Plant Biomass - the basis of animal life and sustainable development

The constant and sufficient supply of primary materials is a condition for any healthy economic development and the very base of the highly diverse products, services and infrastructures offered by our civilization. In fact, European life standards heavily depend on the availability of natural resources, as is for example particularly evident in the case of oil. This dependency has been identified as a major problem, not only for strategic reasons, but also because increasing economic activity and life standard throughout Europe has led to an ever increasing demand for natural resources. Future projections indicate that this increased demand cannot be met in the long term without an irreversible major breakdown of our environmental conditions and resulting massive socio-economic disturbances. Thus, measures are being initiated to tackle the threat of over-stretching our natural resources as well as the buffering capacity of our environment. For instance, a recent EU summit has declared the looming climate change induced by the consumption of fossil fuels a major priority and schemes to shift from an economy depending on fossil, CO2-polluting energy sources to renewable, CO2-neutral energy sources are being implemented. These efforts fit into the broader vision to convert Europe into a society that relies on sustainable development.

Sustainable Development, as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in their 1987 report "Our common future", "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". In terms of natural resources, this means that our consumption must equal nature's ability to replenish. Among the non-renewable natural resources, oil is most important, notably because of its versatility. Oil is mainly used as fuel or to generate electricity, but also as a provider of building blocks for the synthesis of complex organic molecules, like plastics or pharmaceuticals. Notably, oil is the fossil equivalent of plant biomass and in a society based on sustainable development, oil can only be replaced by just this, plant biomass. It is important to realize that nearly all biomass on our planet is built up, directly or indirectly, with the solar energy captured by oxygenic photosynthesis, a process which exclusively occurs in plants and algae. Compared to plant biomass, the derived animal biomass is negligible (under optimal conditions, ecosystems produce ca. 200g of animal biomass for 1'000kg of plant biomass). Thus, only plants are capable to provide significant amounts of biomass. Finally, a completely plant biomass-dependent energy cycle will be absolutely CO2-neutral, because any CO2 released from biomass-derived materials has been previously absorbed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis.

The potential of biomass as a raw material has long been recognized, however it is only now that strategic and economic reasons favour the development of the efficient technologies to make use of it, such as the conversion of biomass into biofuels. These technologies have to be optimized to enter into an economy of sustainable development. However, ultimately the feasibility of replacing oil and others organic materials by biomass depends on our capability to produce plant biomass in sufficient quantity under environmentally acceptable conditions. Such efficient biomass production cannot be achieved without a detailed knowledge of the intrinsic and extrinsic factors regulating plant growth and development. On an applied horizon, this is what plant biology is about, beyond the intellectual contribution to our conceptual understanding of life: to assure that we can meet the challenge of not only feeding the planet, but also feeding our industries with raw materials. Both aspects are ultimately critical for global human health.

Also see our department web site's "Biocarburants !" section for information on this particular topic!

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