Global crises, in particular the ongoing conflict in Ukraine are provoking a disruption in food supplies, a rise in energy prices, and reduced access to fertilizers.
Those disproportionately impacted by climate change, rising, COVID-19, and major conflicts are among the most vulnerable.
A circular bioeconomy can bring innovative solutions and is becoming a key element in the transition towards sustainable and resilient agrifood systems.
Triggering food insecurity
The Russian Federation and Ukraine are among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. Together Ukraine and the Russian Federation also export 30 percent of the world’s cereals and 67 percent of its sunflower. At the same time, the Russian Federation is the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, the second leading supplier of potassium fertilizers and the third largest exporter of phosphorous fertilizers.
With many countries reliant on the crops produced in Ukraine and the Russian Federation, and an even greater number reliant on Russian fertilizers to produce their own crops, a prolonged war in Ukraine could help push up chronic undernourishment by an additional 18.8 million people by 2023. This is concerning, given that an estimated 154 million people in 42 countries and territories are already classified as being in a situation of food crisis.
The potential of biofertilizers
By effectively using biological resources, we can unlock opportunities for increased food security, greater equity, ecosystem restoration, and lasting peace, while moving away from old business-as-usual models that heavily rely on fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals.
The current situation has led to an interest in the role biofertilizers could play in supporting continuing crop production.
Biofertilizers are living microbes, such as bacteria or fungi, which enhance plant nutritionby either mobilizing or increasing nutrient availability in soils or in plants. They have been shown to improve the lives of farmers from Togo to Sri Lanka to Latin America and the Caribbean. However, biofertilizers also come with potential disadvantages including short shelf life, safety concerns, the need for adequate storage (at the correct temperature) and training in usage. Thus, capacity building on circular bioeconomy and resource use efficiency is essential to replace chemical fertilizers, optimize the potential of biofertilizers and maintain crop production.
According to Mohamed Eida, an FAO Plant Nutrition Officer, biofertilizers could be part of a solution to the global food crisis, though not in the immediate term.
“The current crisis is pushing up all prices, but chemical fertilizer prices have already gone up by two to three-fold over the past year. A consequence of this is a shift in demand to alternatives such as organic fertilizers or manure, which means that prices of these alternatives are also rising, and they are harder to get unless locally available,” says Eida.
“However, in the mid to long-term, this is an opportunity to start building a value chain of alternatives such as biofertilizers, which are generally kinder to the environment and add an extra resilience-building option that can help underpin food security”.
Countries are already developing strategies, policies and investments to accelerate this technology – many within the framework of national bioeconomy policies and strategies – but this needs to happen much faster and on a bigger scale.
The emergence of alternative proteins
Alternative proteins are another exciting area of research of bioeconomy that could help boost food security and supply chain resilience, plug the protein deficit in food and feed, incentivize adoption of circular and regenerative agricultural practices, and support economic growth and job creation, especially in developing countries.
A forthcoming FAO study estimates that alternative plant-based proteins such as plant-based meat require up to 90 percent less land, water and carbon footprint when compared with animal sourced meat. Likewise, insects such as mealworms require about half of the water and one third of land use than chicken production, thereby supporting climate mitigation and ecosystem restoration.
The global alternative proteins market is projected to grow exponentially to a value of at least USD 290 billion by 2035, with market penetration rising from the current 2 percent to 10–22 percent. These proteins are not without their challenges including consumer acceptance, and regulatory and supply chain issues that will need to be addressed to ensure sustainability.
Urgency of scaling up bioeconomy innovations
Bioeconomy innovations such as biofertilizers and alternative proteins could play a major part in agrifood systems transformation and support the development of thriving local and alternative supply chains, but this will require scaling up infrastructure and investment to promote capacity building and uptake. It will also require robust public policy to support such efforts.
Innovative solutions to deliver food security and lay the foundations for just and peaceful societies are needed as a matter of urgency. The transition to a sustainable and circular bioeconomy is a key step in the process.