Monday, March 26, 2012

Towards a Bioeconomy?

While “green economy” is the term of choice at Rio+20, “bioeconomy” is also becoming a popular term. In September 2011, President Obama announced a plan for a National Bioeconomy Blueprint. Several European countries, including Finland and Germany already have bioeconomy strategies, and the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union) published an action plan for boosting its bioeconomy last month.

So what is a bioeconomy exactly? In the US, the emphasis is officially on “harnessing biological research innovations to meet national challenges in health, food, energy, and the environment.” See the October 2011 Request for Information (RFI), 76 FR 62869. Based in the RFI, the Administration is particularly interested in improving R&D; moving innovation from lab to market; creating jobs; reducing regulatory burden; and public private partnerships.  According to the EU’s new action plan, titled "Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe,” a bioeconomy “encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy.”  The action plan endorses greater (1) “investment in research, innovation and skills”; (2) “Reinforced policy interaction and stakeholder engagement,” through the creation of a Bioeconomy Panel, a Bioeconomy Observatory and regular Stakeholder Conferences; and (3) “Enhancement of markets and competitiveness in bioeconomy,” such as markets that transform food wastes into bio-energy. 
I kind of like the term bioeconomy. To my mind, it brings the idea of living within the limits of the biosphere, of changing our human economy to fit the earth’s economy.  But there are lots of concerns about what industry and government mean when they use the term. The basic idea, after all, is of turning biomass in marketable goods and services – biofuels, bioplastics, bioenergy, etc.  And biomass will presumably be produced using the techniques of industrial agriculture, which isn’t particularly biofriendly. Concerns include the destruction of biodiversity; erosion; pollution; deforestation; land-grabbing; and increased GHG emissions. A critical expose was written in 2010 by the Canada-based ETC Group (or, Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), The New Biomassters - Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods. As the authors explain, “what’s behind the dash to biomass is not high ideals but the calculated interest of the corporate bottom line. Far from changing to a new economy, the biomass transition describes the retooling of the same old economy of production, consumption, capital accumulation, and exploitation – only now a new source of carbon is being plundered to keep the industrial machines going.”

Finally, if you are in Berkeley this week, you might want to sit in on UC Berkeley’s School of Natural Resources’ 5th Bioeconomy Conference, which started yesterday and features primarily academic speakers in the area of agricultural and resource economics.

- Lesley McAllister

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