“DASANI® is taking steps to reduce its impact on the planet with a major innovation in bottle design. PlantBottle® packaging is made from up to 30% plant-based material that replaces some of the non-renewable petroleum or fossil-based resources used in conventional PET plastic. Still designed to be 100% recyclable, it helps save our world’s precious resources”.
According to the multinational corporation Coca-Cola, it introduced its PlantBottle®
in 2009 as part of a policy to reduce the use of fossil fuel-based plastics in their products. As should be obvious from its trademarking of the term “PlantBottle” Coca-Cola has marketed the use of these bio-based materials using terms we are all familiar and comfortable with (e.g., plants, plant-based, etc.). This “PlantBottle” represents a clear example of the so-called bio-economy
, a concept that emerged in policy circles in the mid-2000s with the creation of new policy agendas by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Commission [2
]. Since then, the bio-economy has become an increasingly important policy agenda around the world; for example, countries like the USA, Germany, UK, and Japan have all developed dedicated bio-economy policy strategies [5
The bio-economy is generally used in these policy circles to refer to a range of industrial sectors producing biological products or resources, from healthcare, to forestry, to agriculture. This has led to the conceptual conflation of the terms “bio-economy” and “bio-based economy” [7
]. Increasingly, it is used to refer to a possible societal transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a biological-based economy [8
]. More specifically, this transition is premised on the substitution of fossil fuel-based energy, plastics, material, and chemicals with bio-based ones. As such, the bio-economy is often seen as a win-win solution to a series of overlapping societal challenges, from climate change, to energy security, to rural economic development [9
]. Part of the (policy) attraction of the bio-economy seems to be its compatibility with existing social institutions and infrastructures, meaning that it would not require significant changes to social life; for example, (blended) ethanol and biodiesel can slot into existing petroleum value chains with little need for change.
In this paper I theorize the bio-economy as a policy framework involving a vision, or imaginary, of the future and a particular set of proposed policies and institutional changes for achieving that vision [11
]. Initially, the bio-economy concept was used to refer to the “the recent surge in the scientific knowledge and technical competences” [4
] (p. 3), or the idea that “knowledge has become an extremely valuable economic resource” [2
] (p. 1). The particularities of these new (bio-)knowledges, however, means that policy-makers face significant difficulties in managing the impacts and outcomes of scientific research and innovation. For example, the OECD argued that:
“The challenge facing policy makers—whether in government, in private industry or elsewhere—is how to make choices that allow the opportunities offered through biotechnology, genetics, genomics and the biosciences more generally to be delivered. This can be problematic, since decisions taken today can influence whether unforeseen or unconfirmed future opportunities might be realizable. A degree of foresight or vision is therefore necessary so that, to the extent possible, short-term decisions can be taken without negative impacts on longer term opportunities”.
In this sense, and as Hilgartner notes, the OECD’s bio-economy concept represents an “anticipatory machine” or a “future-making project” [16
], rather than a simple description or outline of a new sector, new product market, or new resource base. According to several other scholars [11
], the bio-economy concept has been used discursively to frame current
policy frameworks and institutions as potentially or actually problematic to the realization of the future
opportunities offered by the biological sciences, necessitating policy and institutional change. Much of this existing research, however, focuses explicitly on the European Union.
My aim in this paper is to examine Canada’s emerging bio-economy policy visions and their implications for Canadian bio-economy policy frameworks. I do so in order to answer a series of related questions: What kind of policy visions are evident in the Canadian context? How do these visions define the bio-economy? How do these definitions inform policy frameworks? What are the implications of these visions and frameworks for institutional change? It is my conclusion that, at present, Canadian bio-economy policy frameworks are fragmented as a result of the emergent and contested nature of Canadian bio-economy policy visions, meaning that future policy and institutional changes deemed necessary to promote the bio-economy are currently stymied. The policy implications of this conclusion are that Canada needs a single, coherent bio-economy vision that a majority of policy stakeholders can buy into before it can develop a policy strategy needed to promote and support the bio-economy.
I start the paper by discussing my conceptual approach linking policy visions with policy frameworks, which thereby drives policy and institutional change. I then provide a brief outline of the methodological approach I took in the research before discussing the empirical findings. In the empirical analysis I focus on the emergence of diverse, often competing, visions of the bio-economy in the Canadian context and the fragmentation of policy frameworks that result from this diversity. I then conclude the paper.
