Europe's 'bioeconomy' is growing fast and is already one of the continent's most important sectors, accounting for 7% of its economy – and it is heavily reliant on increased access to forest resources.

As such, demand for wood and wood-based products will continue to increase in Europe to satisfy the needs of this new green economy, which follows the EU's commitment to move away from fossil fuel-based economics.

But in an effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past, some serious thought is being put into how best to structure the sector as it grows, to carefully balance volume, production and environmental impact all the way from planting to processing.

In a new policy brief titled 'Knowledge and Technologies for our Forests of the Future', an international team of authors, led by Dr Diana Tuomasjukka, from the European Forest Institute, has compiled comprehensive findings of the ways in which forest resources could be harvested and managed more efficiently and sustainably. The authors point out that there are currently advanced machine systems as well as technological and management solutions for most geographical conditions, including winch supported harvester and forwarder in steep terrain – the trick was deploying them where they are needed, when they are needed.

"A low impact value chain means having access to the most suitable harvesting equipment for a particular environment, at an appropriate time," said Dr Tuomasjukka. "It is important to facilitate the right training and skills development across the workforce, which is dominated by seasonality. The ageing workforce, the technological evolvement of machines and digital tools, as well as the difficulty in attracting younger workers to the sector are issues which need attention.".

There was, she said, is a lot of potential to further use digital maps, apps and models that can guide the harvesting operator to determine the best routes with the lowest impacts, for example, on water ways or sites of high cultural or biodiverse value, to improve environmental site management by practically guiding the worker in forested areas.

“These digital tools are also helpful in monitoring assortment value and fuel performance during the operation, as well as sharing relevant operational and volume information with other actors along the wood supply chain for improved logistics,” she added.

The brief notes that, within current wood value chains, the different actors and stages are still too disconnected, leading to time, energy, emissions and also volume of materials being lost or underutilized.

Improving information flow and increased digitalization on the processes and between the different actors and steps of the process chain has future optimization potential. To this end, a digital efficiency portal titled SILVISMART has been developed, and is currently being tested in five European countries, where it provides a tool for information sharing between the different, consenting actors in the value chain such as contractors, operators, forest owners and managers.

The policy team noted that investments in the European bioeconomy can only be justified if the resource base represents a 'sustainable and consistent' source of raw materials. European forestry needs to develop modern digital tools and management solutions to be able to supply the new green economy with the needed materials without compromising the health and well-being of its forests and our citizens.