Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

5 ways a sustainable and circular bioeconomy can help us to build back better


Single-use plastics and the myriad of disposable goods, along with unsustainable agricultural practices are taking a toll on our natural resources and ecosystems, as well as our health. But it’s not too late to reverse the damage.

We have the chance of a lifetime to heal a battered and bruised world. Erratic rainfall, droughts and superstorms, many of which are a consequence of climate change, are degrading our land and killing our biodiversity. This is seriously affecting our capacity to sustainably produce and distribute nutritious food for all. At the same time, we have become caught up in a ‘throw-away’ mentality, and waste and pollution are affecting agricultural ecosystems.

It’s time to change and rethink our economy. A sustainable and circular bioeconomy offers the chance to build back better and restructure agri-food systems in a greener and more innovative way.

Since 2016, FAO has been looking at how a sustainable and circular bioeconomy could be a new, much needed economic model with many benefits. Below are five of the ways a sustainable and circular bioeconomy is leading to better food production, better nutrition and better livelihoods in a better environment, and what FAO is doing to promote this transition:


1. Achieving food and nutrition security for a growing population without destroying our natural resource base

We know that a growing population and changing food habits will lead to increased demand for agricultural products, putting more pressure on natural resources. A sustainable and circular bioeconomy offers alternative and innovative solutions to meet these demands. Problems related to unsustainable intensive crop and livestock farming or overfishing could be alleviated through the sustainable intensification of food production, responsible food consumption and new nutrient-rich protein alternatives which leave a lighter environmental footprint.

FAO has been reviewing the latest microbiome research to deepen our understanding of nutrition, and how diets and food products, through the environment in our gut affect the resilience of the human body to withstand stress and disease, particularly non-communicable diseases related to food.


 2. Slowing biodiversity loss and climate change

Establishing a sustainable and circular bioeconomy can lead to challenges that not only concern food and nutrition security, but also address climate change and the sustainable management of land, forests, water and all the biodiversity within them.

The International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group and FAO have developed principles and criteria to monitor and evaluate the bioeconomy in different settings, to show progress and avoid risks and hidden costs that might undermine the sustainability of the bioeconomy, for example dependence on fossil fuels or increased levels of food loss and waste.

FAO also has a prominent role to play in tackling pollution in agriculture and food systems, including the use of plastics in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, to increase the circular bioeconomy and to thereby avoid a negative impact on both food products and the environment.

Plastic used on farms can be hard to recycle because it becomes contaminated with soil, pesticides and fertiliser so it’s simply burnt or buried. Even biodegradable plastic mulch (a covering to suppress weeds and conserve water in crop production) has been found to leave microplastics that remain in the soil for years, harming the microbes and tiny organisms that live there, and ultimately affecting the crops themselves.

As the basis of a new Agricultural Plastics Initiative, FAO has established a multidisciplinary Working Group and is assessing the magnitude, fate and impacts of plastic products used in agriculture and food systems globally. 

3. Healthier, happier sustainable consumers

The need to increase crop yield could lead to greater use of fertilizers and pesticides with additional problems related to water and soil pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

“Developments such as changes in crop management will play an important role in making agriculture more resource-use efficient. Providing alternatives to synthetic fertilizers with bio-based products is one possible option” explained Anne Bogdanski, a FAO Natural Resources Officer who led the research on 26 case studies spanning a variety of projects across every continent. Each case is a unique example of the sustainable and circular bioeconomy in action. 


4. Bioeconomic growth through research and innovation

FAO is supporting countries in the development of sustainable and circular bioeconomy strategies and action plans. Uruguay, as a member of the FAO-led International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group, has been restoring degraded lands by implementing both traditional and innovative practices to improve grassland and livestock management. These sustainably farmed cows in turn provide meat, leather and milk.  

The Working Group includes representatives from 14 national governments and each one considers the development of a modern circular bioeconomy as a central strategy in promoting their economies. Innovative approaches used within a sustainable and circular bioeconomy mean that different products can last longer and retain their value, and unrecycled biowaste is avoided. 

5. Effective governance means a collaborative and circular bioeconomy

Working alongside more than 50 countries, FAO has recognised the importance of setting up effective and coordinated governance frameworks, at national and international level, to ensure that a bioeconomy is sustainable and circular. Developments in Namibia and Uruguay have shown the two countries to be models of such a collaborative framework.

“To implement sustainable bioeconomy strategies in countries and regions, strategies and action plans must be developed over time in close coordination with government ministries, ensuring the inclusion of local and regional actors and civil society throughout the process,” said Roman Brenne, a Policy Officer for the European Commission.

FAO’s work with countries has produced encouraging results. More and more countries are expressing the need to move away from a linear economy based on fossil fuels, to one based on the production and conservation of goods and services from the direct use or sustainable transformation of biological resources.

“With half of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals directly related to the circular bioeconomy, countries following this new economic model are likely to make greater progress in reaching these goals – from promoting sustainable agriculture under SDG 2, to ensuring sustainable consumption and production levels that leave no one behind under SDG 12” said Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO’s new office of Climate, Biodiversity and Environment. 


Learn more