As we rapidly approach the climate crisis, the bioeconomy seems to offer an elegant solution. The aim of bioeconomy strategies worldwide is to master the transition from the fossil-based to the bio-based economy. Central to this is the increased use of biomass, such as energy crops or residues from the timber industry. Biotechnologies are often employed to make biomass production more efficient.

Bioeconomy projects have potential, but this potential is diminished by negative impacts on nature and on its reproduction as well its impacts on the workforce involved. Feminist perspectives can help assess the effects of bioeconomy projects on gender relations and, thus, on social sustainability. They also help in recognizing political bioeconomy strategies as a continuation of ecological modernization policies and in identifying alternative solutions.

Feminist critique of the commodification of nature

A central strategy of ecological modernization policies is the 'greening' of the economy, including a greening through the bioeconomy. Ecological modernization is based on the belief that economic growth can be decoupled from the consumption of nature via technological innovation. This is a belief because the hopes for decoupling have not been realized so far, for example due to rebound effects (see the debate contribution by Claudius Gräbner-Radokowitsch, Jonas Lage, and Frauke Wiese). The substitution of fossil fuels in the Global North still requires enormous amounts of biomass, increasing the pressure on areas for biomass production in the Global South. To make biomass production as profitable as possible, costs are externalized with significant social and ecological consequences (see the debate contribution by Sybille Bauriedl). In the Global South, the ‘green’ bioeconomy often involves deforestation and the massive enclosure of Indigenous land for biomass monocultures, which degrade soil and water quality. Genomic and biotechnologies further advance  this bioeconomy through novel technological and economic penetrations of nature, making human bodies and non-human nature usable and exploitable in new dimensions.

The bioeconomy is based on alienation from metabolic relationships with nature and favors technological solutions to socio-ecological crises (“techno fixes”), which are in fact structural and complex in their nature. The focus of the many efforts of this so-called modernization project is on increasing eco-efficiency. However, efficiency alone often does not solve sustainability problems; it merely shifts them. Rather than addressing distribution issues, the volume of production and consumption and neo-colonial power structures, the bioeconomy, according to feminist criticism, perpetuates a Eurocentric, masculinist policy.

The problem with the bioeconomy, from feminist and ecological perspectives, is thus its failure to question and respond to the underlying causes of global environmental destruction and the climate crisis. These causes stem from the fundamental mechanisms of the appropriation and externalization dynamics, inherent in the imperial way of living and in the capitalist mode of production, which, when conveniently forgotten, lead to truncated solutions. Ecofeminist sociologist Ariel Salleh argues that ruling classes and liberal technocrats promote profitable new technological solutions through bioeconomy strategies to expand the material limits of living ecologies.

The logic behind bioeconomy as a political project  seamlessly aligns with Western dualistic thinking (such as production vs. reproduction, human vs. nature, female vs. male), ignoring the externalization consequences of this thinking. Feminist perspectives, on the other hand, shed light on multiple dimensions of the commodification of nature, including: a) negative effects of biomass production on ecosystems due to a structural carelessness or a lack of “care for nature,” b) labor relations and the gender division of labor in the bioeconomy, c) land grabbing, and d) the entanglement of inequalities (re)produced in bioeconomy projects. Feminist perspectives not only illuminate the practices and narratives of controlling and dominating nature but also question the apparent coherence of familiar stories of modernity, progress, and sustainable development. Feminist research serves as the critical foundation for these and other sustainability critiques.

We illustrate the possible applications of feminist critique and a current sustainability policy gap through two examples from research on the bioeconomy.

Women in the palm oil industry – invisible, inaudible, unpaid

The Indonesian government, like many other governments worldwide, also adopted a bioeconomy strategy, aiming for autonomous energy supply and the country's economic growth. Central to this strategy is palm oil cultivation, which is characterized by gendered division of labor on plantations. Women are mainly engaged in maintenance, fertilization, and daily care of other workers, as revealed by Hariati Sinaga's research. Higher positions are denied to them based on gendered assumptions around leadership qualities, and they are considered less suitable for harvesting due to physically demanding work.

