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Policy: Five cornerstones of a global bioeconomy

Beate El-Chichakli and colleagues outline principles for coordinating bio-based industries to achieve many of the sustainable development goals.

A truck full of sugar cane crosses farmland in Brazil, a leader in bio-based ethanol production from the crop. Credit: Lalo De Almeida/Contrasto/eyevine

More than 40 nations1 are proposing to boost their 'bioeconomy' — the part of the economy based in biology and the biosciences. Around US$2 trillion of products in agriculture and forestry, food, bioenergy, biotechnology and green chemistry were exported worldwide in 2014, amounting2 to 13% of world trade, up from 10% in 2007. These sectors are central to at least half of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from food security to ensuring energy access and health. But conflicting national priorities make it hard to align bioeconomy policies to meet the SDGs on a global scale.

Bioscience leaders such as the European Union, Japan and the United States see expanding the bioeconomy as a means of reindustrializing and creating wealth (see 'Bioeconomy breakdown'). Emerging industrial economies such as China and India see biotechnology as a nascent field of innovation in which they can quickly compete. Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia are investing to add value to their vast biological resources. Ecological sustainability is a prime concern in rich and industrializing countries; inclusive rural development and equitable sharing of resources is central in developing countries.

Knock-on effects of decisions made in one place may be felt elsewhere. The EU's plan to ecologically certify its bio-based products will impede producers in poorer countries who lack testing infrastructure. In India and Brazil, strict bio-piracy regulations, which aim to protect biodiversity and traditional knowledge, are failing to benefit local populations and are stalling international research in plant biodiversity.

Credit: Source: ref. 9

Without agreed global priorities and assessment methods, it is hard to take into account such indirect effects and trade-offs. Global investments in information collection such as satellite tracking of biomass call for joint action. Nations will fund DNA barcoding of rare rainforest hardwoods or use genetic stock identification to manage fisheries only when such technologies are internationally used and enforced.

In November 2015, more than 700 experts from around 80 countries met in the first Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin. We, as members of the International Advisory Committee on the Bioeconomy (comprising 37 experts from around the globe who shaped the summit) outline the principles that were agreed and the steps needed to advance them, as well as illustrating how these can be applied to individual SDGs (see ‘Scoring Sustainable Development Goals’).


Difficult balance

A global bioeconomy must rebuild natural capital and improve the quality of life for a growing world population. It should balance managing common goods, such as air, water and soil, with the economic expectations of people. Three types of innovation will be needed: technological (such as systems to reduce emissions), organizational (changes in institutional behaviour) and social (such as job creation). For example, new sorts of sustainable building materials based on wood or lignin (a compound found in many plant cell walls) will need to be integrated into building codes. Also needed will be citizen-science evaluations of new houses, local wood-recycling and construction efforts. Sustainable food systems will require advances in plant breeding, food products, and farming and cultivation techniques, as well as steps to optimize shelf-life and food distribution, and social initiatives such as the revival of traditional crops, food-sharing platforms and low-meat diets.

Inclusiveness and knowledge transfer are important. For example, biotechnology infrastructure and skilled employees are found mostly in high-income countries, whereas local biological know-how and reuse culture are strong in developing countries. Supply chains should create local jobs, with manufacturing close to the raw-material base. For example, bioenergy mini-grids or bricks-from-waste production plants increase local energy access and jobs in rural India.

Regulatory frameworks for intellectual property, the access to and use of genetic resources, biosafety and the ethics of biosciences and industrial standards all need to be reviewed. Globally agreed standards on the measurement and definition of bio-based products — such as the carbon footprint and sustainability of bioplastics — are needed. A certifying and testing body must be independent and international to establish public confidence and enable countries that lack capacities to benefit from the results.

Five cornerstones

Unifying principles for a global bioeconomy need to be put in place by international policy bodies, multilateral trade negotiators and the corporate sector.

First, international collaborations between governments and public and private researchers are essential for optimizing resource use and sharing knowledge. For instance, international initiatives that bring together bioscience and IT are needed in sustainable intensification and global soil mapping, to agree common protocols. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) established a Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group in 2016 and could develop such a forum.

Second, ways to measure the bioeconomy's development and its contributions to the SDGs need to be found. Priority targets, such as food security, and assessment criteria need to be agreed internationally, led by global organizations such as the UN and its subsidiaries. National monitoring systems should include the international dimension so that a country could examine how its practices might affect others. This will entail efforts to make related data openly accessible.

Third, bioeconomy initiatives need to be linked more closely with multilateral policy processes and intergovernmental discussions, particularly the SDG 2030 agenda and follow-ups to the Paris climate and Aichi biodiversity agreements. A UN body on bioeconomy needs to be set up to handle the coordination. Carbon pricing, the costing of other negative impacts (including indirect costs such as air pollution and climate change) and the removal of fossil-fuel subsidies are necessities for meeting the SDGs. Fossil energy received a staggering $5.3 trillion, or 6.5% of global gross domestic product, in post-tax subsidies in 20153.

Fourth, educators should collaborate internationally to define the knowledge, skills and competencies required for developing a bioeconomy that enhances the sustainable use of bio-based materials in manufacturing and in consumer products. This will require an interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes systems thinking, strategic planning and evaluating environmental, social and economic performance, as well as an understanding of technologies and local specifics. Governments should build international teaching and learning exchanges into research programmes. Open learning platforms would allow the sharing of curricula and training content.

Fifth, research-and-development support programmes are needed to encourage global collaborations in a few breakthrough projects. For example, 300 experts concluded4 that collaboration in bioeconomy research would be most needed in the following areas: new food systems, bio-principled cities, sustainable aquaculture, biorefineries, artificial photosynthesis, consumer and citizen participation and global governance.

Discussions on these five cornerstones should begin now, so that structures can be in place before the next Global Bioeconomy Summit in 2017.


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Correspondence to Jim Philp.

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The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the OECD or of the governments of its member countries.

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German Bioeconomy Council

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El-Chichakli, B., von Braun, J., Lang, C. et al. Policy: Five cornerstones of a global bioeconomy. Nature 535, 221–223 (2016).

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