Bioeconomy – new concepts for the utilization of natural resources

In a bioeconomy biological resources such as plants, animals, and microorganisms are utilized in modern ways. The bioeconomy is based on cutting-edge scientific knowledge and bridges technology, ecology and an efficient economy.

The world is facing enormous challenges. The world’s population continues to increase and has to be fed. The main resources and energy sources of the past are getting scarcer, and the climate is changing. How can we address these challenges?

Sustainable use of biological resources such as plants – for example as a material for car tires. © Thinkstock / camij

A modern bioeconomy offers us a range of opportunities to take on these issues. For millennia, humanity has used nature’s bounty. Plants and animals supplied us with nearly everything needed for survival: food, materials, medicine, clothing and energy. We have also used microorganisms since the beginning of civilization, for example to bake bread or brew beer. The modern life sciences and technology enable us to use biological processes ever more efficiently and to develop them further. With the „National Research Strategy Bioeconomy 2030“ the German Federal Government supports this sustainable, knowledge-based economy.

Some economic sectors do traditionally use biological resources and processes: agriculture, forestry, horticulture, fisheries and aquaculture, plant breeding, food industry as well as the wood, paper, leather, textiles, chemical and pharmaceutical industries and even the energy sector. But bio-based innovations are also increasingly important in other sectors such as for example the automotive industry, the consumer products and packaging industries, the pharmaceutical industry, the IT-sector or environmental technology. Both in traditional and new sectors, the bioeconomy can herald important innovations and lead to greater sustainability.

Nature’s toolbox combined with human ingenuity

In the course of evolution organisms have thrived under the most adverse conditions. Life flourishes nearly everywhere on the blue planet – including in great heat, continuous frost or under dry conditions. The most successful organisms are those that use resources optimally. The bioeconomy uses knowledge about the manifold survival strategies in nature and combines it with the ingenuity of humankind. Technological and cultural achievements are brought together with nature’s toolbox.

When producing plastics, for example, it is possible to replace fossil oil with plant-based resources. Plants keep on growing year after year, and during their growth they draw the same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere as they release when they are burned – making them carbon neutral. The use of fossil oil, gas or coal on the other hand fuels the devastating greenhouse effect.

The bio-based economy can also help mitigate the results of that portion of climate change that we are already inevitably facing. Optimized plants can help supply sufficient and healthy nutrition for the growing world population in the face of increasing draught or flooding. Additionally, nature supplies us with a rich bounty of renewable resources that can be used by industry. Fossil oil as the basis of many chemical products will at some point run out, but plants regrow each year. Renewable resources are a real alternative. Bacteria and fungi also offer valuable services: Not only can they deliver materials or pharmaceutically active substances, but they can also help in the production of a wide range of products. This is due to their ability to produce substances, such as enzymes, that can catalyse reactions in an environmentally friendly way.

Developing a global and social Bioeconomy

In addition, nature can supply us with a part of our energy. Waste and residue can be converted into fuel, electricity and warmth. To safeguard that no potential food is used for energy production, the German Federal Government has set priorities: The production of food comes first, followed by the use of biological resources for materials, and only in last place the use for energy. To enable those in charge to spot possible conflicts over use early, the German Federal Government includes social sciences in its bioeconomy strategy. They study the interaction between technology, society, economy and ecology.

To establish a knowledge-based, internationally competitive bioeconomy, the „National Research Strategy Bioeconomy 2030“ specified five main fields of action:

• securing global nutrition

• sustainable agricultural production

• producing safe and healthy foods

• industrial use of biobased resources

• energy on the basis of biomass

With the decision to expand the bioeconomy, the German Federal Government tackles the challenges that face humanity globally, taking its part of the responsibility, and strengthens the competitiveness of the German economy.