Why we (should) love insects…

Insects are the future. Or in any case, they’ll be part of our culinary future. This is probably not the first time that you hear something about the use of insects in the food industry. True adventurers among us may even already have tried a juicy larvae burger or some crunchy cricket cookies. But the potential of insects is much bigger than you might expect. In fact, insects could serve as a fundamental resource for the production of numerous nutritious or industrial end products. Even applications in the pharmaceutical industry are not unheard of.

So, we’re technically able to use insects in various production chains. Good. That doesn’t mean that we should, right? Why would we want to explore the potential of the creepy little creatures that give so many of us nightmares?

There are several reasons. As mentioned earlier, the grensregio is moving towards a biobased economy. We want to reduce our negative impact on the climate and natural environment, which we can partially achieve by using more biobased and less non-renewable resources. The Flemish government, for example, has developed an action plan for more sustainably produced proteins for livestock nutrition, trying to reduce local dependency on imported soy products. Being gold-medallists in the upcycling of waste streams, insects could really help us out here. They feed on many different types of organic ‘waste’ and are able to convert this into useful raw materials, such as proteins, fats and chitin. While doing so, they hardly emit any greenhouse gases and need only very little water and space. Insects could therefore lie at the heart of new, sustainable value chains in the biobased economy.

A new question comes to mind: if insects are indeed tiny recycling climate-heroes, then why don’t we already use them all the time? This is partially because investors face high risks due to the premature and uncertain status of the insect market. Today, there’s still a lack of expertise concerning the cultivation and processing of insects. The existing research projects in Flanders are still operating in laboratories. In order to upscale the cultivation, harvesting and processing of insects to a commercially interesting level, we will first need to gain knowledge from pilot projects. Once this knowledge is ready to be disseminated among those who take an interest in insect resources, the insect industry can truly spread its wings.

To encourage the shift towards a biobased economy, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) invests in research and experimentation with insects in the grensregio. Indeed, the Campine/Kempen region now even goes under the name of “Insect Valley”. This Valley was opened only two weeks ago by the Belgian Minister of Employment, Economy and Innovation. It covers two separate, yet cooperating projects: the Kempen Insect Cluster and the Insect Pilot Plant. Another ERDF funded project, Entomospeed, is running within the Interreg Flanders – the Netherlands programme.

The Kempen Chamber of Commerce (Voka), the Belgian Insect Industry Federation and insect-cultivation company Millibeter cooperate in the Kempen Insect Cluster. This is a platform where companies come together to research opportunities in the insect industry and develop new products and services. This cooperative research has already led to a technology that separates the proteins, fats and chitin that the tested larvae contain. Once separated, these resources are of great value. In the Insect Pilot Plant, the University of Leuven, the Thomas More University College in Kempen, and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito) cooperate to develop a pilot plant for insect cultivation. This pilot helps researchers and stakeholders better understand how insects could be used for commercial/industrial purposes, for example by analysing the cost-efficiency of the production process. Dr. Mik Van Der Borght, Project coordinator of the Insect Pilot Plan explains in an online interview that “[the] pilot plant will be able to process a few tens of kilograms of insects a day into high-quality raw materials as a step towards industrial production, processing up to 1 ton of insects a day. The intention is to show the market that upscaling is indeed possible and that insects can truly realise their perceived potential.” The knowledge that can be gathered from this pilot project will be shared with private and public parties involved with organic waste streams, nutrition for people and livestock, chemistry and pharmacy. Finally, Entomospeed performs similar research across the Dutch-Belgian border, focusing specifically on the black soldier fly (tested in Flanders) and mealworms (tested in the Netherlands) for nutrition purposes. Entomospeed also investigates opportunities for the automisation of the insect industry in order to reduce production costs.

Together, these ERDF-funded initiatives deliver a vast amount of knowledge which can lay out the path for a fully functioning insect market. They’ll answer questions related to the production and market potential of insect products. Which waste streams can best be used to feed insects? Can this cultivation process be automised? Where will the area of distribution for cultivating companies lie? Regional SMEs and large companies alike can benefit from the answers to these questions. So, if you’re interested in insects and their potential to boost the biobased economy, the grensregio is the place to be.

