Global bio-economic transformation: What does it mean for forests?

Opportunities and trade-offs of a sustainable bio-based transition on a global scale
Charcoal trade in the Mokolo Market in Yaoundé. CIFOR/Ahtziri Gonzalez

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BOGOR, Indonesia (Forests News) — Crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms — in the bio-economy, these are the basic building blocks for materials, chemicals and energy – from ethanol to omega-3 supplements.

Increasingly seen by international organizations and governments as a way to shift from dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources toward a more sustainable path, the bio-economy also has its detractors. Experts warn that imports of biomass by some countries can negatively affect ecosystems in others.

“The bio-economy overlaps with the principles of sustainable development and the green economy in many ways, but differs in that it aims to “biologize“ the global economy through the creation of value added products and by applying biological principles in sectors that have traditionally relied on non-renewable resources,” said Jan Börner, an agricultural economist and professor of Economics of Sustainable Land Use and Bio-economy at Germany’s University of Bonn and senior associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).


Börner and his colleagues aim to uncover the potential opportunities and trade-offs of a sustainable bio-based transition on a global scale. In a recent policy brief, they summarize the following four pathways to achieve bio-economic transformation in developing countries: substituting fossil fuels with biofuels; making agriculture more efficient and productive; recycling waste from such products as palm oil or sugarcane; and increasing the value of natural resources through technology by using wood cellulose for clothing or even to fix broken bones.

“Developing countries tend to use more biomass than industrialized ones, but often in inefficient, unsustainable ways – for example, using wood fuel or charcoal for heating and cooking,” Börner said. “Here, sustainable transformation may involve either more efficient biomass uses or shifting to non-biomass based forms of renewable energy.”

A shift towards a bio-economic approach in industrialized countries, on the other hand, would entail using biomass more – but not necessarily more biomass.

“In industrialized countries we would see the role of biomass expand not through higher food or timber production, but with the development of higher-value products and processes such as biomass waste recycling, and by applying biological principles to material uses and energy production,” Börner said.

What is needed to leverage the huge potential of the global bio-economy for both developing and industrialized countries? Policies that can help lift institutional and technical barriers to the transfer of knowledge that still exist in developing countries, along with partnerships between government and civil society, which can embed social and environmental safeguards throughout international value chains.


The need to adapt governance systems to the new realities of the bio-economy can be seen clearly in the context of the non-food economy, Börner said. He was part of a team that developed a novel approach to measure the European Union’s “cropland footprint” for non-food biomass.

“We’ve been talking about food for decades, but the non-food uses of biomass are increasingly interesting from a bio-economy perspective,” he said. “You can do a lot more with biomass than just burn it.”

Biomass used for materials or energy – such as cosmetics and perfumes, dietary supplements, detergents, cleaning products, textiles and bioplastics – is the fastest growing source of demand for agricultural land worldwide, and the largest appetites are found in China, Europe and the United States.

“Europe plays a crucial role in determining global developments, because it is one of the world’s largest consumers of non-food biomass, relying heavily on other world regions, including Asia for source material,” Börner said.

The researchers analyzed how Europe’s global land demand developed between 1995 and 2010 from the perspective of land use (cropland use for non-food purposes), industry (cropland embodied in agricultural products used in non-food manufacturing industries) and consumption (cropland embodied in the final use of non-food products).

Adapting a multi-regional input-output model, a common method to assess global trade patterns, the scientists calculated land footprints generated by the non-food bio-economy. By mapping crop-specific land demands, the researchers identified global consumption hotspots for cropland embodied in bio-based non-food products.

“This model allows us to study a large number of products and their resource demands over a long period of time,” Börner said.

The research shows that, despite being only the fifth largest producing region, the European Union is the number one consumer region of non-food cropland, and two thirds of the cropland needed to satisfy its demand is found in other regions of the world. The highest share of its footprint – at almost 29 percent in 2010 – was oilseed production used for biofuels, detergents, polymers, and other products. Fiber crops (for textiles) and animal hides and skins (for leather products) also made up a significant share.


The scientists highlight how the growing global demand for raw materials for the bio-economy could lead to increased water scarcity and nutrient pollution, higher rates of deforestation in tropical regions and an associated rise in greenhouse gases. Pressure to develop more cropland in developing countries could displace people with unclear land tenure and lead to the commodification of land and food crops. And climate change can threaten production in developing countries, making highly import-dependent economies vulnerable to supply constraints.

Adapting governance regimes to accommodate these more complex value chains is critical to avoiding the potential negative impacts, the authors note. The study has implications for initiatives such as the Bio-economy Strategy of the European Commission.

They also highlight how a geographic shift in non-food agricultural biomass production from the Americas and Southeast Asia to countries in Africa with lower governance capacities may complicate value chain governance mechanisms, including some certification schemes, that rely on social and environmental monitoring or national law enforcement mechanisms.

But negative impacts can be avoided by sourcing from world regions with favorable social and environmental production conditions.

“This study is a step toward making global biomass flows traceable, which can eventually inform zero deforestation and other consumer initiatives,” Börner added.


This research was part of a project on forests and the bio-economy, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation. Scientists are also investigating two future scenarios in the bio-economy: the potential effects of an increase in bioplastics consumption on land-use change on a global scale, and how a demand for more forest biomass in Europe and globally could affect tropical forests.

“There are two ways to think about forests in the bio-economy,” notes Börner. “One is of forests as victims – for instance, increased deforestation caused by higher demand for croplands; the other is of forests as promoters of the bio-economy, for example how to save natural forests through more efficient biomass uses. Through this research, we hope to encourage more of the latter.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Jan Börner at
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