) to support bioeconomy and strong innovation ecosystems. The objective is for rural areas "to be attractive places for innovators to work and live" and for Europe "to mobilize the wealth of innovation pockets, talents and creative minds outside key knowledge hubs" (EC, 2021b, p. 17).

42In 2021, the European Commission opened a call for pledges that could offer financial support, such as the creation of co-working spaces, IT infrastructure or expertise, coaching, mentoring or training, aiming at creating start-ups and job opportunities in rural areas. To this call, several big corporations in telecommunication, high-tech and energy sectors have answered, committing themselves to support start-up villages and more than 40 villages (from Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Ireland, Croatia, Denmark, Greece and Austria) have sent proposals responding to the pledge26. The innovative businesses are start-ups, SMEs, digital nomads, remote workers and innovators. Intending to go faster in the spread and adoption of innovations in rural areas, rural-focused R&I activities under Horizon Europe support the development of innovations, training, as well as knowledge exchange between the actors of rural innovation through a yearly forum of Start-up Villages27. In this way, the rural villages are destined to lose their identity to become the prototypes of a new socio-spatial organization in a digital key that lays the foundations for an "innovative" gentrification.

  • 28 The roadmap consultation for the vision was open for feedback from July 22nd to the September 9th 2 (...)
  • 29 The Eurobarometer is a series of multi-topic, pan-European surveys undertaken for the European Comm (...)
  • 30 The Commission used this stage to explore the issues in more depth and detail.
  • 31 The European Commission, with the support of the ENRD, provided a pack of materials to support the (...)
  • 32 The participatory week-long conference (organized by ENRD in close cooperation with the European Co (...)

43The Communication "A long-term Vision for EUs Rural Areas - Towards empowered, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas" has been supported by different activities of consultation realized by the European Commission: the consultation on the Commission roadmap (it has been answered by a total of 198 stakeholders28), the online public consultation (it collected a total of 2.326 responses from all 27 Member States and 87 position papers from different stakeholders, most from Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, France and Italy), the Eurobarometer29, the targeted consultations through meetings, conferences and events30, the workshop package31, the rural vision week32, the engagement with the European Parliament, with the Committee of the Regions and with the Economic Social Committee, and the meetings of Vice-President Šuica and Commissioner Wojciechowski with key stakeholders (EC, 2021d, 3-7). In reality, only some of these activities represent real exchanges; the others are informative and/or propaganda activities, with providing materials. For that matter, even actual exchanges have nothing to do with the much-referred to involvement. Dialogues aim to collect information on the perceptions of stakeholders and opinions – "on the current challenges and opportunities facing rural areas, the different policies implemented in rural areas, their hopes for the future of rural areas by 2040, and the actions needed to achieve these ambitions" (EC, 2022b, p. 8) - in order to provide the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development, the element for an in-depth analysis.

44The exchange allowed to collect feedback from citizens and stakeholders between 7th September and 30th November 2020. It used a questionnaire: 18 closed questions on the views of respondents about needs, challenges, and strengths of rural areas and 10 additional questions (to which respondents could choose to respond) exploring the contribution of the instruments and measures of the current Common Agricultural Policy towards balanced territorial development (EC, 2022b).

45It is evident that, as in all consultations, the citizens do not have any capacity to affect the decision process. On the other hand, this consultation is not representative either from a qualitative or a quantitative point of view. In the first case, of the 2.326 responses, 62% (1.452 respondents) were citizens. Less than a third of respondents had a direct link to the farming sector (413) and forestry (47), and only 60% of respondents identifying as citizens lived in rural areas (746 in a rural area; 127 in a remote rural area) (EC, 2022b, pp. 24-29). The remaining 874 responses stemmed from various types of stakeholders: only 5% were directly connected to rural areas (Rural Development Networks, which include Rural Development Agencies and Local Action Groups). From a quantitative point of view, the involvement was extremely low with only 2.326 responses. The number is insignificant when compared to the almost 500.000.000 EU inhabitants.

