What is a Bioeconomy?

Global economic institutions (including firms, governments, and research institutes) are in daily motion finding novel sources of value in non-human nature. Within this ongoing whirl of value seeking, live biological entities are recast in economic terms and new commodities are made.

For example:

  • Complex ecosystems are being characterized in term of the economic worth of the “services” (such as carbon storage) that they provide.
  • Wild animals are captured from the remote reaches of forests in the Global South and sold at auctions in the US and elsewhere.
  • The DNA sequences of living organisms are mimicked and manipulated through techniques of synthetic biology to create “living factories.”

These “bioeconomies” – economies that take living beings and materials as a primary source of value – are continually changing and emerging anew. They are so diverse and dynamic that their broader meanings and implications are often difficult to name, even as this unstable idea of the “bioeconomy” is fast becoming an important organizing idea for national and transnational economic strategies by governments and private companies alike.


All economies rely on biological life in some form or another, even if just in terms of human labour and metabolic inputs of energy and materials. What, therefore, defines a bioeconomy? The defining feature of bioeconomies is that they cast biological life in economic terms – whether as a commodity, factory, service, or infrastructure. Bioeconomies harness the living nature of biological beings and systems as the engine and feedstock of economic value production.

The term has different connotations in different sectors. In policy discourse, the term “bio-economy” is commonly used to refer biofuel production and the burning of forest mass for energy production or to the application of biosciences and biotechnology to production. Canada’s federal government states that the term “bio-economy” refers to economic activity based on the production of innovative (non-conventional) products and bioenergy from biomass (forest, agriculture, marine and waste) using novel technological processes” (Natural Resources Canada 2014, 4). This quote also demonstrates how, in government and business discourse, language often focuses on a singular national “bio-economy,” the sum total of biological industries within a country, and on innovation and novelty, contrasting a bio-economy with one based on petroleum products.

Academic writing in the social sciences, however, defines “bioeconomies” differently, focusing the processes through which life becomes a source of economic value. In this academic understanding, a bioeconomy is an economy within which biological life is transformed into discrete commodities, into pieces of life that remain alive for the duration of circulation and consumption. The biological entity’s life itself, or capacity to generate more life, generates value; as such, this entity becomes a “lively commodity.” In this project, we are interested in bioeconomies that harness, manipulate, or seek to improve upon living entities or systems, for example by making this life grow faster, more efficiently, or in a more controlled or enclosed manner.

Making life economic often means creating value – making commodities that can be bought and sold at a profit. However, as the “Enterprising Nature” video shows, new markets or commodities may not be the end goal. Rather, the end goal of “making life economic” can be to improve the management of the biosphere via its production as an economic entity, as a column in a cost-benefit spread sheet, or as “critical national infrastructure.” But what is excluded when one aims to govern the bios according to an economic logic?


Commodity: Something – a shirt, shrimp, a TV set, sperm, dirt, a dog – that can be sold and exchanged

Commodification: The process by which things that were previously not sellable or exchangeable become commodities.

Commodity chain/network: A linked set of activities, actors and industries that produce a particular kind of commodity. A commodity chain analysis is like a biography of a thing (see Appadurai 1986). It involves tracking the various stages of a commodity’s “life” – often production, transport, consumption, and disposal.

Economization: the extension of economic logic, practices, and calculation into areas where they might not have been before.

Ecosystem services: commonly defined as the benefits provided by ecosystems to humans. The “ecosystem services revolution” aims to make visible and ideally quantifiable the often underappreciated and undervalued ecological structures and processes necessary for human life on earth.

Financialization: At its most general, financialization refers to the growing influence of financial actors, interests and institutions, an influence that is marked in relation to other parts of the economy. There is evidence of increasing financialization of capitalism, in that more and more profit is being made from financial channels (Krippner 2005), such as debt, and in particular from “pricing, distributing and hedging risk” (Blackburn 2006).

Lively Commodity: A commodity that/who remains alive for the duration of its time as a commodity and whose life is central to its commodity value, like Tillikum/Shamu (Sea World’s “killer” orca whale), a trafficked human, a rodeo bull, a forest carbon offset, or an exotic pet.

Marketization: the creation of markets – opportunities for buying and selling commodities – where they did not exist before. Examples here are wetland banking and of course the market in carbon, especially forest or ecosystem carbon. Marketization is, in effect, what geographer Kathleen McAfee meant when she coined her widely cited phrase “Selling Nature to Save it” in 1999.

Undead thing: A living commodity, or a commodity made from living materials, like a gene. The term comes from feminist science studies scholar Donna Haraway (1997).


Blackburn, Robin. 2006. “Finance and the Fourth Dimension.” New Left Review 39: 39–70.

Haraway, Donna. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncomouseTM. New York: Routledge.

Krippner, Greta. 2005. “The Financialization of the American Economy.” Socio-Economic Review, 3(2): 173–208.

McAfee, Kathleen. 1999. “Selling Nature to Save it? Biodiversity and Green Developmentalism.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 17(2): 133–54.