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Piergiuseppe Morone*: research supports policy makers in solving global problems

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I am pleased to present a guest post by Piergiuseppe Morone, economist and member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Open Agriculture, a brand new open access journal by De Gruyter Open. In the post, Prof. Morone answers the question: how does academic research foster bottom-up change towards a sustainable economy?

Global economic and population growth trends are placing pressure upon natural resources, threatening future economic and social development. Most notably, the world population, standing on 7.2 billion people in mid-2014, is projected to increase by almost one billion people within the next decade, and further to 9.6 billion in 2050. At the same time, large and fast-growing economies (i.e. the BRICS members) will experience increasing wealth. A major consequence of these two trends is higher consumption and demand for food and other consumption goods, increasing in parallel, the rate of waste production and depleting available resources (e.g. demand for several elements, including helium, phosphorus, indium and gallium is predicted to exceed supply in the near future). Overall, these changes impose three major challenges upon the food and agricultural system: (i) the need to match the rapidly changing demand for food to its supply; (ii) the need to do so in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable; and (iii) the need to ensure that the world’s poorest people are no longer hungry.

Scientists, analysts and policy makers are taking stock of these trends, trying to push the society towards more efficient as well as sustainable development patterns. An emerging area of enquiry looks with growing interest at food waste reduction and valorisation as a key target of research to provide answers to these challenges. In fact, the valorisation of food waste has many advantages. It is a rich source of functionalised molecules (i.e. biopolymers, protein, carbohydrates, phytochemicals) and contains valuable extracts for various applications (e.g. resins from cashew nut shell liquid), avoiding the use of virgin land and water resources. In addition, it solves a waste management issue and represents a sustainable renewable resource, making the valorisation of food waste doubly green.

As vice-chair of the European COST project (Action TD1203) on “Food waste valorisation for sustainable chemicals, materials & fuels (EUBis)” I am part of a very large network of scientists, researchers and professionals all looking into this very area of enquiry with the objective of providing an integrated alternative renewable source of carbon for the production of industrially relevant bio-derived chemicals, fuels and materials via the exploration of novel and advanced routes for food supply chain waste valorisation. Our research agenda builds on the idea that food waste reduction and valorisation is a crucial factor to promote sustainability, seen as a useful frame that grasps the interdependence between human societies and the natural environment. In this perspective, building a transdisciplinary research agenda is vital to overcome the mismatch between the production of knowledge in the academia and the request for it to solve societal problems – a feat often desired but rarely accomplished.

As part of this research network Working Group 4 (focusing on Technical & Sustainability Assessment/Policy Analysis) aims at improving understanding on how food waste can be reduced along the supply chain through a twofold approach focused on both communities and businesses, utilising Grassroots social innovations and Business innovation models. Studying grassroots social innovation (a form of niche innovation – acting bottom-up) enables us to: (i) explore the mechanisms by which the local networks are able to strengthen resilience at community level; to respond to locally identified problems and to create a culture of sustainability and (ii) illustrate how the ideas on transition towards a sustainable food system may be capitalised on. Business innovation models, although recognised as a key for driving corporate innovation and environmental sustainability in the industrial system, have received little attention in practice. Building on this we are (i) exploring the ways in which different business innovation models archetypes (existing and emerging models) can reduce food waste at different stages of the supply chain and (ii) develop guidelines that can be used to support adoption of business innovation models in the European food and chemical industry.

As a case-study we recently investigated the potential development of the bioplastics technological niche that uses secondary feedstock (biowaste) instead of dedicated crops and into the factors that may hinder the full development of this emerging new technological niche (Morone et al. 2015). The empirical investigation based on interviews with key stakeholders as well as social network tools, provides evidence that the architectural structure of the Italian bioplastics producers network offers great opportunities for the development of a technological niche based on biowaste valorisation. However, the system has shown to be weak especially as far as expectations are concerned, as these are generally low and, more critically, are low for those stakeholders occupying central positions in the network. This shortcoming could jeopardize the niche development process, if no appropriate policy actions are undertaken. More specifically, this study could support decision makers in developing specific strategies to unlock the enormous potential of biowaste as well of the bioplastics sector by: (i) empowering knowledge creation and its diffusion and by (ii) supporting strategic collaboration schemes.

Morone, P., Trartiu V.E. and Falcone P. “Assessing the potential of biowaste for bioplastics production through social network analysis”, Journal of Cleaner Production, 90 (2015) 43-54

morone* – Piergiuseppe Morone is an economist with an interest in evolutionary theory applied especially to sustainable innovation studies. As a postgraduate student he was trained at SPRU-Sussex University where he received in 2003 his PhD in Science & Technology Policy with a thesis on innovation economics, investigating the relation between social network architectures and speed of diffusion of knowledge and innovations. He is now a Professor of Political Economy at Unitelma Sapienza – University of Rome with a strong interest in green innovation and sustainability transitions pushing his research at the interface between innovation, agricultural economics and chemistry, an area of enquiry that has attracted growing attention among social scientists over the last decade. Recently he joined the Editorial Advisory Board of Open Agriculture, an open access journal by De Gruyter Open.

Main image credit: Copyright Jimmy Hill and licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic license.

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