Discussion

46The analysis of official data points out how rural areas' reality is the opposite of the European Commission "environment-job" narrative about the ability of the Bioeconomy Strategy to support economic growth, creating jobs and protecting the environment at the same time.

47Contrary to the main predictions which forecasted an increase in employment in the primary sector of around 2.2 million units by 2015, in agriculture alone around 1,800,000 jobs were lost from 2012 to 2020. Broadening the focus to other sectors, we observe a different trend in biomass producing and converting sectors: in the first case, the number of people employed decreased significantly (especially for agriculture, fishing and aquaculture) while the turnover increased; in the second case, the situation is very different with the exceptional performance of the energy sector that increased exponentially both in people employment and turnover. On the European scale, considering that agriculture is dominant, especially in Southern and Eastern countries, while forestry biomass, wood products and paper are above all in Northern European countries, and biochemistry and bioenergy production are established in Western European countries, it is clear that there is nothing new under the sun of the southern countries which continue to be penalized.

48In the primary sector, non-salaried job decreased while turnover increased. This means that the mechanized and digitized agriculture model has been established. The Bioeconomy Strategy – to the extent that it supports the agro-industrial and digitalized production model - has fueled the process of expelling peasants and citizens from the countryside and, thus, of their transformation into agro-industrial fields. As a result, the landscape is ever poorer, simplified and uniform. This phenomenon is producing a new phase of land concentration that is more functional to the biomass production on large scale, but it is foreign to the peasant traditions. It regards all European rural areas, but it is particularly visible in the southern European countries that are characterized by a small average agricultural field size and a lot of small farms. So, the continental agricultural model is extended to the Mediterranean countries, while the bioeconomy strategy contributes to homogenize the rural areas of the regions of the North, South and East and standardize the countryside landscape. The land concentration that affects all European countries was also brought to the attention of the European Parliament that denounces the risks and stigmatizes the objectives (Official Journal, 18th October 2017, C/350/5). The situation described here will worsen with the spread of digitization envisaged in the European plans. In this perspective, the countryside and agro-industrial fields are destined to be transformed into agro-digital fields.

49Contrary to the declaration of the Bioeconomy Strategy to achieve economic growth without or with minimum resource depletion and environmental impacts, the reality is very different. For example, in regard to forests, they are used for energy purposes and governance of coppice, as well as their management being oriented towards productivism and profitability. This produces deforestation with a loss of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, as well as a significant impact on global climate change. According to Ceccherini et al. (2020), for the years 2016-2018 (compared with the average of 2011-2015) the harvested forest area increased 43% and harvest for biomass increased 69%. This confirms the concerns about sustainability seen both in the scientific literature and in the 2011 European Commission online public consultation.

50From a geo-economic viewpoint, the rural areas will turn into biomass producers for energy and bio-based industry, and the development's policies are finalized to boost this role by investments into rural transport systems to promote biomass availability. So, the rural areas are destined to become the "biomass’ supply spokes", consolidating the centre-periphery model and the connected socio-economic-spatial injustices.

51Despite the very negative results of the employment that we have seen, in the updated Bioeconomy Strategy, incredibly we can read: "The deployment of a sustainable European bioeconomy would lead to the creation of jobs, particularly in coastal and rural areas through the growing participation of primary producers in their local bioeconomies" (EC, 2018, p. 5). Similarly, the Council of the European Union, in its conclusion about the updated Bioeconomy Strategy "acknowledges the huge potential of the bioeconomy for primary producers (including farmers, foresters and fishermen)" as it can "provide growth and jobs in rural and coastal areas" (CEU, 2019, p. 12). These statements in the institutional documents seem inexplicable, considering that the data on jobs are processed by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, and they must be well-known to the European institutions. On the other hand, the EU Bioeconomy Strategy Progress Report - asked by the European Council to the European Commission, referring to the assessment of indicators in the EU Bioeconomy Monitoring Framework – simply takes note of reduction in the number of workers employed in biomass producing and processing sectors that "is driven by the reduction of the employment in agriculture", in the face of an interesting improvement in the level of labour productivity, expressed in terms of value added per person employed" (EC, 2022a, p. 36), without any substantive analysis of this phenomenon. This is a strong weakness for a "progress report on the implementation of the EU 2018 Bioeconomy Strategy" with the aim "to assess whether or not the Strategy and/or its Action Plan requires updating" (p. 3).