2. Imagined Futures: Policy Visions and Policy Frameworks
As mentioned already, an increasing number of national governments have, or are developing, strategies to support and promote the bio-economy [2
]. For example, the European Union’s (EU) Horizon 2020 strategy—a replacement for the Lisbon Agenda [20
]—includes the bio-economy as a way to achieve “a more innovative, resource efficient and competitive society” [17
] (p. 2). Several scholars have analysed some of these policy strategies, including Staffas et al. [21
], who reviewed various national strategies, and de Besi and McCormick [22
], who reviewed a number of national, regional, and industry strategies.
These policy strategies are constituted by both visions of the future—often involving competing social, political, economic, and scientific priorities—and frameworks for achieving those visions, creating a performative driver towards the imagined
]. As such, policy strategies enrol support, redirect resources, shape regulations, and create markets in a diverse range of policy areas, including research, innovation, industry, energy, transport, and agriculture. At present, dominant policy strategies tend to imagine the bio-economy as a sustainable system in which biological materials (e.g., biomass) can replace, relatively easily, fossil fuels as the underlying resource base for our societies and economies [9
]. As such, the bio-economy is framed as an important and cost-effective socio-technical transition pathway leading us to a sustainable future. Key elements in this transition pathway are the development of new forms of energy (e.g., liquid biofuels), new forms of intermediate inputs (e.g., biochemicals), and new forms of products (e.g., bioplastics) [10
Theoretically, I follow the likes of Birch et al. [12
], Levidow et al. [14
] and Birch [11
] in conceptualizing the bio-economy as a particular policy vision and framework (also, [16
]). It represents a techno-economic imaginary of the future that is co-produced with certain policies, institutions, and infrastructures that are framed as desirable and possible, while others are framed as undesirable or problematic. It is important, from this perspective, to examine and analyse how the bio-economy is constituted by imaginaries and policy frameworks, reflecting an overall policy strategy designed to (re)configure a particular techno-economic regime or system.
Starting with imaginaries
, these have a long conceptual history stretching back to Cornelius Castoriadis, Benedict Anderson, Charles Taylor, and George Marcus. More recently, Sheila Jasanoff [26
] has analysed the co-production of socio-technical imaginaries and national science policy. Others, like Bob Jessop [27
], have analysed economic imaginaries (e.g., ‘knowledge-based economy’) as discourses that underpin particular regimes of accumulation (e.g., post-Fordism). Generally, this research highlights the role of discourses, narratives, and visions in the (re)configuration of socio-economic phenomena, like scientific research or economic activity (also, [28
]. For example, imaginaries provide a conceptual tool to analyse how social actors understand policies, how policy frameworks emerge, and the social actors involved, or excluded from, the development of future visions of society.
Imaginaries and policy frameworks are co-constituted, enrolling a range of stakeholders in the pursuit of particular policy strategies [25
]. Policy frameworks can be conceptualized as the policy priorities, analysis, funding, schemes, initiatives and directives, and implementation modes that cut across policy-making, ensuring that policies are compatible and complementary [12
]. Analysing policy frameworks helps to explain: (1) how policy imaginaries are aligned with a particular, and often prevailing, configuration of socio-economic institutions and infrastructures [24
]; and (2) how this prevailing configuration might be opened up and alternatives adopted [10
]. On the one hand, scholars have noted how dominant bio-economy visions and policy frameworks tend to be so broadly conceived that they represent “something for everyone”—e.g., sustainability, energy security, rural development, etc. [9
]. On the other hand, a number of scholars have been critical of how dominant policy visions of the bio-economy are centred on finding techno-scientific solutions to societal problems, rather than rethinking the social, political, economic, and ecological systems that bio-economy policies are supposed to transform [29
In light of this theoretical discussion, I have two analytical objectives in the rest of this paper. First, while there is now a growing literature discussing the bio-economy [21
], much of it only focuses on certain jurisdictions or jurisdictional examples—especially the European Union (EU) and its member states—and certain policy actors—especially government actors. There is, therefore, a need to examine a broader array of bio-economy strategies and their constitutive elements and actors in depth. It is my intention in this paper to look beyond the EU by examining the Canadian bio-economy and the government, industry, and civil society stakeholders involved in order to understand what policy imaginaries and frameworks exist in Canada and how they have emerged, or are emerging. This will provide a useful comparative perspective to existing work [11
Second, in the extant literature on imaginaries (e.g., [26
]), the examples of policy visions, narratives, and discourses (i.e., imaginaries) analysed are generally dominant or stabilized imaginaries; while they may have once been emergent, the analysis tends towards explaining stable and dominant imaginaries, rather than analyzing the diversity and range of potential or emergent visions before a dominant imaginary stabilizes. An example is Jasanoff and Kim’s [33
] work on nuclear imaginaries in South Korea and the USA; they describe the dominant imaginaries of each nation-state, rather than the potential imaginaries that could have stabilized. Obviously, this analytical focus results from the practicalities of the research process; for example, Jasanoff and Kim had to take a retrospective approach in their analysis, since they were examining historical events. In this paper, in contrast, I am analyzing emergent imaginaries, each of which could, potentially, become dominant or stabilized in a particular policy framework; it is likely that a single (Canadian) imaginary will emerge from a range of different, diverse, and even competing, visions, but it is unclear what this imaginary will entail or when it will stabilize at present.
