The use of agricultural feedstock (1st generation biomass) to create biopolymers is not posing a competition to food and feed.
The transition from a fossil-based to a renewable, bio-based economy is of essential importance; eventually, we must stop using fossil resources that are bringing additional Greenhouse Gases (GhGs) into our atmosphere. Using agricultural feedstock, 1st and 2nd/3rd generation biomass, to produce biopolymers reduces and eliminates the dependency on harmful fossil resources.
The discussion about the use of agricultural feedstock for industrial purposes is often linked to questions whether the conversion of food or feed, or using agricultural land to do so, is ethically justifiable.
conversion of potential food and feed into biopolymers
The use of biomass to obtain different chemicals and industrial materials and products is virtually as old as mankind; crops have been used to produce food and feed products since a long time. Starch, for example, is essential for the paper production on a large scale. Would we rate paper as a non-ethical, non-sustainable material that shall not be used any longer?
Currently, around 94% of the global agricultural area is used to grow food and feed or used as pastures. Biopolymers account for just over 0.01% for the time being. Current estimations show that not more than 0.06% of the global agricultural area will be used to produce biopolymers in the coming years. Even if the entire current global plastics production were based on 1st generation biomass feedstock – although such scenario is unrealistic – the demand for biomass would only be around 5% of the total amount of biomass produced and harvested around the globe each year. (European Bioplastics and nova-Institute (2022) Global bioplastics market data: Land-use estimation for bioplastics 2022 and 2027).
Despite some criticisms, the use of agricultural feedstocks for industrial purposes like the production and use of biopolymers is not unethical. In fact, it has several environmental and economic benefits:
new revenue streams for local farmers
Firstly, using agricultural feedstocks for industrial purposes can create new and additional revenue streams for local farmers and rural communities. Industrial demand for feedstock can provide a more stable market for crops that are typically subject to price volatility. This provides financial security for farmers and secures jobs in rural areas which helps to grow and maintain the local infrastructure.
combining regenerative practices with new carbon credit mechanisms
Secondly, by combining regenerative agricultural practices with new carbon credit mechanisms, the industry and farming economy has caught up with the need to improve their natural ecosystems. At the same time, they create incentives to increase soil health and productivity. As 1st generation biomass still represents the main renewable feedstock to produce biopolymers, it can contribute to food and feed security by incentivizing regenerative farming practices.
Thirdly, and probably most important, 1st generation biomass as feedstock for biopolymers is an enabling technology that will eventually facilitate the transition towards 2nd/3rd generation biomass like agricultural residues. Residues that are often burned in uncontrolled ways or dumped into rivers polluting air, waterways and accelerating global warming. No doubt, the combination of using 1st generation biomass for food and feed while valorizing 2nd/3rd generation biomass for the production of biopolymers will make an environmental and societal impact on large scale. To get there, we need to start with what we have, even though it may not be completely perfect yet!
"nature2need Spectadur and Spectabio compounds are using a significant amount of 2nd/3rd generation biomass as a direct blend., agricultural residues taken from local sources. The direct use of regional waste streams without complex processes is saving energy and water, reducing overall GHG emissions and keeping material costs low at market relevant price levels. "
The use of agricultural feedstock for industrial purposes, especially to create biopolymers and biopolymer compounds, is not unethical. It can provide a sustainable way to create new revenue streams for farmers and rural communities, to manage and valorize agricultural waste, and to reduce dependence on fossil resources. As with any industrial activity, it is important to carefully manage and regulate the use of agricultural feedstocks to ensure that they are produced and used in a sustainable and responsible way.
The biopolymer industry is new, developing at a fast pace. Using 1st generation biomass is an enabling technology that facilitates the transition towards valorizing 2nd/3rd generation biomass once we start using it on a large scale.