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University of Hohenheim – a strong commitment to the bioeconomy

The University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart has just published a strategy paper with the bioeconomy as a core topic of its research activities. Heike Laue talked with the university’s rector, Prof. Dr. Stephan Dabbert, about the paper.

According to your strategy paper, the bioeconomy will in future become a major topic of research at the University of Hohenheim. Is this not too limited thematically considering the fact that the strategy is to be implemented across the entire university?

Prof. Dr. Stephan Dabbert, rector of the University of Hohenheim. © Universität Hohenheim / R. Pfisterer

No, I don’t think so. The bioeconomy is not only a major social challenge. It is also a complex thematic area that covers many scientific fields. The focus on a bioeconomy even gives us the opportunity to pool many of our existing research activities. It enables us to combine our long tradition in the agricultural sciences, the strong areas of biology, nutrition and food sciences as well as the very central economic and social sciences. The strong commitment to bioeconomy research does not however mean that the university is exclusively devoted to this topic. The search for answers to key bioeconomy issues creates connections that we would like to promote and expand upon.

Your objective is to deal with the topic in a holistic way. Can you elaborate on this?

We will begin with the basis of the bioeconomy, which is the plant. Plants are at the origins of production, whether it is food or feed or the replacement of artificial fibres in clothing. And also whether we are looking at renewable resources to replace synthetic raw materials or whether we are working on replacing fossil fuels such as petrol, gas and coal with plant-based fuels.

Here in Hohenheim, we have more than 30 professors dealing with plants in the narrower or wider sense – for example how relevant plants can be bred and cultivated. They are simultaneously investigating how this can be done in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, taking into account culture areas, biodiversity, climate, resource conservation and energy efficiency. 

But the bioeconomy is more than just plant production, isn't it?

Prof. Dr. Regina Birner from the University of Hohenheim and member of the BioÖkonomieRat (Bioeconomy Council) supports the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research in issues relating to the bioeconomy. The expert council assists the German government in its efforts to turn Germany into a leading nation in the bioeconomy field. © Universität Hohenheim / R. Pfisterer

Yes, that’s right. This is why we are pooling a broad range of different competences. Product and method development mainly involves life scientists, biologists, biotechnologists and nutrition experts. 

As far as this field of research is concerned, we also focus on the application of microorganisms for the bioproduction of enzymes and other important industrial compounds. 

As a matter of fact, the efficiency of bioeconomy processes needs to be comparable to those of a fossil-based economy, which is mainly dependent on price, cost and market and competitive structures. Any reflections on this issue must take economic analyses of the bioeconomy system into account – and this is the third area in which the University of Hohenheim is extremely well positioned.

This sounds rather complex.

The time for simple answers is over. If you look at our strategy paper, it is entitled “Bioeconomy 2020 – understanding and designing complex systems”. Despite all the innovation that is going on, the bioeconomy is more than just the manufacture of new products from plants.

As scientists, we make the claim that our research should also contribute to securing global nutrition and the protection of the climate, resources and the environment.

Can you give me an example of one of your research projects?

In collaboration with five partner universities in Europe, North and South America, the University of Hohenheim operates an international network for students, doctoral students and researchers interested in the bioeconomy. The DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) promotes the exchange of students and researchers with around 80 scholarships, which offer total funding of 900,000 euros. © Universität Hohenheim

Let’s have a look at the field of renewable resources. Hohenheim is currently running Europe’s largest field trial focussed on the systematic comparison of all new energy crops with one another. The investigations not only involve the assessment of energy yield. Our researchers also carry out life cycle assessments, assess biodiversity, measure greenhouse gases and develop standards for future energy crops. Another example is a workgroup dealing with regional climate change, which involves around ten professors. Meteorologists work with plant researchers and social scientists and are aiming to come up with predictions on how changes in agriculture and climate can affect one another. 

Having said that, the bioeconomy is also viewed critically, isn’t it? The critics’ major argument against the implementation of a bioeconomy is that as long as 800 million people around the world are starving, plants should only be used for the production of food.

At present, the University of Hohenheim is working on the establishment of a bioeconomy master’s course. 15 places will be available from autumn 2014 and a professorship will be created with funds from the “Master’s 2016” programme run by the Baden-Württemberg government which aims to increase the number of master’s degree places in the state. © Universität Hohenheim
The days of agricultural surpluses are gone. Biomass has become a scarce commodity. The University of Hohenheim has a long tradition in global nutrition research and works with scientists from all continents. Two of our research centres, the Tropenzentrum and the Food Security Centre, which together have over 100 members of staff, are particularly active in this field. Nevertheless, the bioeconomy claims to be a biobased economic system that is able to adequately feed the world with healthy foods and high-quality products made from renewable raw materials. There is much need for research on this topic and the issue is a matter of passionate debate at the University of Hohenheim. This is good, because only discourse brings about new knowledge.

The University of Hohenheim is not alone in its plan to become involved in intensive research into the bioeconomy. Numerous research institutions in Baden-Württemberg in particular are focussed on this topic.

It is to the credit of the Baden-Württemberg Science Minister, Theresia Bauer, that she recognised the bioeconomy theme as an important issue for Baden-Württemberg. Major existing bioeconomy skills in the state have been brought together under the auspices of the Bioeconomy Strategy Circle. The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts’ latest plans are to support bioeconomy research with 12 million euros in funding. We regard ourselves as a major building block of a very rich research environment and we are very happy about that. A huge challenge such as the production of bioenergy can only be tackled with diversity, a network of scientific collaboration partners and scientific competition. 

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Stephan Dabbert
Institute of Farm Management 
Universität Hohenheim
70593 Stuttgart, Germany
Tel.: +49 711 459 22541
Fax: +49 711 459 23499

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/university-of-hohenheim-a-strong-commitment-to-the-bioeconomy