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The finest silk or invisible fabric? The Bioeconomy and the Emperor’s New Clothes
Innogen MSc BIG Working Paper No. 1

Woien, M

June 2015

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The increasing focus on biotechnology and the knowledge-economy has led institutions such as the OECD to understand its contribution as a substantial shift towards a ‘bioeconomy’, where such knowledge will be at the core of economic output (OECD, 2009). Considering a global bioeconomy, Wield et al. (2013) notes that the promise of bioscience may contribute to finding the solutions to major global challenges. But the promise of biology to solve such problems is heavily tinted by the belief in the speed of the system, which may be challenged by deeper, systemic constraints (Wield et al., 2013). Reflecting on the nature of the bioeconomy, it seems clear that the institutions that structure it (dominating ideologies), and the agents that shape it (be it organisations, society or individuals) are mutually reinforcing in structuration. The bioeconomy can be conceptualised within an evolving structuration, where the prevailing neoliberal economic system is a self-fulfilling prophecy (cf. Wendt 1992, on structuration). Conceived within the framework of sustainable use of resources (OECD, 2009) structuration quite nicely points out the way the economy reflects contemporary ideas: although the rigidity of the structure of supply and demand remains, the conversation that shapes it has changed.

This paper will discuss whether the global bioeconomy represents an opportunity for a transition towards a fairer economic system, or if it is indeed just an Emperor in new clothes, where only those ‘fit for their position’ can see the benefits. The paper argues that the political frames, within which the bioeconomy is formed, influence the bioeconomy’s capacity for innovation through the bumpy landscape of global governance. First, the paper will consider the frames that structure and shape the bioeconomy, demonstrating how underlying ideologies may shape understanding illustrated by a quick look at tensions in the pharmaceutical industry. Second, the paper will outline and discuss the challenges presented for global governance of the bioeconomy in terms of trade policies and the politics of plants, as frames will determine the validity of potential solutions. Third, the paper will consider the role of global governance for innovation and its potentials for developed and developing countries. Finally, the paper concludes that although the governance of the global bioeconomy has its flaws, the ‘show must go on’. The courage seen in the face of transparency may however, reap important lessons for the future.