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Sustainability criteria for food and non-food biomass have been mapped

Production of biomass needs to be sustainable, but there are different definitions for sustainability criteria. Scientists at Aarhus University have reviewed how these definitions vary across different European countries.

[Translate to English:] Der er forskel på, hvordan begrebet bæredygtighed anvendes i forbindelse med biomasse. Foto: Colourbox

Food products, animal fodder, energy, materials, chemicals: biomass can be used for any number of purposes. On a global level there is an increasing need for biomass for a wide range of products, particularly since the world population continues to grow. If there is going to be sufficient for all, it is important that the production and utilisation of biomass remains sustainable, but do we agree on what these criteria for sustainability are?


The short answer is no. The current landscape of how the sustainability of biomass should be assessed is a patchwork of voluntary and public sets of regulations that are not always comparable. This is what a review of the conditions in selected European countries shows, as conducted by scientists from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University. The results can be found in a report published by DCA - Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture at Aarhus University.


The report aims to give an overview of sustainability criteria for the production and processing of biomass in the bioeconomy in various countries that participate in the European Commission's Standing Committee on Agricultural Research Strategic Working Group (SCAR SWG), the work of which is used as the basis for the report.


The report contains summaries of sustainability criteria and initiatives launched in the various countries plus a summary of these countries' views on sustainability criteria for the bioeconomy and the need for a more standardised approach to sustainability criteria.


More demands on the land

Production and use of biomass can affect the climate and environment negatively. The growing need for biomass puts pressure on the planet's limited resources. In many instances, different types of biomass can be produced on the same type of soil and therefore compete for this limited resource.


Whatever the purpose of the cultivation and processing of the biomass, it can affect the quality of the soil, the emission of greenhouse gases and other environmental pollutants as well as socio-economic aspects related to land use. It is therefore important to address the issue both politically and economically.


Standardisation is the way forward

There are already a number of sustainability criteria in the different areas of the bioeconomy. However, since all these areas of the bio-economy interact, there is a need to create a level playing field. Lately there has been much focus on the bioenergy part of the bioeconomy.


- We believe there is a need to standardise the sustainability criteria. Regardless of whether the biomass is intended for food, energy or other purposes, it is the same land that is competed for and is affected, says one of the authors behind the report, Researcher Marie Trydeman Knudsen from the Department of Agroecology.


The majority of people who took part in the survey expressed the need for a more uniform, consistent and standardised approach to sustainability criteria. A more consistent approach to the definition of sustainability criteria will increase transparency, prevent market distortion and enable cross-border comparisons.


The authors of the report suggest that a future approach could build on the United Nations’ development goals for sustainability (Sustainable Development Goals - SDG) and in consensus define sustainability indicators for biomass while seeking inspiration in other schemes and involving stakeholders.


The report "Mapping Sustainability Criteria for the Bioeconomy" DCA report no. 76, April 2016 is available here.


For further information please contact: Researcher Marie Trydeman Knudsen, Department of Agroecology, e-mail: mariet.knudsen@agro.au.dk, telephone: +45 8715 7958