Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

Bioeconomy Talks: Sustainable bioenergy with Manas Puri


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

Manas Puri works with FAO as an expert on the use of sustainable energy in agriculture. He has a PhD from the University of Rome (Tor Vergata) and ESSEC Business School (Paris). He has spent the last decade analysing and deploying sustainable energy solutions across food value chains.

First things first, what is sustainable bioenergy?

In simple terms, sustainable bioenergy is any energy produced using biomass that doesn’t have a negative impact on the primary productive purpose of that biomass. This really depends on how the biomass is sourced – by sustainable biomass, we are generally referring to primary biomass or residues from crop and livestock production, forestry and fisheries. In essence, we need to ensure that we are not using biomass for energy purposes that could be used to feed humans or animals or has other societal or environmental productive uses. From a plant production point of view, using crop residues for energy can be sustainable because the crops themselves are used for primary productive purposes, while excess residues – those that have no other uses – can be valorized through energy production. Similarly, using dairy livestock as an example, bioenergy can be produced from manure, which is a sustainable way to manage methane emissions and decrease reliance on fossil fuels.

What got you interested in the topic?

When I was studying for my Bachelor’s degree in physics, I became fascinated with the first law of thermodynamics, which  states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can merely be converted from one form to another. I was so interested in it, I ended up studying the technology, economics and business models of energy systems all the way to PhD level!

Energy is needed at every step of the agrifood value chain from production to consumption to end-of-life management. Quite simply, global agrifood systems, responsible for feeding 8 billion people, could not survive without energy. So when I got the chance to join FAO in 2014 to work on the nexus between water management, energy and food security, I jumped at it. The longer I spend in FAO, the more convinced I become about the opportunities in developing countries – in all countries – to delink fossil fuels from the energy mix in agriculture and leapfrog to cleaner, more sustainable energy models. Not only can this kickstart an innovation mindset and provide green jobs, it can also help countries achieve their climate targets.

Is there a recent example of an FAO project that shows how sustainable bioenergy can contribute to the bioeconomy?

A really good example is a project we have just completed in Punjab, India. India is the second-largest producer of rice in the world. However, every year after the rice harvest (in October/November) millions of tonnes of rice straw are burned in fields. The reason is farmers usually have only around 20 days to clear their fields between harvesting rice and sowing wheat, and given that many of them lack the means to collect, bail and store the straw, they burn it instead. This causes spikes in air pollution and harms human health and soil quality.

To counteract the above, FAO supported the development of a value chain in Punjab through which rice farmers could sell part of their straw to produce several products, including biofuels such as compressed biogas and biomass pellets. This helped increase farmers’ incomes, decrease pollution due to burning, and reduce fossil fuel use due to the availability of a sustainable alternative fuel. The most important step was to establish the value chain – once you create a market for rice straw and other residues, they can be used for energy, paper, bricks and many other biomaterials. Companies are starting to spring up in Punjab on the back of this project, which is really encouraging. But a word of caution – we need to strike a balance between ensuring in situ and ex situ uses of rice straw.

What do you mean by striking a balance between in situ and ex situ uses?

We have to maximize synergies where possible and minimize trade-offs, ensuring first and foremost that those who produce the biomass benefit from it in terms of food security and poverty alleviation. But we also want to create opportunities for off-farm benefits, such as cleaner energy. The use of biomass is extremely context-specific – producing energy from crop residues may be sustainable in one country or area of a country, but not necessarily in another. The point is not to use biomass for bioenergy purposes a priori, but to do so only when it’s a proven viable option. For FAO, decisions on how to use and distribute biomass resources should always be based on robust evidence and local conditions and needs.

Around 60 countries and regions now have bioeconomy and bioscience-related strategies – what role do you see for sustainable bioenergy within these strategies?

There are many potential uses of biomass, bioenergy is just one. Bioenergy can be a big part of a greater bioeconomy framework, but it needs to be embedded in a sustainable way. FAO’s programme priority area on Bioeconomy for Sustainable Food and Agriculture has a special focus on Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production); eliminating waste through sustainably using biomass residues is an important part of that. Ultimately, if countries want to pursue a bioenergy pathway within their national bioeconomy strategies, they should assess what biomass and other forms of renewable energy are available, extracting the maximum from these resources in the most effective and sustainable way.

Photo: Manas Puri (Courtesy of M Puri)



FAO sustainable and circular bioeconomy (website)

How a bioeconomy approach can help farmers reduce emissions and diversify incomes (video)

Establishing residue supply chains to reduce open burning- The case of rice straw and renewable energy in Punjab, India (publication)

Sustainable and circular bioeconomy in the climate agenda: Opportunities to transform agrifood systems (publication)

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