52The institutional initiatives that do not consider reality, including institutional data, appear on the one hand as a propaganda activity to support the usual rhetoric and, on the other hand, a manner for the institution to understand the barriers to the Bioeconomy Strategy development. This is the case, for example, of the Thematic Group (TG) on "Mainstreaming the Bioeconomy" launched by the ENRD CP (European Network for Rural Development) following the 2018 Bioeconomy Strategy, whose goal is "to encourage the development of sustainable bioeconomy value chains in rural areas in order to promote employment and economic growth while preserving ecosystems". Among the main activities, there is background research on bioeconomy and the development of bio-based value chains in Europe, with a focus on: policy perspective, stakeholder initiatives and existing barriers; meetings finalized to involve rural stakeholders, videoconferences, seminars, web portal, video, brochures and fact sheets. The TG identifies opportunities to support the development of bio-based business models through Rural Development Programs (RDP) also and will produce a set of recommendations to improve sustainable rural value chains in the bioeconomy through RDPs (ENRD, 2018).

53Among the main institutional initiatives aimed at seeking social legitimacy, there is the so-called citizen participation which, in principle, should take a considerable importance. In reality it deals only with structured consultations, without any power to influence the decision-making process. Referring specifically to the EU Bioeconomy Strategy (EC, 2012), the online consultation (EC, 2011) has been finalized to collect information, views and opinions from stakeholders and civil society, not to open a public debate. Therefore, the information is used in order to promote bioeconomy and the «involvement» of people aims to simply reassure them, to facilitate consensus reaching, to ensure acceptance and to gain social legitimation, as well as to avoid resistance and oppositions to the territorial transformation process, and to prevent social tensions (EC, 2012, pp. 27-28; Ciervo, 2016). As Arnstein (1969, p. 216) said, over fifty years ago, "if the inhabitants do not have any real influence on the decision process, their participation is only a gesture to allow the power-holders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo". This is the case.

Conclusion

54In conclusion, we observe that today the rural world represents a real reserve of space, soil and natural resources and that it is increasingly at the center of vast economic interests and "development" policies referring to the digitization of agriculture, as well as the diffusion of energy and industrial sectors linked to the so-called bioeconomy. However, far from producing jobs and well-being in the rural areas, it upsets the traditional productive models, the local economies, the landscape and the environment, the places and lifestyles. As a result of this analysis, we can assert that the future of rural areas is agriculture’s digitization, industry and energy. It seems rural areas are definitely destined to be converted, firstly, into areas producing large-scale biomass for energy and materials (referring to agriculture and forestry); then, into sites of biorefineries to produce a wide range of goods, fuels and energy, and connected infrastructures. This will generate intensification of deforestation and reduction of biodiversity; transformation of the countryside into agro-industrial fields and biorefinery sites, with consequent negative impact on the environment and society; reduction of agricultural job due to mechanization and digitization resulting in the further depopulation of the countryside; landscape simplification and standardization; growing dependence of rural economies on the industry and the global market; increase and consolidation of the socio-economic and demographic gap between rural and urban areas, between peripheral and central countries. Consequently, the European Commission’s Bioeconomy Strategy, as well as the Long-term Vision for the UE's rural areas, does not seem to be profitable or sustainable for rural areas and their inhabitants. These outcomes can have important implications for policymakers committed to safeguarding rural areas and implementing policies that are truly sustainable both from an environmental and local economic point of view.

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Notes

1 We also suggest reading the Special Issue "Justice and Power in Bioeconomy", edited in 2022 in Forest Policy and Economics (https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/forest-policy-and-economics/special-issue/10C549VFHK5).