Typically, only the male harvesters and supervisors are formally employed, while women are hired as poorly paid day laborers without labor rights protection. Still, their work is physically demanding and associated with a high health risk due to toxic pesticides and fertilizers. Moreover, many women do not receive their own wages but informally support their husbands in harvesting. Their invisible, unpaid, female labor, termed 'Buruh Siluman' in Indonesia, is encouraged by the companies' wage policies. Through precarious employment, high health risks, and dependence on male income, plantation workers, especially women, are made structurally socially vulnerable and multiply disadvantaged.

The devaluation of female labor is intertwined with the historical construction of women as reproductive forces and men as heads of families. This is primarily based on the colonization of Indonesia, which replaced prevailing egalitarian gender relations with Western family models. Referred to as the 'coloniality of gender,' this process was actively supported by both the (post-)colonial Indonesian state and palm oil investors, for example, through programs like the 'family formation approach.' This allowed the outsourcing of reproductive costs into a newly constructed private sphere. As a result, women bear both reproductive and plantation work burdens, facing a double burden.

Although the production of palm oil clearly depends on the reproductive, poorly- or unpaid work of women, the palm oil continues to be considered a 'man's crop.' Critical questioning of this narrative reveals the separation of the productive and reproductive spheres as what it is: an artificial construction aimed at devaluing female labor and making its exploitation invisible.

In addition, palm oil cultivation promotes social vulnerability and exclusion of women. Land grabbing in the course of palm oil cultivation disproportionately affects women in Indigenous and local communities, as they are engaged in subsistence agriculture, and the loss of land severely hinders or even prevents their activities. In negotiations for compensation for land grabbing, companies and the state systematically exclude women through gender-specific discriminations in their programs. Compensation amounts are managed by a male-dominated 'cooperative' and paid to 'household heads'—thus, to men. This reinforces the artificial separation into a public-productive-male and a private-reproductive-female sphere. Within communities, male elites emerge, controlling financial resources and decisions, while women lose their autonomy. Their impact becomes invisible, their voices inaudible, and they are made dependent.

Other forests, other points of critique?

In the North, feminist research regarding the bioeconomy particularly focuses on forestry, which not only provides materials for the construction and furniture industry but also raw materials for biofuels and bioplastics. Feminist research on the bioeconomy has looked at forestry especially in Northern American and European countries, where forests are or were abundant and are an important sector of national economies. There the focus is on the working conditions and employment opportunities for women. Despite relevant historical research on the actual involvement of women in forestry, the sector is commonly perceived as 'always' male-dominated. The relatively high level of technological advancement in the forest-based bioeconomy in the North also contributes to associating the sector with masculinity. Both narratives hinder women's access to the bioeconomy and render women in forestry professions invisible.

Bardekjian et al. (2019) show that around 84% of women in forestry in the Global North experience gender-related barriers at the workplace – for example, regarding access to knowledge and career networks. Women face persistent prejudices portraying them as less suitable for tasks in forestry. The literature also points to sexual harassment and a sexist work environment as major obstacles to entering and continuing to work in forestry.

The use of high-tech in the forest sector, aimed at more efficient utilization of bioresources, could theoretically reduce gender inequalities in forestry by minimizing physically demanding tasks through technological innovations like digitization or automation. However, the high-tech transformation of Nordic bioeconomies does not seem to promote gender equality. Instead, other attributes are now sought, which are also masculinely connoted, such as university degrees related to digital technologies, which maintaining gendered barriers to access to forestry.

With the increasing relevance of the bioeconomy as an economic sector, gender inequality in the bioeconomy produces far-reaching consequences for social sustainability and entrepreneurial potentials in this field. There is significant innovation pressure on the bioeconomy, e.g. due to rapid climatic change and the need to transition to bio-based modes of producing and living, and more workers will be needed in the (forest-based) bioeconomy in the future. Addressing a business perspective, feminist perspectives argue in the case of the Nordic bioeconomy for more diversity in the sector, asserting that this would increase the available workforce and enhance the sector's innovation power.

This argument for a more gender-equitable bioeconomy is closely aligned with the needs of the industry and aims at the industrial, technology intensive management of forests. Gender equality is treated in this context as a relatively depoliticized management task. The gap here regarding deeper sustainability transformations is the absence of criticism of the underlying patriarchal and capitalist structures and the ecological consequences of the commodification and utilization of nature within ecological modernization attempts such as the bioeconomy.

