Innovation at the service of sustainable rural development and territory balance - Circular bioeconomy clusters and microalgae

Published : Wednesday 01 March 2017
Jean-Louis Rastoin, Professeur émérite à Montpellier SupAgro, expert associé de l’Ipemed

This analysis of Jean-Louis Rastoin, Professor Emeritus at Montpellier SupAgro, Ipemed associate expert, was published on on 10th February 2017.

For more information on microalgae, you can consult the report published by Ipemed in July 2016: “Le secteur des micro-algues en Méditerranée” [The microalgae sector in the Mediterranean].


For decades, in France, in Europe, and in most countries in the world, the urban population has been growing, accompanied by a rural exodus and a major decrease in the agricultural active population. In France, between 1950 and 2015, 5 million people left their rural home to move to the city (-29%) and the rural population is expected to decrease by 25% by 2050 (-3.3 million). In the EU, 41 million people are expected to leave rural areas over the next 35 years (-32%). In Africa, the rural population should keep increasing (+360 million by 2050), but the burning issue of poverty in rural households will remain. 

As the world’s population keeps growing, so will territorial inequalities. The trend scenario - which is also that of routine, single thought and the interest of the dominant economic model - will be characterised by increasingly populated, dense and sprawling cities, gathering economic activities, wealth and services, but generating at the same social and environmental negative externalities. The rural space is therefore a major challenge, with three essential potentials, which are employment and social well-being, the fight against climate change and the production of renewable resources. Rural territories boast great assets for these three criteria. 

It is urgent to reshape our development model by making it more sustainable and more equitable, by creating a balance between rural and urban spaces. Progress innovation will play a significant role in this shift of paradigm. Today, research is offering a new concept that could serve as a foundation for sustainable development while generating positive amenities for urban areas: “territorialised circular bioeconomy” clusters, that is to say groups of activities based on the circular re-use of the biomass.


Microalgae: a diversified potential for the bioeconomy


Algae, and in particular microalgae plankton, account for half of the global biomass reservoir; they represent a real “carbon sink”. Renewable resources and their use through sustainable biorefinery processes (social and environmental positive externalities) have a promising future, especially since they can help populations adapt to climate change. Microalgae by-products are numerous and can substitute synthetic chemical molecules: in agriculture (fertilisers, pesticides and animal health products), in the sector of high added-value molecules (healthcare, cosmetics, human nutrition, proteins for animal nutrition), and in energy production (methane, fuel).

Given the scarce biomass resources, the exceptional sun exposure in Southern European and Mediterranean countries as well as their sea and lagoon surfaces, microalgae could be a great opportunity in this region[1].


Strategic opportunity for the Mediterranean region


We must develop an economic model adapted to the Mediterranean geographic constraints which differ according to their environment: coastal megalopolises integrated into industrial spaces and dense infrastructures versus isolated and under-equipped rural spaces. 

For the former, occidental, Japanese, Chinese or locally emerging technologies should be adapted and will be used by major conventional energy businesses via self-funding and the financial market. The COP21 agreements will stimulate a promising de-pollution and by-products market.

For the latter, it is necessary to promote an integrated sustainable rural development. A new economic model must be invented. It will be based on the concept of “territorialised circular bioeconomy”, with family farms working within a network and relying on knowledge sharing, inputs and logistics channels platforms and sensors. Microalgae produced according to strong processes will play a significant part in waste management and be a source of high added-value food and energy by-products. For instance, microalgae farms - often in a cooperative organisation - will find their inputs in the methanisation and composting of inedible vegetable or animal manure. They will get their supplies from local farms and as biomass suppliers, they will create new or complementary activities in agri-business, cosmetics and chemical SMBs in their area.

The integrated sustainable rural development will be structured and stimulated by agricultural, artisanal, industrial and commercial businesses drawing their resources from the bioeconomy and their efficiency from an exchange network facilitated by information sensors [precision farming, traceability and logistics], Internet connections and a common platform of data storage and sharing. The synergies between biotechnologies - where microalgae should play a central role - and communication technologies will be the tools of post-modern rural businesses. Such a scenario is in keeping with the prospective vision of Jeremy Rifkin, from Wharton University, in the United States. He imagines a 3rd industrial revolution relying on renewable resources [among which the biomass], the Internet and a massive decentralisation of production activities.

The creation of microalgae industries in Mediterranean countries requires the definition of national strategies coordinated beyond borders at the Euro-Mediterranean level, as well as devices adapted to the local needs in the knowledge chain [research, training], companies and the public sector. Great attention must be paid to the structure of the value chain in terms of dimension of the actors and of distribution of costs and profits [balance between market powers]. Microalgae applications must be considered as tools at the service of sustainable rural development and, as a consequence, they must be integrated into territorial programmes.


[1] Cf. Rapport microalgues [Microalgae report], Ipemed, 2016


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