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Photo source: VIVES

 

Towards a biobased future

As I’ve started my first week as an Interreg Reporter, I’ve begun to notice that quite a few projects within the Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands programme receive funding to research and promote innovations concerning the biobased economy, or bioeconomy. While this term probably rings a bell for many of us, it may not immediately be clear what these projects are working on or why they do so. It probably doesn’t really help that when you Google ‘biobased economy’ you’ll find that there exist many different definitions and thoughts about the topic. Nevertheless, I’ve found that most of these thoughts are complementary, rather than contradictory.  I’d like to use this blog to explore what it means to develop a biobased economy and discover what progress is being made in the grensregio.

Development of a biobased economy in the grensregio

The concept of a biobased economy by and large refers to all economic activity that is derived from biotechnological research and science. Our human understanding of genetic material and our ever-growing ability to manipulate it creates opportunities in industrial processes related to, for example, health, energy, agriculture or chemics. Moving towards a biobased economy entails a transition towards economic activity on the basis of biomass resources, rather than conventional fossil resources. For example, instead of using plastic for packaging, we can package our groceries using fibres from a combination of processed agricultural wastes and hennep.

Flanders and the Netherlands are leading in terms of the development of a biobased economy. This development is also drastically needed. The grensregio knows a large industrial and chemical sector and intensive agriculture. This characteristic is both a threat and an opportunity. On the one hand, industrial and agricultural pollution and urbanisation put a lot of pressure on society and the natural environment. Consequently, we face challenges such as biodiversity loss, efficient “waste” management or air pollution. On the other hand, there is a lot of knowledge available in the field of biochemical and biotechnical sciences. The development of the biobased economy may be crucial for us and our environment, but it is not without risks. Social and physical infrastructure is required in order to guarantee the quality of newly developed products by means of experimenting and improving. The grensregio is a great starting place where such infrastructure can emerge and flourish, with a solid basis already present in the many existing industrially and chemically oriented enterprises and knowledge institutes. On top of that, implementing biobased innovations today could give the private sector in the grensregio a competitive advantage over other regions tommorow.

To encourage and guide these developments, the Dutch and Flemish governments have developed a biobased strategy. Their policies are in line with the overarching European Commission strategy, which aims to boost biobased entrepreneurship and R&D across the EU. The policy objectives are clear: ensuring food security, managing natural resources sustainably, reducing dependence on non-renewable resources, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and finally, creating jobs and maintaining European competitiveness. Several investment priorities within the Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands programme are closely linked to the European and national strategies for a biobased economy. Some examples are the improvement of infrastructure for R&D (priority 1A), the sustainable use of ecosystem services (priority 3A) and technological innovations to improve environmental protection or the efficient use of resources in the waste management sector (priority 3B).

There are several reasons for which Flanders and the Southern Netherlands can well work together on the development of a biobased economy. An obvious reason is that some (biomass) resources are prevalent across the border. Forests, for example, from which timber and other ecosystem services can be derived, aren’t shy about crossing the border. A second reason is that knowledge sharing can lead to better and faster developments due to the relatively similar character of the economies of the two areas. For instance, many enterprises and knowledge institutes on both sides of the border are increasingly interested in the use of 3D printing, potentially using biomass materials. Therefore, new developments in this field are beneficial to companies and institutes in both countries. Third, sometimes different types of complementary resources and knowledge are present on each side of the border, which together can lead to new innovations. For example, knowledge on the production and use of biomass resources for paper and cardboard is spread across the region. Therefore many parties can benefit from the existence of a long-lasting network that facilitates knowledge exchange. New production lines for innovative products can emerge when the existing expertise and physical R&D infrastructure from Flemish and Dutch actors are combined.

The visualisation below of the industrial process that the project BIO-HArT facilitates illustrates the strength of cooperation in the grensregio. This project experiments with the conversion of biomass into aromatics, which are then used for several end products, like fuels or flavoring substances. These experiments can ultimately lead to a biobased market for aromatics by increasing confidence in technological possibilities and reducing the risk to invest.

