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FAO/Canadian-Media: Wasted food. Polluted seas. Landfill sites full to bursting. After years of using our precious natural resources as if they were limitless, the outcomes of our behaviours are making it clear that it is time to change our ways. And the answer? Well, a no-waste, environmentally and socially considerate bioeconomy is an excellent place to start.
So, what is a sustainable, circular bioeconomy?
Essentially, a sustainable, circular bioeconomy is a system that is groundbreaking and restorative, one that boosts industry and the economy but also protects our planet for future generations. This includes shifting towards bio-based alternatives to plastics and fossil fuels, eliminating the use of toxic chemicals and cutting down on waste through innovative materials, products, systems and business models. It also means harnessing the power of bioscience and biotechnology to address the challenges we face, like providing food, feed, fibres, wood-products and bio-based chemicals, including alternatives to plastics, for a growing population while preserving our natural resources.
Here are five ways that FAO is helping the transition to a sustainable and circular bioeconomy for better food production, better nutrition and livelihoods and a better environment:
1) Reducing food loss and waste
We know that a growing population and rising incomes will lead to increased demand for food and agricultural products, putting more pressure on natural resources. Alleviating problems related to intensive crop and livestock farming or overfishing means being more responsible in our food production and consumption, reusing food that would ordinarily end up in landfills and increasing food production in a sustainable way.
FAO is working with countries around the world to analyse food value chains and reduce food loss at various stages. Currently, 14 percent of all food produced is lost from harvest up to retail. A substantial amount is also lost at consumer level. A circular bioeconomy means reducing food loss and waste by strengthening value chains but also by finding new uses for lost or wasted food.
With their expanding populations, cities have a big part to play in consuming more responsibly. FAO has helped the municipality of Lima, Peru to create a food waste taskforce that has established a composting centre for managing biomass waste. As a result, the amount of organic waste disposed of in landfills and city drainage has been cut dramatically.
2) Tackling plastic pollution
One major goal of a sustainable and circular bioeconomy is to use more materials made from natural, biodegradable resources, cutting down on plastic waste and CO2 emissions.
Reducing plastic used on farms is a big part of this. These plastics can be especially hard to recycle because many are contaminated with pesticides and fertilisers. Consequently, FAO is launching a new Agricultural Plastics Initiative to assess the magnitude, fate and impacts of plastic products used in agri-food systems globally. The initiative will offer alternatives to plastics and promote the use of biopesticides and organic fertilizers to reduce contaminated plastic waste.
Other innovative examples for cutting down on plastics are also in place elsewhere. For example, in Mexico, a partnership between a prominent adult beverage company and a car manufacturing company aims to produce bio-based materials with by-products from the processing of agave. Often, much of the residue is burnt or sent to landfills. Now, the two companies are developing a lightweight, bioplastic from the agave residues. These bioplastics will be used in the car company’s Mexican assembly plants.
Two major goals of a sustainable, circular bioeconomy are increasing the use of biodegradable resources to cut down on plastic waste and diversifying our food production to help protect and promote biodiversity.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Image credit: Facebook page
3) Diversifying our diets and moving our reliance away from only a few crops
Of over 6 000 plant species that have been cultivated worldwide for food, we rely on only 9 crops for 66 percent of our food production.
FAO’s work on increasing biodiversity, particularly in agri-food systems, focuses on enhancing the number of foods and species on which we rely. This can help promote crop diversification, moving away from the economic benefits of monocropping.
Moreover, diversification boosts nutrition. In many agricultural communities, people rely on one staple crop whose seasonality implies a period of food shortage. Boosting promotion of local, lesser known globally but highly nutritious crops, such as cassava or millet, can help communities better fulfil their dietary needs and support the biodiversity of crops grown.
4) Promoting bio-based products as alternatives to synthetic fertilisers and pesticides
The overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides already leads to problems of water and soil pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Finding bio-based solutions to these chemicals is that much more important with a growing population to feed.
One innovative example of bio-based solutions comes from China where the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Finance are currently carrying out a programme that explores using straw as a fertiliser. Straw is a common by-product of wheat and grain production and using it as a fertiliser solves two problems in one: cutting down on the use of chemical fertilisers and giving farmers an alternative to burning the left-over straw, which is a common practice but a large source of pollution.
FAO’s climate-smart livestock project helps farmers adopt methods like rotational grazing and composting for pastures, which helps prevent land degradation and makes livestock farming more sustainable. ©FAO
5) Restoring degraded lands and improving livestock management
Many people around the world rely on livestock farming for their livelihoods but doing so in unsustainable ways can lead to land degradation. FAO’s Climate-Smart Livestock project promotes sustainable livestock management in many parts of the world. For example, in Ecuador, an initiative implemented with the support of Global Environment Facility and the Ecuadorian government provides farmers with practical training such as how to install irrigation systems, drinking fountains and milking infrastructure. Farmers also learn new production methods like rotational grazing, composting for pastures and producing their own animal feed, which helps prevent land degradation and makes livestock farming more sustainable.
There is no single path for establishing a bioeconomy and sustainability does not happen automatically. However, with successful examples already in place, FAO, together with the International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group, is building on this momentum by working towards the creation of Sustainable Bioeconomy Guidelines. These will include good practices, tools and guidance on how to develop monitoring frameworks, helping countries implement national bioeconomy strategies, policies and programmes in a sustainable way.
A sustainable, circular bioeconomy makes sense, not only environmentally but also socially and economically. Sustainability is an opportunity, one that we need to take to protect our planet and secure a better future.