2 According to OECD (2019, p. 22), bioeconomy “can be thought of as a world where biotechnology contributes to a significant share of economic output”.

3 Among countries that have dedicate bioeconomy strategies, in addition to the European Union (which has different situations within itself), are: the United States, Japan, South Africa, Malaysia, Greenland and Iceland. Among countries that have bioeconomy-related strategies, are: Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, Russian Federation, Korea, China, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. In many other countries the bioeconomy strategies are under development.

4 Specifically with regard to bioeconomy, we have analyzed the literature of more than forty geographical journals (generalist, radical, geo-economic and geopolitical journals, as well as journals of applied, physical and environmental geography), from several countries and in different languages (English, French, Italian and Spanish), using advanced search tools (to verify the presence of the word "bioeconomy" in title and key-words), and we have found only eight items (in Antipode, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, Geopolitics, Progress in Human Geography and Geoforum).

5 Science Direct browses 4.660 journals and 33.308 books.

6 For a systematic review of academic contributions to the field of bioeconomy from a social science perspective, see Sanz-Hernàndez et al. (2019); from a social and political viewpoint, you can see Böcher et al. (2020) and Vogelpohl et al. (2021).

7 Kitchen and Marsden (2011) see differences between bio-economy and eco-economy.

8 The weak and strong sustainability refers, respectively, to the anthropocentric and ecocentric approach. The first claims that the so-called “natural capital” and manufactured capital are flawlessly interchangeable. From here it follows that economic growth is necessary for environmental protection and technological innovations can solve all the environmental problems. The second states that substitutability of the natural resources is limited and human actions can produce irreversible environmental impacts. For this reasons, environmental protection laws are considered necessary.

9 About the contradictions of bioeconomy spatial governance, we encourage you to read the Finland case study (Ahlqvist, 2019).

10 We empathize that the sample used in this study is more representative of the respondents to the European Commission online consultation that is of 197 units (41,6% private; 33,2% academic; 14,3% public; 11,2% NGO) (EC, 2011, 14).

11 In some countries, such as Italy, the word "bioeconomy" is used to designate both the Georgescu-Roegen theory and the Strategy of the European Commission, causing great confusion.

12 The Manifesto has been prepared by companies, NGOs, biomass producers and category associations, a few regions and academia, and members of the European Bioeconomy Stakeholders Panel (EBSP, 2017, p. 3) with the intention "of developing the bioeconomy and provide inspiration to regions and Member States, at various stages of development of their bioeconomy strategies, as well as for the EU as a whole" and "to trigger discussions in Member States, regions, and rural, coastal and urban communities on the issues pertinent to the development of a world-leading EU bioeconomy in the context of mounting global competition. It should provide food for thought and a key contribution towards the development of more specific recommendations from different stakeholders, which can then contribute towards the development of several relevant policy initiatives, including a revised EU Bioeconomy Strategy, the EU's Circular Economy package, Smart Specialization strategies, CAP, CFP and Framework Program 9 priorities on Research and Innovation. It outlines concrete actions which should be initiated and carried out by the Bioeconomy Stakeholders Panel and its members' wider networks, as well as by society at large, to contribute to the transition towards a bioeconomy for Europe".

13 It is based on the idea that "ICT tools can play a key role in rural growth through a variety of impacts such as increased efficiency and competitiveness, social inclusion, new business models and opportunities, modernization of services, renewal of governance models through, for example, improved participation of society. This call section will explore the conditions under which the benefits of ICT applications can be maximized. This part will include activities related to the Focus Area Digitizing and transforming European industry and services’" (p. 153).

14 The topic calls aim to address the adoption of ICT-based solutions. The focus is "on innovative technologies that need to be customized, integrated, tested and validated not only by technology developers but also the farming community before they are placed on the market. Special emphasis is on the strengthening of European start-ups and SMEs by adopting new concepts linked to innovative agri-business and/or service models, and connecting them with actors that can provide access to finance, advanced training skills, knowledge and needs of the farming community" (p. 153).

