Bioscience: The Science of the 21st Century

Professor Dianna Bowles enlightened invited guests at the 2008 JSR Technical Conference on this new subject. She holds the Weston Chair of Biochemistry at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York. ThePigSite editor, Jackie Linden, reports the highlights of Professor Weston's presentation, which offered an overview of the great potential of bioscience for our future.
calendar icon 9 January 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

At the start of her presentation, Professor Bowles posed the question, "As we move out of an oil economy and into a bio-economy, what will be the implications for farming?" The need for sustainable development is becoming ever more urgent. Where we have been reliant on yesterday's energy from the sun - actually over millions of years - to produce our fossil fuels, we will in future use bioscience to harness the sunlight of today and tomorrow, via photosynthesis, to provide our chemicals, materials and fuels, as well as feed and food.

Professor Dianna Bowles

The need for sustainable development is growing as we face climate change, increasing demand , population growth, urbanisation and falling security/supplies of fossil fuels.

The big chemical companies are all investing in the bioeconomy because most chemicals have bene obtained from petroleum feedstocks. As Professor Bowles said, "What makes sense at $20 for a barrel of oil does not make sense at $100 per barrel."

It is important for agricultural productivity to increase because of land resources are finite in both the developed and developing worlds. Decision over land use are different: whereas developed countries focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, competition between food and non-food crops and biodiversity, the developing world sets its priorities on the environment, the local economy and societal well-being.

Crops use solar energy. Because they cannot move and make use of solar power, plants offer maximum opportunity with minimum risk.

Solar energy can be harnessed by plants by photosynthesis to produce starches, sugars and oils that can be sued for fuel, food, animal feed and chemicals.

Plants can use photosynthesis to harness the sun in order to provide bio-renewables for today and tomorrow

"Sustainability criteria for production should be applied equally to food and non-food crop production systems," stressed Professor Bowles.

Water resources are coming under increasing pressure and we need to consider productivity in terms of a unit of water. Importing or exporting food is equivalent to importing or exporting water – 'virtual water'.

We need to keep an open mind to consider alternatives to the oil crops on which we currently rely. For example, there is great potential for lignocellulose from forestry, agricultural cc-products, energy crops and vegetable wastes. The search is on to find the best methods to break down lignocellulose and release its energy – be that by cattle, termites or bacteria.

The bioeconomy means more than just biofuels, Professor Bowles stressed, and the future lies in biorefineries that produce chemicals or fuel and feed or food with zero waste. They can produce multiple products from a single crop (including specialised feedstocks for biofuels) and they offer many opportunities for bio-chemicals, with zero waste. They also can make use of marginal land, allow the optimisation of products and co-products and can improve processing. In summary, they increase productivity while decreasing inputs. In this field, the US has made good progress.

There is a need for integration of the supply chain from growing the raw material, through extraction, processing and manufacture to the markets. This requires the growers of the feedstocks and users to have open communications.

Moving on to a related topic, Professor Bowles talked briefly about endangered animal species and the vital need to retain them as endangered genetic resources. She stated that one livestock breed has become extinct each month over the last seven years, the majority in developed countries.

"We should aim for maximum diversity of genetic resources for the future," Professor Bowles concluded.

January 2009

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