Europe has been pushing to grow its blue bioeconomy for years, including sectors that produce high value chemicals and materials processed from marine organisms. We look at the EU’s policies around this and the hurdles it faces in becoming a bigger industry that can support regional decarbonisation.
What is the blue bioeconomy?
The blue economy covers fisheries and other primary sectors relating to ocean resource extraction, shipping, and energy generation. The European Investment bank group defines it as “all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.”
The blue bioeconomy is a subset of the blue economy. It refers to marine-based sectors that draw specifically on biomass from the sea, either for primary extraction (fisheries and aquaculture) or to create processed materials and new biotechnologies for consumer and industrial markets.
For higher value biotech goods, marine biomass is often transformed at biorefineries or laboratories into novel chemical substances for use in food, medicine, cosmetics, and even for environmental clean-up technologies.
Why is the blue bioeconomy growing?
So far, materials and chemicals made from marine organisms remain a very minor part of the European bioeconomy – only 35 biorefineries located in Europe use marine feedstock, with 51% in commercial operation, 31% in pilot phase, and 17% for R&D.
Still, the blue bioeconomy research attracted 800 million euros from the EU in the three years up to 2022. Investors like Ocean 15 Capital Fund 1 (London), Indico Blue Fund (Lisbon), and Katapult Ocean Deep Blue Fund that specifically target the sector have also sprung up in recent years.
The interest stems from the fact that marine ecosystems offer growth potential. These spaces have been far less subject to intervention than land-based ecosystems, which humans have systematically exploited for thousands of years through agriculture and forestry.
This makes for an appealing commodity frontier for venture capitalists and policymakers, harbouring organisms that contain biological mechanisms that could inspire engineering and design solutions (the field of biomimicry) or biotechnologies that could replace fossil-based materials with renewable ones.
The blue bioeconomy also plays an important role in the European Green Deal which aims to transition all marine sectors towards sustainable practices and value chains. Cultivating a sustainable ocean economy is also meant to support the European Green Deal’s broader aims of meeting growing demand for food and other resources in the region while still preserving biodiversity, reducing pollution, and carbon emissions.
High value marine products could achieve this by offering replacements for non-biodegradable, carbon intensive petrochemical products with new renewable materials that are lower impact and potentially circular. The EU stated in a 2021 underlining how blue biotechnology in particular “offer solutions to produce materials, enzymes, food supplements and pharmaceuticals” without the carbon costs of traditional products.
EU blue bioeconomy initiatives
Since 2021, the EU has set up funding platforms targeted at the blue economy. This includes the new European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund, especially its ‘BlueInvest’ platform and the new BlueInvest Fund.
The BlueInvest initiative aims to boost innovation and investment in sustainable technologies for the blue economy, especially by supporting financial access for early-stage businesses, SMEs and scale-ups. Its pipeline includes several algae- related projects.
The EU-sponsored Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Initiative is also part of this. It was jointly founded by the European Commission, WWF for Nature, and the World Resources institute, publishing practical guides for financial institutions and aiming towards a global investment framework for sustainable economic activities around the ocean.
The blue boom in algae
One of the blue bioeconomy sectors receiving intense attention right now from investors and policymakers are based on algae. For example, the EU’s Circular Bio-based Europe – Europe’s biggest bioeconomy fund – has included the segment in its most recent funding call, calling specifically for projects that offer ways to use sustainable microalgae as feedstock for ‘innovative, added-value applications’.
So far, the EU Commission has backed around 300 algae-related projects through various programmes like the 2014-2020 European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), the LIFE Programme, INTERREG and others.
Investors and commentators are lauding marine algae for their chemical versatility and the low levels of inputs required to grow the biomass compared to land-based crops, which draw on large amounts of fertiliser and contribute to biodiversity damage.
The EU has a plethora of large-scale organisations devoted to growing the algal industry in the region.
First is the EU Algae Initiative, whose driving aim is to encourage wider use of marine algal biomass. Its emphasis is on the sustainable production of feedstock, supporting projects in regenerative algal production that supports the growth of healthy marine ecosystems. One of its target areas is the development of algae-based plant biostimulants that could support land-based crop yields without the use of environmentally damaging synthetic fertilisers.
The EU Algae Initiative’s last major publication went out on 15 November 2022, detailing what more needs doing to grow the regional sector based on stakeholder consultations.