5. Fragmented Policy Frameworks in the Canadian Bio-Economy
As I have stressed already, it is important to analyse the policy visions surrounding the bio-economy (see above) in order to understand the co-constitution of these imaginaries with bio-economy policy frameworks. As noted in the theoretical discussion, future visions, narratives, or discourse (i.e., imaginaries) shape and are shaped by policy priorities, funding decisions, implementation processes, and so on [12
]. That is, imaginaries and policy frameworks are co-constituted. An important point to remember, in this regard, is that these visions and frameworks have an effect even if the imagined future is not subsequently achieved since they still engender policy or institutional change [13
]. So, even if the purported goals of the policy visions and frameworks are not realised, they still help to reconfigure policy strategies through institutional changes undertaken to support those strategies. From this perspective, the fact that Canada’s bio-economy imaginary is still emergent and contested means that Canada’s policy frameworks are likely to be uncoordinated. From my analysis of the interviews it is evident that Canada’s bio-economy policy framework is highly fragmented; moreover, it could be argued that there are multiple policy frameworks. A number of informants argued that there is a need for a single policy vision to create a consistent policy framework in Canada. In this section I discuss the drivers of policy frameworks in Canada, the key actors involved, and the recent developments that might indicate a clearer and more consistent policy framework, as well as outlining a policy vision that might bring this about.
5.1. Configuring Policy Frameworks
In the Canadian context, bio-economy policy frameworks are fragmented as the result of the emergent and contested nature of policy imaginaries, as already discussed above. In contrast to the dominant approach that underpins the EU’s bio-economy strategy [12
], for example, Canadian policy visions and frameworks are fragmented by industry and the industrial sector. As one informant noted:
“I don’t necessarily think that a change in political party is going to make a big change, and I think partly because as a lobby group, the bio-economy players, the agents are just too fragmented. And there’s not this over-arching vision about what it can be in terms of who all the players are”.
(Civil Society Organization #95)
A major reason for this fragmentation is that there is no ‘overarching vision’ to draw in government, industry, and civil society actors, who each have their own particular, and sometimes competing, priorities and objectives. In Canada, moreover, this situation is exacerbated by the fact that industry priorities and objectives often dominate policy-making [42
]. For example, a Federal Agency (#105) informant noted that they are concerned mostly with “making sure that we’re also aligned with where industry is thinking, we’re going in this direction”. As another informant from a Federal Agency (#106) pointed out, “they [government] go out to the stakeholders that are representatives of the target industries and say, ‘what’s missing?”. It is evident that government policy-makers are less concerned with creating an overarching policy vision and framework than with addressing the particular and narrow concerns of different industrial sectors. This contrasts with the situation in the EU and other countries [21
Fragmentation is a result of this dominance by industry priorities, broadly speaking, in that it leads to a lack of coordination as the different sectoral interests, priorities, and demands of different industry actors come into competition with one another. This is even the case when different industrial sectors have taken up the term ‘bio-economy’; one informant, for example, suggested that “it [bio-economy] has been taken up by a number of companies and groups to actually broaden to any products from biological sources” (University #96). However, although industrial sectors have adopted the term ‘bio-economy’ in their policy advocacy, this does not mean they use it in the same way. For example, it has been used or adopted by agricultural, food, forestry, biotechnology, bioenergy, biofuels, and bio-product sectors (amongst others). Examples include:
Forest Products Association of Canada: Bio-Pathways Report
(2011) contains no real definition of ‘bio-economy’, but refers to “integrating current operations with new add-on processes that create bio-energy, biochemical and bio-materials that add value and jobs” [43
] (p. 3).
