The UN takes stock of the global bioeconomy

April 2024 saw two UN releases on the bioeconomy: first, a seminar on urban circular bioeconomies from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and second, a UN Environment Agency (UNEP) bioeconomy report on all major biobased sectors.


The UN has long promoted the bioeconomy as a way of reaching sustainable development goals. Its scale, mission, and thematic range make it an important forum for raising awareness of the bioeconomy. Its multi-country presence also means it is well-placed to take the pulse on general trends, particularly in emerging economies.


We turn first to the key points of the FAO seminar, which brought together an international panel discussing the urban bioeconomy with a strong focus on Africa and Asia.

FAO champions urban-rural linkages

The FAO is the UN’s specialist agency for food and agriculture, making it an important stakeholder in the wider bioeconomy. Whether for food, fuel, or industry, most aspects of the bioeconomy depend highly on agriculture for feedstock, either from purpose-grown crops or from farming waste.


The FAO is not just interested in what’s happening in rural spaces either. The recent seminar is part of a series held under its City Region Food Systems Knowledge Exchange programme launched in 2023, which focuses on how cities, towns and their immediate rural environs are collaborating towards sustainable food systems.

Bio-circularity means economic security

The panel emphasised how the circular urban bioeconomy is not just an abstract policy concept but a practical tool for city authorities in safeguarding populations from climate change.


The FAO also said that the practice can be a ‘strategic solution’ for cities to break their dependence on non-renewable resources – an economic tool then, as much as a climate adaptation or mitigation pathway.


How does the circular bioeconomy support resource security, climate adaptation, and sustainability all at once? The purpose of circular bioeconomies is to make sure any material already in the economic system stays useful for as long as possible. In practice, this means using any biological ‘waste’ as fresh raw material inputs for as long as possible before they are burnt or discarded. This reduces the need to grow or extract virgin raw materials continually, reducing pressures on the environment and conserving valuable resources for the future.


A speaker from the Philippines gave an example of the urban circular bioeconomy in policy action. Ian Agatep, a member of the Climate Change Adaptation Division, Food Security & Biodiversity in the Philippine city of Quezon spoke about how his home’s 2019 commitment to an urban sustainable bioeconomy is an overt strategy to deal with climate change’s impacts on food security as well as to bring down its gas emissions.


The city is currently planning a 42-megawatt-hour biopower project that will take some of the city’s garbage and direct it into usable energy. In another initiative, the city is installing 25 biodigesters around the city to break down kitchen and food waste to make biogas. This can be used as energy for cooking while its liquid byproduct can be used as soil conditioners.


“We understand that the city’s food systems are in a position to revolutionise how cities in the Philippines can tackle food security through comprehensive integrative and intuitive food systems that are part of the circular bioeconomy,’ he said.

Nairobi mops up market waste

Over in Nairobi, Kenya, Patrick Muiruri, Food Systems Officer at Nairobi City Council, described a city scheme to collect waste from the food markets and bring the nutrients locked up in this material back to the land.


Now, more than 100 small-scale farmers are benefiting from the composted remains of this urban food waste by using it as fertiliser. City Institutions engaged in urban and peri-urban agriculture also receive some of the waste.


This scheme shows how urban waste is going towards solving one of the biggest problems in Kenyan agriculture: the high cost of farm inputs. This is an example of how circular bioeconomies can be designed to support sustainable development goals.


The city is turning other kinds of waste into useful products. Avocado seeds are used to make artificial wood giving quick fuel access from waste, displacing the need for cutting wood down.


These cases show that while urban planning may appear to be at odds with an organisation dedicated to agriculture, circular bioeconomies in urban and rural spaces can work in tandem, making economic activities across them more resource-efficient and sustainable.

Policy and the private sector

The FAO seminar also took a look at developments in the private sector with Susanne Bodach signposting a growing entrepreneurial culture around biowaste in developing regions. This is part of a trend where businesses and community initiatives are taking on waste management functions historically held by the informal sector.


Bertha Darteh gave examples of this in Ghana with IWMI/Trimark Ventures, which treats sewage wastewater to produce aquaculture feed and Jekora Ventures which runs plants that transform sewage into compost fertiliser.


As waste management gets taken up by entities more amenable to government monitoring and regulation, there is an opportunity to use policy to build pockets of waste valorisation into a broader economic transition.


Scaling small to medium-sized initiatives will require further investments and technologies. These tend to follow on the heels of regulatory certainty and public infrastructure.


