A pile of logwood is representing bioeconomy.
English Tiededebatti

Other lenses are needed to keep bioeconomy on a sustainable track

Lukuaika: 11 min.

Over the last decade, the bioeconomy has become a popular strategy proposed to shift our economies away from fossil fuels and boost local economic growth, especially of rural areas. However, critiques of the bioeconomy have pointed at its reductionist view of rural areas as providers of biomass and containers of industries and infrastructure. Environmental concerns about the sustainability of an increased demand for biomass have been raised too.

The bioeconomy has been promoted as a strategy to address climate change and boost economic growth, especially of rural areas in Europe. It is an important part of the European Union agenda, promoted through European, national and regional strategies. However, the bioeconomy develops differently in each region, and has different implications depending on where and how the policies are created and implemented. By analysing several public policy documents and evaluations, plus talking to practitioners in two different European regions, Catalonia (Spain) and Lapland (Finland), my research looked into what areas are prioritised and what areas are overlooked in the current bioeconomy strategies.

By looking at the bioeconomy strategies in both regions, I argue that economic growth and industrial development continue to be the strongest narratives linked to the bioeconomy. This downplays the bioeconomy potential to become a driver of regional economic transformations that include the sustainable use of forest resources, conservation of biodiversity, cultural and traditional uses of the forest that do not create economic but social value, and indigenous knowledge.

The (controversial) forest-bioeconomy

The bioeconomy has become a popular public policy for green growth in different parts of the world. It is particularly popular in Europe, where it is backed up by policies and strategies coming from the European Union, and landed in different regions though a variety of policies and programs. It is a controversial and long existing idea that has been interpreted in multiple ways, from ecological economy, industrial biotechnology to biomass-based economy. In general, the bioeconomy refers to the use of biomass to replace fossil fuel-based products and services through the means of innovation and technological development.

The bioeconomy has been eagerly received and adopted in northern Europe, for example in Finland. A combination of availability of natural resources plus existing infrastructure to exploit and transform them (amongst other factors), makes the country a suitable candidate to embrace a bioeconomic transformation, as said by, for example, the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

The bioeconomy in Finland has been largely associated to the forest industry. Indeed, it is commonly called forest bioeconomy (metsäbiotalous) in public policy, reports and academic documents. It proposes a route for green growth combined with rural development; this is, to use forest biomass to replace fossil fuels and other materials, therefore contributing to address climate change while modernising the forest industry, creating jobs, bringing private investment to rural areas and stimulating economic growth.

A pile of logs loaded onto a truck representing bioeconomy.
A truck transporting logwood. Diana Morales

The bioeconomy may be less prevalent in southern regions of Europe, yet it is an important part of some regions’ public policies, like Catalonia. Catalonian bioeconomy covers different economic sectors, it focuses on agriculture, aquaculture, industrial development and forests. This last type gains popularity insofar it is acknowledged that Mediterranean forests cover over 70% of the region, and the bioeconomy can serve not only to address climate change and rural development, but also to manage forests and reduce the risk of fires.

The bioeconomy (and the forest bioeconomy), is a controversial concept. While it is often promoted as an opportunity to promote regional economic development, industrial modernisation and address climate change, it is also criticised for remaining mostly concerned about the economy and using sustainability as a selling point without a careful reflection of the impacts on the ecosystems. It is also criticised for focusing on the role of governments, larger firms and universities, while overlooking social actors such as civil organisations, conservation groups, citizens and consumers.

Applying the forest bioeconomy

Until 2021, Catalonia did not have one regional bioeconomy policy, but several strategies created in different public agencies. Hence, there were different approaches and rather isolated efforts. The current strategy aims to promote Catalonian economic and sustainable growth by using natural resources locally available through promoting entrepreneurship, the opening of markets for bio-based products and energy, agroforestry and innovation for circular solutions. The strategy prioritises the use of forests, agriculture and circular economy. 

The forest bioeconomy is often promoted as a solution for unemployment, depopulation and lack of industrial development, as these were the only features or the only problems characterising rural areas.

