Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

FAO hosts brainstorming event with the International Sustainable Bioeconomy Work Group


FAO’s Bioeconomy team held an engaging virtual meeting of the International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group (ISBWG) on 28 February, with around 40 participants zooming in from countries and regions around the globe, including Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Malaysia, Namibia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Africa, United States of America, and Uruguay. The brainstorming event, moderated by FAO bioeconomy expert Marta Gomez San Juan, was a perfect opportunity for group members from different continents to present their perspectives and local priorities, and discuss the future direction of FAO’s work on bioeconomy for sustainable food and agriculture.

ISBWG and FAO’s bioeconomy project

The ISBWG is a multi-stakeholder group that acts as an advisory body to FAO’s work on sustainable bioeconomy. The group has used its meetings in recent years to facilitate knowledge exchange among members on bio-innovations for agrifood systems, provide bioeconomy policy guidance to national and regional stakeholders, and support the development of guidance on monitoring bioeconomy sustainability. This falls within the remit of FAO’s “Towards Sustainable Bioeconomy Guidelines” project, which is supported by the Government of Germany and has been developing knowledge products and working with the Governments of Namibia and Uruguay on their national bioeconomy strategies.

Professor Paolo Sarfatti, who is conducting a mid-term review of the project for FAO, used the latest ISBWG meeting to invite members to contribute inputs to the review, which is due to be completed in May. The forward-looking review will represent a good opportunity to assess how FAO’s bioeconomy project has gone so far and, crucially, to propose how it can adapt to take account of the rapidly changing bioeconomy landscape.

FAO’s bioeconomy work enters a new phase

As the bioeconomy continues to grow and evolve, so does the commitment of FAO and its Members to it. This is explicit in the FAO Strategic Programme 2022–31, in which FAO Members endorsed bioeconomy for sustainable food and agriculture as a strategic priority for the Organization under the “Better Environment” pillar. This marks FAO out as the only major UN agency to give such strategic prominence to sustainable bioeconomy as a driver for transformational change. It also aligns FAO’s vision with that of the International Advisory Council on Global Bioeconomy, which sees three overarching sustainable bioeconomy contributions to people and planet: health and wellbeing; science and technology breakthroughs; and climate action and ecosystems and biodiversity protection.

Lev Neretin, who leads the Environment stream in FAO’s Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment, as well as the new bioeconomy programme, stressed to ISBWG members the vast potential of sustainable bioeconomy to deliver “disruptive” change. He noted that the scope for sustainable bioeconomy goes far beyond the incremental greening of agrifood systems towards a leapfrog approach supporting bio-innovations and biotechnologies, rapid bioscience-related knowledge transfer, social equity, green jobs, and greater economic opportunities for women, youth and marginalized groups. This approach will be vital in urgently tackling global challenges such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation and climate change, a particularly apt observation on the day the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest alarming report was released. Neretin outlined how agrifood systems – including food and non-food products along the whole value chain of agriculture, forestry and fisheries – have a key role to play in delivering a sustainable and responsible bioeconomy, which the new FAO programme aims to facilitate through its emphasis on Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production).

Reaction from ISBWG members

ISBWG members were enthused by FAO’s direction of travel and eager to contribute to the future development of FAO’s sustainable bioeconomy programme. Many members stressed the importance of promoting innovation as a bioeconomy driver, highlighting how social and policy innovations are equally as important as technological ones. Such innovations should be underpinned by data and metrics attesting to their sustainability, as well as any potential risks. Members also spoke on the need for knowledge and technology transfer, particularly across countries and regions; stronger communications and advocacy, especially around explaining what the bioeconomy is, why it’s important and how it can be sustainable; and developing synergies between FAO’s new bioeconomy programme and other international processes such as the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Stockholm Convention on environmental pollution.

On a more cautious footing, while welcoming the broad scope of the new FAO programme, some members advised that the programme may need a sharper focus to effect tangible outcomes. It was also observed that the ISBWG is one of several international fora/networks where bioeconomy experts meet and that better synergies could perhaps be achieved through these networks.

All contributions were well received, and FAO and ISBWG members agreed to continue working together to support the development of a bioeconomy for sustainable food and agriculture.


Web links:

FAO Sustainable Bioeconomy

International Sustainable Bioeconomy Work Group


Aspirational principles and criteria for a sustainable bioeconomy

Bioeconomy for a sustainable future

Guidance note on monitoring the sustainability of the bioeconomy at a country or macro-regional level

How to mainstream sustainability and circularity into the bioeconomy? A compendium of bioeconomy good practices and policies