Global food security, the use of renewable raw materials and production of energy from biomass are three of the “Great Challenges” for the 21st century.

To address these challenges, 15 countries have formed a partnership and a new initiative in the frame of the Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI), entitled FACCE SURPLUS (Sustainable and Resilient agriculture for food and non-food systems).

The partnership is committed to improve collaboration across the European Research Area in the range of diverse, but integrated, food and non-food biomass production and transformation systems, including biorefining. 

In January 2015 the partnership launced its first call for joint European research projects, in collaboration with the European Commission.

Background: The vision of a European “bioeconomy”

In line with the European Bioeconomy Strategy, better use of biomass and waste from plant and animal terrestrial and aquatic production systems is a fundamental aim to fulfil human needs while preserving natural resources and biodiversity. All economic actors that produce, manage and otherwise exploit biological resources, including agricultural and other land based activity in its widest sense, such as in the food, animal feed, farmed fish and forest-based chains, as well as parts of the chemical, biotechnological and energy industries, should be considered as a whole in the bioeconomy. The concept extends beyond technological innovation to present new opportunities for organisational innovation in the development of novel production chains that will contribute to improving life for all. In this way, rural and coastal communities will be given greater opportunities for diversification at different spatial scales in line with local and regional development plans.

Food and non-food systems encompassing agricultural businesses, agri-industrial infrastructures, institutions and the associated policies and practices located in, or associated with, the European Union (EU) are in scope, where they enable food and bio-based raw materials and products to be delivered to EU consumers. The current food system was created in response to meeting food production targets in the post-war era. It represents decades of investment in infrastructure and the creation of institutional arrangements that reflect the political and economic priorities of recent decades, up to and including the globalisation of food systems. However, in the past few years it has become clear that a managed transition towards radically improved food and non-food systems by 2050 will be needed to make the most efficient and sustainable use of land and other natural resources across the EU.

This transition has already begun. Economic partnerships between agricultural, forestry and biochemical innovators are emerging. Such partnerships challenge the way we traditionally look at the agricultural sector. Classic economic analysis of agricultural production chains looks at the vertical relationship between the different stages of the production and transformation processes, from the field to the final product. However, the bioeconomy operates more holistically by exploiting the options for utilising all the biomass from agricultural land, uncultivated land and forestry. For example, some biomass can be reconstituted through biorefining into a large range of final food and non-food products. Similarly, the treatment of co-products and by-products recovered from some food or non-food bio-based production activities creates a mechanism for cascading the major elements N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) back into agricultural systems by returning it to the soil and at the same time releasing CO₂ into systems that can be utilised for enhancing photosynthesis (e.g. in glasshouses). So, fractionation and conversion of one bio-based product into another and cascading of nutrients, sometimes known collectively as the “circular bio-economy”, presents a new way of describing biological production and processing systems. New bio-technologies and industrial processes need to be developed and traditional relationships between actors in the various food and non-food production chains will need to change to accommodate such innovations leading to a radical reorganisation of the agri-industrial sector and the emergence of a reformed bioeconomy. Industrial reorganisation is an ongoing process driven by the market and the growing demand for bio-based products, but the needs and opportunities of SMEs and intermediate sized businesses should not be overlooked.

A holistic view across research disciplines is a prerequisite of any research into the relationship between food and non-food systems: the interconnections between them lead to a weakening of the boundaries between production and product transformation. It is apparent that most published models consider food chains with no reference to non-food value chains or bioenergy production. Conversely bioenergy models do not generally take account of the quantity, quality and diversity of plant and animal production needed to meet nutritional needs. The choice of scale (local, national, regional or world) is also important. For example, at local scales, it is necessary to take into account seasonal fluctuations in crop production, when considering food or non-food security whereas at larger scales this is less of an issue as the production of one region may compensate for a deficit in another.

The need for sustainable intensification of agricultural production

Alongside the increased demand for biomass for a variety of products, the world’s available agricultural land area is steadily decreasing as a result of soil degradation and expansion of residential areas. Furthermore, climate change will increasingly affect agricultural productivity. All this impacts on the resilience of agricultural food and non-food systems and their ability to tolerate and adapt to external disturbances in order to deliver a continuous supply of affordable food and bio-based products to consumers. A resilient system should be able to speedily recover from climatic shocks and biological stress (e.g. pathogens) and should provide alternative means for satisfying services and needs in the event of changed external circumstances. Only resilient agricultural systems allowing growth and intensification of agriculture under the increasing stress of climate change, new pests and disease outbreaks and other environmental pressures will address these challenges adequately. To achieve increased productivity in an environmentally sustainable manner considering all relevant inputs e.g. pesticides, fertilisers, veterinary products and water, preserving biodiversity and considering ecosystem services, a new, joint programme of multi-disciplinary research and innovation is required across the EU and globally.

Furthermore, creating resilience requires more focus on establishing diverse sources of supply and reinforcing infrastructures. Modeling is necessary in this space to develop insights into the range of possible agricultural solutions and the resulting systems of production for any given agro-climatic zone and land typology. This implies the measurement of agronomic, environmental and economic trade-offs between, for example, the use of multi-purpose plant species versus specialised cropping versus pluri-annual production (e.g. through short rotation coppices). There is also a need for environmental sustainability indicators to assess other trade-offs between environmental and production deliverables for any particular agricultural system as biomass production increases under sustainable intensification.

Long term modeling is characterised by deep uncertainty over a range of drivers including soils, resources, technological developments, behavioural changes and the prevailing policy mechanisms. This underlines the importance of robust sensitivity analyses across a range of variables.

Moreover, transitions in farming systems towards sustainable intensification, and/or high nature value need to be integrated into the broader perspective of a bioeconomy that will combine the simultaneous production of food, fibres, feed, bio-chemicals, raw materials and bio-energy from biomass over a territory, the recycling of wastes and the utilisation of by-products and co-products. Holistic value chains need to be developed through the integration of industries across rural regions and cities. Alternative agricultural systems which are currently being developed and studied in (and outside) Europe should be compared with each other and networks of study sites developed to test holistic sustainable intensification metrics at farm, landscape and national scales.