Concrete examples were presented on over 60 posters during the conference in Berlin.

Concrete examples were presented on over 60 posters during the conference in Berlin.
Photo: © Bioeconomy Council

Making bioeconomy work for sustainable development

The participants of the First Global Bioeconomy Summit, held in November 2015 in Berlin, called for a more systematic approach to implement bioeconomy.

Over the last five years, notions of bioeconomy have gained momentum world-wide. According to the Bioeconomy Council of the German Government, 45 countries around the world have now adopted bioeconomy strategies as part of their economic innovation agendas. The Global Bioeconomy Summit, held for the first time by the German Bioeconomy Council in Berlin/Germany, in November 2015, aimed to concentrate the different experiences gathered so far.

Modelling on the cycle of nature

“We must fundamentally change the way we produce, consume and live”, warned Janez Potocnic, a member of the International Resources Panel of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in his keynote. Already, 60 per cent of ecosystems world-wide was degraded or unsustainably used; it was certain that carrying on as usual would burst the margins of the planetary boundaries. Potocnic pointed to global population growth – there is an annual increase of 83 million people – and the fact that by 2040, around three billion people would have risen from the lower class to the middle class – with corresponding changes in their consumption habits. He maintained that responsible consumption and production, as called for in Sustainable Development Goal 12 and based on a circular economy following the example of nature, was the only way forward. This would require changes in tax policy and subsidy practice as well as the publishing of procurement and investments – not a simple task given the complexity of life, he conceded.

Change the unsustainable food system

In his video message, Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, also set out from the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals to explain the global challenges that humanity is facing and where bioeconomy is to make a contribution. First of all, there are the closely interlinked SDGs 1 – “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” – and SDG 2 – “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. Sachs reminded the meeting that 70 per cent of those who are still trapped in extreme poverty make their living as smallholder farmers. “We need a clear understanding of rural poverty and pathways to lead small-holders out of it,” he maintained, referring to the close interaction between agriculture and environmental threats. Not only was agriculture the single largest anthropogenic cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions owing to energy consumption, nitrogen fertiliser use, large-scale methane emissions from livestock, land degradation and CO2 emissions from land use change, to name just a few. The sector was also the number one user of freshwater and number one cause of habitat destruction. Summing up, Sachs stated that “the World food system itself is not sustainable”. Efforts had to be made to feed the planet and to shift to more sufficient foodstuff, with all of this based on sustainable farming systems that simultaneously had to become more resilient. For climate change and environmental losses were increasingly resulting in agricultural losses – through mega floods and mega storms that were very likely to increase in the future.

Does it really have to be a chicken egg?

A wealth of options to make food systems more sustainable through innovations were presented at the event. As a “good American”, Jack Bobo, a former member of staff of the US Department of Agriculture and Senior Vice President of the biotechnology company Intrexon, showed the participants how to redesign a burger. Wheat, vegetables and beef could be produced more efficiently with clever technologies, and cheese could also be supplied from non-animal-based dairy products. Bobo demonstrated why this could make sense using the example of eggs, 75 billion of which are eaten each year in the USA. This requires 12 billion kilos of animal feed. Out of the 74 billion eggs, only 14 billion are shelled, with the rest being used in food processing. “Usually, we don’t even know if food contains eggs, ” said Bobo, and referred to companies producing plant-based egg products. New solutions had to be found to produce not only plants but also bacteria or fish more efficiently. Here, Bobo stressed the first genetically modified salmon which was given approval in the USA in late November 2015. This fish grows to its normal size in half the time and consumes 25 per cent less feed than conventional salmon. “If we extrapolate this to animal production as a whole, it reveals a huge impact,” Bobo maintains.

