How can relational and decolonial approaches inform the EU Bioeconomy?

Published on 25 April 2024

Sabaheta Ramcilovic-Suominen

Assoc. Research Professor, Natural Resources Institute Finland, Luke

Independent Researcher, Italy

Tom Oliver

Research Dean for Environment and Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

The European Commission has recently renewed its commitment to promoting and investing in the bioeconomy as a key policy to achieve the European Green Deal objectives. In February 2023 the Swedish EU Presidency organized a high-level conference on the Bioeconomy and in March 2024 a Bioeconomy Changemakers Festival took place in Brussels and across Europe. Yet, since the first Bioeconomy Strategy in 2012, academia and civil society have criticised the EU Bioeconomy’s underlying vision and focus on growth and EU competitiveness.

The EU defines bioeconomy in a broad manner to include: all sectors and systems that rely on biological “resources” (animals, plants, micro-organisms, and derived biomass, including organic waste), including their functions and principles.

EU bioeconomy project

The core critique to the EU bioeconomy policy project is that it has, since its inception, largely been focused on technological innovation as a means to increase the use of bio-based resources in industrial processes. The goal is to fuel economic growth and, more recently, to respond to geopolitical security concerns. This narrow vision persists in the current strategy, as well as in the main political discourse on the future of the EU bioeconomy, as the Swedish EU Presidency conference clearly showed.

While considerations on economic growth, biotech innovations and strategic security are not irrelevant, they are in tension with alarming growing socioecological pressures and the growing demand for more just postgrowth futures (e.g. Beyond Growth Conference, EU Green Social Summit, 70 NGOs call for sustainable and socially just EU bioeconomy strategy and Bioeconomy Youth Vision). A revision of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy is thus to be welcomed, which offers an opportunity to update how the bioeconomy is framed and governed. This commentary aims to influence the deliberative process on the future EU bioeconomy.

The problem with Eurocentric worldviews

In our commentary we go beyond the core critique to highlight that the EU bioeconomy strategy is based on and advances Eurocentric worldviews, knowledges, and values, as well as European concerns, interests and needs in defining policy problems and solutions, while ignoring and therefore delegitimising others. This, we argue, results in various short- and long-term injustices, consolidating the epistemic as well as political and economic domination and protection of European position in relation to the countries in the so-called ‘Global South’.

Additionally, the EU dominant business as usual vision has been ineffective at tackling socioecological problems, rather, it has caused growing socioecological pressures, with the existing extractivist bioeconomy supply chains causing various new and old injustices. To transform the bioeconomy sectors towards socio-ecologically just outcomes, the current bioeconomy policy project must be questioned and re-politicised, fundamentally reframed and reinvented.

Decolonial and postgrowth approaches

The current global geopolitical instability, violence and conflict, mixed with ongoing social unrest in Europe might open the door for radical change. Change requires a retreat from the current policies and logics and embracing explicitly decolonial and postgrowth approaches.

First, it is necessary to identify some of the main root causes for the persistence of extractivism and injustices in the bioeconomy policy and, more broadly, in the green transition. These include human centred and the neoliberal views prioritising humans over nature, and the colonial-capitalist nexus, both of which further translate into systemic and institutional regimes of domination and the primacy of economic growth.

Secondly, we need to refocus on largely neglected ideas and concerns relating to emerging feminist and decolonial perspectives, as well as shifting worldviews away from anthropocentrism and individualism towards unity, interconnectedness and relationality. Based on these perspectives, we compiled a list of 11 action points (Figure 1), along with associated examples and suggestions, for decisionmakers and researchers alike, to explore and consider alternative imaginaries associated with the bioeconomy project, as elaborated below and in full detail in the published commentary paper.

Graphic illustration of a sun flower. In the centre reads 'Enablers of justice in bioeconomy'. In each petal is written one of the 11 points listed in the main body text below.
The Flower of Change, representing 11 action points that could enable the emergence of a different, more just, and caring EU bioeconomy. Credit: authors.

1. Redefine and repoliticise the question of human-nature relations, by:

  • Interacting with spiritual and/or religious groups (e.g. IFEES, LaudatoSI).
  • Promoting mindfulness, self-knowledge and self-transformation as a way of wider socioecological change and transformation (e.g. Inner Development Goals Initiative.)

2. Reject commodification of life and nature, by:

  • Redefining policy priorities towards health and vitality of ecosystems, as well as conviviality between human and the more-than-human world.
  • Promoting commons, different ownership structures and community agency (for more, see the commentary)

3. Reject the narratives of economic growth imperative, by:

4. Reject (neo)coloniality, exploitation and domination in bioeconomy, by:

  • Learning from post-capitalist and postgrowth forms of economy emerging at the grassroot levels. (e.g. La Via Campesina).
  • Avoiding policies that promote extractivism and modern slavery and/or death of land defenders elsewhere.
  • Using tools such as Environmental Justice Atlas as a precautionary measure.
  • Engaging and learn from epistemic and ontological disobedience movements and initiatives, (e.g. Decolonial Europe Day, Land Back movement.

5. Centre Ethics of Care in policy and practice, by:

  • Promoting care-based approaches to policymaking as a central pillar of fairness and justice in the EU policies.
  • Revisiting the emerging Feminist Foreign Policies (FFPs)

6. Curb extractivism and ‘imperial mode of living’, by:

  • Ensuring durability and repairability, limit advertisement, promote ‘Enough’ as opposed to ‘more’ in in popular culture and art.

7. Democratize social and economic provisioning, by:

  • Reorienting the socioecological provisioning for health, vitality, and wellbeing of human and other-than-human, rather than for profit.

8. Redefine Bioeconomy vocabulary, by:

  • Re-claiming or rejecting ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Sustainable Development’ (SD), Nature-Based Solutions, ‘Circularity’, etc.

9. Strengthen deliberative policymaking, by:

  • Co-creating safe spaces and platforms for marginalised groups’ meaningful engagement.

10. Support onto-epistemic plurality, decolonial and transdisciplinary research, by:

  • Embracing and support decolonial and Indigenous-led research.
  • Promoting onto-epistemic plurality at domestic and global level. (e.g. IPBES task force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge).

11. Invite ethical scrutiny and reflexivity within research and policy, by:

  • Applying tools such as European Group on Ethics (EGE) in Science and New Technologies to provide advice on ethical issues regarding science and technology.
  • Normalising local community codesigned and led guidelines and principles.

We envision these action points as potential enablers that decisionmakers, both in the EU and beyond, can enact, whole or in part, to explore imaginaries and visions for a bioeconomy founded on care, self-knowledge and awareness.  Ultimately, we need a vision for a bioeconomy that rejects forms of domination and exploitation over other humans and the natural world, fosters collective well-being and acts as a defence of all forms of life from exploitation.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


About this opinion


Related content