Laura Raaska

The role of water in the bioeconomy – Nordic research cooperation at its finest

3 Oct 2023

The added value of Nordic cooperation has been emphasised in the role that water plays in the centres of excellence conducting research on the bioeconomy, particularly as a broad networking of researchers and the establishment of cooperation forums. From the point of view of centres of excellence, the expansion of research capacity has been crucial, something which has been done exceedingly well. In the opinion of all centres, the quality of research has also increased, which is reflected in, for example, a large number of scientific articles. In addition, competence has developed in areas such as aquaculture, fisheries, hydrological modelling and ecosystem services. A strong interdisciplinary approach has also been adopted in all centres.

In 2015, Nordic research funding organisation NordForsk launched a Nordic Centres of Excellence call for proposals in researching the diverse role that water plays in the bioeconomy. The call for proposals was preceded by multi-level negotiations with different Nordic countries. The bioeconomy was seen as a highly topical theme in all Nordic countries, but limiting the theme to a specific topic that would attract and unite all participating countries proved demanding. Ultimately, all Nordic countries except Denmark participated in the programme. NordForsk, the Research Council of Norway, the Iceland Centre for Research Rannis, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning and the Research Council of Finland participated in the call for proposals as funders. The total budget for the call was NOK 90 million (EUR 9.7 million).

The general objective of the programme was to accelerate the transition to the bioeconomy by producing new information on the topic. A key common denominator of Nordic cooperation in the field of bioeconomy is our cold, northern environment. Research can be repeated and research results can be utilised reasonably easily when our environmental conditions are relatively similar. In addition, the cultural similarity of countries and similar administrative and decision-making systems make cooperation flexible and effective. On the one hand, the transition to the bioeconomy is a very challenging step for society. On the other, it requires a sufficient critical mass in the research sector. Through Nordic cooperation, researchers can exchange their views and disseminate their competence. Another source of added value was that, through cooperation, the Nordic countries' shared views on the bioeconomy can be more strongly integrated into EU cooperation, thus becoming themes for the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

The central theme of the centre of excellence programme was the role that water plays in the Nordic bioeconomy, which includes research on natural waters, water circulation, aquaculture or process water in the bioeconomy. The aim of the programme is to support interdisciplinary research and cross-sectoral cooperation as well as to intensify cooperation between the Nordic countries. In addition to in-depth research, it was hoped that the centres to be funded would strengthen cooperation between the research community and companies, contribute to the training of young researchers and promote researcher mobility between the Nordic countries. This was achieved quite well, despite the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic hindered mobility, closed several laboratories for months and slowed down the progress of research. The centres were able to maintain and build cooperation and exchange ideas through new digital operating methods. A total of 29 doctoral dissertations were completed in the centres.

30 proposals were submitted in the first call stage, and the programme steering group selected ten proposals to the second stage. Based on the opinion of an international evaluation panel and the proposal of the Bioeconomy steering group, three Nordic Centres of Excellence − Biowater, Sureaqua and NordAqua − were funded for five years between 2017 and 2022.

Land use has significant impacts on water quality

The main objective of BIOWATER (An Integrating Nexus of Land and Water Management for a Sustainable Nordic Bioeconomy) is to study the impacts of the bioeconomy on land use as well as water volume and quality. The research focuses on how the bioeconomy affects material flows and water bodies. The work utilises, for example, long-term water quality and hydrology datasets, different research catchment areas and water bodies. The basis for this was five different future paths for the bioeconomy. The impacts of land use and climate change on Nordic waters were examined by modelling these.

Based on research conducted by the Centre of Excellence, the green transition to a carbon-neutral bioeconomy society is the most recommended of the five different transition paths. Land use was found to have a more significant impact on the quality of our waters than climate change, and this enables local measures for minimising impacts. The green transition was also found to be economically feasible - in other words, there is no need to choose between environmental or economic well-being.

