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“Water, an essential resource for the bioeconomy”

Interview with Olivier DAUGER,

Climate-Energy Referent of the French Chamber of Agriculture, President of the Hauts-de-France Regional Chamber of Agriculture, President of the Bioresources community of B4C.


What is the situation with regard to water?

The pressure on water is increasing. This resource, which we thought was abundant and easy to exploit, is very much impacted by climate change. We are experiencing increasingly recurrent rainfall problems, and our water tables are rapidly weakening. This obviously raises the question of crop irrigation, but not only: water is also used extensively by industry, for energy production and for our domestic needs (the largest share of our consumption)…

More and more often we see relatively low water levels, very early in the year, which require severe consumption restrictions. Water is the major issue of the 21st century.  And the pressure on this resource will become increasingly strong.

Had we anticipated this possible scarcity of the resource?

For those who follow the evolution of the climate, this is not a surprise. Overall, the same amount of water always falls in a year, but it is now distributed very differently. We see major floods at certain times and intense droughts at others. This is the scenario that meteorologists have been predicting for the past 15 or 20 years and that we are now seeing. Of course, there are wet springs from time to time, but periods of drought, and early droughts, are becoming more and more frequent. The water tables are not being recharged properly. We need to think about solutions now. We could store, with systems of basins for example, the quantities of water that are abundant during floods, since today this is water that is lost, which not only causes enormous damage, but does not penetrate the soil in the long term. These reserves could, for example, be used for agriculture in times of drought, or be released into rivers when water levels are too low.

Water reuse is also a major issue. In France we hardly ever reuse city water, it is cleaned and filtered before being released into rivers. This water could be used, especially in the industrial sector.

Domestic use is the most important in terms of volume. The potential for reuse is very high.

These are avenues that we must explore.

How will the issue of water impact the bioeconomy?

The question we have to ask ourselves is: what biomass can we use for the bioeconomy in the future? If the water issue becomes very tense, we will have to make political choices, which will prioritise food production; although the bioeconomy is a necessity to help us move away from fossils… We will probably be torn.

So how can we adapt in order for the bioeconomy to continue to grow?

The bioeconomy players need to integrate the issue of the agricultural transition related to water. We could already avoid plants that require too much water, for example. It will be complicated to cultivate them tomorrow, so is it reasonable to develop bioeconomy sectors with these types of plants? In the future, isn’t sorghum more likely to develop than maize? This is a question that needs to be asked now.

If the bioeconomy is a necessity and an opportunity for our territories, it must integrate the question of resources from now on, and start with plants adapted to a climate of 2°C more. Imagining that biomass is a raw material available at will may have been true a few years ago, but this will not necessarily be the case anymore. We need to choose carefully the types of biomass we want to produce in order to build the future bioeconomy. I believe that the question has not yet been clearly asked. We need to look 20 or 30 years ahead.

A company like Ynsect is in this logic: they have asked themselves the question of animal proteins, and have chosen to raise insects which, for the same quantity of proteins produced, consume much less raw material and use much less land. This is a way of anticipating and developing the animal protein production chain.

The difficulty with this anticipation is that in agriculture we are dealing with long cycles. The players in the bioeconomy can only work with available biomass. This is one of the difficulties encountered today. Despite everything, I think that we must start with biomasses that take into account climate change in order to build future bioeconomy sectors.

Will all biomasses change?

Our forests are already suffering from global warming. The ONF, like private operators, are already planting tree varieties that grow with 3 or 4°C more… They have integrated into their sector the necessary adaptation of forests to climate change. But this biomass will not be available for many years.

The same applies to all biomass production sectors: they will have to evolve. Silphia, for example, a plant that saves water and plant protection products, could be increasingly cultivated to feed livestock or methanisation plants. The Argentinians have developed a genetically modified wheat that produces the same amount of grain as traditional wheat, while consuming half as much water. Solutions exist to adapt our biomass production. We must work to implement them collectively.

What role should the B4C network play in this water issue?

It must integrate it into its vision of the development of tomorrow’s sectors. It is one of the major elements of the equation. There will be no sustainable development, no bioeconomy, without water. The strengths and weaknesses of the entire sector must be taken into account; it is necessary to anticipate, to foresee, to build it in the long term. B4C must be an actor and a craftsman of this construction, by accompanying all the actors of the sector in the anticipation and adaptation to the increasing scarcity of water.

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