Finland’s bioeconomy could provide roadmap for Maine

Finland's top forestry official paints a picture of her country's push to develop a sustainable advanced economy with a natural resource mix that mirrors Maine's own.

Finland’s bioeconomy could provide roadmap for Maine
Jaana Husu-Kallio, permanent secretary of agriculture and forestry in Finland.

Jaana Husu-Kallio has a deep respect for forests and the many industries they support. The same goes for coastal fisheries, local agriculture and thousands of fresh water lakes that dot the country. Even recounting tales of moose hunting along logging roads sounds familiar.

As the Permanent Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry in Finland, Husu-Kallio isn’t devoted to Maine. But she does think her country’s campaign to develop a “bioeconomy” anchored in forest products, foods and renewable energy holds lessons for the state. “The challenges are the same, in the same way”, she said.

Husu-Kallio is visiting Maine for her first time to meet with economic development, trade and industry officials. She will give the keynote address at the annual Trade Day Friday in Portland put on by the Maine International Trade Center.

The focus of this year’s conference is Maine’s place in the global bioeconomy based on renewable resources for traditional and advanced products – everything from aquaculture to microorganisms to biobased materials and fuel.

Finland, with a population of 5.5 million, has emerged as a global leader in the field, and it has not happened by mistake, Husu-Kallio said. The country has relied on its forests for hundreds of years, from lumber and shipbuilding to paper. About 80 percent of Finland is forested, the heaviest tree cover in the European Union. “Finland has always lived from its forests”, she said.

Starting in the 1990s, the country’s robust paper industry started to decline, just like it did in Maine. Mills closed, workers were thrown out of work. But Finnish companies rebounded, switching production to packaging and other materials.

Some mills switched industries entirely. A former paper mill in her hometown was recently converted to a recirculating aquaculture facility to grow rainbow trout – a development reminiscent of a current plan to cultivate Atlantic salmon at the former paper mill in Bucksport.

“We are still on our way”, Husu-Kallio said. “The good thing is that the mills have been reopened, but the owner is different and the product is different.”

In 2014, the Finnish government launched a program to expand its bioeconomy to $112 billion and 100,000 jobs by 2025. At the time, the bioeconomy made up about $82 billion, 16 percent of the country’s economy.

Forest products are the backbone of that initiative and Finnish companies have come up with innovative products like cosmetics, biodegradable replacements for plastic straws and utensils, even wood fiber clothing. But the initiative also pushed value-added food products, advanced chemicals and medicines, water processing and biofuels, with a focus on sustainability.

Finland’s experience is inspiring for those hoping for a renaissance in Maine’s forest industries. Five Maine pulp and paper mills closed between 2014 and 2017 and while the remaining mills are adjusting for new paper products, the loss sent the industry reeling.

Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, said the state seems to be pulling its focus from traditional pulp and paper to other products, like Finnish companies did when they saw trouble in paper markets.

“Maine seems to get stuck in the ‘we make paper’ mindset”, he said. Breen is part of Forest Opportunity Roadmap/Maine, a plan to modernize the state’s forest industry with investment, research and development to produce fuels, sugars, textiles and more alongside traditional paper products. About 90 percent of the state is covered in forest, the highest coverage in the United States.

“The narrative has shifted a lot from a forest products industry that is dirty and dying to one that is innovative and exciting”, Breen said.

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