The economic significance of the impacts on water bodies was examined by means of a valuation study. Natural waters play an important role in recreational usage, and clean aquatic environments are also extremely important in the bioeconomy society of the future. A key focus of the Centre of Excellence was also to provide further training for researchers and their joint workshops and courses on, for example, modelling and hydrology. Between eight and nine doctoral degrees have been in the works at the Centre of Excellence. Five of these have already been completed. Biowater has also engaged in wide-ranging stakeholder cooperation: the Centre of Excellence includes eight Nordic consortium partners and five partners from outside the Nordic countries. The Finnish partners of the Biowater Centre of Excellence consists of the Finnish Environment Institute (Syke), the University of Oulu and the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke). Biowater will continue its work on EU and national projects.

Promoting a sustainable bioeconomy

SUREAQUA (The Nordic Centre of Excellence for Sustainable and Resilient Aquatic Production) is a multidisciplinary centre of excellence focusing on the development of an ecologically sustainable aquatic bioeconomy in the Northern European region. SUREAQUA aims to improve Nordic food security and self-sufficiency management, increase the efficient use of raw materials and increase employment in the blue bioeconomy sector. SUREAQUA also promotes ecological, social and economic sustainability. 13 universities and research institutes along with several companies are participating in the Centre of Excellence. University of Eastern Finland is the Finnish participant in SUREAQUA.

SUREAQUA focuses particularly on the development of aquaculture from different perspectives. In fish farming, the utilisation of protein contained in brewery industry waste products as fish feed has been explored, on-line fish health measurement technology has been developed, and the possibilities of breeding macroalgae and optimising breeding conditions has been examined. In addition, the attitudes of consumers towards the use of algae as food and the joint farming of fish, bivalvia (molluscs) and algae have been studied. In particular, the research investigated whether combining bivalvia farming with fish farming can reduce nutrient emissions from fish farming into water bodies. SUREAQUA has produced significant results, which have been published in approximately 30 scientific articles. SUREAQUA’s activities have involved particularly close cooperation with industry and companies, such as in the utilisation of insects and brewery industry waste as feed for fish. So far, four doctoral degrees have been completed at SUREAQUA, and there has been a great deal of active cooperation between students in different seminars and workshops. SUREAQUA will continue its work on several EU-funded projects.

Nordic pioneer in algae research

NordAqua (Towards Versatility of Aquatic Production Platforms: Unlocking the Value of Nordic Bioresources) is a consortium of ten Nordic universities and research institutes, which also includes ten industrial partners and several other partners. Finnish partners in NordAqua include its coordinating member, the University of Turku, along with the University of Helsinki, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Natural Resources Institute Finland. The aim of NordAqua is to utilise aquatic photosynthetic organisms in the production of chemicals, pharmacological products, biofuels, food and feed, and wastewater treatment. The unit will focus particularly on the utilisation of algae in the production of bio-based products, such as biofuels and fine chemicals as well as food and feeds. Another key objective is to develop methods of synthetic biology to create photosynthetic cell factories. The extensive centre of excellence consists of six clusters.

NordAqua's key objective has been to strengthen Nordic algae research and its capacity. One example of this is the establishment of a Nordic algae culture collection. NordAqua has also developed an infrastructure in which phosphorus and nitrogen in greenhouse wastewater are utilised for year-round algae production. In addition, algae cultivation in the sea has been examined by NordAqua, and a suitable infrastructure has been created. The long-term goal of NordAqua is to develop photosynthetic cell factories for the direct conversion of solar energy into different chemicals and biofuels.

NordAqua has engaged in extensive cooperation with companies, especially in areas where applications are already closer to realisation. In addition, the centre of excellence has been very active in the training and networking of young researchers since its inception. A total of 16 doctoral degrees have been completed during NordAqua's operation. In addition, it has organised courses, joint meetings and workshops on different themes for young researchers. NordAqua's research will continue in, for example, several EU projects.

The importance of bioeconomy research is increasing

The long-term nature and continuity of research are important factors in ensuring that research is effective and also leads to the development of applications and new operating methods. The activities and cooperation of centres of excellence researching the role that water plays in the bioeconomy will continue in many EU projects, Nordic cooperation and national projects. With the help of the Nordic Centres of Excellence Programme, the centres of excellence are also in a much better position in the competition for funding. In 2014–2015, the bioeconomy was still a relatively new subject of research. Today, it has become extremely important as we gradually transition from a fossil economy to a bioeconomy.

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