Reaching a successful marriage of agriculture and bioeconomy

by Dominique DUTARTRE (Honorary Chairman of the IAR cluster)

In its broadest sense, the bioeconomy is the economy of photosynthesis. It considers all activities related to the production, use and transformation of bioresources. It aims to gradually replace fossil raw materials with renewable biomass in order to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It aims to achieve, in a sustainable way, food security and a growing part of material and energy security.

From this perspective, agricultural production, alongside forestry and aquaculture production, will provide a significant share of renewable bioresources. Will this increased demand for biomass utilization in new areas be compatible with a more sustainable, diversified agriculture sector?

In other words, what are the criteria for a successful marriage between agriculture and bioeconomy?

 

From the outset, we must emphatically state that the primary vocation of agriculture is and always will be to provide society with healthy food from appropriate production systems that minimize the impact on natural environments and promote biodiversity. To forget “food first” would place at long term risk societal acceptance of the bioeconomy. On the contrary, placing food as a central tenet in the bioeconomy is a guarantee of success and will serve to strengthen the social bond between agriculture and society.

Societal expectations for a more “natural”, reduced meat diet will lead to significant changes for agriculture. This food component brings new perspectives for agriculture. For example, it will be necessary to increase the production of legumes to meet both an increased demand for vegetable proteins and at the same time reduce the dependence of field crops on mineral nitrogen. In addition, the extension of rotations by the introduction of new crops will be favorable to biodiversity.

There is no doubt that new forms of agriculture will develop on the urban outskirts to meet the new expectations of our fellow citizens in terms of food and the environment. The “happy valley” project between Roissy and Paris is very interesting from this point of view. This project imagines a new way of living, working, moving, eating and consuming in the Ile de France region. Based on agronomic and agroecological research, it aims to demonstrate the contribution of the bioeconomy in terms of living, food and health conditions while creating employment and social linkages.

Keeping account of the key role of food supply, we need to concern ourselves with the quantitative and spatial aspects of the biomass resource at varying scales of field, farm and locality.

 

One of the key conditions for a successful marriage between agriculture and the bioeconomy centers on the requirement for local biorefineries sourcing their feedstocks from the neighbouring areas and creating activity and jobs in rural areas. On the contrary, a bioeconomy based on port biorefineries that would reproduce the neocolonial logistical model of fossil fuels should be avoided in public policy.  On the strength of this essential condition, it will become possible to conduct prospective studies to calibrate the size and nature of the investments required by employing an observatory of current and future resources in order to measure the impacts on production systems.

 

It will then be necessary to define priorities because resources will not be infinite and at the dawn of this great change which will necessarily take time, the creation of value could be a relevant criterion of choice. It will also be necessary to supplement the value of the goods produced by an estimate of ecosystem services such as, for example, the fixation of carbon by the soil.

In this respect, methanation is advantageous because it can allow energy production of gas and heat while ensuring a return of organic matter to the soil by the digestates. In addition, part of the feed to the digestor may come from intermediate crops with energy recovery which will ensure an intercrop soil cover and improve soil fertility by promoting biological activity. At a local level, a cooperation of breeders and producers of arable crops can be used to draw all the synergies from a centralized digestor.

 

As in any marriage, the union of agriculture and the bioeconomy is a bet on the future. To win, it is essential to innovate to make agriculture more compatible with a sustainable bioeconomy and to ensure that this new paradigm is efficient and profitable.

Innovating for an efficient and sustainable bioeconomy means firstly developing research to improve the sustainability of production systems because the bio-resource carries a great weight in the LCA (life cycle analysis) of a biobased product. To do this, it is necessary to explore the vast field of bio inputs, which the RMT Elicitra is beginning to do, to better mobilise the biological resources of ecosystems and reduce dependence on chemical inputs. There is a need to accelerate research in the areas of plant defense stimulation (SDP) and biostimulation to improve nutrient efficiency and increase tolerance to abiotic stresses.

 

This major shift towards less chemistry and more agronomy and biology will require revisiting the methods of developing roadmaps. Indeed, the responses will be diverse and often linked to the nature of the ecosystems and local microclimatic conditions. It will therefore be a question of resorting to “open innovation” where the operator of the practices will be associated with the co-design of solutions, likely signaling the end of purely “top down” systems and the need for researchers to get closer to practitioners.

This synergy between agriculture and bioeconomy is a guarantee of success and staying within the symbolism of this famous marriage, it is the best guarantee for it to be fruitful. Thus, the destinies of agriculture and bioeconomy are inextricably intertwined for better or for worse. For the best, it will be necessary to intensify research work on the efficiency of biological systems in interaction between the plant and the soil and more generally in interaction with the environment. For the better, the investments (their size and location) will have to consider the current and future production capacities of the surrounding local regions. And since a marriage is built over time, at the start of this new adventure, value must be given precedence over volume in order to allow the flourishing of this prodigious union.

Let us hope that these agriculture and bioeconomy synergies will be fruitful and contribute to improving the living conditions on our planet Earth or, at the very least, that they put an end to the excesses which if continued will inexorably lead to catastrophe for Humanity.

 

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