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. It includes agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as the production of food, bioplastics, pharmaceutical products, biomaterials, cosmetics, textiles and a wide range of bioproducts. Bioeconomy touches upon many sustainability issues and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Its cross-cutting nature offers a unique opportunity to address a number of challenges in a comprehensive and coordinated manner. Best practices in bioeconomy should therefore facilitate positive interaction and collaboration between sectors. For instance, the combination of bioeconomy and digitalization is often seen as a major driver of the transformation of productive sectors.
However, bioeconomy activities are not necessarily sustainable and face several trade-offs. It is crucial that bioeconomy development contributes to sustainability and circularity in order to help achieve the SDGs. It is essential that the development of the bioeconomy does not undermine food security and nutrition.
Towards a Solution
Given the challenges and opportunities that the transition to a sustainable and circular bioeconomy can bring, 62 Ministers of Agriculture agreed on the importance of seizing opportunities to implement bioeconomy in a sustainable and circular manner, at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in January 2015. They recommended that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) coordinate the international work on bioeconomy. Through the International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group (ISBWG), established in 2016, FAO aims to provide the international support needed to increase State capacities to develop bioeconomy in line with the SDGs.
The activities of the Working Group respond to two specific objectives. The first is to serve as a platform for international knowledge- and experience-sharing concerning sustainable and circular bioeconomy innovations, technologies, practices and policies. The second objective is to act as an advisory body for the technical work of the FAO on sustainable and circular bioeconomy, which includes producing knowledge products and supporting specific countries and regions in developing circular bioeconomy policies and strategies, with a focus on opportunities for food systems transformation. ISBWG is a unique and innovative international platform, as it builds national capacities in drafting policies for sustainability and circularity in the bioeconomy. The Group aims to mainstream sustainability and circularity into policies and strategies to ensure that bioeconomy, implemented correctly, can benefit societies and the planet as a whole.
ISBWG is an international, multi-stakeholder expert group. Members engage through consultations, the co-production of knowledge and the provision of capacity-building and technical information. FAO facilitates the Working Group’s annual physical meetings and additional teleconferences on specific topics. The physical meetings include presentations, workshops and field visits. Members regularly share information on bioeconomy from their countries and institutions, as well as recent publications, events or news. In general, countries in the global South have extensive knowledge and experience in the production and use of food, feed, fibre, biopharmaceuticals and other bioproducts; however, only a few have developed a full-fledged formal bioeconomy strategy. ISBWG offers a unique opportunity for South-South and triangular cooperation in which countries in the global South can receive support, gain knowledge and share their experiences, improving coordination. To date, there is some South-South and triangular cooperation (SSTC) networks related to bioeconomy, such as the Latin American Bioeconomy Network, the EU-South Africa led International Bioeconomy Forum, the BioInnovate programme in Africa, or the German-led International Advisory Council on Bioeconomy. Different networks have different objectives. The uniqueness of the FAO ISBWG is that it advocates for the sustainable transformation of food systems through a circular bioeconomy.
The Working Group’s first milestone was the Aspirational Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Bioeconomy, agreed upon in November 2016. ISBWG has also contributed to increasing knowledge-sharing and improving coordination, in line with several SDG targets, in order to improve synergies and reduce trade-offs between sustainability goals. The knowledge acquired by all ISBWG members on mainstreaming sustainability and circularity in the bioeconomy informs national and regional development processes. A draft National Bioeconomy Vision and Strategy was developed in Uruguay, with the support of FAO. Uruguay also benefited from the lessons learned, instruments used and challenges faced by other ISBWG countries in developing and implementing bioeconomy strategies. The exchange with international partners provided an understanding of the relevant synergies and trade-offs. As a result, the draft vision and strategy includes many considerations for sustainability and circularity, such as integrating biodiversity values into the systemic utilization of biological resources, which contributes to SDG target 15.9. Other countries and regions currently benefiting from the FAO project are Namibia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The mechanism adopted by the ISBWG is a good example of how to achieve SDG 17, in particular target 17.9 on enhancing international support for implementing national plans, including through SSTC. It provides opportunities for exchange and facilitates international dialogue through continuous meetings, events and conferences. It also facilitates knowledge- and experience-sharing on synergies and trade-offs in bioeconomy and opportunities for sustainability and circularity to support countries in decision-making processes.