Lapland also has a regional bioeconomy strategy. It is contained within the Smart Specialisation Program, another European policy that seeks for regional economic growth by promoting innovation and collaborations between different actors (such as the regional governments, the universities and the firms). Smart Specialisation is a priority for the region, it is an important tool for regional development and place branding. Some of the strategies to promote the bioeconomy include promoting research and innovation, gaining and maintaining recognition at the European level, turn the forest bioeconomy into a regional brand, opening markets for local forest-based products, supporting entrepreneurship and promoting collaborations between the industry and other regional actors.

Bioeconomy narratives that create future realities

The practitioners interviewed recognised that the forest bioeconomy has the potential to drive comprehensive transformations of regional economies. They would acknowledge that the bioeconomy should go beyond economic growth and include sustainability, conservation and biodiversity, social inclusion and environmental justice. However, they also recognise that dominant narratives endorse the ideas of modernisation, industrial development, creation of jobs, income, value and entrepreneurship.

When we understand that the bioeconomy can create imagined futures, the narratives become powerful tools that shape how the economic transformations occur.

Understanding these narratives and which ones are more prevalent is important because the bioeconomy contains imagined visions of what the future should be, and the policies, strategies and plans to achieve those visions. The forest bioeconomy is often promoted as a solution for unemployment, depopulation and lack of industrial development, as these were the only features or the only problems characterising rural areas.

When we understand that the bioeconomy can create imagined futures, the narratives become powerful tools that shape how the economic transformations occur. What the research has shown is that dominant narratives of economic growth and industrial modernisation serve for the greening of specific economic sectors but does not help a wider transformation of the regional economies, and there is a risk of leaving crucial actors, like civil society organisations, or historically marginalised communities, like those inhabiting the most remote areas or indigenous populations, outside the benefits that the bioeconomy could bring. Further, it risks ignoring that those communities and organisations practice the bioeconomy too and require support.

Other lenses to think public policy

The research also showed that the prevalence of economic growth narratives can be explained by the policies and strategies used to implement the bioeconomy. In the case of Catalonia and Lapland, those policies and strategies are the same that are used for achieving economic growth. Incentives to innovation and entrepreneurship, regional branding to attract private investment, and support for clusters and other forms of private collaboration are typical strategies for the promotion of economic development, but not to address concerns of sustainability, social or environmental justice. Those strategies are also ‘easier’ to materialise because they are appealing to the private sector, and are ‘easier’ to measure, if the results can be shown in terms of numbers of jobs created, new or modernised mills or biorefineries, patents and new businesses.

This implies that, to ensure that the forest bioeconomy can unleash its potential to drive a just transformation of regional economies, and to ensure that rural areas play a role beyond providing forest biomass and containing large industries, the public sector (whoever in charge of designing and implementing public policy) needs to work on becoming an innovative sector itself. Thinking outside the box and creating programs that are inclusive and able to address problems related to the sustainable use of forest resources, for example, are crucial for the forest bioeconomy.

Forest based food products made of, for example, cloudberry, represents bioenocomy.
Forest based food products. Diana Morales

The challenge can be immense. Addressing the very particular environmental needs and sustainability challenges, enhancing existing and creating strategic collaborations, building common agendas, and balancing power relations between the different actors that can be benefited or affected by the bioeconomy policies, requires large capacities that may not be available to those in charge of designing and implementing public policy.

However, there are some already existing capacities and opportunities that can be enhanced, for example: the capacity for experimenting and learning, existing culture of collaboration and negotiation, existing markets that can be interested in local products, and the knowledge that many actors like entrepreneurs, indigenous communities, firms, forest associations, amongst others, already possess.


Header photo: Diana Morales

The original research article can be accessed in Fennia journal: Morales, D. (2021) Spaces of the forest-based bioeconomy in Finnish Lapland and Catalonia: practitioners, narratives and forgotten spatialities. Fennia 199(2) 174–187.


