Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

Bioeconomy Talks: Sustainable forestry with Sven Walter


The Bioeconomy Talks series features interviews with experts on bioeconomy themes that are linked to agrifood systems transformation.

Sven Walter is a senior forestry officer at FAO. He is forestry focal point for the FAO programme priority area on Bioeconomy for Sustainable Food and Agriculture.

What got you interested in forestry?

There were two main reasons. The first was the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which highlighted the prominent role forestry plays in sustainable development (later embedded in the three Rio conventions). The second was more of a personal discovery through the writing of my thesis on non-wood forest products in Madagascar. I really became convinced of the dual importance of conservation and utilization of forest-based resources.

Where does forestry fit into a sustainable and circular bioeconomy framework?

The term “bioeconomy” can be abstract, but forestry is a concrete entry point that people understand. They can visualize a forest, they can smell it, they can feel it – it’s called biophilia, the human instinct to connect with nature. Sustainable bioeconomy is very relatable to forestry – in German we use the word Nachhaltigkeit, which means you harvest only what you can regenerate, “sustained yield” or “sustainability”. It ties in perfectly with the notion of utilization and conservation that I mentioned earlier. Forests are also a great example of circularity, or what some prefer to describe as a cascading approach. This means you use the part of the tree with the highest value first, using the so-called waste for secondary and tertiary purposes and so on. In reality, the goal is to eliminate waste and to extract the full value of the precious natural resource provided by forests.

One of the key messages from the 2022 edition of The State of the World’s Forests report is: “The forest sector can and must drive a transition to the more efficient and circular use of biomaterials with higher value added”. Can you give some examples of what this means?

Forests provide us with so many indispensable goods and services, including food, wood, paper, energy, textiles, medicines and cosmetics. They are also carbon sinks, water recyclers, recreational spaces and biodiversity hubs. None of this should be taken for granted. We must realize the full potential of the forest, including as a driver of sustainable rural livelihoods. This means providing economic opportunities in the forest sector for high-end products such as quality wood for construction, while also ensuring that the residues from the processing of wood – e.g. sawdust, charcoal – are valorized. If we are serious about moving away from a fossil-based economy of oil, gas and conventional plastics, we have to understand that this will lead to increasing demand on natural resources such as forests. We simply won’t be able to afford wasteful practices. FAO’s programme priority area on bioeconomy explicitly recognizes this through its focus on Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).

What are some opportunities and challenges you see for the forestry sector in the coming years?

In Australia, wood is often referred to as “the ultimate renewable”, which I really like. There are so many opportunities but to pick just one, let’s look at the buildings and construction sector, which accounts for around 37 percent of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions globally. An important portion of these emissions is embedded in building materials such as steel and concrete – moving to more sustainable wood-based construction can help us reduce these emissions. Wood construction also brings many co-benefits such as regulating air quality in homes and lowering people’s stress levels and blood pressure.

At the same time, we have to be realistic, as there are many challenges: possible overexploitation of the resource base, increasing competition for land, balancing the needs of a growing population with conservation needs, etc. We need to ask ourselves do we have enough supply to match increasing demand for forest products? One of the ways FAO tries to track this is through global forest resources assessments. But we also need to think more strategically, across sectors and across countries and regions. That’s where bioeconomy comes in, providing a framework for discussing the tradeoffs that are implicit in a transformation from a fossil-based economic model that has dominated for over a hundred years to one that is based on renewable biological resources. The transition won’t be easy, which is why the FAO-led International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group has produced principles and criteria for a sustainable bioeconomy. FAO is also co-leading with UNEP the International Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which has a strong bioeconomy and forestry component, including flagship initiatives such as the Trinational Atlantic Forest Pact (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay) and the Great Green Wall for Peace and Restoration (Sahel region of Africa).

The theme for International Day of Forests 2023 is “Healthy forests for healthy people”. How can bioeconomy policies contribute to this?

Bioeconomy policies need to recognize how enabling substitution by wood-based products can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, bioeconomy is a leapfrogging approach – it goes beyond simply replacing materials to thinking about how we build a more efficient, equitable and sustainable society. Forests gives us clean air, clean water, temperature regulation, food, medicine – in short, they are good for us! We tend to think of our forests as concentrations of trees, but of course they are also home to birds, animals, insects, soils, fungi, plants and other precious resources that we need to look after both for our own health and for the health of the planet. Otherwise, whole ecosystems are threatened with climate change, drought, storms, pests and diseases.

Forests are critical for the ecosystems services they provide and for the materials and innovations that will ensure the future health of our planet and its people. As more countries and regions adopt bioeconomy strategies, let’s make sure these strategies enshrine a better future for our forests.

International Day of Forests is celebrated each year on 21 March.



FAO sustainable and circular bioeconomy

Aspirational principles and criteria for a sustainable bioeconomy

FAO global forest resources assessment

The role of forest products in the global bioeconomy – Enabling substitution by wood-based products and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Building a forest-based bioeconomy to halt climate change and achieve multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Ministerial Call on Sustainable Wood to become a cost-effective and innovative contribution at scale to achieve carbon neutrality and build more resilient economies

The Wild Dozen: Prized as ingredients, vulnerable wild plants face surging demand

Five plants hidden in our everyday lives

UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

How forest products contribute to the bioeconomy