Sustainability and Global Inequalities in the Bioeconomy
(A version of this blog post in Portuguese is available here: Sustentabilidade e Desigualdades Globais na Bieoconomia)
The concept of sustainability has been increasingly present in our daily lives. When we seek to understand its meaning from an ecological perspective, the term appears as an adjective for the term Development, thus creating the concept of Sustainable Development. Analyzing both concepts separately, we have Development as a synonym for economic growth and Sustainable as that which does not give rise to a shortage of existing resources. Thus, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development understands Sustainable Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, 1987). In other words, it is about maintaining economic growth without depleting existing resources or threatening the environment.
Based on this concept of sustainable development, in 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, composed of 17 goals and 169 targets that aim to achieve sustainable development incorporating the economic, social and environmental pillars (Bexell and Jönsson, 2021; UN, 2015). The SDGs also arise in an attempt to update the Millennium Development Goals, which, on the other hand, focused on these pillars in isolation (Jönsson et al., 2012). The creation of the SDGs is based on the understanding that all development goals, whether economic or social, cannot leave aside the environmental and sustainability aspects. With the integration of these three pillars, the achievement of the goals become interdependent, self-influencing and, therefore, the need to think about development in a holistic way.
However, if we think about the time frame in which the SDGs were created, we can say that they were not the first attempt to create a global agenda based on sustainable development. The Bioeconomy agenda, first launched by the OECD in 2009 and incorporated in 2012 by the European Union, can also be understood as an attempt to integrate the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of development. According to the OECD (2009), the bioeconomy consists of a new sustainable economic paradigm, which aims to replace the current economy based on non-renewable natural resources, through the use of renewable natural resources combined with high technology, something that is possible through biotechnology. Therefore, products and services are created in various sectors of the economy, but mainly in the agricultural, industrial, health, and energy sectors. Trying to explain it in a more tangible way, we can say that there are several products of the bioeconomy, which basically start from natural resources such as, for example, agriculture, with the cultivated biomass or its waste, forests or oceans that, in turn, give rise to raw materials such as proteins, natural fibers, oils, sugars, among others, which finally undergo physical, chemical or biotechnological processes creating final products such as bioplastics, biofuels, biopharmaceuticals, biocosmetics, among others. For these reasons, it is understood that the bioeconomy is a possible solution to the so-called global challenges, which involve ensuring food, water, health, resources and services to a growing population, without threatening the future of generations and global economic prosperity (OECD, 2009).
If we look at the potential of the bioeconomy as mentioned by the OECD, we can see a very close relationship with the concept of Sustainable Development mentioned initially. And we could even relate the bioeconomy to at least 12 of the 17 SDGs, namely SDG 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 17.
To exemplify just a few of these relationships, we can say, for example, that biopharmaceuticals are recognized for having greater effectiveness in disease treatments and producing fewer side effects, in addition to being fundamental to the development of new medicines and the production of vaccines (CGEE, 2016; DIAS et al, 2017; UN, 2015). Therefore, it can be said that the development of biopharmaceuticals contributes to SDG 3 “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all people at all ages.” Another example is the biological treatment of wastewater that promotes improvement in water quality, reducing pollution, increasing recycling and safe reuse of water globally (CGEE, 2016; UN, 2015). This solution brought by the bioeconomy is directly related to SDG 6 “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. The creation of new energy sources through biomass, the so-called bioenergy, can substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy matrix and thereby reduce dependence on energy from fossil resources (CGEE, 2016; UN, 2015). As a result, it contributes to the achievement of SDG 7 “Ensure reliable, sustainable, modern and affordable access to energy for all and everyone”.
Thereafter, several countries have included the bioeconomy as one of the priority areas for investment in Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) in the coming years and already in 2019, some countries, mostly developed, such as the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Finland, Austria, United Kingdom, Ireland and Iceland, already had strategies dedicated to the bioeconomy as can be seen in the figure below.
In general, countries set their priority areas of action for bioeconomy development based on both their technological capabilities and access to biological resources at the domestic level (German Bioeconomy Council, 2018). However, what happens is that countries usually do not have full access to Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) resources or biological resources, as these are resources distributed unevenly around the world. If we compare, for example, the ranking of the most biodiverse countries in the world (The Swiftest, 2022) with the ranking of the most innovative countries (WIPO, 2022), it can be seen that the most biodiverse countries are not the most innovative, just as the most innovative countries do not correspond to those with the greatest biodiversity.