Bauer, F. (2018) Narratives of biorefinery innovation for the bioeconomy: Conflict, consensus or confusion?, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 28(December 2017), pp. 96–107. doi: 10.1016/j.eist.2018.01.005.

Birch, K. (2016) Emergent imaginaries and fragmented policy frameworks in the Canadian bio-economy, Sustainability (Switzerland), 8(10). doi: 10.3390/su8101007.

European Commission (2018) A sustainable bioeconomy for Europe: strengthening the connection between economy, society and the environment. Updated Bioeconomy Strategy.

Fritsche, U. et al. (2020) Future Transitions for the Bioeconomy towards Sustainable Development and a Climate-Neutral Economy—Knowledge Synthesis Final Report.

Kitchen, L. and Marsden, T. (2011) Constructing sustainable communities: A theoretical exploration of the bio-economy and eco-economy paradigms, Local Environment, 16(8), pp. 753–769. doi: 10.1080/13549839.2011.579090.

Mustalahti, I. (2018) The responsive bioeconomy: The need for inclusion of citizens and environmental capability in the forest based bioeconomy, Journal of Cleaner Production, 172, pp. 3781–3790. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.06.132.

Ramcilovic-Suominen, S. and Pülzl, H. (2018) Sustainable development – A “selling point” of the emerging EU bioeconomy policy framework?, Journal of Cleaner Production, 172, pp. 4170–4180. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.157.

Diana Morales

Diana Morales

Morales is a postdoctoral researcher at Geography Department at Umeå University (Sweden). Her work looks into processes of changing economic geographies and the development of a bioeconomy. Her current research project explores the sustainable transformation of consolidated industries, as well as the opportunities for sustainable pathways in emerging industries in Latin America, focusing on global production networks.


Maija Halonen

Maija Halonen

Halonen is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies, University of Eastern Finland. She is currently conducting research on Sixth Cycle in the Periphery – financed by the Kone Foundation (2020–2024). Her research interests include sustainability transitions, forest peripheries, and socio-economic development.

Focus on forest-based bioeconomy in the regions rather than countries

The article of Diana Morales reminds the importance of paying attention to the regional perspectives and “forgotten spatialities” when the forest-based bioeconomy is discussed, and its meanings assessed.

Forest-based bioeconomy tends to be approached through national lenses, which dissolves the variety of meanings and forms of forest-based bioeconomy in different regions within the country. For example, commonly can be stated, what is the meaning of forests or forest-based bioeconomy in Finland, yet the meaning is hardly the same throughout the whole country.

Morales’s approach also reveals that even if the forests in general, or forest-based bioeconomy in particular, may not be at the core of the development in countries like Spain, for some regions in such country they might be. This should be taken into account and there should be spatial sensitivity when assessing the meanings of forests across the Europe.

It is not only in Finland or in other Scandinavian countries where the questions of forests or forest-based bioeconomy can be raised as a focus of development but also in other regions in unexpected localities which becomes forgotten – especially when following the forest debates in or from the Finnish bubble.

In spite of that many approaches and expectations towards forests are similar – like expectations of bioeconomy to regional development or climate change mitigation – the comparison between regions reveals differences that matter in different contexts. For example, the meaning of forests for reducing the risk of fires is seemingly raised as an issue in the case of Catalonia in Spain, which in contrast in the case of Lapland in Finland does not appear as a similar way.

For me, this detail act as a reminder that forest-related questions are also important and have special characters in southern part of Europe, which we might have not acknowledged or deeply understand here in Finland.

Green growth for rural regions through innovative bioeconomy replacing fossil-based production?

Morales pay attention to rural regions for which (forest-based) bioeconomy appears as a booster of development, and which often means the expected route for green growth. The list of interests and wishes is long both in the policy programs and strategies where forest-based bioeconomy is seemingly expressed through the supposition of novelty and simple causalities.

Morales notes that bioeconomy and especially the use of biomass is often presented as a replacement of the fossil-based products and services, which in addition is related to innovation and technological development. However, forest-based bioeconomy can refer to the variety of products and services which original existence has had no relations to fossil-based productions.

