Only the sun comes up for free

The vast potential of the bio-based economy

For countless centuries, agriculture has relied on the inexhaustible source of solar energy. It has given us what we need to make food, clothing, medicines and construction materials. Since the Second World War, these agricultural materials have given way to synthetics that generate mountains of waste and tonnes of CO2 emissions. The concept of circular enterprise is helping to solve this problem. But the real potential lies in the bio-based economy with new, advanced materials that are driven by the power of the sun. Rabobank is supporting the development of vegetable materials produced with modern technologies for use in packaging, antibiotics, car parts, vitamins, smartphones and more. "It’s good for the planet, for consumers and for business," is stated by Hans van Hooren, Senior Relationship Banker Food & Agribusiness at Rabobank.

"The Dutch have a saying: 'Only the sun comes up for free'. It means that everything costs time and money, except what comes from the sun. And it’s literally true, because what the sun gives us doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t pollute. Plants use sunlight, water and minerals to convert carbon dioxide from the air into an infinite variety of molecules. Moulds and bacteria can convert those molecules into nutrients or fibres. The potential is huge: even today, humanity is only using a fraction of all the processes in nature – but we are gaining more understanding of them every day.

For centuries, mankind used the inexhaustible energy of the sun without having any idea of what was happening at the molecular level. Agriculture fed people and gave people countless other materials for clothing (wool, cotton and leather), packaging and construction. There was no such thing as waste. Anything left – manure, unusable vegetable parts, leftover food – went back into the soil as fertilizer or was used as animal feed; even textile cuttings found new uses."

The shift: the synthetic age

"The shift came with the Industrial Revolution. People needed new energy sources and raw materials for manufacturing on a large scale. Initially, this was the rise of oil as a fuel and later as a raw material that could be turned into products like polyester and nylon. After the Second World War, worldwide investments on a massive scale in knowledge and infrastructure for the extraction and application of fossil fuels launched us into what we now know as the 'synthetic age'. Today, plastic, nylon and polymers are the materials for everything from clothing and shoes to smartphones, water bottles, medicines, furniture, buildings, car parts, and everything in between."


"With the rise of synthetic materials the amount of waste increased dramatically to the point where today, waste has become a worldwide problem requiring a solution. In the final decades of the 20th century, collection and reprocessing of materials became widespread, but not every product can be recycled in useful and meaningful ways. For some products, recycling them takes more energy than making them again from new raw materials. The only benefit to recycling would then be saving on raw materials."

Circular enterprise

"Circular enterprise is a concept that began to emerge at the start of the 21st century and goes much further than recycling waste. When you design a product, like an office lighting system or a car, it's already normal to consider the entire lifecycle of the product, so materials can be used as long as possible and worn-out parts can be easily replaced. That means less waste and less demand for raw materials and energy."

The turning point

"Although that’s a step forward, what we really need is an innovative economy based on ever-improving renewable materials. This innovation is coming from industrial biotechnology, a smart blend of microbiology and chemical technology. It is based on a light on the horizon that has nurtured us since the dawn of humanity: the sun. Science and technology have reached the point where we’re finally seeing the immense potential of the inexhaustible energy of the sun and the intelligent design of the DNA of plants, microorganisms and even human beings to produce materials on a large scale for the applications we need for life in the 21st century. Science has unlocked the understanding of how plants like beets and maize and microorganisms like algae use sunlight to grow and reproduce. We now also have tremendous knowledge of how enzymes, yeasts and bacteria convert vegetable matter, algae, and even green waste into raw materials we can use for clothing, cleaning products, shoes, smartphones, water bottles, medicines, furniture, building materials and car parts. The creative opportunities are as vast as the inventiveness of nature itself. The technology that can be used in large-scale biorefineries is already here."

"Science has unlocked the understanding of how plants like beets and maize and microorganisms like algae use sunlight to grow and reproduce."

Hans van Hooren, Senior Relationship Banker Food & Agribusiness at Rabobank

Biomaterials and food production

"But isn’t the production of these bio-based materials going to come at the expense of the production of food for the more than 9 billion people who are going to be sharing this planet in 2050? Modelling has shown that the production of food and the production of biomaterials can go hand in hand. Non-edible parts of plants and agricultural surpluses can be used as biomaterials. Even if we were to set aside agricultural land specifically for cultivating plant-based substitutes for synthetics, that would still leave 95% of all arable land for food production. One thing that is clear is that production of biomaterials helps farms to increase their income per hectare. And that gives farmers more financial room to invest in sustainable, efficient food production."

Agriculture and chemistry have to come together

"How do we make these ideas a reality? It’s clear that the worlds of agriculture and chemistry are coming together. I mean that literally and figuratively. Literally, we have to make the transport distance for agricultural materials to the chemical industry shorter, cheaper, and more sustainable. Figuratively, the same thing goes. Chemical companies and farmers both need to start getting what is going on in each other’s world and take advantage of the opportunities provided by them. Collaboration between parties is also vital for making the financing of this kind of new technology and activity happen. Collaboration in the supply chain will mean more predictability in production costs and margins. For financing, private investors and governmental agencies will have to join forces, particularly because investors are unfamiliar with these new technologies and applications."

Good for the planet, good for consumers and good for business

"Rabobank is supporting the advancement of the bio-economy. It’s good for the planet, good for consumers, and it’s good for businesses because it reduces their dependence on fossil raw materials and the CO2 emissions that come along with them. The transition to the bio-economy is also good for farmers and that makes it good for feeding the world.

"Ultimately, what we’re going to see is the dawn of a new age. In 2050, the agricultural sector will not only be the biggest supplier of food for humans and animals, but of functional material for human use as well."

Hans van Hooren, Senior Relationship Banker Food & Agribusiness at Rabobank

Rabobank is bringing together companies in the chemical industries with the world of agriculture and farmers. They have the knowledge and networks that help chemical companies and agricultural enterprises to discover opportunities and possibilities together and to take advantage of them. Once they put their plans together, the bank evaluates them for feasibility, profitability and risk. Rabobank arranges the financing for good plans, either directly on their bank balance sheet or through partners.

Ultimately, what we’re going to see is the dawn of a new age. In 2050, the agricultural sector will not only be the biggest supplier of food for humans and animals, but of functional material for human use as well. Just like the telephone industry and the information technology industries came together to create the wonderful world of ICT, we are going to see agriculture and chemistry come together to create the even more fascinating bio-based world."

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