The bio-economy is surely an environmentalist’s dream? After all, what can be better than meeting society’s voracious demands for chemicals, transport fuels, and energy from ‘natural products’, rather than from dirty fossil fuels?
Unfortunately, as is often the case, the answer isn’t as black and white as it appears.
In a think-piece for Friends of the Earth’s Big Ideas Project, we identified that humans, as one species among millions on this planet, already appropriate around a third of total global bioproductivity for our sole use. In doing so, we use around three-quarters of the ice-free terrestrial surface to satisfy our demands.
Some people may relish the thought of being planetary engineers in the age of the anthropocene. As ecologists and environmentalists, we see things differently. The idea that nature is a machine that can be tuned and fuelled to satisfy our ever increasing demands is dangerously flawed. We cannot continue to appropriate more and more biomaterials without facing consequences. Instead of focusing on simply increasing productivity, we need to manage our demands.
The idea of demand management runs counter to the dominant narrative which, for example, takes assumptions of a growing population and increased meat consumption as givens. Yet neither are inevitable. Providing girls with education and empowering women across the world with control over their reproduction would lead to lower population growth. Adopting healthier, lower meat and dairy diets could significantly reduce the amount of land and biomaterials humans consume, and the amount of waste our agriculture produces.
We argue that demand management is essential if the environmental services that ecosystems provide are to be maintained. This is not to rule out additional uses of biomaterials. Reducing the serious negative impacts that current chemical and energy practices have on humans and ecosystems will require substituting biomaterials for fossil fuels across a wide range of industries. But when we look at proposals for growth areas for the bio-economy, such as synthetic biology and biofuels, we must consider the totality of the impact of our biomaterial demands rather than considering each on a case by case basis.
Critics would suggest that we under-estimate the potential to increase bioproductivity through technological innovation. Of course the judicious application of technology is essential; we cannot hope to manage the pressures of an increasing human population, changing diets and climate change without it. But there is no way that technology alone will cope with these pressures. More fundamentally, assuming continued growth in human demands and populations facilitated by new technologies ignores the evidence for ecological thresholds and limits. As human demands grow so do the chances of ecosystem degradation and collapse, leading to sudden falls in productivity.
We argue for an approach to ecosystem management that recognises the importance of resilience and of the full range of ecosystem services that nature provides (these include providing humans with biomaterials but go so far beyond this; nature underpins all of life).
In our think-piece we suggest that this philosophy, which we call a ‘mixed-use mosaic approach’, would enable a slow but steady increase in bioproductivity. By mixed-use mosaic we mean agroecology within ecosystems managed to provide a range of essential services. Sites of intensive production are supported by contiguous areas providing different services such as waste retention, watershed and climate regulation and pollination services.
In contrast, maximum input intensification – the dominant approach of large-scale monocultures with high levels of chemical inputs, as witnessed in much of corn, wheat and soy production – will lead to boom and busts in productivity. And adopting a low input extensification, for example by eschewing appropriate technology, will lead to reduced global bioproductivity.
So should environmentalists embrace the bio-economy? The answer is not blindly.
Innovating to use biomaterials in chemicals and energy production holds promise, but only if we recognise that to create space for these new demands we need to significantly reduce demands in other areas. We are not the only species on the planet, and our well-being is tied to the well-being of the others. If, in our arrogance, we think we can continue to increase our demands on bioproductivity without consequence we are in for a nasty shock. Nature is not a machine that can be tuned for our benefit, treating it as such is a dangerous folly.
Mike Childs is Head of Science, Policy and Research, Friends of the Earth. Mark Huxham is Professor of Environmental Biology at Edinburgh Napier University. www.foe.co.uk/bigideas
Image credit: snickclunk / Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/snickclunk/202909801
 Huxham, Pretty, Hartley and Tett (2014), No dominion over nature - Why treating ecosystems like machines will lead to boom and bust in food supply, Friends of the Earth. http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/no-dominion-over-nature-why-treating-ecosystems-machines-will-lead-boom-bust.pdf