Circular bioeconomy conversations in Nebraska, around the world

July 12, 2023

The circles of life are catching on, in and beyond agriculture.

Ray Gaesser has been talking about the circles of life on his farm in Iowa for years, and circular agricultural systems were the main focus of the recent Iowa Smart Agriculture Forum

But the conversation is not just taking place in Iowa. The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) is championing the concept of circular bioeconomy systems in its initiative, with the mission to advance education, professional development, and innovations for developing sustainable circular bioeconomy systems.

ASABE is made up of members from more than 100 countries who are interested in engineering and technology for agricultural, food and biological systems. Its members include engineers and non-engineers from universities, national laboratories and industry.

In its Introduction to Circular Bioeconomy Systems, ASABE defines a circular economy as one in which “the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible with minimal generation of waste.” It’s a “make, use and recycle” model as opposed to the linear, “take, make and waste” system.

The five basic principles of circularity are:

  • Increase use efficiencies.
  • Design out waste and pollution.
  • Keep products and materials in use.
  • Regenerate natural systems.
  • Provide economic benefits.

The goal of a circular system is to increasingly re-use and recycle materials across the system (which in agriculture includes farms and ranches as well as processors and others across the value chain). There will always be some amount of waste, but the idea is to minimize that waste and give raw materials a second, third or even fourth life.

Through its Circular Bioeconomy Systems Initiative, ASABE is engaging its members but is also looking to connect with others who can add valuable perspectives—including farmers.

This week, ASABE members are meeting at the Annual International Meeting (AIM) in Omaha, Nebraska, and members had the opportunity to attend a mini-symposium on circular bioeconomy systems.

The event started Saturday, July 8, with a trip to the Nebraska Farm of the Future, where members explored how to best use this and other facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere as testbeds for developing, evaluating and demonstrating equipment technologies, biotechnologies and information technologies. On Sunday, July 9, members heard from industry and academia representing diverse disciplines, including agricultural and biological, chemical, civil and environmental engineering; agricultural and applied economics; agronomy; and animal, dairy, crop and soil sciences.

Ray Gaesser, a SfL Board member and co-chair of Iowa Smart Agriculture, was one of the speakers, sharing a farmer’s perspective. Gaesser and his family operate 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Corning, Iowa, using no-till and cover crops to conserve and enhance natural resources. His soils also benefit from livestock integration, thanks to partnerships with neighbors.

“It’s exciting to see engineers thinking about tools and technologies that can equip farmers to achieve greater efficiencies and expand the circles of life on their farms and in their communities,” Gaesser says. “We’ll all benefit when we work together.”

Circular system conversations are also happening globally.

Solutions from the Land is collaborating with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on a global circular bioeconomy initiative launched at the International Agri-Food Network (IAFN)/FAO Innovation Forum in Rome in May.

This global initiative is guided by a work group composed of:

  • Maria Pilu Giraudo, a soy, wheat, barley, corn, sorghum and livestock producer from Argentina.
  • Amelia Levin Kent, a cattle producer from the U.S.
  • Margaret Munene, co-founder and CEO of Palmhouse Dairies in Kenya.
  • Marco Pasti, a maize, soybeans, wheat, barley sugar beets and cattle producer from Italy.
  • Jim Jones, of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.
  • .Alashiya Gordes, Alternate Workstream Lead for the Environment (FAO).
  • Marta Gomez San Juan, Bioeconomy Lead (FAO).
  • Lois Wright Morton, berry, flower and vegetable farmer from the U.S. (Solutions from the Land).
  • Ernie Shea, Solutions from the Land/International Agri-Food Network (facilitator).

Their mission is to collaborate in constructing a roadmap that will outline pathways for scaling circular bioeconomy solutions (CBS) to sustainable development goal attainment. They will also team up to introduce and proactively promote this approach to 21st century agriculture in global forums where the future of agriculture is being explored including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), United Nations Water Conference, and others.

Their first deliverable will be a white paper that lays out:

  • Their vision for what the circular bioeconomy is along with important building blocks to achieve it.
  • Practical examples farmers experimenting with circular bioeconomy solutions today.
  • Guiding principles and recommendations for farmers, value chain partners, and policy makers.

Solutions from the Land is excited to be partnering with FAO and ASABE on using our respective networks to educate, inspire and foster collaboration among our members and the broader agricultural community to think through and experiment with circular systems in agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture.

Like all our work, it begins by placing farmers at the center of discussions and decisions. Special thanks to our producer partners across the world for helping to lead this “next frontier” initiative.

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