Regenerative Bioeconomies

A key action area for any Thriving Community

Photo: Tim Taylor

Ideally, a regenerative bioeconomy uses renewable organic materials from forests, soils, crops and the sea to create products that displace fossil carbon use and are fully returned to nature in the end — creating a fully circular economic cycle.

Bioeconomies are a great area for communities to focus their circularity efforts, because the organic side of the circular economy (the green half of the below Ellen McArthur Foundation diagram) naturally makes sense to localise as much as possible.

The Circular Economy Butterfly Diagram — Ellen McArthur Foundation

Any thriving community will therefore need regenerative local bioeconomy systems. We think regenerative bioeconomies should be made up of an integrated and locally-appropriate mix of:

  • Local food systems
  • Integrated bio-industry
  • Bio-energy systems

Thriving Communities aims to expand our work in this area - helping communities in SE Europe on a mission to rapidly create 21st century bioeconomies.

Are you interested to be part of this collective work? Then please share how you can help take forward, and expand, our thinking that is discussed in more detail below.

Local Food Systems

Regenerative local food systems are a powerful way to provide equitable access to healthy nutritious food, tackle climate change, restore biodiversity, and improve civic cohesion.

Nutrition is a critical human need with one of the greatest resource demands. The current food system clearly doesn’t work for everyone, and it certainly doesn’t work for the environment. Industrial farming has turned agriculture into a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, pollution, antimicrobial resistance and biodiversity loss. Poor food access, options and diets are causing health issues for many people, while nearly 10% of the world’s population still go hungry. Then, almost a third of food produced is wasted, while less than 2% of the organic resources discarded in cities are actively recirculated.

Transitioning to a circular and regenerative local food system means flipping these problems and growing food in ways that restore soil, water and biodiversity; while distributing and supplying food in ways that improve social outcomes.

A holistic redesign of regional food production, markets and retailing systems is therefore needed. Collaborative local food system design has greater potential to realise the total value of linking regenerative farming through to a mosaic of better-quality food retail and dining options. Communities also need to ensure that food and nutrients never go to waste. Surplus edible food should be redistributed to people who need it. Inedible food by-products and human waste need to become inputs for new cycles of value in bio-refineries, composts, urban farms or for energy production.

Cities are obviously centres for food demand, and urban farming has significant potential for growth as part of circular local food systems. Theoretically many cities could produce a significant share the food they need through high-yielding urban farming methods such as vertical farms, aquaponics and lab-like aeroponic systems (these should ideally be focussed on foods with high nutritional value and that travel poorly). Urban agriculture also offers great opportunities to make the most of otherwise wasted heat in the urban environment. Community gardens, allotments and orchards are also essential — with the broader community benefits they generate.

Working on local food is an important step on the path to wider community development goals - as it is so important to all people’s social life, quality of life and health. For example, community gardens and orchards might be less directly productive than high-tech food production but they tend to also deliver greater social connections and benefits, while improving the local environment and increasing urban green space. It is not just about regenerating nature, local food actions can help to regenerate communities.

Photo: Tim Taylor

Integrated Bio-Industry

Bio-industries use biological and renewable feedstocks to produce products and goods that benefit society. Currently many of the things that modern society relies on are produced from fossil-fuel feedstocks. Hence a key goal of 21st century bio-industry should be to replace fossil fuels with sustainable bio-feedstocks from forestry, agriculture and aquaculture.

Producing bio-based materials offers the opportunity to maximise value from biomass resources - producing things like paper, packaging, fuel, furniture, construction materials, chemicals (eg. for coatings, resins and adhesives), textiles, beauty products and bio-plastics. Developing bio-materials industries should therefore be a strategic economic priority.

Construction materials and systems are an important opportunity to directly boost local bio-industry manufacturing. Housing and buildings have a massive demand for materials and resources, and thus are a natural target market for bio-industry development. Advances in architectural and engineering applications now allow for broader use of mass timber, including in high-rise buildings. Bio-based materials are increasingly being used for a range of construction applications. A revolution on the demand side of the construction industry is needed to create a revolution in the production of bio-materials for construction. Regional and national communities have the opportunity to directly influence and develop most of this system in their area (unlike many product value-chains).

Between biomass and bio-products, advanced bio-refineries are needed. The development of bio-refineries is a key part of systemic bio-based industrial development. Bio-refineries turn renewable raw organic materials into lignin, cellulose and advanced bio-polymers that can then be used to make products. With some bio-refinery processes having the potential to also capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using plants and algae, the tantalising potential to unlock carbon-negative industrial production is there. The EU Bioeconomy Strategy identifies a potential market demand for hundreds of new bio-refineries in Europe by 2030.

Growing the bio-industry sector presents an enormous economic opportunity for forest owners and farmers, as the main suppliers of raw materials. However, in many places forestry and farm management is decentralised and relatively uncoordinated, so bio-economy innovation is not being meaningfully driven by these potential suppliers of the raw materials. Even though they have much to gain.

The potential of integrated bio-industries will not be realised by more incremental innovation. That hasn’t worked. Developing new systems of products and production demands changing mindsets, building capacities, systemic collaborative design, new business models, investment at scale and and clustering industrial partnerships to orchestrate these radical changes. This demands the communities take a much more mission-led approach to developing bio-industries.

Växjö Sandviksverket — Jonas Ljungdahl/Växjö Municipality

Bio-Energy Systems

Communities should avoid the allure of starting with simpler-looking bio-energy projects. Recent work by Material Economics looks at the big picture of biomass use across the EU and highlights that biomass is a scarce resource that needs to be prioritised into higher value products and applications such as construction, fibre, materials and chemicals. Energy uses for biomass are likely to become less competitive in many sectors, including most applications for liquid/gas fuels, though energy is still relevant for bioeconomy waste streams.

Therefore, development of energy systems that utilise local bio-residues can be an important part of any local bioeconomy, as long as this is the use-of-last-resort before returning final organic residues to nature.

Key bio-energy system opportunities include:

  • Heating, cooling and power co-generation from biofuels, including woody-biomass residues, agriculture residues and biogas produced from organic food waste and wastewater. District energy systems help to maximise effectiveness of distributing heat and cool.
  • Micro biomass-fuelled heating systems for buildings that cannot be serviced by district energy systems or heat pumps.
  • Systems to systemically improve building energy performance using bio-based construction materials
Photo: Växjö Energi

Conclusions

This discussion has highlighted some of the opportunities on offer from regenerative local bioeconomy systems, across three key areas:

  • Local food systems
  • Integrated bio-industry
  • Bio-energy systems

Development of these parts of a modern bioeconomy need to be approached in an integrated way, and this should be a high priority for all communities.

Thriving Communities aims to expand our work in this area — helping communities in SE Europe on a mission to rapidly create 21st century bioeconomies.

Are you interested to be part of this collective work? Then please get in touch and share how you can help.

For more information and to discuss getting involved in Thriving Communities work on Regenerative Bioeconomies, please contact tim@korimako.org.

Photo by Matthew Smith on Unsplash

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Thriving Communities is a collective initiative with a mission to help communities to create radical enough change to thrive in the 21st century. We use this Medium publication to share insights, ideas and stories from our work and learning processes

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Tim Taylor

Tim Taylor

I specialise in supporting communities to develop and deliver transformational social, economic and environmental change initiatives.

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