New paths: Preserving reproductive capacities, bio-civilization, and new ways of relating

The two examples of feminist critical reflections of the bioeconomy illustrate the various facets of exploitation, inequality, and oppression that can be made visible through the analysis of gender relations in the bioeconomy. The first example illustrates gender-related social inequalities in the production of an iconic crop of bioeconomies in the Global South, questioning the sustainability of related bioeconomy projects. Feminist bioeconomy critiques highlight that profit-driven palm oil cultivation not only destroys large areas of the Indonesian rainforest and requires the takeover of Indigenous and local lands. It also shows that this type of a commodification of nature relies on the use of cheap female labor and perpetuates patriarchal gender relations.

The second example places gender-specific unequal job opportunities and participation in the bioeconomy at the center of the critique of gender relations. This gender perspective could be further developed in favor of a more fundamental critique of the structural carelessness towards nature and its commodification. We see the need for an expansion of feminist critique with regard to Northern bioeconomies since feminist research points to issues beyond 'equality in the job market' and also demands systematic solutions. It is about a socio-ecological transformation that aims for different production and consumption patterns, a different approach to nature, and for ‘the good life for all.’

In both examples, it becomes clear: On the one hand, narratives – in Indonesia, 'palm oil as man's crop' and as 'sustainable,' in Northern forest-based bioeconomies, a 'male' image of the sector and an affirmation of 'techno-fixes' – contribute to concealing relations of exploitation and exclusion. On the other hand, it is evident that a gender division of labor is so central to production in the bioeconomy that any emancipatory policy must address it. Even though the bioeconomy currently materializes differently regionally, the fundamental idea remains the same – to continue the capitalist commodification of nature and to rearticulate it in political and technological processes. This strategy systematically ignores reproductive processes and capacities.

What can be concluded from this? The core of the bioeconomy strategies is the idea of overcoming the fossil age. What many bioeconomy policies lack is a consistent focus on social justice, the preservation and promotion of human and non-human reproductive capacities, and respect for the production and food sovereignty of local populations, especially Indigenous communities.

To transition to a genuinely more sustainable human-economy relationship, different, feminist-informed strategies are needed. Here, the Global North can learn from the eco-sufficient capabilities and epistemologies of the Global South. In 2012, the People's Summit called for a 'Bio-Civilization' instead of a 'Bioeconomy,' grounded in fundamentally different principles like commoning, communalizing, ecological re-embedding, and solidarity economies. These political demands and also the respective practical alternatives to Eurocentric and high-technology-oriented sustainability paths already exist in the peripheries what is often perceived ‘official’, core economy – they exist both in the North in remaining spaces of socio-ecological reproduction and in the South.

The transition from the bioeconomy to a bio-civilization requires not only new business cases but, above all, new ways of relating. These relationships must be free, solidarity-based, and equal. A bioeconomy in this sense should not be limited to the question of how to transition from a fossil to a bio-based economy. Instead, a sustainable bioeconomy requires approaches that genuinely promote the life perspectives of Indigenous peoples, reproductive labor providers, and small-scale farmers. Inclusive and just bioeconomy strategies would enable all people to benefit from sustainable resource policies. It is crucial to think about social relationships and societal relations with nature from a care perspective. The key for deep sustainability transformations thus lies in a bioeconomy that overcomes patriarchal habits of nature and labor utilization.


Disclaimer: This article is a translated version of the intervention that was originally published in German language as part of the Economists For Future Debate Series in the online magazine Makronom. Hence, some of the linked references are in German.

About the authors:

Anna Saave is a political economist and post-doctoral researcher in the BioMaterialities project. The authors conducted this research as part of the BioMaterialities Project at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The BioMaterialities project examines transformation processes in the production, reproduction, and politics of the commodification of nature in the high-tech bioeconomy.

Carlotta Brinckmann studies International Relations and Social Sciences at the University of Erfurt and is active in the Plural Economics student group. She was an intern at BioMaterialities.

Sarah Hackfort is a political scientist and the head of the BioMaterialities research project.

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