For example, the building of wooden houses has just been an alternative way of building houses but decades back they were not called the replacements of anything. Only now they can be expressed as the replacements of some fossil-based material such as concrete or steel, which only some can gain new growth and others not.

“I would like to call for more careful linking between the forest-based bioeconomy and replacement of fossil-based production”

It also seems that these forest-based bioeconomy replacements can refer to anything from the traditional to the newest technological ways of building from wood. Therefore, forest-based bioeconomy does not always, at least not directly, replace fossil-based production or represent the newest innovation and technological solutions. For which follows that, despite the wishes, the forest-based bioeconomy will not necessarily change ways of production nor boost rural development through innovations, which would lead automatically into the green growth path.

Thus, I would like to call for more careful linking between the forest-based bioeconomy and replacement of fossil-based production or adopting of innovative solutions although they can often be narrated as a such.


Hariati Sinaga

Hariati Sinaga

Sinaga is an independent researcher. She is a political economist with a focus on labour relations. Her current research interests are gender and labour relations in Indonesia’s oil palm plantation sector.

Socioecological relations as the central lens for analysing bioeconomy

Taking the case study of the bioeconomy strategies in Catalonia, Spain, and Lapland, Finland, Diana Morales argues that the bioeconomy is still led by the economic growth and industrial development narratives. It is acknowledged that bioeconomy can be interpreted differently across regions. Whereas forest-based resources serve as the main strategy of the bioeconomy in Finland, forest is only one of several sectors important for Catalonia’s bioeconomy.

Nevertheless, in the article, Morales focuses on forest-based bioeconomy in these two regions. Thus, the plurality of definitions and practices of bioeconomy strategies may give nuance in the comparative analysis on bioeconomy strategies. For instance, it is of salience to understand the sociohistorical backgrounds that shape bioeconomy strategies across regions. Meanwhile, focusing the lens on forest-based bioeconomy allows Morales to outline similarities in promotion and approaches in Lapland and Catalonia.

The land question

Despite the fact that bioeconomy can be interpreted differently across regions, Diana Morales argues how the dominant narratives of economic growth and industrial development in the bioeconomy strategies in Catalonia and Lapland reflect the limited transformation of the regional economies. In this regard, it suggests that the bioeconomy strategies to certain extent sustain the prevalent socioecological relations in both regions. Central to this question is the land relations.

Indeed, the forest-based bioeconomy in both regions are promised to offer solutions for rural unemployment. However, the land relations as a structural factor contributing to rural unemployment is overlooked. Furthermore, understanding land relations is also imperative in examining labour and gender relations. This raises questions on what limited transformation of forest-based bioeconomy in Catalonia and Lapland may imply on labour struggles as well as struggles against gender injustice in both regions.

“– bioeconomy strategies in both regions risks leaving out crucial actors, such as civil society organisations, or historically marginalised communities.”

While the need to pursue sustainability, conservation, biodiversity, social inclusion and environmental justice is recognised, whether and how these pursuits are practised is subject for scrutiny. As Morales states in the article, the seemingly top-down approach of the bioeconomy strategies in both regions risks, leaving out crucial actors, such as civil society organisations, or historically marginalised communities. Not only does this mean the lack of the democratic manner in which bioeconomy strategies are translated, but also, essentially, the omission of how bioeconomy is defined and practised at the grassroot levels.

Morales calls for innovative bioeconomy strategies, which think out of the box and balance power relations. Innovative strategies are often thought of tech-based approaches while they overlook the underpinning power relations. Scholarly critics on bioeconomy agenda have pointed out how such endeavour inclines towards intensifying inequalities within socioecological relations.

My own research on bioeconomy strategies in Indonesia, which includes the expansive development of the oil palm plantations, shows how the colonial legacy of plantations imprints in the current labour and gender relations on plantations. Hence, despite the promise of the bioeconomy as a solution for a range of problems, from climate change to rural unemployment, the colonial logic underpinning the oil palm development may impede the ways in which the bioeconomy lives up to its promise.