Unlocking the potential of Sustainability Standards in South Africa to achieve Sustainable Bioeconomy

The increasing attention towards bio-based economy is partly due to the existing production practices that are contributing significantly to environmental and climate problems. Global challenges like climate change, land and ecosystem degradation, coupled with a growing population is a turning point towards producing and consuming that respect the ecological boundaries of our planet. ‘Bioeconomy’ in this sense has become an important agenda in political and technological interests internationally and nationally as it is considered to have strong links with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – transition to a more circular, renewable and resource‐efficient society.

The bioeconomy can be defined as “the knowledge-based production and utilization of biological resources, biological processes and principles to sustainably provide goods and services across all economic sectors” according to an overview of bioeconomy definitions and strategies found in FAO, 2016. The bioeconomy has already been adopted by a significant number of low and middle income countries as a new vision of development, and can be a valid path towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. For instance, in lower income countries with available biomass resources and/or well-developed primary sectors, a sustainable bioeconomy could unlock new opportunities for economic development and industrialization and support economic and social objectives (FAO, 2018).

Voluntary Sustainaibility Standards (VSS) as proof of sustainable production practices

A proactive approach to Voluntary Standards can help harmonize supply chains, industries and create an environment that stimulates a coherent, well-coordinated and favorable regulatory framework towards a bio-based economy.

The rise of VSSs is closely related to the growing consumer awareness that have increasingly demanded proof of sustainable production practices, particularly in products coming from regions where laws and enforcement mechanisms are considered weak. The vast majority of requirements specified by agricultural sustainability standards focus on protecting ecosystems and natural habitats, which are effectively the central repositories of global biodiversity. Moreover, the growing tendency of voluntary standards to include an increasingly holistic and comprehensive set of requirements related to production helps ensure that the mutually reinforcing linkages between soils, waterways, flora, fauna and entire ecosystems are similarly maintained and promoted through the breadth of practices stipulated by voluntary standards (IISD, 2017).

The growth of VSS represents an important opportunity for all stakeholders to play a proactive role in encouraging and managing biobased economy. An example of standard that is synchronized with the aspect of biodiversity would be the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT). The UEBT standard builds on the BioTrade Principles and Criteria as developed by the UNCTAD BioTrade Initiative. In order to turn trade into a positive incentive measure for biodiversity conservation, the UNCTAD BioTrade Initiative together with partners and beneficiary countries, addresses the policy around environment, supply capacity and market access through an intervention strategy that targets different problems at different levels of intervention.

Eye on South Africa

The launch of South Africa’s Bio-economy Strategy on 14 January 2014 by the Ministry of Science and Technology positions bio-innovation as essential to the achievement of the government’s industrial and social development goals. The strategy calls for industry, science councils, government departments and academia to cooperate closely to ensure that biotechnology and bio-innovations are market relevant and find easier application in South Africa.

We are confident that the strategy we are launching today will address the full value chain, going beyond the mere generation of new technologies to ensuring that technology development is informed by the needs of the country and people, and that social and economic value is generated.  If we look at the sustainable utilization of resources and encourage role players to work together to achieve common goals, we will be helping to close the innovation chasm,” said Mr Derek Hanekom, Minister of Science and Technology, South Africa.

Our aim is to grow the bio-economy through strengthened partnerships with industry, and to extract the full potential of our living systems through the application of our collective competencies and capabilities. The benefits to society will include the more sustainable use of resources, the development of new products, and improved job prospects,” he added.

Within the South African context, bioeconomy may include but are not limited to, technological and non-technological exploitation of natural resources such as animals, plant biodiversity, micro-organisms, and minerals to improve human health, address food security and subsequently contribute to economic growth and improved quality of life (Department of Science and Technology, 2013). The vision is for South Africa’s bio-economy to be a significant contributor to the country’s economy by 2030 in terms of the gross domestic product (GDP). This is to be achieved through the creation and growth of novel industries that generate and develop bio-based services, products and innovations.

South Africa is considered as one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world due to its species diversity and endemism as well as its diversity of ecosystems with over 95 000 known species, contributing to almost 10% of the world’s known plant species, reptile species (5%), bird species (8%) and mammal species (6%), with more species regularly discovered and described (South Africa’s Fifth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2014). Combined with the country’s wealth of indigenous knowledge and its established biotechnology capacity, South Africa’s biodiversity is one of the country’s greatest assets.

A Multi-Stakeholder Approach to leverage VSS as a tool to achieve Sustainable Bioeconomy

In light of the upcoming Stakeholder Awareness Meeting: South African Initiative on Voluntary Sustainability Standards – Stakeholders’ Perspectives on Sustainable Development and Bio-economy, which will be held in Sheraton Pretoria Hotel on November 6-7, 2019, the event aims to promote public awareness in South Africa on the potentials of VSS, engage and empower multiple stakeholders to support the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as to initiate the momentum to establish a National Platform on VSS in South Africa. To achieve these goals, the event provides a platform for exchange among experts from industry, government, academia, and national standards bodies as well as representatives of international organisations, whose works have addressed the benefits and challenges of establishing and implementing VSS. Through these platforms dialogue takes place between public and private stakeholders and they “facilitate an informed policy dialogue on how to pro-actively use VSS”.

This meeting is organized by the German Development Institute (DIE), the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and UNFSS, with the support from the Republic of South Africa Department of Trade and Industry, the German Federal ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the South African SDG Hub, University of Pretoria and the University of Witwatersrand.

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Please send an Email with your name, affiliation, contact details to register to Dr Dr Ariel Hernandez.

For further inquiries about the news story, please direct your email to Ruby Lambert.



  1. FAO. (2016). How sustainability is addressed in official bioeconomy strategies at international, national and regional levels: An overview. Rome: FAO.
  2. FAO. (2018). Assessing the contribution of Bioeconomy to countries’ economy: A brief review of national frameworks. Rome: FAO.
  3. Department of Science and Technology (2013). The Bio-economy Strategy. South Africa.
  4. South African National Biodiversity Institute (2014). South Africa’s Fifth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity. South Africa: Department of Environmental Affairs.
  5. IISD (2017). Standards and Biodiversity: Thematic Review. The International Institute for Sustainable Development.



The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.

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