Canadian Renewable Fuels Association: Evolution and Growth: From Biofuels to Bioeconomy
(2014) report contains, again, no real definition, but refers to “In addition to environmental benefits, the economic impact of a diverse bioeconomy sector affects the entire value chain, employs a wide array of sciences (life sciences, agronomy, ecology, food science and social sciences), and enables continual development in industrial technologies (biotechnology, nanotechnology and engineering)” [34
BIOTECanada: Becoming a World Leading Bioeconomy by 2025
(2015) report refers to the fact that “The OECD has defined the world bioeconomy as comprising one-third of the total world economy. This includes renewable biomass, and the integration of biotechnology across sectors” [44
] (p. 7).
Even when industrial sectors frame the bio-economy in ‘product-based’ terms, as discussed earlier, this discursive framing does not create an consistent or coherent policy vision and framework that all industry sectors can or will adopt. In fact, a product-based policy vision may militate against developing an over-arching policy framework precisely because it is focused on particular and sector-specific products and product strategies (Federal Agency #105). A product-based focus does not enable different stakeholders to develop complementary and cross-sectoral priorities or objectives; as one informant noted, “we’re incentivizing innovation in a specific and narrow product line for a specific and narrow industry” (Civil Society Organization #95).
A final issue to consider is the extent to which Canadian bio-economy policy frameworks are configured by existing and incumbent industrial sectors, like agriculture, forestry, and energy. While this need not lead to fragmentation, there is a possibility that the orientation of bio-economy policy frameworks towards incumbent and often natural resource sectors (e.g., agriculture, forestry) limits the relevance of the bio-economy for other sectors. One informant claimed:
“It seems like each of them sort of had people that were sort of, they were trying to figure out how we’re going to use these, the old mills, and of course the bio-economy was a way of doing it”.
(Federal Ministry #104)
Whether or not this emphasis has configured bio-economy policy visions and frameworks in ways that limit its attractiveness to other sectors is a question worth asking. In particular, the bio-economy seems to have been seized on as a potential strategy for reinvigorating ailing sectors. For example, one informant argued that “around the latter part of the 1990s the policy platform started to shift and industrial crops were being sought to make things like biofuels to benefit farmers” (Consultancy #93).
5.2. Fragmented Policy Frameworks
The fragmentation of bio-economy policy frameworks in Canada can be seen as a consequence of the broader constitutional structure. In particular, natural resource management falls within provincial jurisdictions, meaning that the national state might only be able to provide limited direction or oversight in promoting an over-arching bio-economy policy vision and framework. As a result, different government agencies and ministries—at the federal and provincial scales—have developed different policy frameworks, if they have one at all. It is worth considering, then, the differences between federal and provincial policy frameworks in order to understand their fragmentation.
At the federal level, a number of informants explicitly stated that Canada does not have a bio-economy strategy as such, although policy-makers have been working on one—a point I return to below. For example:
Well, I mean we don’t really have a bio-economy strategy per se, right... You know you can talk about some bio-economy strategy and stuff, but, you know, then you run into details” (University #90).
“Canada does not have a national bio-economy strategy... Yeah we do need to get something like that in place here. And we don’t really have it on a provincial basis either” (Civil Society Organization #92).
“Canadian policy on bio-economy, we really don’t have one for agriculture” (Civil Society Association #94).
“Well, we don’t have federally anything that is sort of called a bio-economy policy, at least certainly not one that I’m aware of” (Consultancy #100).
“Well, certainly you’re probably even more familiar than I am of some significant nations have put in place bio-economy policies, Canada has not. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t really good things in place from a policy perspective that supports bio-economy” (Trade Association #107).
“We don’t have, even in Canada we don’t have a federal framework to support bio-economy” (Provincial Ministry #110).
