Bioeconomy and Food Systems Transformations
Bioeconomy and Food Systems Transformations

Bioeconomy and Food Systems Transformations

Summary of contribution to the UN’s Food Systems Summit

On September 23rd, the United Nations held the first Food Systems Summit. This involved the creation of a Scientific Group, mandated with providing scientific evidence, helping stakeholders and participants access shared knowledge about experiences, approaches, and tools for driving sustainable food systems. The Science Group’s objective was to make science-based recommendations towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To be able to deliver on this objective, the Science Group issued a call for submissions relating to six key topic areas:

  1. Modelling Food Systems Transformations;
  2. Science, Technology, and Innovation Actions;
  3. Actions for Equity, Inclusiveness and Nutrition and Health;
  4. Actions for Sustainable Resource Use and Foresight;
  5. Investment, Finance, Trade and Governance actions; and
  6. Actions in Regions and Countries.

The result was an extensive document highlighting the recommendations, concepts, and submissions.

The call for submissions provided an opportunity for organizations around the world to submit and collaborate in the efforts to leverage the power of our food systems. One of the organizations I’ve been part of for many years, the International Consortium on Applied Bioeconomy Research (ICABR), partnered with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) on a collaborative submission for the Summit. This collaboration involved 8 experts, 4 from each organization. Our submission was included in the UN’s Food Systems Summit report, Science and Innovations for Food Systems Transformation and Summit Actions as Chapter 24. The remainder of this blog provides an overview of the ICABR/IICA submission to the Scientific Groups call for research on how to leverage the power of our food systems.

What does bioeconomy mean?

If the world is to gain better control over food systems, the need to address the issues and solutions within the bioeconomy are vital. Bioeconomy is a word that applies and relates to various economic aspects, varying from country to country. A widely recognized definition resulted from the 2018 Global Bioeconomy Summit, where the bioeconomy is ‘the production, utilization and conservation of biological resources, including related knowledge, science, technology, and innovation, to provide information, products, processes and services across all economic sectors aiming toward a sustainable economy’. Sustainable production is increasingly important and the bioeconomy offers the utilization of biomass (agricultural residuals, food waste) to increase recycling and shorten supply chains. It can also be an alternative feedstock for the production of numerous materials from fuels/energy to chemicals, bioplastics, and pharmaceuticals. Bioeconomy policy frameworks and development approaches make use of materials and energy found in biomass and genetic resources. Bio-based economies can play a fundamental role in the decarbonization of the planet and the production of agricultural bio-inputs, healthy food, and sustainable intensification of agricultural production, which are central to the UN’s SDGs.

Genomic knowledge is an important part of the bioeconomy as it is applied to increase the efficiency of crops, animals, biofuel, bioplastics, and bioenergy production. This allows food systems to transform to be more sustainable and equitable, providing healthy, nutritious food, while creating livelihood opportunities and reducing negative impacts. Over the past 30 years, the bioeconomy has made six important contributions.

1. Technology Development

Advances in biology, information and communications technology (ICT), and engineering are repositioning the role played by biological resources. These biological advances are accelerating knowledge of plant, animal and microbial genomes. Knowledge increases improve the efficiency of crops, animals, biofuel, bioplastics and bioenergy production. Efficiencies are gained thanks to the interactions between the fields of biology, biotechnology, chemistry, nanotechnology, data science, ICT and engineering drives the progress in each specific field; blurring traditional boundaries between sectors, changing competitive advantages of countries and businesses.

Outside of natural sciences, the world of technological development has become a catalyst for knowledge gains within natural sciences. Widespread internet connectivity, satellite technologies, data science and artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous systems, electronic and biological sensors, virtual and augmented reality have all become tools of science. Together through technological convergence they have helped increase the efficiency of agriculture, food, and biomass supply chains, reducing waste and resource use, while increasing the quality of food and biomass. Technological convergence is a trend contributing to the renewed, modernized vision of agriculture and food systems, value-added chains, and international trade, especially because young people’s technological skills are greatly increased, reducing the migration of young people from rural territories to urbanized areas.

