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What is Bioeconomy?

LIGNO Sep 18, 2020 Reforms 0 Comments

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 (GBS, 2018, p.2).


Biological resources are material of biological origin. They represent the feedstock for the bioeconomy. These resources do not include organic material that has been embedded in geological formations and fossilized (e.g. fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas).

Article 2 of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) notes that biological resources “include genetic resources, organisms or parts thereof, populations, or any other biotic component of ecosystems with actual or potential use or value for humanity”.1 These genetic resources include crops, forests, land and aquatic animals and micro-organisms.

Biomass is an important element of world’s biological resources. Biomass, which can be based on plant or animal life, encompasses, but is not limited to, agricultural crops and trees, including dedicated energy crops, food, feed and fibre crop residues; aquatic plants and animals, algae, fish bones and other fish residues; forestry and wood residues; agricultural waste, including animal manure; processing by-products and any other non-fossil organic material. Biological resources can be used as feedstock for processing and in microbiological and biotechnological processes. These resources also include microorganisms, such as bacteria.


The term ‘bioproduct’ encompasses all products made from biological resources, and includes food, feed, biofuels and bio-based products. Biofuel is fuel that is produced from biomass either directly (e.g. wood) or indirectly through the fermentation of sugars (e.g. ethanol). The term ‘bioenergy’ is used for all energy derived from biofuels.

The term ‘bio-based products’ refers to products that are wholly or partly derived from biomass and other biological resources, which are not used for food, feed and fuel. Some bio-based products are not new, such as, pulp and paper, timber for construction, bio-based cosmetics and fibres for clothing. However, there are many new kinds of bio-based products that are emerging. These include bio-based materials and biochemicals with new functionalities and properties, new substances used for medicinal purposes, and new ingredients used for cosmetics and functional food ingredients. According to the European Standard EN 16575, if the term ‘bio-based product’ is used to refer to a product, which is partly bio-based, the claim should be accompanied by a quantification of the bio-based content, normally expressed as a percentage of the total mass of the product (CEN, 2014). The bio-based economy is a subset of the bioeconomy that is concerned with the production of bio-based products and the generation of bioenergy (i.e. all bioproducts except food and feed) (Dubois and Gomez San Juan, 2016).

Bio-based materials are the intermediate products that are used to make bioproducts. Traditional bio-based materials include wood for the production of furniture and construction materials, and textiles, such as leather, cotton, linen and fish skin. Novel bio-based materials include a range of intermediate materials (e.g. building blocks and polymers) that are used to produce a wide range of bio-based products, including bio-based plastics, biolubricants and solvents (Müller et al., 2015). Building blocks are ‘the core of the new bioeconomy’ (Aeschelmann and Carus, 2015).

Building blocks are the bio-based materials needed to manufacture some of the most common bioproducts. For instance, ethylene, which can be made from sugar cane, is a building block used in the manufacturing of the polymer polyethylene (PE).

A polymer is a chemical compound consisting of repeating monomers, a class of molecule that can bond in long chains. Along with PE, there are a number of other polymers used in the production of commodity plastics, such as polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Examples of polymers used in the production of specialty or engineering plastics include polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, also known as Teflon), polycarbonate (PC, also known as Lexan) and polyesters and polyamides (Nylon).

A bio-based plastic is a blend of one or more bio-based polymers and additives. Examples of bio-based plastics include polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and polylactic acid (PLA), which is used for a number of purposes, including food packaging, cups, mulch films and tea bags, and can be biodegradable (Kabasci, 2013). Other applications of bio-based plastics include biomedical uses (e.g. implants) and 3D printing (Avérous, 2008).


Biological resources are used in processes that are based on traditional knowledge and in the application of modern, innovative technologies in the life sciences and biotechnology. The biological resources that are used in microbiological and biotechnological processes are an essential element of the bioeconomy. These resources include microbiota (the ecological community of microorganisms or microbes), microbiomes (the genomes of all microorganisms in the microbiotic community) and enzymes, which serve as catalysts for biochemical reactions.

Technological innovations and traditional knowledge that use microbiological and biotechnological processes include the development of dietary approaches to preventive medicine (e.g. the production of fermented foods and precision nutrition) (Flandroy et al., 2018; de Toro-Martín et al., 2017). Microbiological and biotechnological processes are also used in agricultural production (e.g. to enhance plant nutrient uptake and nutrient use efficiency) and in postharvest operations (e.g. to suppress storage pathogens and lengthen the shelf life of food products). These processes also play a role in the processing of biomass (e.g. the use of bacteria for fermentation processes or enzymes for catalysing processes), the application of electrochemical reactions (e.g. the use of microbes to generate electricity) and microbial fuel cell technologies (e.g. electroactive bacteria or proteins that form biofilms).

Carbon-based gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), can also be considered as a biological resource in cases where a biotechnological process harnesses microorganisms that use these gases to derive specific compounds. This relates to carbon capture and use (CCU) processes involved in the production of bioproducts.


The delivery of ecosystem services, which are the benefits people derive from ecosystems, is a critical component of the bioeconomy. Ecosystem services include provisioning services of essential goods (e.g. food, water, timber and fibre); regulating services that affect climate, flooding, the spread and control of pests and diseases, waste management, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits; and supporting services, such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling (UNDP, 2018a).

Biological resources can be involved in the application of microbiological and biotechnological processes and the delivery of ecosystem services. For example, environmental microbiota from the air, the soil and the ocean influence the composition of the human microbiome and the microbiomes in larger ecosystems. The microbiome influences human and ecosystem health. It plays a role in preventing or contributing to malnourishment, including obesity, and other non-communicable diseases. The microbiome also affects the soil and terrestrial plants and animals, including those used in agriculture. In the oceans, the microbiome plays a key role in biogeochemical processes, such as carbon and nutrient cycling (Lal, 2009).

Biologic carbon sequestration in the soil, a process in which carbon is stored in the soil through improved agricultural practices and soil management, enhances soil quality and promotes the interlinked cycling of water and nutrients, which strengthens the delivery of ecosystem services. When the level of the soil organic carbon falls below a certain threshold soil ecological processes are adversely affected, which has negative impacts on numerous ecosystem services. Additional carbon can be captured in crop residues, animal manure and biochar, and then be stored in the soil.

Bioeconomy activities are not necessarily sustainable. The use of biological resources and the production of biomass for food, feed, fuel and bio-based products can have both positive and negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts. Of paramount concern is that the development of the bioeconomy does not undermine food security, especially in areas with high levels of malnutrition.

In 2015, at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) meeting in Berlin, 62 ministers of agriculture recommended that FAO coordinate international work on sustainable bioeconomy (GFFA, 2015). The German Ministry for Food and Agriculture (BMEL) has provided support to FAO to assist countries in the development of sustainable bioeconomy strategies and programmes.

The report "Towards sustainable bioeconomy" offers lessons from 26 case studies of sustainable bioeconomy interventions from around the world and from a range of different sectors. The overall aim of the report is to use these case studies to expand the general understanding of sustainability in the context of the development of the bioeconomy. The report presents an overview of a number of interventions in different sectors; the objectives that these interventions were seeking to achieve; the main actors involved; the context in which they were carried out; the success factors that enabled them to deliver sustainable socioeconomic and environmental benefits; and the lessons learned from this analysis. This document provides policy makers and people working directly in bioeconomy initiatives with examples of the elements that need to be considered when implementing bioeconomy activities.

Six major non-exclusive themes associated with most of the objectives of bioeconomy development: food security, natural resources management, climate change, responsible consumption and production, economic growth, and good governance.

A new bioeconomy strategy for a sustainable Europe.

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