This is not to suggest that there is little support for industry from the federal government; the opposite is the case, as an examination of policy initiatives demonstrates. A number of informants provided detailed accounts of various policies, initiatives, and schemes that supported an array of industries. For example, EcoENERGY for Biofuels and Renewable Power
(est. 2008); Sustainable Technology Development Canada Fund
and NextGen Biofuels Fund
(est. 2007); Renewable Fuel Standard
(est. 2006); and many more [45
]. Rather, it is that the bio-economy is not envisaged as a coherent whole, as one informant explained:
“So, again, the bio-economy for us is the piece that weaves all of our other asks together. The individual asks, we actually get a lot of support for... But an overarching framework just sounds like a lot of work, right?”.
(Trade Association #109)
Another illustration of the fragmentation of Canada’s bio-economy strategy is the role played by provincial governments in promoting it. One informant even suggested that “we see this leadership coming-, leadership if you will, coming from the provinces” (Trade Association #97). While provincial policy-makers play a more critical role in supporting and promoting the bio-economy, this merely entrenches the fragmentation of bio-economy policy visions and frameworks as each province develops its own approach based on their different starting positions and plans for the future. For example, Birch and Calvert [24
] provide details of the various mechanisms in place to support bioenergy and biofuels in Ontario, illustrating the role played by provincial governments in supporting new sectors. In this sense, it is possible to argue that provinces like Ontario have informal and largely implicit bio-economy strategies in place, as one informant claimed. This informant argued that Ontario’s policy instruments included a “combination of investment attraction and research that evolved into a provincial policy... part that we’re missing in the provincial policy is the greenhouse gas component” (Civil Society Association #94). A more common outcome of this jurisdictional alignment, however, was the creation of ad hoc policy instruments where “It’s almost kind of like by accident you can take something from a province and something from a federal and build something that will help the bio-economy” (Consultancy #100). As such, the onus has been on integrating distributed policy instruments in the pursuit and support of different and distinct industrial sectors, rather than creating an over-arching strategy. Whether or not a national policy vision is actually possible in this context is another question worth asking.
In relation to Canadian it is interesting to note that industry is far more involved in developing a common—if not over-arching—policy framework than government, especially in comparison with the EU or other countries [12
]. A number of informants emphasized this point during my research interviews. One informant, for example, claimed that:
“…there is a sense out there that it needs to be done [to support biofuels], but no, I think honestly, I think the industry, the private sector, is a little more wound up about this right now than the government guys”.
It is important to note that these interviews were undertaken during the previous Conservative Party administration, which ended in October 2015. The political orientation of the Conservative government meant that it preferred market-based strategies driven by industry, rather than policy strategies driven by government [42
]. As such, there was political uncertainty about the development of bio-economy strategies within government itself, as one industry informant noted: “And the difficulty with that [politics] is it becomes very unpredictable from a policy standpoint. So honestly a lot of our positioning on the bio-economy is defensive” (Trade Association #99). Whether or not a change in government will make a major difference is debatable, however, as another informant noted:
“I don’t necessarily think that a change in political party is going to make a big change, and I think partly because as a lobby group, the bio-economy players, the agents are just too fragmented. And there’s not this over-arching vision about what it can be in terms of who all the players are”.
(Civil Society Organization #95)
It is, according to many informants, critical for various stakeholders from government, industry, and civil society to collaborate with one another in order to develop a coordinated federal bio-economy strategy. Otherwise, fragmentation is likely to continue. For example, the FPAC [43
], CRFA [34
], and BIOTECanada [44
] reports I cite above all stress the need for such a coordinated policy vision and framework.
5.3. Recent Changes and Ways Forward
Over the last few years, there has been some movement towards coordinating policy approaches towards the bio-economy at the federal level in Canada. In particular, a number of informants referred to the creation of a Bioeconomy Interdepartmental Working Group (BIWG) in the federal government; created in 2013, it is supposed to bring together people from around 15 different federal ministries and agencies. One informant stated that the “overall goal of the group [BIWG] is to develop a Government of Canada strategy for the bio-economy” (Federal Agency #105). As yet, the BIWG has not produced any public publications or recommendations, and seems to be largely focused on fostering collaboration across federal ministries and agencies. Some federal ministries and agencies have started to create other working groups as well; for example, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)—itself a member of the BIWG—has established a Federal-Provincial-Territorial Bioproducts Working Group and Industrial Bioproducts Value Chain Round Table.