2. Transforming Rural Environments

Due to large volumes, limited shelf-life, low energy, and carbon density, it’s not economical to transport biomass long distances before processing. Integrated biomass processing facilities need to be organized close to raw material sources, allowing for significant transformations of rural landscapes and economic integration. By doing so, bio-based value chains bring new activities to rural landscapes, diversifying income sources and the nature of existing employment opportunities. A key bioeconomy component is the impact on transforming rural environments. Previously, rural electrification stimulated local development processes, and bioenergy options could lower costs through the decentralization of costly energy grids, improving environmental performance through the more integral use of residual biomass and waste. Affordable, stable energy supply is a critical restriction to economic development and the bioeconomy is increasingly offering it through options that are not competitive with food production.

3. Improving Food Chain Resource Use

The diversification in biomass use to produce biofuels contributes to GHG reductions, generates added value and employment, and contributes to safer more efficient agri-food systems. Biomass fractionating results in a series of biomaterials of different added value. Biomass fractionation leads to an industry categorized as ‘multi-product’, in which the production of co-products facilitates better distribution in raw material production costs, making the system more efficient. Biofuel productivity has improved, as the processing costs of US corn ethanol declined by 45% between 1983 and 2010 and the cost of producing sugarcane ethanol in Brazil declined by 70% between 1975 and 2010.

4. Improved Nutrition and Health

Plant breeding innovations like genetically modified (GM) crops, have increased yields, contributing to higher household incomes, reduced poverty, and enhanced household food security. Biofortified GM crops have improved the nutritional quality of food, including proteins (canola, corn, potato, rice, wheat), oils and fatty acids (canola, corn, rice, soy), vitamin contents (potato, rice, strawberry, tomato) and mineral availability (lettuce, rice, soy, corn, wheat). Nutritionally enhanced foods prevent and/or treat leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. Improving macro-nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, fiber) and micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, functional metabolites) have significant childhood health improvements, such as reducing blindness due to the lack of vitamin availability.

5. Improved Environmental Sustainability

Bioeconomy and biotechnology investments have made substantial environmental improvements, offering potential as a leading strategy in efforts to mitigate climate change. Bioeconomies contribute to the reduction and use of food waste. Science and technology advances allow the reduction of waste and its use to produce new bioproducts (for the food, energy, chemical, pharmaceutical, and construction industries). Food waste can be considered as a cheap feedstock for producing value-added products such as biofertilizers, biofuels, biomethane, biogas, and value-added chemicals.

The use of genome editing to improve the abilities of plants to sequester increased amounts of carbon dioxide, allowing food production to make significant contributions to reducing the impacts of changing climates. Changes in a plant’s ability to photosynthesize can have additional yield-enhancing benefits, as well as ensuring that crop production levels do not decline in the face of changing climates.

6. Upscaling Biotechnology Innovations

New technologies in life and information sciences, combined with practical knowledge of production practices and ecosystems, can unleash the bioeconomies potential. This requires significant investment in basic and applied research, training highly-skilled professionals, and a fluid relationship between academia and industry. The supply chains that emerge from these innovative industrial clusters provide direct employment in the production of technological devices and even greater opportunities in the industries resulting from these technologies. The resulting bioeconomy industries are more likely to be concentrated in rural regions, alleviating rural poverty. The success of the educational industrial complex depends on maintaining academic and research excellence.

There are three key opportunities that the bioeconomy has to offer in the UN’s efforts to leverage the power of our food systems. First, the development of research capacity at universities and government institutes can turn opportunities into technical and social innovations. Next, developing industries based on these innovations can generate employment and economic growth. Finally, regulations of innovations should protect society but not disrupt the application of these opportunities in production, transportation and consumption and unnecessarily restrict sustainable growth, jobs and resilience. In essence, regulations need to be risk appropriate.

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