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Unlocking the Bioeconomy and Non-Timber Forest Products

TF Unlocking the Bioeconomy and Non-Timber Forest Products

Task Force Coordinator:

James Chamberlain III, United States


Carsten Smith-Hall, Denmark

What is the bioeconomy? According to the Bioeconomy Council, an advisory board to the German government, it is "knowledge-based production and use of biological resources to provide products, processes and services in all economic sectors within the frame of a sustainable economic system." It is a new model for industry and the economy. It involves using renewable biological resources sustainably to produce food, energy and other goods. Transition to a bioeconomy is expected to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and contribute to climate and environmental protection.

The forest sector is in a unique position to be at the forefront of an inclusive, low-carbon, bio-economy. Bio-based packaging is already countering food loss and waste. It is also improving food safety for consumers and reducing persistent marine pollution by replacing plastics. Other forest products are also making their mark. Responsible forest biotechnology to increase tree productivity and resilience is now a reality. Oils and sugars from trees are being used as liquid biofuels and green chemicals. Bio-composites derived from wood are used for purposes ranging from vehicle and medical applications to sustainable building. Many NTFPs are also being revitalized, for instance in the food industry -- Nordic berries and birch sap in Finland and "open source food" in North America are just some examples. Other sectors are also seeing renewed interest: researchers are looking into artic berry wax as substitutes for industrial wax derived from fossil fuels, for instance, rattan for future bone replacement, and so on.

What are nontimber forest products? A number of definitions and terms related to nontimber forest products (NTFPs) have emerged over the past decades, including nonwood forest products (NWFPs), minor or secondary forest products, wild forest products, among many others. NTFPs and NWFPs are among the most widely used, although the latter does not include wood-based items.  Most terms define NTFPs as biological resources that are tangible and physical objects other than timber, produced on a gradient from wild-harvested to cultivated. Sometimes recreational services linked to forests are included. This definition does not specify origin (forest, farm, wooded land, etc.) as there is little agreement on this.

Plants, fungi, and animals that originate, and are harvested from forests, or produced in agroforestry [forest farming] are considered nontimber if they are valued for a product other than timber. In general, nontimber forest products (NTFPs) are goods used by humans for food, medicine, decoratives, nursery and landscaping products, and fine arts and crafts. NTFPs include material used to produce special industrial goods, textiles, and chemicals, such as cork, rubber, resins, saps and essential oils. Products may be wood-based (e.g., walking sticks, bowls, turnings) but do not require trees to be timber-size, managed and harvested for commodities (ie, sawnwood, chips, veneer). As example, specialty wood products such as crafts and fine arts are considered a nontimber forest product because they typically utilize 'special' parts of the tree such as burls, or branches, and are marketed as specialty products with value-added processing through niche markets. NTFPs are harvested for personal, recreational, cultural and economic benefit, and as tourit activities. They are the foundation of many household economies and contribute significantly to national and global economies. 

Rationale & Background

Moving towards sustainable bioeconomy has emerged as a global issue. For instance, the European Union has crafted a bioeconomy strategy for the 21st century, a recent national assessment identified nontimber forest products (NTFPs) essential to the bioeconomy of the United States, and the role of NTFPs in supporting bioeconomic transitions is emerging in the Himalayan range states. However, to change a country's economic trajectory to embrace elements of the bioeconomy is challenging. Renewable natural resources are limited, and in many places under increasing pressures from land use change, climate change, habitat degradation, and increasing populations. The bioeconomy can reduce the environmental impacts of economic growth by science-based management that promotes sustainable harvests and production. The plants, fungi, lichens, and animals that produce NTFPs are essential to the sustainability of forest ecosystems, peoples' food and livelihood security and sovereignty, and contribute to the bioeconomy. Recognizing the importance of these natural resources and integrating them into national efforts to develop the bioeconomy requires expanding current perspectives of what is included in the bioeconomy. Forestry and other natural resource institutions need to embrace that the products derived from forest plants, fungi, lichens, and animals (whether self-consumed, bartered, or traded, whether visible or invisible) are part of the bioeconomy and then take actions to develop their effective integration into local, regional, and national interventions.

Recent research has documented that NTFPs can be of major economic importance at national and regional levels, by generating employment and trade of unprocessed and processed products, though the facilitating factors are poorly understood. In general, national level evaluations are missing, or of low quality (e.g., due to lack of methodological descriptions), and a comprehensive assessment of the economic value at a global scale is non-existent. A significant gap in knowledge identified in the recent national assessment by the US Forest Service was an all-inclusive value to the national economy: an estimated US$1 billion in NTFP raw materials is annually harvested from forests managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, but values from forests in private ownership remain unknown. Throughout the world, there are examples of efforts to value forests for NTFPs, but these remain limited to particular locations and selected products. Comprehensive valuations remain elusive. The Task Force will identify challenges, constraints, and research needs to improve this and develop findings into steps towards bioeconomic transitions.


The goal of the Task Force is to investigate whether and how nontimber forest products have been integrated into global and national efforts to transition to and expand the bioeconomy, and how such efforts can be supported. To do this, the Task Force team will engage: 1) theoretically, to define and characterise the role of NTFPs in transitioning to a bioeconomy; 2) empirically, through analysis of how and to what degree NTFPs promote sustainable resource use, generate employment, and contribute to food and livelihood security and poverty alleviation, and; 3) practically, by developing monitoring approaches and identifying interventions and policies to support the integration of NTFPs into bioeconomy strategies, including in national reporting schemes.