From a policy perspective going forward, Canadian policy-makers need to develop a coherent vision of the bio-economy in order to avoid the continuing fragmentation of policy frameworks; a coherent policy vision will enable the development of a coherent policy framework for the bio-economy across federal and provincial jurisdictions. Although I have identified series of competing and contrasting policy visions of the bio-economy in Canada, it is still possible to construct a common policy vision from these various definitions. This necessarily involves political and normative choices, even though it draws on the empirical findings I have presented here. In drawing on the various definitions, for example, I would suggest that a broad and encompassing vision is necessary to enrol a range of stakeholders. My suggestion would be as follows:
The bio-economy is a concept that refers to the sustainable use of biological, renewable materials in the development of bio-based products, services and energy that substitute for existing fossil fuel-based products, services, and energy, as part of a broader societal transition to a low-carbon future.
As a definition, it provides a vision of the process underpinning the bio-economy (e.g., “sustainable use of biological, renewable material”), what its outcomes are (e.g., “the development of bio-based products, services and energy”), how these outcomes will impact us now (e.g., “that substitute for existing fossil fuel-based products, services and energy”), and why this actually matters (e.g., “part of a broader societal transition to a low-carbon future”). It could, therefore, provide a clear, coherent, and encompassing vision of the bio-economy that a range of policy actors could adopt in their future decision-making, and thereby reduce the current fragmentation of bio-economy policy frameworks. Moreover, it avoids the suggestion that the bio-economy is either the solution to everything, or the only transition pathway that we can adopt to solve the environmental (and societal) problems we face in the 21st century.
It is important to acknowledge here that any policy vision necessitates some form of prioritization; as such, trade-offs between different goals (e.g., sustainability versus economic growth) require that prevailing assumptions are not built into future policy visions and frameworks (e.g., economic growth trumps sustainability). It is also important to acknowledge that it might make more sense, in the Canadian context at least, to develop bio-economy policy strategies—and their constitutive visions and frameworks—at the provincial scale, rather than national scale. However, that being said, fragmentation is still likely without a policy vision that crosses provincial jurisdictions, since one province might develop a vision that contrasts sharply with another province, thereby reducing the likelihood that federal initiatives are applicable to both. Therefore, like Europe, it might make for federal policy-makers and stakeholders to develop a unifying vision.
Over the last few years, many countries, regions, and industries have started to promote and support the bio-economy as an important pathway for societal transition towards a low-carbon and environmentally-sustainable future. The bio-economy has the potential to transform an array of industrial sectors, promising a win-win scenario in which economic growth and environmental stewardship can go hand-in-hand. While these policy visions of the bio-economy represent an imagined
future—in that they do not necessarily reflect current techno-scientific or political-economic trajectories—they are still powerful drivers of societal change. As Hilgartner [16
] and others suggest, policy visions are powerful because they enrol a range of stakeholders in their achievement, they attract resources, they engender popular support, and they side-line possible alternatives. Whether the bio-economy actually makes an impact as imagined in resolving societal challenges like climate change, economic decline, rural development, or energy security, could end up as a side issue; it will still have changed policy frameworks and social institutions in important ways.
In this paper I sought to explore the bio-economy as a policy strategy co-constituted by policy visions and policy frameworks. In so doing, I built on previous research by Birch et al. [12
] and Levidow et al. [14
], and extended this research by analysing the bio-economy in a Canadian context. While others have written about different national bio-economy strategies (e.g., [7
]), this paper represents the first attempt to dissect the particularities of the Canadian bio-economy. My analysis illustrates that Canadian policy visions are split between at least four definitions of the bio-economy: product-based, substitution, sustainable-renewable, and societal transition. Moreover, my analysis shows how these different and competing visions of the bio-economy are reflected in the fragmented bio-economy policy frameworks in Canada. As yet, no coherent or coordinated policy framework exists in Canada, but that does not mean one cannot be developed. I provide a possible definition of the bio-economy that incorporates elements of the four definitions I discuss, in the hopes that this could provide a clear and over-arching vision for the future of the bio-economy in Canada.