Promises of Bioeconomy: Toward a New Social and Epistemic Common Sense?

The concept of bioeconomy, defined as an economic system utilizing renewable raw materials to foster sustainable practices across sectors, has garnered significant attention amidst ongoing climate crises. Since around 2009, supranational entities like the OECD and various governments have promoted bioeconomy as a pivotal solution. This has led to an unusual convergence of interests between industry stakeholders and social movements, uniting former adversaries such as environmental activists and the biotech industry. However, the central question persists: Can the bio-transformation of industrial production serve as a viable alternative to oil dependency, or will it exacerbate resource overexploitation? This research seeks to elucidate the historical roots and ongoing tensions in the bioeconomic field by examining its evolution from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Bioeconomy has advanced to one of the most prevalent catchwords in the recent climate crises: “Bioeconomy is an economic system based on renewable raw materials. The bioeconomy encompasses the production, development and use of biological resources, processes and systems to provide products, processes and services in all economic sectors as part of a sustainable economic system.” (German Science Department on Supra-governmental organizations -- first and foremost the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD – and governments have hyped bioeconomy as a solution to pressing problems since around 2009. Moreover, industry and social movements seem to increasingly agree on the political goals and scientific and technological needs to resolve these issues in terms of bio-transformation and bio-technization: from fossil-based to bio-based. For instance, the German Bioeconomy Council brings together former political opponents, such as long-standing environmental activists and the biotech industry. It seems, everything has become “bio.”

The key question is whether the bio-transformation of the industrial production can be an alternative to fossil-based industrial production or whether it will further increase the overexploitation of natural resources. In fact, there are indications that fundamental conflicts persist and stand in the way of real progress. Above all, it seems controversial whether focusing on technological innovation and change (R&D), as in the bioeconomy strategy, is the right approach.

With the history of the bioeconomy, geo-anthropology deals with one of the most recent strategic decisions in climate policy. This history may help to better understand the tensions in the ongoing bio-technization of the crises policy in political, social, and epistemic terms. The research project will study the history of the bioeconomy project as a global phenomenon from the 1960s up to the 2000s. The key question is whether and to what extent strategic preferences and decisions were based on technical and narrowly defined knowledge or on a (systemic) evaluation of their long-term benefits.

1. Beginnings. Case studies will research the beginnings and roots of the bioeconomic transformation with respect to knowledge and its forms, practices, technologies (e. g., wind energy, organic farming, fermentation, GMO crops) and central concepts, respectively (e. g., sustainability, soft/small technologies, biomimetics, fault tolerance, recycling/circle economy, social robustness).

2. Circulation. In particular, the project will investigate the exchange of knowledge between countries of the Global South (India) and Europe in the introduction of new agricultural varieties (rice, cotton, maize) and the development of strategies for bio-transformation. In addition to farmers, business and science, particular attention will be paid to the environmental movement, which has been internationalizing since the 1970s at the latest. For example, there was an intensive exchange between the environmental movement in European countries on the one hand and regional farmers' organizations in India and Sri Lanka on the other. The project seeks to reveal the trajectories of convergence and conflict in the bioeconomic field. What have been the pitfalls, conflicts, and promoters? What has been the relationship between activists, grassroot movements, and civil society organizations on the one side and governmental politics, regulatory agencies, and industry and economic players on the other side? Though political dispute and demarcation dominated, the project focus will lie on the circulation of knowledge and the trading zones of the rival camps.

3. Interdependencies. The goal of this history will be to determine the interdependencies of epistemic, political, and social preferences in the bio-economic field. One main interest is to analyze the grand divide between environmental research and lab-based, technological biosciences. What was the broader context of this struggle between forms of knowledge with respect to the environmental movement and bio-economic practice? What have been zones of exchange? And how did this relation change over the last 50 years?


Bioeconomy, Bio-transformation, Bio-technization, Natural Resources, Climate Strategies, Historical Decision Making, Circulation of Knowledge, Regional Disparities

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