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Is tropical agriculture on the cusp of a bioeconomy revolution?

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

A crop stands in the foreground of a landscape featuring clouds and mountains behind the crop.
High biomass crops in the tropics have the potential to be the basis of a new bioeconomy providing the world with plant-based proteins and clean energy. Photo - Paul Jones.

Queensland leads the way as governments sign up to accelerate the bioeconomy with a focus on tropical crops for food security and fuel sovereignty.

By Brad Collis

Social and economic momentum is a fascinating phenomenon. As it gathers pace, as more people get on board, change happens. Momentum can arise from an original thought, a response to circumstance, or both.

Measuring and chronicling this is what makes a career in journalism, in professional observation, so intriguing. This is doubly so in a journalism business like Coretext which through its research and innovation clients works at the forefront of change … .

This is the musing that arises when browsing the program of a global-change event like TropAg, which resumes post-COVID in Brisbane at the end of October.

TropAg is a biennial gathering of researchers and agri-business professionals working to resolve the toughest food security challenges, and attendant social and economic constraints, on the planet – that of the tropics and sub-tropics, the hunger belt around the Earth’s waistline.

Improving food production through more resilient crops and farming systems remains the central pathway to long-term food security and economic development. But quite suddenly there are also promising new opportunities uniquely suited to the climate and crops of this region.

Two new influences are gathering momentum at an accelerating rate – the demand for plant-based protein as an alternative to animal protein, and the increasingly urgent need to find new fuels from sustainable sources.

Geopolitical pressures are now compounding the energy crunch caused by countries already in the process of trying to transition away from fossil fuels.

High cellulosic plants with high biomass, typical of crops like sugar cane, sorghum, kenaf, bagasse, hemp and jute to name a few, can provide both plant protein and fuel feedstock. Consequently, research collaborations are being formed by governments and the private sector to transform this opportunity and need into new bio-economies.

Bioeconomy has been a popular catchphrase for some years. Broadly speaking bioeconomy refers to the invention, development, sustainable production and use of biological products and processes. It often overlaps the concept of the circular economy – a shift from resource extraction to regeneration, and new manufacturing processes based on product and materials recyclability.

In May this year the Queensland and German Governments – two bioeconomy leaders – signed an agreement to jointly accelerate research and development into bioeconomy and the use of renewable biological resources to produce food, energy and industrial goods.

Much of this research already involves the host of TropAg, the University of Queensland (UQ) supported by the Queensland Government via the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Coordinating the ‘Agribusiness, Value Chains, and the Bioeconomy’ theme at TropAg is the University of Queensland’s Professor Damian Hine.

Professor Hine explains there is considerable research already underway to turn the high biomass of sub-tropical crops into new food products, particularly plant-based proteins from high cellulosic crops and potentially even indigenous species like spinifex.

There has already been a lot of work done at QAAFI on sorghum genetics using its world-leading speed-breeding technology to develop sorghum varieties for specific end-uses and markets.

Second generation crops

In addition to plant-based proteins, these include biofuels, including sustainable aviation fuels, bioplastics and other plant-based polymers. Importantly, research is focused on developing these as second-generation crops.

These are crops bred and grown in systems that avoid or minimise competition with food crops. The emphasis on biomass rather than seed or grain often means such crops can be grown on marginal land unsuitable for food production.

This is significant because it accommodates the desire by most countries, especially in Europe, to not develop plant-based fuels at the expense of food crops; a criticism that has tainted the use of food crops to produce ethanol. As pressure builds for countries to attain ‘energy sovereignty, the interest in purpose-bred and cultivated high-biomass crops for fuels will only increase.

“The energy crisis in Europe, especially, is pushing the search for solutions and this now goes far beyond ethanol,” says Professor Hine. He points out that the University of Queensland assessed research on sustainable aviation fuel a decade ago, but the economics didn’t stand up. Today, though, the impetus is moving from energy economics to energy security and sovereignty.

When we add to this the movement to replace animal protein, namely red meat, with plant-based substitutes, which are already reaching supermarket shelves, we have momentum – the sort of momentum that tends to make change unstoppable. For the poorest of the poor, held back since the beginning of time by climate and terrain unsuited to the largesse provided by temperate agriculture, this might be a turning point – just as bioeconomy may be a turning point for a tired, resource-exhausted world.

For more information about innovation in tropical agriculture check out the TropAg conference program.

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