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Bio-Economy and Sustainability

Agro-forest systems support fundamental economic activities to the North of Portugal, such as the production of wine, fruits, irrigated and rainfed crops, livestock, forest biomass for hardwood or energy purposes, among many others. However, these activities are also sources of multiple by-products, some of them harmful, which urge to recover and valorise as to take advantage of their potential economic value as raw materials but also to preserve water resources and aquatic ecosystems, guarantee long-standing soil productivity and protect agro-food chains namely through prevention of disease spreading. An effective response to this urgency requires a new paradigm change: the shift of economy towards bio-economy. The promotion of a knowledge-based bio-economy entails to create a common ground between currently conflictual dynamics, namely the more industrial-oriented perspective and the agro-ecological standpoint founded on sustainable farming, forestry and related activities ensuring the supply of public goods and the rural development.

In a fast-changing planet, the societal shift leading to bio-economy will further need to accommodate agro-forestry adaptations to land use changes triggered by climate change, as well as to threats related to draughts and floods and their impact on the rural environment. To be successful, this challenging enterprise must be perceived by producers and, more importantly, accepted by consumers. Producers, either large companies or small firms, can be attracted to bio-economy if tempted by biotech innovation, product differentiation or incorporation of territorial attributes, namely through marketing strategies. Consumers will accept the bio-economy test if are well informed on its benefits, as they are daily confronted with choices regarding the food they buy and eat and will become further puzzled with choices related to valorising and incorporating by-products in conventional foodstuffs. Awareness is due to stakeholders and politicians as they are drivers to structural economic changes. The alert will reach the target if an active dissemination of information is implemented, namely through interactive platforms in the Internet.

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The BEST research line aims at contributing with knowledge and knowhow for a gradual societal change towards bio-economy. To accomplish the goal, the research line was organized in four major projects comprising several more target-oriented tasks:
» Project 1. Preserving water resources
» Project 2. Integrated management of agro-forestry systems
» Project 3. By-products, Waste Management and Valorisation of Agrarian Chain Production
» Project 4. Societal changes and Dynamic Decision Support System

Given the inherent complexity of a multidisciplinary work, specific scientific objectives are many and very diverse, including a dozen of key milestones: 1) to develop a hydrologic assessment at the catchment scale that can be used to prepare a better future for water resources management in the study area to supply the demands for agro-forestry production; 2) to characterize transference mechanisms of phosphorus, metals and pesticides among soils, sediments and water; 3) to assess the effects of weather, meso and microclimate on water resources, food and agro-forest-environmental systems; 4) to adapt commercial farms to agro-forestry systems, considering the aforementioned climatic changes as well as expected land use changes derived therefrom; 5) to create and validate predictive mathematical models using epidemiological data from selected emergent zoonoses and to predict their potential consequences for agri-food chains; 6) to use organic wastes of agro-industries as sources of raw to reduce imports in agro-food products and to avoid release of toxic substances into the environment; 7) to reduce the environmental impacts of agro-industrial wastewaters through the application of several biological and chemical processes, and to study their potential and economic viability for water reuse; 8) to seek for the valorisation of the nutritive value of by-products for animal feeding; 9) to add value to biomass sources (e.g. forest residues), through evaluating and characterizing various types of agro-forestry biomass in Northern Portugal, evaluating the efficiency of different energy use processes for each biomass type, developing technologies for combustion, pyrolysis and gasification appropriate to each biomass type, and evaluating the use of agro-forestry biomass as a substitute for fossil fuels; 10) to develop dynamic decision support system (DDSS) in a platform distributed on-line, which allows for storage of datasets and results of all the tasks described above, with the ultimate purpose of developing a capacity to issue warnings on preventive or corrective actions; 11) to produce a database of multi-level climatic variables, collected from both observational and simulated datasets, to be used as input for the other tasks and incorporated into the DDSS; 12) to identify the individual-owned and the collectively influenced beliefs, emotion, attitudes, perception towards the main attributes of the products of the bio-economy and how these influence their revealed and stated preferences regarding these products.