From this, it is understood that the bioeconomy can play different roles in low- and middle-income countries and in high-income countries. This is because countries generally tend to develop in areas that have comparative advantages, and this may involve “biomass resource endowment, historical economic specialization, labor productivity, and previous investments in R&D” (FAO, 2018, p. 45).
Therefore, based on this distribution of capabilities among states and their respective roles in the development of the bioeconomy, countries become interdependent. This interdependence, in turn, makes the bioeconomy an area in which states tend to cooperate.
In this context, North-South cooperation has become increasingly present, because usually on one side are the countries of the Global South that have vast biodiversity and concentrate much of the agricultural land, and on the other side the Global North with its cutting-edge science and technology.
Generally speaking, there are several benefits that come from this cooperation. On the one hand, countries of the Global North can have access to unique locations, facilities, or population groups that are only available in the South, such as tropical rainforests, special geological, oceanographic, and atmospheric conditions (Velho, 2002). On the other hand, countries from the Global South can benefit by acquiring knowledge, having access to research infrastructure (Wagner, 2006) and, thus, developing local research and technologies, capabilities that contribute to a reduction of inequalities in STI among countries (Baiardi; Ribeiro, 2011; Velho, 2002).
Despite these benefits, recent research by this author shows that, even though cooperation between countries from the Global North and South has moved from an assistance pattern to a more horizontal and egalitarian scientific-technological cooperation, there are still several inequalities in cooperation.
From this, if we return to the SDGs, more specifically looking at SDG 10, which aims to reduce inequality within and between countries, we know that it is something still far from being achieved, after all, structural patterns of maintaining unequal relations between countries continue to exist by other means that until then were not being observed. Furthermore, when looking at SDG 17, partnerships for development, more specifically goals 17.6, 17.7, 17.8, and 17.9, it is possible to see that they address the need to improve North-South and South-South international cooperation in ST&I and enhance shared knowledge, on mutually agreed terms. As we have seen, North-South cooperation in bioeconomy has actually been happening, even, when analyzing the international cooperation of Latin American countries in bioeconomy, one notices that most of their partners are still countries from the global North (CGEE, 2021).
That is, North-South cooperation in bioeconomy is still predominant despite the fact that South-South cooperation has been increasingly recognized as an important means for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. Furthermore, it is understood that since these countries often have common challenges and, at the same time, have similar characteristics, such as abundance of biomass and variety of approaches and technologies for its use, cooperation in this area could be facilitated (CGEE, 2019).
In this regard, there are few studies that seek to analyze collaboration in specific areas of STI&I, as well as in specific regions, or even that seek to understand why South-South collaboration does not happen. There is even a debate about whether South-South cooperation would replace North-South cooperation or whether there would be some kind of change, such as, for example, greater knowledge produced in the South (Feld and Kreimer, 2019). However, it is known that there are restrictions to these changes and that, it is speculated, may be related to the maintenance of North-South/Center-Periphery relations in international scientific collaboration, materialized in what some authors call the international division of scientific labor.
As we could observe, North-South collaboration in bioeconomy is still predominant and one of the reasons is certainly the context of interdependence explained above. However, in a context of interdependence that requires collaboration, one would expect a more egalitarian relationship. However, what studies on N-S scientific collaboration point out is that it can be highly unequal (Jentsch; Pilley, 2003; Hwang, 2008; Cozzens, 2011; Boshoff, 2009; 2010). The reasons for inequalities, through the perspective of the World System as well as postcolonial and decolonial studies, lie in power relations and coloniality. In these collaborations, there is the maintenance of an asymmetric relationship between countries at different levels of development that have different scientific-technological capacities and, consequently, power in the International System and, therefore, are able to impose their interests to a greater or lesser degree in scientific collaboration, resulting in an unequal distribution of gains that, in turn, maintains a Center-Periphery relationship in science.
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This Blog Post is a summary of a talk given by Julia Mascarello at the Montagskonferenz Summer Semester 2023 at Heidelberg University (which can also be watched here) and is also a result of her participation in the Course “Governance and the Sustainable Development Goals” at the Research School on Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction at Lund University.
PhD candidate in International Relations at the Graduate Program in International Relations at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (PPGRI-UFSC). Júlia is currently a visiting doctoral researcher at the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies (HCIAS) and Junior Fellow at the Heidelberg Center for the Environment in Germany, funded by CAPES (Brazil) Financial Code 001.