When the snowball starts to roll…

As is often the case, one development in the biotechnological industry can lead to (the demand for) another. A healthy economy consists of a variety of sectors and therefore biobased evolutions need to be implemented at different levels of production chains and in different sectors too. The biobased projects that are funded within the current Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands programme are therefore varying in nature. One experiments with the use of biomass in 3D printing (Accelerate3), while another explores which crops can well be transformed into construction materials by building a mobile holiday home as a pilot case (Growing a green future). Furthermore, as our economy transforms, the labour market needs to move along too. The project Grenzeloos Biobased Onderwijs is a cooperation between schools and knowledge institutes from Flanders and the Netherlands, complemented by actors from the private sector, that works on a better balance between the demand and supply of highly educated workers in the biotechnical field. Planned activities vary from enthusing high school students for the biobased economy to the development of a specific postgraduate programme. Furthermore, the project develops a platform for continually updated courses and trainings for working people, to provide learning opportunities at all stages in one’s career. After all, we can only truly move towards a biobased future when technological developments go hand in hand with innovative policies and well-trained young generations.

For those among us who understand some Dutch, if you want to discover more projects that are funded within the (current) Interreg V programme, I’d encourage you to go to www.grensregio.eu and browse a bit through the project list. Here’s a few projects that will definitely already capture your interest:

  • The Triple F project develops an opportunity map for the grensregio which illustrates the supply and demand for food “waste” as a new resource, including the necessary technologies to properly re-use these products.
  • Eco2eco explores to what extent innovative forestry techniques can be applied in the grensregio, illustrating that ecology and economy can go hand in hand.
  • Grasgoed investigates how the remains of nature management in the region can efficiently be transformed into fuel, fertiliser, livestock nutrition or fibre for packaging materials.
  • De Blauwe Keten aims to modernise the greenhouse sector in Flanders and the Netherlands, improving this sector’s competitive position in the global market. Among others, it researches the potential production of microalgae, which can be used as a resource in the fields of nutrition, textile, construction, pharmacy and cosmetics.

De Grensregio: from common history to common challenges

Yesterday I went to Antwerp to collect the keys for my new room. Being there, I started wondering why and how more and better cooperation between Flemish and Dutch organisations would be a good thing for our region. Interreg facilitates this cooperation, but with what purpose? And why do we even consider this area a ‘region’? What makes it unique? Before I start my volunteering experience in August, I want to know a little bit more about the Grensregio (Dutch for ‘border region’), its qualities and its challenges.

Most of yesterday’s questions were actually triggered by the absence of difference I noticed while traveling south. While the train ride from Rotterdam to Antwerp doesn’t take much more than one hour, my parents were kind enough to bring me (and the few poorly taped moving boxes I brought) by car. As it was a warm and sunny day in our normally rather drizzly region, we decided to go for a short hike in a cross-border nature reserve before continuing our trip to Antwerp. It would be hard to tell at what point we crossed the border if it wasn’t for the change in number plate colours. Sure, when you start looking for differences, you’ll notice the changes in architecture and infrastructure. But from my point of view, most of these differences are quite underwhelming. People speak the same language and walk around in clothes coming from the same shops. Forests, factories and fields start on one side of the border and continue on the other. So many of us may wonder: why do we need further integration in a region that already seems so homogenous?

 

Before we answer that question, it might be useful to think a bit about the political and socio-economic characteristics of the region. The area we’re talking about stretches from the hills of Limburg all the way to the beaches of West Flanders. It consists of 5 Flemish provinces (West-Vlaanderen, Oost-Vlaanderen, Antwerpen, Vlaams-Brabant, Limburg) and 3 Dutch provinces (Zeeland, Noord-Brabant, Limburg). These provinces are much older the nation-states they are part of, having roots in the Burgundian Netherlands and the Habsburg era that followed. They share a history of trade, war and cultural and scientific development. And even though the sound of the language varies marginally in every province, Dutch is spoken and understood throughout the region. While the Belgian and Dutch provinces nowadays have slightly different political responsibilities, they all play an intermediating role between municipalities and the federal/national government. As such, provinces are able to develop a broader vision than municipalities, while still standing closer to local sentiments than the federal/national government. Municipalities, provinces, ministerial departments and other government agencies all play a role in the political life in this region, each bearing different political interests in mind.

