Holistically transforming the bioeconomy sector to harmonize sustainability with economic and environmental goals – this was the core focus of the insights shared at the Bioeconomy Forum 2024 held in March. Industry professionals, policymakers, academics, business and NGO representatives as well as young innovators from Lithuania and abroad exchanged their perspectives at the Vilnius Town Hall. Over 2,000 participants from across the EU, both in-person and online, joined the event, eager to collaboratively shape the future.

The forum was organized by the cluster and digital innovation hub AgriFood Lithuania and the Research Council of Lithuania, in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy and Innovation, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Innovation Agency, LithuaniaBIO, and Invest Lithuania. The event was part of the Europe-wide Bioeconomy Changemakers Festival, initiated by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, in cooperation with youth ambassadors in the bioeconomy sector.

Greetings from the EU Commissioner

Opening the forum, Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries, expressed support for the country’s commitment to finding ways to strengthen the sector. According to him, the bioeconomy offers sustainable opportunities for innovation in agriculture, forestry, and rural areas, enabling income diversification, cost reduction, and increased resilience.

“In the pursuit of transformation, the primary goal must remain sustainability – biomass resources are limited, so we must manage them very carefully both on land and at sea. And let’s not forget to involve the youth in any processes, whose creativity and energy will be crucial in driving innovations, especially in revitalizing remote areas,” shared V. Sinkevičius in his welcoming remarks.

Lithuania’s Minister of Agriculture, Kęstutis Navickas, emphasized that bioeconomy is a very broad field, and we must harness as many competencies and unconventional solutions as possible to successfully implement specific aspects: “Creating added value from our own production, rather than being a country of raw materials, is one of the key goals we should actively pursue.”

According to the Lithuanian Vice Minister of Economy and Innovation, the challenges faced daily by EU member states are very similar, so we can only solve them together. With these words, Ieva Valeškaitė encouraged the international, interdisciplinary audience to share best practices and seek productive forms of teamwork.

“The national bioeconomy sector already accounts for 7.5% of the total GDP, and we can further harness its potential. For example, by expanding R&D&I activities that ensure collaboration between science and business in the private sector and the growth of human resource competencies,” the speaker commented on the ministry’s contribution.

Towards a sustainable European bioeconomy – inclusive and with a unified strategy

Kristina Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė, CEO of AgriFood Lithuania, welcomed event participants and called for the exploration of new bioeconomy definitions during the high-level opening discussion. She encouraged sharing ideas on how to integrate these definitions into each related sector. According to her, fostering the growth of young talents and ensuring women’s leadership would not only create a fairer society in terms of equality and inclusion but also drive progress in the bioeconomy.

“Young people and women are among the strongest pillars that will help lay the foundation for a greener tomorrow, where dynamic, diverse, and innovative businesses thrive. Undoubtedly, sustainability and responsible resource use should also be considered as potential strengths and competitive advantages for companies. Organizations that implement these principles will not only gain consumer support but also open doors to new markets,” emphasized Kristina Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė.

Other key insights from the first panel included the need for an action plan with very clearly defined goals and objectives for the successful development of the bioeconomy. However, Argo Peepson, Head of the Bioesources and Climate Department at the Estonian Ministry of Regional Affairs and Agriculture, reminded us that yet another document without a shared vision will not have much significance.

“National bioeconomy strategies should clearly reflect the dialogue between ministries, universities, entrepreneurs, and all other stakeholders, addressing gaps and clarifying perspectives. And a simply better understanding of the bioeconomy concept is crucial in this process. Activities like food production and forestry have existed for thousands of years, yet society questions why we only now talk about these integral parts of the sector as the essence of the bioeconomy,” A. Peepson said.

Alternative proteins: challenges drive improvement

The once niche idea of meat substitutes is now a leading trend, crucial for improving the resilience of food systems, responding to global changes, and other factors. In a discussion dedicated to this topic, Seth Roberts, The Good Food Institute Europe Policy Manager, spoke about the regulation of the alternative protein industry.

“On one hand, regulation can hinder the market entry of both new products and the technologies developed for them. However, we can see the challenges posed by certain rules as opportunities for improvements, such as speeding up processes or fostering closer collaboration between regulatory bodies and companies.

Moreover, we have observed significant progress in innovation development since last year. Many new plant-based products have been approved, and both EU and national funding have increased. This indicates recognition that alternative proteins will play a major role in the future food system,” shared S. Roberts.

Former long-time CEO of EIT Food, Andy Zynga, highlighted the importance of consumer education in this direction: “Encouraging and implementing innovations is not enough. We must invest in educating people, not only presenting protein diversity alternatives but also providing real knowledge about what they are, how they work, and their benefits to society and the environment,” explained the ambassador of the world’s largest food innovation initiative.

I. Valeškaitė emphasized that Lithuania needs to actively participate in all discussions on alternative proteins currently taking place at the EU level. This is not only due to economic or ethical aspects but also because of food security, a highly relevant and sensitive topic since Russia started the war on our continent.

“One of the tasks we need to undertake ourselves is growing the talent pool. We can already be proud of the scientists developing the necessary technologies, but it is crucial to strengthen the potential of promising students as much as possible, including scholarships and grants to gain experience from the best in Europe,” said the Deputy Minister of Economy and Innovation.

The Netherlands are leaders in the field of alternative proteins. Therefore, the agreement to promote sector development in Lithuania and across Europe, signed by the Innovation Agency and Cell Agriculture Europe at the Green Horizons Summit 2024, opens up this and many other opportunities.

The sector needs a broad-visioned generation and they need supportive mentors

The EU Bioeconomy Youth Ambassador, Science and Innovation Advisor at the Ministry of Agriculture of Lithuania, Ugnė Dirdaitė, highlighted in a panel discussion reflecting youth empowerment that her generation tends to think globally but act locally: “We see no difference in causes of both local and global problems, and once identified, we are not afraid to seek solutions. This is very important in the bioeconomy sector,” she said.

Nelo Emerencia, Director of Human Capital & Stakeholder Relations of the Bio-Based Industries Consortium, agreed noting that the current generation demonstrates great courage to take risks and view failures as lessons, as well as a stronger entrepreneurial mindset than before: “Young talents understand that we need not only a variety of fermentation technologies but also tools to apply them and then increase and maintain their demand,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, Andželika Rusteikienė, Director of Lithuania Junior Achievement, shared her insights about the growing expectation of young people for educators to be mentors or coaches rather than traditional teachers: providing practical advice and comprehensive support instead of conventional knowledge and teaching methods: “This changing educational environment suggests a need for a more collaborative and supportive approach that would inspire future generations to unleash their full potential,” said the panellist.