Examples coming from e.g. China, India, South Africa, Europe and Brazil demonstrated the wide range of bio-based technical solutions – from plant and animal genome sequencing and genomics-assisted breeding through biotech-assisted cosmetics and drug development and cross-laminated timber as a cement substitute in house building to the use of bioenergy and biofuels. Here, the positive environmental effects of bioeconomy and their potential to create jobs were referred to again and again. For example, Brazil started replacing gasoline by ethanol in the 1970s. “Since 2003, Brazil’s use of sugarcane ethanol has avoided 242 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions,” Glaucia Mendes Souza of the SCOPE Program for Bioenergy & Sustainability maintained. In addition, through waste recycling, the demand for chemical fertilisers was lowered, land use was improved through crop rotation between sugar cycles, and pollution levels were reduced. “The country’s sug-arcane industry has created 4.2 million jobs, and it accounts for twelve per cent of national GDP,” Mendes Souza said.

What are the knowledge requirements?

However, despite all the positive examples, it must not be forgotten that bioeconomy is neither a panacea nor, as such, inherently sustainable. This was again and again stressed by representatives of various NGOs in the course of the conference. Especially with a view to small-scale farmers, the effects had to be well-balanced. Or, as Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, put it: “Sometimes bioeconomy moves forward, but nature and rights move back-ward.” This concern was shared by Christine Chemnitz, head of the International Agricultural Policy Department at the Heinrich Boell Foundation. “With so much enthusiasm about all these new technologies, are we not forgetting what small farmers really need? And how does knowledge that has been generated reach these farmers?” Chemnitz asked. “Instead of solving problems in a very traditional way – by looking for technical solutions – we should think about our knowledge systems in an innovative manner. We need decentralised and inclusive knowledge systems, and small farmers have to be part of them.” Chemnitz held that the core issue had to be what people needed, and not what technology offered. Here, the SDGs and the human rights system had to serve as a framework.

A new perception of agriculture

With a view to the prospects that could emerge for smallholders in Africa, Detlef Virchow of the Center for Development Research of the University of Bonn/Germany presented his research programme on a biomass-based value web. Here, one first of all had to understand that bioeconomy also implies the perception of agriculture changes: The production of food and some by-products is no longer centre-stage, but rather the production of biomass. For farmers, this means that they have to become more flexible and consider the different markets. Am I producing for the energy market? Or for the feed market? “This makes the situation both for smallholders and for processors much more complex, although it can simultaneously offer opportunities to stimulate increasing co-operation between farmers and small and medium enterprises,” Virchow maintained.

A further aim was to put a zero waste concept into practice. Therefore, it was no longer enough to focus on individual value chains. Rather, the whole system had to be considered – a web approach. Crops could flow into several value chains, and farmers had to reflect on who they were producing for. In addition, Virchow presented initial results of the five-year research programme run in the Sudanian Savannah in Ghana and Nigeria and in the East African highlands in Ethiopia. The conclusion he draws is that biomass has the potential to improve food security of small-scale farmers and the rural poor in Africa but needs adequate institutional settings and an adequate economic framework. Without the latter, the food security of small-scale farmers would be threatened. In the case of weak governances, there had to be external control, Virchow said. And, first and foremost, sustainable bioeconomy was not possible without food and nutrition security.

The way forward

The final communiqué of the Summit – “Making Bioeconomy work for sustainable development” – calls for a more systematic approach to implement bioeconomy than so far and defines five corner-stones in this context: 

  • use renewable resources, ensure food security and protect the ecosystem;
  • make bioeconomy’s contributions towards the Sustainable Development Goals measurable,
  • promote international economic and scientific collaboration;
  • bring mutual learning forward with the involvement of the private sector and society;
  • consider bioeconomy as a whole as an essential part in the negotiations for COP 21, the SDGs and trade.

In the final session, Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam/Germany, called on the organisers to inform society in time and involve civil society in agenda-setting. Otherwise, the concept of bioeconomy would threaten to fall into the same trap as that of biotechnology. With a view to the urbanisation processes in Africa, he demand-ed a greater focus on sustainability in cities. “We must consider what we can do to close circle economies in the cities,” Töpfer said. These also had to be at the centre of the debate on climate engineering. And one thing must not be forgotten in any activity: “If we do not solve the problem of the uneven distribution of wealth, we will not have a peaceful world.”


Silvia Richter,
editor, Rural 21


More information:

Rural 21 special issue on Bioeconomy

Rural 21 special issue on the SDGs