The Grensregio knows a great variety in terms of economic activity, geography and social development. One thing you’ll notice when traveling through this region is that the landscape is largely dominated by farmland. Thinking about economic activity in this region therefore means thinking about agriculture too. Nevertheless, much of the economic activity takes place in and around the urban areas. A few large towns in the region are Antwerp, Breda, Eindhoven, Ghent, Den Bosch, Maastricht and Tilburg. And there’s a lot going on in these towns! If you check the European Commission’s Regional Innovation Scoreboard, you’ll find that the Southern Dutch Provinces and Flanders are leading in Europe in terms of innovation. Among others, this result is measured by looking at how much businesses spend on research and development, the number of patent applications and the number of scientific publications. Indeed, Interreg identifies the (high-tech) industrial sector as determinant component of our regional economy. This characteristic goes hand in hand with the presence of many knowledge institutes, among which several public universities. Finally, life in the Grensregio is influenced by its the strategic geographical location. Being situated at the heart of Northwestern Europe, openness towards the outside world is crucial for regional development. The port of Antwerp and the nearby port of Rotterdam underline the non-isolated character of the area.

So, we have a relatively innovative, highly educated, urban and industrialised region, with a common language. What challenges are there to address? Following Dutch soccer player Cruijff’s logic: every disadvantage has its advantage. And the other way around too. The general level of welfare and consumption and the industrial character of the economy have some side-effects. Interreg has identified four major challenges for the region.

First, due to the relatively high wages in the region, it has become hard to compete with other regions based on the cost of  labour. The Grensregio therefore needs to be innovative to maintain a healthy level of competitiveness. Second, the Grensregio faces serious environmental problems. As mentioned before, the region is characterised by intensive agriculture, strong industries and large urban areas. It is among the most densely populated areas in the world. The pressure on the environment is therefore high: think about energy consumption, waste levels, and the use of natural resources. Biodiversity loss in the region is immense, with about 10%-20% of original species present today. To meet international agreements on greenhouse gas emissions and to improve the general quality of life, there’s a strong need for policies that (continue to) make the economy more sustainable. Third, rapidly changing labour market dynamics require a continuous search for new equilibria between the supply of/demand for labour. Our ageing population, for example, strongly influences the supply of labour. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s an increasing demand for highly and versatilely educated people. Traditional knowledge of facts alone is not enough: people need to be able to learn and re-learn at all stages in their professional lives. And finally, the labour markets on each side of the border are not well adjusted to one another. Improvements on the physical cross-border infrastructure could contribute to more labour mobility throughout the region.

In sum, the Grensregio faces four major challenges:

  • Its economy needs to stay competitive and thus innovative;
  • it needs to deal with the environmental consequences of its economy;
  • it needs to address rapidly changing labour market dynamics;
  • it needs to improve the cross-border mobility to avoid missing economic opportunities.

These challenges are real on both sides of the border. It will therefore be easier to tackle them when companies and public organisations from the entire region combine their forces and expertise. Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands encourages this type of cooperation. It supports cross-border initiatives that are thematically related to one or several of the challenges identified above. For example by facilitating cross-border research on the use of recycled waste water for agricultural, industrial or even hygienic purposes. F2AGRI is an exemplary project that facilitates the use of chemically cleaned waste water for agricultural purposes. Another example is the project 2BConnect, in which private companies (learn to) contribute to the development of green infrastructure. This project not only helps to prevent further biodiversity loss around the border, it also reduces industry-induced noise and air pollution.

I’ve learned a couple of things trying to answer the questions above. Flanders and the Southern Netherlands are united by more than their common history and language. It’s a blossoming region with innovative cities and a global mindset. Nevertheless, the area faces some serious challenges which are not contained within national borders. Cross-border cooperation between companies and governments can turn these challenges into opportunities. United under the Interreg framework, many people from the Netherlands and Belgium seize these opportunities every day, making the region more innovative, sustainable, liveable and mobile. I would encourage anyone to explore some of these projects and be inspired by them!

What is Interreg?