15 The call aims to collect best practice ICT applications and share them in a network of independent advisors to develop the existing ICT advisory tools on biological, physical and economic processes; to develop advisors' ability to support farmers on novel on-farm technologies (e.g. robots, internet of things, technologies, artificial intelligence), including the related costs and benefits and the role and position of farmers in a digital environment (p. 155).

16 We refer to the following key strategic orientations: promoting an open strategic autonomy by leading the development of key digital, enabling and emerging technologies, sectors and value chains to accelerate and steer the digital and green transitions through human-centered technologies and innovations; making Europe the first digitally enabled circular, climate-neutral and sustainable economy through the transformation of its mobility, energy, construction and production systems; creating a more resilient, inclusive and democratic European society, prepared and responsive to threats and disasters, addressing inequalities and providing high-quality health care, and empowering all citizens to act in the green and digital transitions (EC, 2021f).

17 83% include both remote rural areas (48%) and rural areas close to a city (52%) (https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/new-push-european-democracy/long-term-vision-rural-areas/eu-rural-areas-numbers_en)

18 Data source of employed population: www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/tools/skills-intelligence/employed-population?year=2020&country=EU#1. Data source of employed in biofuel and bio-based electricity sectors: https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/datam/mashup/BIOECONOMICS/index.html

19 The research is based on the "the combination of high-resolution satellite records and cloud-computing infrastructures that can handle 'big data' provides a complementary asset for quantifying harvested forest area that is independent of official statistics and overcomes some of the limitations of national inventories" (Checcherini et al., 2020, p. 1).

20 The central point is that biomass is treated as "carbon neutral", and this encourages Europe "not just to burn waste biomass but to harvest and burn more wood from forests and to devote millions of hectares of agricultural land to bioenergy […] Although burning biomass releases even more carbon than burning fossil fuels, the greenhouse gas rules in these proposed laws ignore this carbon loss. As a result, those who burn biomass are credited with reducing carbon emissions regardless of these emissions, of reduced carbon storage from increased wood harvest, and of the carbon lost in native habitats as farmland expands globally to replace foregone food production in Europe" (https://www.landclimate.org/f55/).

21 In order to avoid adverse effects on climate and biodiversity, a group of scientists undersigned, in 2022, a letter to Member States and Members of the European Parliament to amend the bioenergy provisions of the proposed Fit for 55 legislation. A first letter was sent by hundreds of scientists in 2018. It informed the European Parliament that the additional wood harvest for bioenergy is likely to increase global warming for decades to centuries even if forests are harvested "sustainably" and allowed to grow back (https://empowerplants.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/scientist-letter-on-eu-forest-biomass-796-signatories-as-of-january-16-2018.pdf).

22 https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_3162.

23 "Broadband coverage, including 5G, is key for businesses and people to work remotely and adapt to innovations and new economic activities […] A combination of terrestrial and space-based connectivity, ensuring high-speed broadband everywhere for resilient and cost-effective services, will help achieve this. Developing widespread digital literacy is also crucial to ensure accessibility. Finally, data should be used to the benefit of rural areas" (EC, 2021b, 18).

24 The aim of the Drone Strategy 2.0 is developing drones to contribute, through digitization and automation, to a new offer of services and transport while accounting for possible civil/military technological synergies (https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/have-your-say/initiatives/13046-A-Drone-strategy-20-for-Europe-to-foster-sustainable-and-smart-mobility_en).

25 "The development and transition of the industrial and service sectors in rural areas is therefore key, along with value chains linked to the raw materials and energy […] The manufacturing energy and cultural and creative sectors have close connections to and support productivity and employment growth in other sectors in rural areas" (EC, 2021b, 23).

26 joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/scientific-activities-z/european-startup-village-forum_en#awarded-startup-villages.

27 The forum of Startup Villages was launched on 16 November 2021 and its first edition took place in 2022.

28 The roadmap consultation for the vision was open for feedback from July 22nd to the September 9th 2020. The stakeholders include regional interest representations, thematic networks, international organizations, public (national, regional and local) authorities, citizens' organizations, academia and individual citizens.

