After the industrial and information revolutions, the transition to a sustainable economy will be the third revolution to significantly change the face of the world, says Prof. Lubbert Dijkhuizen, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Groningen. According to Dijkhuizen, the Northern Netherlands is the ideal base for the Dutch biobased economy. ‘Greenhouse complexes along the A7 motorway, biorefineries in Delfzijl and mass agricultural production in the Drenthe peat region: the North offers fantastic opportunities for the economy of the future. We need to exploit these opportunities now.’
‘It is obvious that our petroleum-based economy has had its day. Anybody who has to pay €1.80 at the pump for a litre of petrol will understand that oil getting very scarce – and that we need to learn to live without it. If we want to have a gradual transition to a sustainable biobased economy then we need to act now. There are fantastic opportunities for the economy of the future in the North, an economy that does not exhaust and pollute the environment, where sustainability and re-use are a matter of course and where all systems are closed.’
‘The North once rose to greatness thanks to agricultural development and the transition to a biobased economy could make it a great economic engine again. We have a huge area of fertile farmland in the North. The region is relatively sparsely populated and there are many large and small agribusiness companies who are eager to adopt innovative agricultural and livestock management methods. From plastic bags to nutrients and drugs: we still rely on oil for a countless range of raw materials. Soon we will be obtaining these materials from high-quality crops developed in pilot projects, greenhouse complexes and farms on land and sea, all based on innovative agricultural and livestock management systems.’
‘Of course, there are already many successful innovative projects. The Carbohydrate Competence Center – a partnership between industry, knowledge institutes and government bodies – for example, is working on revolutionary new ways of processing potatoes. Starch molecules are being modified to release glucose more slowly, which results in a healthier product. AVEBE is investigating new methods to extract not only starch, but also proteins from the potato. And FrieslandCampina is successfully developing methods to extract healthy nutrients from the by-products of the cheese industry.’
‘Alongside developing smarter ways to use established crops, we also need to invest in the cultivation of new and “forgotten” crops. Small pilot farms bordering on the national parks could grow flax, hemp and lupine – crops that offer a wealth of useful molecules. Greenhouse complexes along the A7 motorway could grow high-quality crops for the production of medicinal substances. Aquafarms in the Eemshaven region could grow algae, seaweed and duckweed – amazing sources of proteins and fats. The Delfzijl region is an ideal location for the necessary bio-refineries.’
‘Industry, knowledge institutes and government bodies in the North are already stimulating innovation, in relatively small projects driven by industrial demand. However, we need to pick up the pace. Aquafarms, for example, are the subject of much discussion but little decision-making, even though the provinces of Zeeland and Brabant are already developing such farms. We cannot afford to fall further behind.’
‘Large-scale European farm subsidies seem to have had their day. Clearly, Europe should use the last funds it has available to stimulate innovation in the agribusiness sectors. These sectors would become self-supporting after a time and could then form the basis for the economy of the future. This will not be easy in a Europe with 27 member states, all with divergent interests, but we have to get this message across clearly nonetheless. We have to make clear how ideal our region is as a base for the biobased economy. But above all, we need to get to work ourselves. There are fantastic opportunities in the North for the economy of the future. We need to exploit these opportunities now.’
Lubbert Dijkhuizen (1951) is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Groningen and Scientific Director of the Carbohydrate Competence Center. He has initiated many research projects into life processes in microorganisms and relevant industrial and other applications of this fundamental knowledge. The main focus of this research is the ability to use microorganisms and enzymes in biotechnological processes, in particular in the conversion of carbohydrates. In addition, Dijkhuizen also conducts research on tuberculosis and its inhibitors.
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