Luckily, there is growing interest among governments in developing countries in the circular bioeconomy according to Susanne Bodach. The main barrier to implementing national circular policies is a lack of resources needed to adapt them to local circumstances. This is part of a general problem for developing governments as they try to implement climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.

UNEP’s global bioeconomy stock-take

Shortly after the FAO seminar, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a 90-page report on the global bioeconomy titled “Global Bioeconomy Assessment Coordinated Efforts of Policy, Innovation, and Sustainability for a Greener Future”. It gave a broad overview of market developments and policy for all major biobased sectors.


Here are some of its major points.


Biobased products still cost more overall
One of the biggest sticking points in scaling the bioeconomy is that costs and prices remain far higher than in the heavily subsidised legacy industries of oil, gas, and petrochemicals.


This is where the FAO seminar and the report are firmly aligned: both circular biobased and biobased goods are more expensive in monetary terms than unsustainable waste management practices or non-renewable alternatives.


However, the reason that petrochemicals win on cost is thanks to over a century’s worth of infrastructure-building to manufacture and transport them. In other words, the competitiveness of petrochemicals is the outcome of very deliberate collective projects and policies. The same could well happen for biobased products.


Aviation fuels are moving toward market maturity
According to the report, demand for bio-jet fuels is gaining quickly. HEFA synthetic paraffin kerosene is anticipated to become the primary fuel in the short term due to technological and commercial maturity.


Yet minimum biobased aviation fuel prices are still higher than those of conventional fuels, with cost and cost reduction potential differing according to the technique used for making them.


For example, the Fischer-Tropsch process has a high initial cost as its fixed assets are expensive. However, it does offer high potential cost reduction since it can handle a wide range of raw materials, including cheap waste. By contrast, raw materials are a major determinant of fuel prices made through the ATJ method. This makes fuels made using this pathway more exposed to fluctuations in the prices of feedstock.


Despite rapid growth and growing policymaker interest, the industry is still far behind target for production. Major airlines said they want to replace 10% of jet fuel with SAF by 2030 but SAF currently makes up only 0.1% of the total consumed US jet fuel. Biden also launched a challenge in 2021 for sustainable aviation fuel supply to hit 3 billion, up from 15.8 million today.


The only way to reach ambitious targets like these is through government policies that set mandatory SAF use in aviation. The US did something similar for biofuels back in 200 when its legal mandate for a certain percentage of fuel to include biobased boosted the industry by guaranteeing a huge market.


Biobased chemicals approach scalability
Biobased chemicals are still a growth sector gaining plenty of attention. Many thousands of compounds could be made from biological resources. Often, lab methods have been successful but have yet to be commercialised.


A major trend in the biobased sector is the movement away from starch-based chemicals, usually taken from crops like corn or sugar, to lignocellulosic feedstocks.


Lignocellulisc feedstocks can encompass tough woody waste from forestry or agricultural operations. This can cut back on resource competition and land disputes related to traditional grain production. Cellulose pretreatment, enzyme formulations and pentose fermentation are all mature technologies for producing biobased chemicals.


Bioeconomy still favours growth over environment and equity
The expansion of the bioeconomy is not automatically sustainable. The UNEP reminds us that air and water pollution and biodiversity loss can accompany it, particularly for industries that depend on crops or forest plantations for feedstock.


On top of these are the political, economic and social issues that are always present when land use is in question. There are equity concerns that developed regions will expand biofuel crop growth across Asia, Africa and Latin America to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals at home or as offsets to justify continued emissions in the advanced economies. This will strain land, resources, and carbon budgets in developing regions.


Natural fibre on the ascent
Silk, hemp, and cotton are making a comeback among consumers thanks to concerns about the non-degradable plastics that dominate the global textiles industry.


Yet despite their renewability and biodegradability, consumers should remember that growing, harvesting and transporting these natural materials can come with a huge environmental impact. The way textiles are cultivated make a huge difference to the overall environmental impact of a product. Organic cotton has fewer impacts on water consumption and water pollution than ordinary intensive methods.


What the report did not mention are emerging biotechnological companies like Spiber which replicate natural biomaterials in the lab by harnessing microorganisms. These technologies are far from scaled but it does indicate another aspect of the returning interest in traditional biomaterials, where biotech companies are developing methods of reproducing traditional materials that could be less resource-intensive than land-based agriculture.