29 The Eurobarometer is a series of multi-topic, pan-European surveys undertaken for the European Commission since 1970, covering attitudes towards European integration, policies, institutions, social conditions, health, culture, economy, citizenship, security, information technology, environment and other topics (www.eui.eu/research/library/researchguides/economics/statistics/dataportal/eurobarometer).

30 The Commission used this stage to explore the issues in more depth and detail.

31 The European Commission, with the support of the ENRD, provided a pack of materials to support the organization of participatory workshops with rural stakeholders. National Rural Networks (NRNs), Local Action Groups (LAGs), Europe Direct Centres, local authorities, citizens and community groups have contributed to the European Commission’s development of a Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas (LTVRA) via this consultation stream.

32 The participatory week-long conference (organized by ENRD in close cooperation with the European Commission), "Rural Vision Week: Imagining the Future of Europe's rural areas", was an online event from 22 to 26 March 2021.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Development of people employed, turnover and value-added in the production and transformation of biomass.
Crédits Source: https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Titre Figure 2: Bioeconomy sectors in EU27 between 2008 and 2020: employment growth (a); turnover growth (b).
Crédits Source: https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 120k
Titre Figure 3: Agriculture (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).
Crédits Source: author’s elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 192k
Titre Figure 4: Evolution of the number of jobs in agriculture (IN 1000 AWU, annual work unit).
Crédits Source: EC, 2021e, p. 55.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 124k
Titre Figure 5: Utilized agricultural area of the European Union Member States: percentage changes during the period 2010-2020.
Crédits Source: author’s elaboration based on data of https://ec.europa.eu/​eurostat/​statistics-explained/​index.php?title=Farms_and_farmland_in_the_European_Union_-_statistics#Farms_in_2020.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 180k
Titre Figure 6: Bioethanol and biodiesel (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).
Crédits Source: author’s elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 164k
Titre Figure 7: Bio-based electricity sector (EU27, 2008-2020): development of the number of people employed (a) and turnover (b).
Crédits Source: author’s elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Titre Figure 8: Distribution of chemical/material biorefineries in the EU countries.
Crédits Source: EC, 2021a, p. 172.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k
Titre Figure 9: Number of people employed (a) and turnover (b) for liquid biofuel and bio-based electricity sectors, in the European Union (2020).
Crédits Source: author’s elaboration based on data of https://datam.jrc.ec.europa.eu/​datam/​mashup/​BIOECONOMICS/​index.html; URL of the original map: https://d-maps.com/​carte.php?num_car=2232&lang=it
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 288k
Titre Figure 10 - Harvested forest area per year. Percentage of harvested forest area (expressed as the relative amount of forest area affected by management practices) per year in a 0.2° grid cell, excluding forest losses due to fires and major windstorms and areas with sparse forest cover. Grey areas represent countries not included in the analysis.
Crédits Source: Ceccherini, 2020, p. 2.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 496k
Titre Figure 11 - Temporal trends of forest harvests. Time series of forest biomass and area loss due to forest fires, major windstorms, and harvested.
Crédits Source: Checcherini et al. 2020, p. 4.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Figure 12: Changes in land use in the baseline scenario (dashed line) and in the mitigation scenario (solid line).
Crédits Source: EC, 2020b, p. 103
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
Titre Figure 13: The future of rural areas according to the Bioeconomy Strategy and the Long-term Vision of the EC.
Légende t1= European Commission Bioeconomy Strategy t2 = European Commission Long-term Vision
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/docannexe/image/41040/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 223k
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Référence électronique

Margherita Ciervo, « From "Bioeconomy Strategy" to the "Long-term Vision" of European Commission: which sustainability for rural areas? », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Espace, Société, Territoire, document 1068, mis en ligne le 03 juin 2024, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/41040 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11rcj

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Auteur

Margherita Ciervo

Associate Professor of Economic and Political Geography
University of Foggia, Italy
margherita.ciervo[at]unifg.it

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