The battle for biomass: Tackling tensions and tradeoffs at the science-policy interface

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Humanity’s growing demand for food, feed, bioenergy and biomaterials put pressure on agroecosystems and the biosphere. If these trends continue, the capacity of agroecosystems to feed the planet while also providing for humanity’s energy and material needs is at risk. This demand cause interactions and trade-offs between different biomass uses, competition for biomass and other natural and economic resources. Governing these interactions is difficult, because of the inherent complexity of these interactions but also due to the diversity of biomass resources, the diversity of policy domains and institutions that are needed to govern them. However, there is limited knowledge on the interactions between different biomass uses and how these may result in trade-offs and synergies. Furthermore, little is known how these trade-offs and synergies may affect policy coherence and what solutions are needed to achieve more sustainable biomass use. With its leading role in bioenergy and bioeconomy policy, the European Union (EU) plays a key role in debates surrounding biomass. This thesis, therefore, aims to advance the theoretical and empirical understanding of the governance of biomass with the ultimate aim of improving the governance process at the science-policy interface, taking the EU as a case study.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the driving factors behind the growing demands for biomass as well as the trade-offs and synergies across different biomass uses. To do this, we conducted a systematic review of 75 studies that looked at competition between biomass uses and the resources that support them (i.e. water, land, labour and capital). We found seven factors that drive the availability of biomass and resources namely: increased bioenergy demand, increased crop yields, increase of human-edible feed, amount of animal-source food in human diets, efficiency of food supply chains, type of bioenergy feedstock and implementation of land-use policies. These shaped the biophysical option-space, determining which interactions (neutral), trade-offs (negative) and synergies (positive) between food, feed, fuel goals. We found that the majority of the effects implied trade-offs. For example, the factor of increasing bioenergy demand resulted in trade-offs with other natural resources such as increased land-use and land-use change, increased water consumption, and increased nitrogen demand. It also resulted in trade-offs with economic resources, leading to increasing food prices and higher land rents. A diversity of solutions was recommended by the literature to deal with these trade-offs and these ranged from production-side, governance, losses and wastes and consumption-side solutions. We found that these different types of solutions came from different disciplinary perspectives, each setting different priorities for biomass. To connect these perspectives, we suggested a framework where priority is given to basic human needs for the consumption of biomass.

Given the many trade-offs between biomass uses, it is difficult for policies to manage issues that cut across different policy domains. Given these trade-offs, biomass will become an increasingly important resource in the bioeconomy and will require careful and sustainable management. The bioeconomy will therefore require coherence between many different policy domains. In chapter 3 we conducted a study of policy coherence between these policy domains. To do this we conducted a qualitative content analysis of 41 EU policy documents across 5 policy domains, namely agro-food, bio-based industry, waste, energy and environment. Coherency was measured by using a survey and focus groups based on expert opinion across scientific fields. We utilised both a coherency score using a 7-point Likert scale and measures of confidence and disagreement. The results of the survey indicate that bioeconomy policy goals and agro-food policy goals are largely considered to be consistent and that synergies outweigh trade-offs, both in quantity and in strength. However, there was disagreement and mixed confidence among respondents on whether different goals were synergistic or conflicting. Digging further into the results using focus groups, we found uncertainty and context dependencies in the scientific knowledge-base, particularly concerning waste and bio-based industry. We categorised these uncertainties into five types, and distinguish between ambiguity, which arises from different incommensurable ways of framing a problem and vagueness which leaves concepts undefined. We conclude that a shift towards a bioeconomy will have to acknowledge the interactions between different policy goals across the different sectors and avoid ‘silo-thinking’. This can be achieved through overcoming vagueness in policies, such as having clear cascading guidelines for biomass.

Building on the findings of chapter 2, where we found that marginal lands was recommended as a solution to food-feed-fuel competition, in chapter 4 we conducted a framing analysis of the narrative frames surrounding marginal lands in EU science and policy-making. We wanted to know how different scientific and policy stakeholders looked at marginal lands and what problems and solutions marginal lands address. We found a total of eight frames utilised by a diversity of actors: i) the Sustainable Bioenergy frame ii) the Precautionary Principle frame iii) the Marginal Land Critique frame iv) the Food Security frame v) the Land Rights frame vi) the Rural Development frame vii) the Ecosystem Restoration frame and viii) the Low-Cost Livestock frame. We related these to four debates taking place in the EU related to land use; discussions about the effect of indirect-land use change, biofuels, rural development and the sustainability of food systems. Rather than overcoming debates about land use, marginal lands are subject to the same competing claims as productive land. We argued that the ambiguity of the term ‘marginal land’ is a type of uncertainty that results from multiple ways of framing an issue, leaving no clear idea of what is the problem or what should be done about it. Deliberative approaches are needed where framing debates can form the starting point.  

Given the many trade-offs that arise due to growing demands, a sustainable way of utilising biomass is needed. In chapter 5 we suggested that a circular bio-based economy could provide a pathway to more sustainable use of biomass. Here we presented five ecological principles to guide biomass use towards a more circular bioeconomy: 1) safeguarding and regenerating the health of our agroecosystems; 2) avoiding the production of non-essential products and waste of essential ones; 3) using biomass streams for basic human needs; 4) utilising and recycling all by-products of agroecosystems, and 5) prioritising renewable energy and minimising energy use. We also identified institutional, technological, organisational, behavioural, cultural and market barriers that may halt the required transformation. For each set of barriers, we identified opportunities for change which were leverage points that can bring about transformative change. By involving stakeholders, leaving room for ambiguity, having an ambitious vision for change and a mix of top-down and bottom-up governance approaches, these principles can be operationalised.

Chapter 6 brings the insights of the preceding chapters together by answering three questions. First, what are the key interactions, trade-offs and synergies in biomass uses in both science and policy? I argued that high demands, particularly for bioenergy and animal-source food, limit the biophysical option space, resulting in multiple trade-offs. Bioenergy and agricultural systems are closely interconnected and the diversion of high-value biomass streams to bioenergy can cause negative environmental impacts. Furthermore, the solutions recommended for biomass competition, such as marginal lands, remain unclear. By looking at policy coherence, I showed a policy of biomass cascading and renewable energy policies are a source of trade-offs as well as key synergies. My second question was, how can science and policy deal with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty? Here I suggested that defining between different types of uncertainty can lead to understanding which uncertainties can be reduced and which require different approaches. These approaches include changing models of scientific advice and changing modes of governance. Third, what practical steps can be made towards more sustainable use of biomass? I suggested practical ways forward in relation to more sustainable use of biomass, such as taking a more integrated view of biomass and defining a cascading principle for biomass emerging from our ecological principles in Chapter 5. Moving towards a more sustainable use of biomass will not be easy and will require a societal transition. By redefining what we value, directing biomass towards human needs and paying as much attention to the social foundation as to the biophysical boundaries, humanity can change its relationship with the biosphere and continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. 

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • de Boer, Imke, Promotor
  • Ripoll Bosch, Raimon, Co-promotor
  • de Olde, Evelien, Co-promotor
Award date21 Apr 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463957137
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • biobased economy
  • biomass
  • government policy
  • food vs fuel
  • economics
  • legislation


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