Big Bioeconomy Challenges - Part 2

Posted in: feedstocks

In this series of articles we will discuss some of the global challenges that the bioeconomy provides solutions for.

In this series of articles, we are looking at some of the big challenges facing the world at present, and what the bioeconomy brings to the table in tackling these challenges. In the previous article, we discussed the problems centring around plastic waste, and how the bioeconomy presents several solutions to this multifaceted problem.

In this article, we are looking at the complete opposite end of the value chain from waste: resources. One of the central tenets of sustainable development is the management of resources, and dealing with the needs of an ever-growing human population. It is here that sometimes the bioeconomy is sometimes seen to conflict with solving these problems, but recent developments have shown that even these conflicts can be mitigated with good practice.

Problem: Resource Provision

As the human population continues to grow, we are starting to feel a significant strain on the available natural resources the planet offers. Continued analysis is showing that everything from food to oil to raw materials is not produced at the level required to sustain the population as it is, or if it were to grow any more (as predicted). The problems this will cause are obvious: lives and livelihoods will be adversely affected the world over – to put it delicately! However, resource levels are not past the point of no-return, and so the problem is not unsolvable.

Solution: Continually improving biomass feedstocks

When discussing the bioeconomy, it’s easy to gravitate towards end-products, such as biobased plastics and biofuels, while forgetting about the biomass from which they are derived. Without the feedstocks sector there would be no “downstream” bioeconomy. The bioeconomy makes use of many different biomass resources, from crops to forests to microorganisms.

There is a continuing debate surrounding the bioeconomy regarding land-use change. If bioeconomy practices are going to negatively impact food production, this is seen as a bad option. However, research continues to show that this effect can be minimised: the USA would be able to cater to its entire energy crop needs by using only 3% of its agricultural land, with 80% of this being marginal land. Add to this that improvements are continually being made in the development of more productive crop varieties, better farming practices, and improvements in the extraction of useful products from said crops, and the picture starts to look better for resource provision in the bioeconomy.

One of the biggest advances that could happen here would be the development of a method of successful lignin breakdown in woody biomass, which would greatly increase the rate of cellulose extraction from such biomass, thus hugely increasing the feedstock yield of forests. No hard-and-fast method has yet been reached, but a variety of approaches are being taken, including using enzyme technology to break down the lignin, and genetically modifying plants to produce less or modified lignin themselves.

The bioeconomy also provides us with alternative methods of producing useful chemicals that would otherwise be sourced unsustainably from fossil fuels or living organisms (the former case will be discussed in more detail in the next article). The chief method behind this has been the development of microbial technology, wherein genetically modified microbes produce the desired chemicals, ranging from platform chemicals to pharmaceuticals to vitamin supplements. One key example has been the development of algae that produce omega-3 fatty acids, a discovery that promises to reduce strain on fish stocks, which have been the primary source of these, thus allowing, indirectly, for an increase in food availability. Microbes are also used as a source of enzymes which can be used as catalysts in industrial processes that have greater specificity and less input that conventional chemical catalysts.

The take-home message here is that the bioeconomy is continually developing, and those new developments will continue to bring in better options for biomass resources, allowing for better provision of those resources.

Problem: Biodiversity loss

One of the biggest problems where biodiversity is concerned is how to quantify its value. It is well documented that a more diverse ecosystem provides “ecosystem services” such as provision of resources, and regulation of biological problems such as pests. It is becoming increasingly apparently that these ecosystem services are more valuable than we have previously given them credit for, and as biodiversity continues to fall, unmitigated biodiversity loss could be disastrous.

Solution: Ecosystem management

One of the less “glamorous” sides of the bioeconomy is the management of the feedstock used for biobased processes. Behind any sustainable biobased process come extensive management of the biomass feedstock, be it crops or woody biomass. While in the first instance this management is undertaken to maximise yields and profit, a side-effect of that is the promotion of biodiversity, as this has been found to decrease the likelihood of crop failure, and to increase the yield of timber forests.

By utilising the sound management practices that have been developed by bioeconomy feedstock growers, biodiversity will not only be preserved, but alongside it productivity will improve, thus benefitting both us and the environment.

This is not even to mention the surprising additional effects that other bioeconomy practices can have on ecosystem services. It is commonly accepted that the best option for flood mitigation is to have more forest on floodplains. However, these forests, when planted, take a long time to grow and fully develop to the point where they can provide the necessary level of hydraulic roughness to mitigate flooding. However, energy crops such as miscanthus grow much faster than forests, and are found to have an equivalent or higher hydraulic roughness than young forest, thus providing equal or better flood mitigation, while still providing a resource. Thus the optimal management practice would be to plant energy crops in the floodplain rather than attempt to establish a forest, and it is management practices like these that can result in a more productive bioeconomy, but also a more sustainable one.

In effect, these two problems go hand-in-hand – attempting to sustainably provide for the human population without destroying our world in the process – and the solutions may appear on the surface to be more heuristic than practical, but the mindset that underpins these solutions forms the backbone of the bioeconomy as we know it. At its core, the bioeconomy is about sustainability, and thus the navigation of these challenges is inseparably intertwined with the bioeconomy, and will continue to be so.

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This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

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