AAG 2012 CFP – Biofuels, Food and the Bio-based Economy

Session Organizers: Kean Birch (York University) and Stefano Ponte (Danish Institute for International Studies)

Session Outline:

Climate change, sustainability and the idea of ‘greening’ or ‘transitioning’ the economy have risen and fallen as public and policy concerns over the last few years. The high water-mark of 2009 when these issues were at the forefront of the public agenda has since given way to a slump in interest in the aftermath of the Copenhagen Summit, rising economic uncertainty and the continuing scepticism / denial about the importance of climate change. All this has led to a crisis of confidence in the ‘green’ movement, despite the growth of initiatives, projects and policies with the purported aim to ensure the sustainability of the planet.

Biofuels represent one such agenda aimed at achieving sustainability and a transition away from a petroleum-based economy to a bio-based economy, at least in their supporters’ eyes. Critics of biofuels, on the other hand, highlight several problematic socio-ecological issues with their implementation, the most notable being the impact that changing land-use patterns has on access to food and to good agricultural land. These critical voices illustrate how particular neoliberal, market-based mechanisms and instruments construct nature and natural resources in certain ways: as scarce and over-used; as abundant and free; as eco-efficient and renewable; and so on. Technoscience plays a significant part in this process with the expectation that the development of new generations of biofuels will resolve many existing problems with the current crop.

The enrolment of technoscience can be seen as part of a broader shift from an ecological fix associated with 1st generation biofuels to a technological fix offered by 2nd generation biofuels derived from modern biotechnological knowledges. Although the application of modern biotechnology to agriculture has been a strongly contested political terrain, evident in protests against GMOs, it is now being represented as essential tool for any transition to a greener political economy. However, it is not clear how significant biotechnology will be in producing a transition to a bio-based economy. The reconfiguration of our existing fuel and food value chains is likely to be dramatic, quite literally creating new socio-ecological landscape around us. These are likely to entail not only human protest but are also likely to encounter ecological recalcitrance as we seek to craft nature’s productivity.

All these issues raise a series of questions that geographers, of different stripes, are well-placed to answer. We highlight a few questions here in order to encourage people to contribute to the session, others will obviously be relevant as well.

Questions:

1.     (Re-)valuing Plants: Making biomass into a resource
What are the new (and existing) sites and landscapes of biomass cultivation?
How has biomass been made into a resource?
Has the construction of biomass as a resource resulted in different environmental impacts and implications for different places?

2.     Neoliberal Natures: Markets, sustainability and biofuels
What role do different policy instruments (e.g. subsidies, mandates etc.) play in constructing markets for biofuels?
How are these markets meant to account for the sustainability of biofuels (e.g. sustainability criteria, carbon foortprint, carbon debt etc.)?
Are there particular geographies to the different accounts and discourses (e.g. certification, labelling etc.) of sustainability?

3.    The Emerging Bio-economy: Exit from a crisis?
How does the emerging bioeconomy relate to the ecological crisis in capitalism?
What are the geographies of the transition from a petroleum-based to a bio-based economy?
Does the bioeconomy offer us the opportunity to ‘green’ capitalism?

4.    From Ecological to Technological Fix: The evolution of biofuels
Are the geographies of biofuels changing in response to new technoscientific developments?
How has technoscience been enrolled in the expansion of biofuels as a solution to socio-natural problems?
What are the implications of a shift from ‘first’ to ‘second’ generation biofuels?

5.    Bio-value Chains: The reconfiguration of biofuel value chains
How are biofuel value chains being reconfigured?
What are the geographies of these reconfigurations?
Does the reconfiguration of value chains reflect the flow of values in humans / non-humans relations?

6.    Food for Fuel: Commodities, financial speculation and food injustice
What are the geographies of land-use change in response to biofuels?
How are different peoples contesting the transformation of food into fuel?
In what ways do new technoscientific developments encourage food speculation?

Session Participation:

People wanting to submit papers, please submit an abstract (250 words max) by email to both organisers by 1st September 2011.

People wanting to participate in other ways (e.g. discussant), please contact the organisers by email as well.

Session organisers:

Kean Birch (York University, Toronto) keanbirch@gmail.com
Stefano Ponte (Danish Institute for International Studies) spo@diis.dk

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