By the end of August I will start a volunteering trajectory at Interreg Flanders the Netherlands. This is an agency that subsidises smart, green and inclusive growth in provinces along the Belgian-Dutch border, aiming to contribute to the economic, social and territorial cohesion in this region. Simply put, the general idea here is that as Belgians and Dutchies work together on projects that benefit the entire region, they’ll also get more connected along the way. Upgrading the coast line of Flanders and Zeeland to a safer and more sustainably managed area is one example of a cross-border project. Another example is the CrossCare project, which facilitates cooperation among Belgian and Dutch health care institutes and companies to boost innovation in this sector. There’s an impressive list of equally inspiring projects going on that you can check on www.grensregio.eu.

But the Belgian-Dutch case is not the only Interreg project in the EU. Projects can be found all over Europe, for example along the Danube river, among North Sea states and in many other areas. You might like this online database that allows you to search for projects using filters to refine your search. All of this made me wonder: where does the idea come from and who funds it?

The idea of Interreg already dates back to the 90s. It’s a European Commission initiative with the overarching objective to promote a harmonious economic, social and territorial development of the EU as a whole. Joint action and exchange of knowledge among national, regional and local authorities can contribute to a more coherent and stronger Union. While four consecutive Interreg programmes have today been completed, Interreg V (2014-2020) is still in progress. Among others, it consists of 60 cross-border projects along 38 internal borders, of which the Flemish-Dutch is one example. While each of these projects has its own themes responding to specific regional demands, they all contribute to that single goal: regional development and integration. It all starts to make sense now, right?

Interreg V mostly gets funded out of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), one of the main financial instruments of the Cohesion Policy. From this fund, resources are allocated through investments in

  • Innovation and research;
  • The digital agenda;
  • Support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs);
  • The low-carbon economy.

The ERDF is only one out of several existing financial instruments that aim to stimulate job growth and sustainable development across the EU. While I won’t mention the other ones in this blog for clarity’s sake, you might be interested in reading the differences between the various investment funds here.

So, to summarise, there’s a couple of concepts that are important to remember. The ERDF invests money in regional projects that encourage economic growth and policy cohesion, while reducing discrepancies between regions. This fund supports Interreg V, a currently operating EU-wide programme that executes the ideas behind the fund at the regional level through regional agencies. Some of these agencies focus specifically on cross-border integration, the Flemish-Dutch one being an example of that.

I hope that this overview provides enough background information for you to be able to contextualise my future blog posts. In any case, writing it helped me understanding better what Interreg is and where it comes from. If you would like to add to this description or if you still have some questions, feel free to fill out my contact form.

Video: an introduction to Interreg Europe – share solutions for success

A word of welcome

Hi there! Happy to see that you’ve found your way to my blog (to which you can subscribe by filling out your e-mail address in the ‘follow me’ box)! As of September 2017, this page will function as the book shelf where I store and organise my thoughts as a European Solidarity Corps volunteer. A volunteer for what? The Solidarity Corps is an EU initiative that gives young people (like me!) the opportunity to volunteer or work for projects that benefit communities and people in Europe. Out of all the possible projects, I will take part in a specific programme called Interreg that encourages regional cooperation and development all across Europe. Cool, right? More specifically, I will be installed as an ‘Interreg Reporter’ at Interreg Flanders the Netherlands, an agency that creates opportunities for cooperation between public and private organisations around the Belgian-Dutch border. This cooperation revolves around the focus areas of environmental policy, smart energy, and technological innovation. 

Interreg Flanders the Netherlands region
Interreg Flanders the Netherlands region

As it happens, I am incredibly passionate about both European integration and sustainable development. Within the European context, I don’t believe that one can exist without the other. You can see why I’m really excited to start exploring and reporting about the many cooperative initiatives in this field that take place in my region! Did you know that Flanders and the southern Dutch provinces form a region that is among Europe’s leading regions in terms of innovation? (Source: European Commission) Lots of fun and inspiring things going on, much to learn from, much to write about. I warmly invite you to follow my blog and hope that you’ll leave this page sharing my enthusiasm for this great, small region and its developments under the Interreg umbrella.

Last but not least, I would encourage anyone to take a quick look at the following websites for a bit more info about the EU Solidarity Corps, its programme Interreg Volunteer Youth and Interreg Flanders the Netherlands. Have fun!