Bio-economy versus Biodiversity Bio-economy versus Biodiversity


As part of the ‘green economy’ approach scheduled for negotiation at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there is now a proposal to develop a ‘post-fossil fuel’ bio-economy, championed by the European Union, the U.S. and Brazil in particular. This bio-economy approach is heavily based on the use of biomass, both as a fuel and as a raw material from which to manufacture a wide range of products, including plastics and chemicals. This will be made possible courtesy of a range of technologies including genetic manipulation, nanotechnology and synthetic biology.


While the idea of using renewable resources instead of fossil fuels is a good idea in theory, the way in which the bio-economy approach proposes to achieve this goal is at best deeply flawed and inequitable, and at worst downright dangerous. The planet’s capacity to produce biomass is limited, and increasing demand for land is already leading to the destruction of forests and biodiversity, escalating hunger, and conflict over land. Without reducing consumption and demand for energy and products, the sheer scale on which biomass would have to produced to meet the demands of a global bio-economy would severely exacerbate these problems.


Proponents of the bio-economy argue that new technologies, such as the production of algal oil in aquatic environments, would minimize these pressures. Yet these innovations are uncertain at best, and the commercial production of algal oil certainly looks unlikely at present. While promises of a ‘clean, green future’ may allow risky new technologies to attract investment, the reality on the ground is that in the near and medium term future there will be increased pressure on land and forests. Even though there is much hype about new, high technology approaches as part of the bio-economy, the current impacts are primarily linked to simple, relatively cheap combustion and refining technologies, including ‘first generation’ biofuels and a very rapidly growing, subsidized push to burn wood for electricity and heat.


The bio-economy proposal is not about protecting the environment: it is about promoting the economy – in spite of clear indications of the harmful impacts that are already resulting from massive new demand for biomass, including loss of biodiversity and escalating hunger and conflict. The bio-economy agenda is especially attractive to fossil fuel companies who want to be seen pursuing an exit-from-oil strategy; and to biotechnology companies desperately in need of a Trojan horse to provide safe passage for risky and unpopular new technologies. This is entirely at odds with parallel proposals to create new markets in ecosystems services with a view to protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Forests, for example, are being targeted as sources of wood for bio-energy, but at the same time, they are being viewed as carbon-sequestering biodiversity rich habitats in need of protection. What these proposals do have in common, however, and the reason they are both promoted under the ‘bio-economy’, is that they are both designed with the primary goal of creating profitable business opportunities, regardless of any negative social and environmental consequences that may be incurred.


Indeed, creating new markets for ecosystem services takes the ‘commodification of life’ to a new level. Should these proposals come to fruition, every living thing and natural process could be potential fodder for this new mega-industry, especially if new technologies come into play, and industries currently outside the ‘life’ sector come looking for new fuel sources, new technologies and new profit-generating opportunities. Instead of promoting a socially-blind ‘green economy’, an alternative world view would recognize the bio-cultural approaches of indigenous peoples and local communities who have long succeeded in developing sustainable livelihoods, a ‘buen vivir’ in harmony with the ecosystems they live in. Territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities, women-driven forest conservation and restoration initiatives, community initiatives that sustain food and energy sovereignty, and the efforts of small peasants to produce food in harmony with our planet all serve as inspiring examples of ways in which local economies build on the principles of care, harmony with nature, human rights and sovereignty, and contribute to the well-being of both community members and the planet as a whole.