The NC team’s main focus is the forestry based part of the bioeconomy and especially the KaiCell Fibers biorefinery venture in Paltamo, but of course our vision is based on a general view regarding on what basis and according to which principles the global bioeconomy ought to be developed. In this month’s Newsletter, NC partner Martin Doktar discusses the broader framework within which a globally effective BioFuture ought to be pursued.
For as long as the earth’s population keeps increasing, it is hard to argue against the notion that agriculture producing basic food must be the highest rural land use priority.
From this follows that any other agriculture, whether luxury crops like coffee, wine and tobacco, or non-food plantations like cotton or linen, in principle have lower priority. Determining when non-essential crops are acceptable is complicated, but usually possible by taking into account the specific agricultural conditions of each area, and how they lend themselves to different crops. The optimal solution will be a mix between productivity and economic viability, for we should not disregard the very real need of farming populations everywhere in the world to make a decent living.
Crops for producing energy (fuel) represent a special case, and it makes humane sense to not allow them to compete unregulated with basic food production for arable land. This needs to be honestly debated when assessing policies designed to replace fossil fuels with for example corn based ethanol and its derived products.
Forestry falls into a somewhat separate category, as the forest is a positive asset in itself. It prevents land erosion, mitigates droughts, binds CO2 and provides a living environment for wild flora and fauna – biodiversity. We are hard pressed to find a single example of a country or a region having actually benefitted from deforestation!
Somewhat paradoxically, forests contribute more to balancing global CO2 when they are actively harvested and managed. Conservation forests, while undoubtedly superior in terms of biodiversity, quickly turn into decaying biomass that releases CO2 to the atmosphere. Therefore, striking a balance between pure plantation forests at one end of the spectrum and unmanaged natural protected forests on the other, requires a fine touch that is sensitive to local conditions. Of course, any bio-based product that replaces one made from fossil sources automatically reduces the global CO2 load.
In each of the above areas of debate, reaching a wise and fair outcome is essential if the bioeconomy is to become what our planet requires over the next decades, which means that there are considerable issues to resolve. Relying on market forces often leads to short sighted and inequitable production patterns (beans grown in central Africa for northern consumers etc.), but government interventionism – however well intended – tends to hurt more than it helps, especially when subsidies are used to encourage production that in itself makes little sense. Some kind of global roadmap is called for, or at least a set of general rules according to which each country can optimise its agricultural crops and forestry. Nations sign up to a great number of international conventions. Why not an international convention on the use of nature for humankind’s livelihood?
Such a convention should be based on certain internationally agreed principles, as well as high respect for national sovereignty. Imposing a one-size-fits-all on the planet’s vastly different countries would be totally counterproductive. Indeed, we should be looking for an equivalent of the famous Geneva Convention, which sets out general condition for how war may be fought – or more precisely what actions may not be taken in warfare. But is leaves to individual signatories to operate as they see fit within its parameters, and this is exactly what countries must be free to do in order to maximise the positive impact of their bioeconomies.
Yet certain principles could surely be made globally binding, such as:
- Bioeconomy solutions inherently preferable over petrochemical (sustainability and CO2 balance).
- Obligation to preserve biodiversity through nature reserves based on local conditions (population, area, land conditions, climate, etc.).
- Hierarchical crop preferences taking into account the optimum location and conditions for each type of agricultural activity and/or forestry.
- Preference for those end products that derive the most value out of biomass and energy invested in the process.
- Innovation from inception to commercialisation to be supported and incentivised against strict accountability on economically viable progress.
- A settled argument concerning the use of genetic manipulation and similar techniques that boost productivity and reduce the need for non-organic additives and pesticides.
The above list is by no means complete, and the final structure must be arrived at through a meticulous international process. A more important question at this stage, compared to what the precise rules ought to be, is how to actually begin moving towards a convention. How to get the process started. It seems logical that those countries who already have relatively large bioeconomies in relation to their overall GNP (such as Finland) should take the initiative through existing international structures organisations, but it is important that such initiatives are taken in careful consultation with national bioeconomy actors, experts and stakeholders.