The cardoon – sometimes known as the thistle artichoke, and a traditional Sardinian crop – is often braised, preserved in oil or distilled to give an aromatic liqueur.
But an innovative project at Porto Torres, in the north of the island, uses the plant to make cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, lubricants, plastics, tyres and more.
Natural waste from cardoon processing provides an excellent animal feed, much of which has historically been imported. Bees – attracted to the artichoke’s distinctive purple flowers – have set up home in hives scattered across the area, with a delicious honey the happy result.
The firm responsible is called Matrìca. It is a joint venture between Versalis, Italy’s largest chemical company, and bioplastics specialist Novamont.
Matrìca is at the forefront of Italy’s growing bioeconomy
says Stefania Trenti, head of industry research at Intesa Sanpaolo and co-author of the bank’s recent report on the subject.
It is one of many renewably and naturally-resourced industrial success stories.
“What began 20 years ago as a series of isolated projects has become a real web of businesses in innovative fields,” says Trenti, whose study – conducted in collaboration with Assobiotec, the Italian Association for the Development of Biotechnology – evaluated the state of the bioeconomy across Europe.
So what is the bioeconomy?
It is defined by the European Commission as those industries using renewable biological resources – such as crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms – to produce food, materials and energy. Trenti believes the bioeconomy is not only an alternative to a fossil fuel-based unsustainable economy, but also that it has hitherto been under-estimated in terms of financial and employment potential.
“It is a growing sector with real significance for the national product of many countries. We felt it important to quantify it properly and consider competition, exports and job creation,” she says.
In 2013 (the most recent year for which comprehensive figures are available), the Italian bioeconomy was worth €244 billion,
amounting to 7.9 per cent of the country’s national production on and employing 1.5 million people.
Globally, the bioeconomy accounted for 12.6 per cent of world trade (with a value of $2,396 billion), up from 9.8 per cent in 2007. “We are not talking about something niche,” says Trenti.
Bioeconomy is relevant to everyday life
Since the European Commission launched its Bioeconomy Strategy in 2012, governments and business leaders have been forced to consider the environmental impact of everything they do. Yet this, says Trenti, is not the only impetus for change. “The bioeconomy is relevant to our everyday lives.”
The 27-hectare Matrìca site, for example, is on course to produce 350,000 tonnes of bio-products per year by 2017. Many local farmers are delighted.
Trenti discovered that such enthusiasm was not unusual. “We have spoken to people in the food, agriculture and chemical industries and found many to be interested and receptive.”
"There are exceptionally innovative small companies, but also some very big, successful Italian businesses already on this road."
Often, says Trenti, it’s the small companies that provide the ideas.
Meeting the competition in a changing world
Increasingly – like Matrìca – chemical companies are looking to cut their use of fossil fuels in favour of biomass – fuel from renewable sources such as crops and waste products. Alongside an increase in environmental awareness, they also need to respond to EU legislation and competition from oil-producing countries, which are starting to develop their own biotech industries.
“Petrochemical production in Italy and much of Europe is ever less competitive,” says Trenti. “To an extent, certain industries in Europe can now be done in a particular way – environmentally sustainably – or not at all.”
Always the key sector in Italy’s bioeconomy, the agri-food industry has been further boosted by last year’s Milan Expo.
“There was a huge leap in awareness of the export potential of Made in Italy food. Much of this, by its very nature, uses biological resources.”
Identifying priorities for growth
There are, however, clear challenges to Italy’s bioeconomy. Among them Trenti cites the current low price of crude oil.
The obligations on governments as a result of agreements made at the Paris climate talks to reduce carbon emissions also place greater demand on the bioeconomy.
Another key problem, she notes, is the insufficient production of agricultural biomass.
“To reduce our reliance on fossil fuels or on the import of biomass – which is environmentally unsound – we must maintain a good production capacity for agricultural resources. The food industry, tourism and now the biochemical industries rely on this. We need to think about how we use our land.”
The development of a skilled workforce is another priority.
There are, Trenti says, positive steps being taken. “We are already seeing businesses asking which skills will be needed and running courses in schools and universities.”
In the crucial agricultural sector – where an aging workforce has been a pressing concern – there are also encouraging signs. “Recently we have seen younger, skilled people going back to the land.”
The picture is one of hope and potential, Trenti concludes. “In many sectors of the bioeconomy – in food, agriculture and also biochemicals – Italy has important cards to play. We have ideas, energy and skills – which we must exploit.”
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