The Bioeconomy: an alternative to our fossil fuel based system

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October 1st, 2019

Not content with addressing just one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I would like to propose a concept that has the potential to address at least nine of them and has formed a central research interest of mine as an environmental geographer.

Couched within the quest for a more sustainable future, the Bioeconomy represents an alternative economic system to the fossil fuel based economy on which we have come to rely.

You know, that very system that has caused unprecedented levels of pollution, emissions and environmental degradation that led to the need for the Sustainable Development Goals in the first place.

A vicious cycle, so how about creating a cleaner, greener, more efficient and bio-based system to address – and perhaps even reverse – these concerns?

With the potential to tackle out of control waste levels, mitigate against climate change, and develop food and energy security, a Bioeconomy path seems like a good one to walk down.

Such a path involves the creation of an economic system where fossil fuels are replaced by renewable biological resources and biomass is processed and transformed to meet everyday need for food, feed, fuel and fibre.

It combines the outputs of agriculture, marine and forestry resource sectors with the transformative capacity of food, biochemical, biomaterial and bioenergy industries.

As a yet still-evolving concept, the Bioeconomy has been translated in different ways internationally with varying emphasis on its biotechnological, bioresource and bioecology aspects.

Such alternate visions reflect not only the different motives behind Bioeconomy development but the range of opportunities it presents to address global sustainability challenges.

Sound too good to be true? Well, of course, the caveat is that the Bioeconomy must be developed in an environmentally and socially sustainable way so that it does not become self-defeating in its sustainability aims.

It must not replicate the extractive, destructive nature of the fossil-based economy that came before it. This requires careful management so that biological resources are produced in an environmentally sound manner and that we no longer continue producing more unnecessary ‘stuff’’ for heedless consumption.

If implemented ‘correctly’, the Bioeconomy can benefit all parts of society. It holds promise to reduce rural-urban divides and revitalise marginalised communities to supply the biomass that forms the very foundation of global bioeconomies.

From a consumption perspective, uncomfortable conversations (for some) are nonetheless required on the need for de-growth alongside Bioeconomy developments to fundamentally shift our consumption patterns, practices and behaviours.

Combining these caveats and concerns, there is a need for the creation of regenerative and socially just bioeconomies worldwide that not only reduce environmental ‘bad’ but also create environmental ‘good’ (e.g. through carbon sequestration) and are enacted in a socially sound and inclusive manner (Devaney and Iles, 2018).

Such an ideal sustainable future will require a robust governance system to guide it, one that ensures that all voices are heard, marginalised actors are included and environmental checks and balances are in place to truly achieve sustained inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

How and where stakeholders are embedded and invest in the Bioeconomy is important to develop shared visions and principles to guide this economic transition.


Bioeconomy Photo: OakleyOriginals

Considering ‘good’ governance in the Bioeconomy has been a cornerstone of my work, developing frameworks and conditions for sustainable Bioeconomy development that have subsequently guided both national and international policy (for example, the Irish Government’s National Policy Statement on the Bioeconomy and the German Bioeconomy Council (2018) update on Bioeconomy policy progress worldwide).

This preoccupation has led me to conduct geographical research across Ireland, Europe, Canada and the US, assessing the development and governance of diverse global bioeconomies and the stakeholder influences, supports and hindrances present across scales.

After all, Bioeconomy development must be geographically tailored to reflect different resource bases, industrial capacities, markets, governing regimes, histories, priorities and agendas at national and local scales.

There is also the potential for developing regional Bioeconomy clusters to provide support and cohesion to the bio-based transition nationally and internationally (Devaney and Iles, 2018).

Enacted in this way, the Bioeconomy can begin to address multiple SDGs including ending hunger (Goal 2), ensuring sustainable energy (Goal 7), sustainable economic growth (Goal 8), sustainable consumption (Goal 12), climate action (Goal 13) and the sustainable use of ecosystems at sea (Goal 14) and on land (Goal 15).

Connecting the development of the Bioeconomy with the achievement of the SDGs is essential and appropriate at local, national, regional and global scales.

The concepts should not be seen as mutually exclusive or in isolation of one another. The two can go hand-in-hand and indeed act as essential measures of progress for one another.

The research outlined in this article was made possible with support from the Irish Fulbright Commission, the EPA, the Ireland-Canada University Foundation and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. An original version of this article was published by the Geographical Society of Ireland, available at:  

By Dr Laura Devaney (

Laura is a social scientist with research interests in environmental, food and Bioeconomy governance. With a PhD from the Department of Geography Trinity College and postdoctoral work at Teagasc and Dalhousie University, she was also a Fulbright-EPA Scholar 2017-18 at the University of California Berkeley. She positions her work at the research policy interface, preoccupied with the quest for a more sustainable future and collaborated with the Department of the Taoiseach advising on the most appropriate development pathways for the Irish bioeconomy. 

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