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Bioeconomy strategies in the Global South should not copy those of the Global North

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By John James Loomis

· 7 min read

What is the bioeconomy?

The bioeconomy is not a new concept, but one that continually evolves, and has gained prominence as a strategy for sustainable development within the last decade, especially in the Global South. While there is no standardized definition, the International Advisory Council on Global Bioeconomy defines it as, “the production, utilization and conservation of biological resources, including related knowledge, science, technology, and innovation, to provide sustainable solutions (information, products, processes and services) within and across all economic sectors and enable a transformation to a sustainable economy.” Yet this definition represents a much more holistic vision than the resource transition vision that developed in Europe and the United States. 

Bioeconomy strategies in Europe and the United States have made significant strides in promoting sustainable economic development by leveraging renewable resources and fostering innovation. These strategies have been based largely on what is known as the bioresource vision, i.e., developing bio-based materials, such as biomass, in the areas of energy and food to substitute the use of nonrenewable fossil materials. However, these strategies assumed sustainability without always articulating this connection, which sometimes resulted in unsustainable outcomes, such as the impacts of US ethanol subsidies on corn prices in Mexico known as the 2007 Tortilla Crisis and the expansion of bio-fuel monocultures into tropical forests. Such sustainability challenges highlight the water-food-energy nexus that any bioeconomy must consider in order to avoid unwanted tradeoffs.

In Europe, the EU bioeconomy strategy envisions a transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy. It focuses on leveraging biomass, fostering research and innovation, and promoting sustainable production and consumption. Europe's strengths lie in its strong policy frameworks, robust research and development infrastructure, and collaborative networks. However, limitations include the need for improved coherence among diverse policy areas, scaling up bio-based industries, and addressing potential conflicts between food and non-food uses of biomass.

In the United States, the US economy strategy emphasizes the economic potential of bio-based products, energy, and manufacturing. It aims to drive rural development, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and promote environmental sustainability. The strengths of the U.S. strategy include its innovation-driven approach, strong private sector engagement, and abundant biomass resources. However, challenges stem from fragmented governance across states and inconsistent policy support.

What is the bioeconomy in a Global South context?

Many countries developing bioeconomy strategies in the Global South have high levels of social and biological diversity that are necessary assets for developing a rich and equitable economy. For Global South countries, the adoption of bioeconomy strategies faces difficulties due to various reasons. Limited financial resources, inadequate infrastructure, and competing development priorities pose challenges to implementing comprehensive bioeconomy initiatives. Additionally, Global South countries may face hurdles in establishing strong regulatory frameworks, building research and innovation capacities, and accessing international markets for bio-based products. Furthermore, concerns regarding land tenure, social equity, and sustainable resource management must be addressed to ensure inclusive and sustainable bioeconomy development. 

It is for these reasons that bioeconomy strategies in the Global South, such as Brazil, must explicitly be anchored in a strong sustainability paradigm, combining alternative visions of the bioeconomy, alongside the bioresource vision; these include the biotechnology and bioecology visions. The former emphasizes the application of advanced biological technologies, including genetic engineering and synthetic biology, to develop innovative bio-based products, processes, and services for various sectors. 

The bioecology vision focuses on the integration of ecological principles and sustainability considerations in the bioeconomy, aiming to optimize resource use, protect biodiversity, and enhance ecosystem services while meeting human needs. Development of bioeconomies in these regions offers opportunities for sustainable growth that harness existing human and social capital but must be done so while respecting and protecting local cultures and ecosystems. In fact, such a bioecology vision is often viewed as a complementary strategy for conservation in some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. The development of sustainable economic alternatives for local communities provides a means for socio-economic development and the maintenance of standing forests and flowing rivers.

Costa Rica, a successful case of bioeconomy strategy in the Global South

Costa Rica is a sustainability leader. It successfully restored forest cover from approximately 25% in the 1980s to over 50% today, won the 2019 Champions of the Earth Award (the flagship UN environmental award), and at the end of 2022 generated 98% of its electricity from renewable sources for the 8th consecutive year. Costa Rica is an ecological hotspot with 6% of the world’s wildlife whilst occupying 0.03% of its surface area. Since 1996 when it passed its biodiversity law, the country has passed a series of policies to substitute fossil fuels with biofuels, reduce the carbon footprint of livestock, and encourage organic agriculture. 

Costa Rica developed its bioeconomy strategy in 2020 with a clear 10-year implementation window that involves proving tests of concepts, scaling, and maturing. It is led by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Telecommunication, but its development was an inter-ministerial effort. It developed a holistic conception of the bioeconomy that considers both modern as well as traditional knowledge of biological resources and their processes in the development of new products and services. Its strategy covers five strategic areas: rural development, biodiversity, biorefinery, biotechnology, and urban bioeconomy. The aim is the sustainable use of its biodiversity to become a leader in these areas.

Assessing Costa Rica’s strategy’s impacts on the environment, it emphasizes sustainability, especially through the preservation of biodiversity, sustainable land use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its strategy is directly linked to its decarbonization plan that aims to make the country carbon neutral by 2050, as well as within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Costa Rica's bioeconomy strategy emphasizes social inclusion, equitable access to bio-based products and services, and improving livelihoods in rural areas. Through its Women Nature and Rural Women Credit, its strategy attempts to encourage female entrepreneurship and reduce the gender gap. 

While the strategy recognizes the importance of research and innovation, it lacks specific indicators or targets related to patents, R&D investments, or academia-industry collaboration. Nevertheless, the bioeconomy strategy aims to promote economic growth, job creation, and improve income distribution, especially for rural communities. Importantly, this has included training programs, such as the Descubre program, for farmers, providing guidance on crop selection and how to effectively target different markets. It has become a leader in agritech and biomaterials, adopting resource efficiency and circular economy principles, such as upcycling, through the reuse of over 20 million tonnes of plant waste per year. A successful example of this approach is the startup Yellow Pallet, which produces industrial pallets from banana fibers, reducing emissions by 50%, as compared to conventional wood pallets. This case highlights the success of public-private partnerships that the bioeconomy strategy in Costa Rica has enabled.

A crucial challenge for the scaling of the bioeconomy is finance. Costa Rica’s strategy includes the Bio-Business Financing Platform and has so far supported 80 projects with credit requirements tied to reducing the environmental impacts of selected businesses. Overall, Costa Rica has a bioeconomy strategy that prioritizes its biodiversity, economic viability (especially in rural areas), and social equity with strong institutional support and access to financing. Other countries in the Global South, especially in Latin America, can look to adopt aspects of Costa Rica’s success to their context in order to develop their own bioeconomies sustainably.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John James Loomis is a postdoctoral researcher at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, Brazil. His research focuses on carbon markets, ESG development in Brazil, global value chains in the Amazon, the circular economy, and forest ecosystem services.

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