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Bioeconomy: rethinking development and investing in life

(c) Fotolia

06/06/2017

The bioeconomy, based on using living resources, seems full of promise to ensure our food, energy and construction requirements are met while limiting our impact on the environment. What exactly is the bioeconomy? What opportunities can it provide for regions? What are its research and innovation requirements? Let’s take a closer look at an emerging approach. 

The bioeconomy is at the heart of many discussions that scientists and private stakeholders are having about sustainable solutions to current issues (food security, resource scarcity, climate change, etc.). Governments are also increasingly interested in the idea. Several European countries, including France, have adopted national strategies to support its development. In order to better define the research priorities, tools and partnerships necessary to implement bioeconomy projects, Inra and Irstea are organizing, in collaboration with the Ministries of Research and Agriculture, a European symposium on June 28 and 29 in Paris. It will be the perfect opportunity to go over this concept and what’s in store in terms of research with Jean-Marc Callois, director of Irstea’s Land Use Department.

What is the bioeconomy and what are its main challenges?

Jean-Marc Callois: The bioeconomy is an economy based on living things. It involves developing bioresources from food products, bio-based materials and bioenergy (wood fuels, anaerobic digestion, biofuels) to meet our requirements in a sustainable manner while preserving the production potential of our ecosystems. This economy includes a variety of sectors, such as farming, forestry and waste processing. The approach is based on a circular logic that aims to close energy and materials cycles. An example is the recovery of waste and organic by-products as close as possible to where they are produced by transforming them into energy or new materials.

However, a proportion of our renewable resources still remain untapped. It is estimated that around 30% of food products are wasted [1] and half of all natural forest expansion, around 50 million square meters in France, is not used. In this context, the bioeconomy can offer significant regional economic development potential as well as creating jobs that cannot be outsourced due to this focus on circularity.

As it is based on the idea of maximizing resources, the bioeconomy also aims to avoid the negative environmental effects created throughout the production chain. Thinking in terms of living systems is also a new way of thinking about development. By taking inspiration from living things, where each piece of waste is seen as a resource for another component, the bioeconomy aims to create links between the various types of biomass and, as a result, between the various stakeholders.

What are the main challenges in terms of research and innovation?

Jean-Marc Callois: The development of a bioeconomy is currently hampered by technological issues. We need to improve existing procedures and innovate to increase the ability of biotechnology to compete with other options. In relation to biosourced chemistry, for example the recovery of lignins, research is needed to improve less than ideal biological transformation paths, in order to compete with fossil fuels.

Some social and organizational issues also need to be taken into account to support the transition to a bioeconomy. Understanding consumer perceptions and manufacturer behaviors, together with the resulting new production methods, is crucial in identifying potentially achievable projects for regions. In a recent study, Irstea found that the organizational ability of local authorities is an important factor that can determine commitment to positive energy measures. [2] For this reason, local government participants must play a leading role in bringing this "ecosystemic" vision to life. They must organize conversations between manufacturers, residents and associations and implement adapted infrastructure networks (transport, digital, activity areas) in order to benefit fully from the opportunities provided by the bioeconomy.

How does Irstea view this concept?

Jean-Marc Callois: Although the notion of a bioeconomy is recent, the problems it encompasses have been central to work already carried out by Irstea through its regional approach. Our research aims to provide better support for governments and private stakeholders dealing with social and organizational challenges, as exemplified by the work of Irstea’s Bordeaux center on recovering wood resources during the energy transition [3] (analysis of environmental perceptions, stakeholder networks involved in developing new uses for biomass). They also focus on the creation of new technologies, such as the Biorare project (2011-2017), led by researchers from Irstea’s Antony center, which has resulted in the creation of a completely new method of recovering organic waste as platform molecules for green chemistry. The future of the bioeconomy is looking promising.

Join us at the European Conference on the bioeconomy, on June 28 and 29 in Paris, to discover advances and research requirements in the company of international experts.

Sign up here.

For more information 

[1] Source: Global Food Losses and Food Waste, FAO, 2011

[2] The feasibility and relevance of a community-based energy autonomy: physical, social and institutional factors, Jean-Marc Callois, Mihai Tivadar & Baptiste Sion, Review of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Studies, 2017