To overcome constraints on knowledge-sharing in this emerging sector, the EU set up EU4Algae in 2022, a networking platform project funded by the EU between 2022 and 2025. It is intended to become the major network driving forward the aims of the EU Algae Initiative. It includes about 600 numbers which span the breadth of the algae industry.
The EU is also fostering research networks that investigate new ways of bringing algal products into industry. TheEABA, the European Algal Biomass Association established in 2009, has about191 industrial, scientific and individual members and 14 observers. It has created 6 working groups dealing with algal products and applications for agriculture, aquaculture, cosmetics, food, organic applications and wastewater.
Growing pains in the algae biotech industry
As much as European policy is pushing for a bigger blue bioeconomy, one of the hurdles remains feedstock. Industrially scaling marine biobased goods will demand reliable high-volume crops as even the most innovative biotech products rely on primary extraction.
Asia is far ahead of Europe on scaled seaweed cultivation, particularly in offshore mariculture farms, which offer one route to achieving the volumes required.
Yet this raises a huge governance issue. Although it has the potential to offer more sustainable raw materials, seaweed farming does not come without environmental costs especially if cultivation occurs on the scale targeted by EU green policy.
The EU aims to put 30% of its marine areas as designated biodiversity protection areas by 2030. How this can be squared with higher demands on marine resources is one of the biggest dilemmas faced by the EU’s blue bioeconomy ambitions.
Cultivated macroalgae, for example, can potentially reduce water flows and change sedimentation rate, compete for nutrients with naturally occurring primary producers, take up pollutants that can affect its use for human consumption, release dissolved and particulate organic matter, alter the marine physiochemical environment and thus wildlife, increase the risk of alien species or parasites, or change the structure of local flora and fauna, which may impact fish, birds, and marine mammals.
The EU blue bioeconomy is currently being pulled in two directions: on the one hand, between the impulse to set up new renewable materials industries from scratch. On the other, there is caution from scientists and environmental authorities wary of pushing ahead with large-scale cultivation. They are worried that the ecological damage and social conflicts characteristic of industrial land-based agriculture will simply be replicated at sea, pointing to the uncertainty of scientific environmental risk assessments of macroalgae production and the need to resolve possible conflicts with other marine sectors.
The potential hazards of large-scale marine biomass cultivation poses not just a difficulty for environmental agencies that must regulate coastal waters but also the businesses that sell seaweed-derived materials as an answer to petrochemicals.
Industrial scaling and environmental protection have historically not gone hand in hand but in a climate tech market where greenwashing scandals are rife, businesses are under pressure to meet the twin goals of scaling and conservation simultaneously if they are to maintain consumer trust.
Yet achieving an environmentally sound algal industry is a tough balancing act. Environmental regulations are necessary but in their current form, also make it difficult for fledgling startups to get going – including those that may have innovative and ecologically sound business models.
Large scale seaweed agriculture has not been practised widely in Europe and targeted governance architecture lags well behind the enthusiasm betting on the industry to grow. Seaweed cultivation enterprises, to give one example, can get caught up in a thicket of laws covering coastal environmental and fishing laws.
One study recently collected stakeholder opinions on macroalgae biomass production across six different countries, covering the Baltic Sea region (Finland, Germany and Estonia) and the North Atlantic Ocean (Norway, Iceland and Sweden). The companies expressed their dissatisfaction with the non-specific nature of the laws concerning marine cultivation as well as complex licensing procedures that cause delays or affect a business’ viability.
The governance gap stretches right the way downstream. There are major gaps in laws regulating novel consumer products made from marine materials. EU law on fertiliser, for example, does not include algae-based biostimulants, making it difficult for entrepreneurs to market their products.
There is not a shortage of solutions to the problem. The Dutch Government’s North Sea 2050 Spatial Agenda is experimenting with Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture that grows seaweed, mussel, and fish together, making for a more robust and diverse cultivation ecosystem. Its ‘Wind+Weed’ and ‘Wave+Weed’ programmes also puts seaweed cultivation in the same areas as wind-turbines and wave-energy capture to reduce the biodiversity impacts of offshore renewables.
Again, however, more initiatives like this will demand EU policy and law laying out clear definitions for key terms like ‘regenerative mariculture’ so that targeted investment can flow to worthwhile projects.