What part does agriculture play in the bioeconomy?
The dynamic and systemic vision referred to as the bioeconomy can be approached from three complementary perspectives, when it comes to agriculture.
- First, there is the bio-resource approach, as we have seen. This corresponds to creating new chains of value based on the use of biological materials all or part of which come from agriculture. From this perspective, agriculture must fit into a typically industrial chain of value. To date, the agricultural sector has relatively little experience of aligning itself with industrial processes in this way.
- Then, there is a bioecological approach which corresponds to the technical and agronomical perspective of “green” biomass production. That is to say low-energy and low-input with a theoretical agricultural objective of 100% “natural” production.
- Finally, the biotechnology approach encourages the development of as many technologies as possible, building on research in the life sciences. This relates primarily to industrial processes.
Improving the efficiency of photosynthesis
An important way of developing the bioeconomy involves increasing the production of biomass. Two potential, complementary ways of increasing biomass production per area unit are available. The first would be to try to increase the efficiency of each plant which is grown. At the same time, growers could try to increase production per unit (per hectare for example).
Increasing the efficiency of plants means increasing the yield obtained from the transformation of light into biomass through improving plants. In other words, genetics is used to increase efficiency – the yield of the “photosynthesis factory”.
To increase production of biomass per hectare, the overall efficiency of the system of production for a given area must be determined over the course of an entire year or, better still, a pre-determined succession of years. The aim is therefore to increase the yield for each plant and also the overall efficiency of the system of production. The main objective is to optimise the use of light which arrives on farmlands, in particular through extending the period during which chloroplasts capture light.
In terms of financial performance, efforts are focused on shortening cultivation cycles to fit three cash crop harvests into two years (in tropical zones, it may even be possible to produce up to two and a half harvests in a year). A complementary relationship between crops and livestock may also increase the value of the biomass produced and better close the cycles of elements such as nitrogen or phosphorus.
An agroecological agriculture for the bioeconomy
The development of the bioeconomy generally goes hand in hand with high expectations of positive environmental outcomes. The aim is to not only produce biomass “in an environmentally-friendly way” but also, more generally, to increase the positive contribution of agriculture to the ecological transition in our societies (green energy, recycling, contributing to a low-carbon economy).
This agricultural and environmental transition requires a reduction in the consumption of chemically synthesised inputs for plant and animal care products as well as mineral fertilisers. To achieve this, they must be used less, and environmental losses must be reduced. They may also be replaced by new organic or biodegradable products such as biostimulants, biocontrol products or products produced through recycling, such as organic fertilisation or composting of urban waste.
On a wider scale, this transformation will also happen through better use of the natural functional processes at work in our environment. Their effects on agricultural production must be optimised. This will involve, for example, the use of soil biodiversity – the micro-organisms present in the microbiota of animals, but also of plants.
It will be possible to derive value from the symbiosis and complementarity of crops within a same area. This is the concept of a “mosaic”, according to which crop parcels are organised to better control parasites in space and over time. This may require crop rotations over areas larger than individual farms, which means that alliances between farmers must be negotiated.
Agronomic research will provide support and guidance for this approach to better adapt systems of production to variations in their environment. This is known as “resilience”, an increasingly fashionable term borrowed from psychology.
Alongside technological research, agronomic research is therefore a key sector for developing the bioeconomy. The importance of these expectations will probably change the direction and strategies of research bodies.