I have been fascinated by Argentina since I was young. I learned that it was one of the most advanced countries in the world at the beginning of the 20th century; Buenos Aires is beautiful and has a large boulevard like Paris; they dance the tango; are crazy about soccer (what they call football). So, when I was invited to a conference organized by the University of Tennessee with NSF support, I happily accepted the invitation. Indeed, I was there last week at the end of November, which is summer there. The timing couldn’t be better; I exchanged the rain in Berkeley with the sun of Argentina. I found that the avenues of Buenos Aires are at least as big as those of Paris. The pink house (Argentinian version of the white house) is quite impressive, and I was told the pink color comes from the blood of steers mixed with white paint.
However, Argentina reminds me more of Italy than France. The people I met seem to enjoy their life, the food is great, and there is incredible creativity all over, but the economy tends to be in trouble. Argentina has excellent agriculture and is a big producer of beef and soybean–the diets tend to be beef intensive. In restaurants, the standard beef plate is 400 grams (0.75 pounds). But when I suggested that it was too much, I got a funny glare. The country produces wonderful leather coats and extremely affordable bags, given the strength of the US dollar relative to the peso.
We were in Buenos Aires during the soccer World Cup and watching Argentina against Poland was part of the conference program. But we had a problem choosing the venue and ended up going to a bar near our hotel. It was incredible. The Golden State Warriors are supposed to have the noisiest fans in NBA basketball, but they cannot match the Argentinians in our bar. Messi is a god, second to Maradona, and everyone expects him to win the cup for Argentina.
Otherwise, he will be demoted from his godly status. The prominence of soccer was apparent to me when I visited La Boca, which was a migrant neighborhood where the walls of many of the houses were made from corrugated iron or steel but were painted beautifully. However, the football team of this neighborhood, Boca Juniors, is the leading Argentine soccer club, and its old stadium is its shrine. Buenos Aires has many other nice neighborhoods, including a cemetery where several presidents and Evita are buried in elegant surroundings.
The conference was about the “Circular Bioeconomy System for Urban, Rural Co-Prosperity,” which seems confusing. I learned that it was about building a network of networks on issues at the intersection of land, water, and food. This makes sense to me. I am among the founders of the ICABR, the International Consortium of Applied Bioeconomy Research. I also collaborate with an EU-sponsored network on measuring the bioeconomy in Europe called Biomonitor, as well as the bioeconomy effort of the mostly Latin American organization.
Additionally, I’ve been associated with networks of scientists collaborating on water issues; many groups are working on issues relating to the bioeconomy and the environment. I am only one scientist, so there are many networks, and sharing information and joint research can be enriching. The second objective is to build stronger collaboration between Latin America, especially Argentina, and the U.S. The third aimed to share knowledge on research and clarify how different people interpret notions such as the bioeconomy, circularity, etc.
All the speakers suggested solutions to climate change, food insecurity, and rural poverty. Bruno Basso from Michigan State suggested that it is worthwhile to consider paying farmers to keep their land green through double and triple-cropping, which can sequester carbon and significantly reduce soil erosion. Joaquin Mario Ortiz from Argentina showed a new industrial process that uses residue from sugarcane to produce either bioethanol, fuel from boilers, or biogas; in any case, renewable fuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There were several other presentations on the value of how animal and food waste can become biogas with technologies that improve over time, and the income goes to farmers rather than large oil companies. The conference’s organizer, Jie Zhuang, is a biosystem engineer interested in designing machinery that can recycle and reuse agricultural inputs and products to reduce greenhouse gases and residues.
The conference emphasized the importance of integrating social and natural sciences. Most economists like to use data to assess the past, but frequently, scientists have new technical solutions, and the basic question is when and where to apply them. Madhu Khanna showed us new methods to identify where to adopt modern biofuels and where to adopt robots to control weeds. Her work is multidisciplinary and combines scientific knowledge with basic economic principles. The data she gets from an econometric estimation of past behavior is crucial for guiding land allocation and policy design predictions. Chein-Fei Chen is an environmental sociologist who studies energy justice and finds that the poor are paying more per unit of energy than the rich in many parts of the world, which requires some change. Karen Seto from Yale University expanded our horizons by emphasizing that urbanization is a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and is likely to be a major contributor to climate change, which most of us ignore. People in developing countries move to the cities and aspire to the “modern” life they see in the movies. If nothing changes, 2% of agricultural land will be urbanized, and imitations of New York and Shanghai, and even worse, the sprawling land suburbia, will appear in the savannah. But the reality is that urban spread is not a panacea. Developers’ desire for a quick buck and restrictive zoning may result in a world of asphalt. Rethinking cities, realizing the gain from proximity among people that may lead to more interaction and happiness while finding ways to preserve privacy, can allow for absorbing the new immigrant to the cities without expanding their land footprint. Hers was an inspiring talk, and I thought about our Berkeley campus, where we have worked for many years in mostly empty buildings while the campus continues to expand its space. We may need new labs, but we can also find a way to analyze space use and get more from what we have.
We all agree that the world is challenged by climate change, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, polarization, and a desire to grow and develop, especially by the less developed countries. So the concept of sustainable development, where we aim to grow without endangering the well-being of future generations, is paramount. So how do we do it? One way is conservation: get more output from units of input. The other is recycling. A third is the transition to renewable resources and away from non-renewables, especially fossil fuels. Renewable resources are divided into sun, wind, water, and living organisms. The bioeconomy utilizes living organisms, modern knowledge, and biology to produce traditional bioproducts like food and new renewable products like biochemicals, biofuels, and bio-machinery.
For the bioeconomy to be effective and utilize resources efficiently, it must be circular. Namely, residue products can be used as input for other processes rather than sources of pollution and negative side effects. Here, where environmental economic thinking is important, we need to make people pay the price for these byproducts. It can be a pollution tax, a sound constraint, or some subsidy to treat waste products, but we cannot ignore the undesirable side effects of our activities.
The conference was mostly about technologies that will be the building blocks of the bioeconomy and the dimensions of the bioeconomy. We learned that we are working in many directions, and there are many solutions. Still, the challenge is to identify the ones that will scale up, be economically viable, and be managed for the common good. We also learned that the bioeconomy would flourish if we constrained organization and could develop middle-sized cities in rural areas and spread people over space rather than concentrate them in large, sprawling mega-cities. This was one of the conferences that were enjoyable by itself, opened new doors, and will hopefully lead to new collaborations. By the way, the ICABR will have its annual conference in Buenos Aires in July of 2023, and I look forward to enjoying the city again.