The bioeconomy has been portrayed as a transformational change to replace fossil-based fuels and other goods such as plastics. It is to substitute those goods while promoting zero-waste circular economies, creating jobs, and valorizing biodiversity – an agenda that meets conservation, climate and socioeconomic goals. Yet, where and from whom such bioresources are to come are questions that often receive insufficient scrutiny. Starting from an understanding that equity and sustainability essentially depend on how and on whose terms bio-based production takes place, this article explores the social dimensions of bioeconomy promotion through a “just transition” lens. Using the experiences of Brazil, India and Indonesia as case studies, it examines their dominant bio-based production systems in terms of distributional, procedural, retributive, and restorative justice. The analysis shows that, while such a bio-based transition has been a boon for agribusiness, the bioeconomy has so far helped promote broadly unjust production systems – where benefits and burdens are unevenly distributed, procedural governance over landscapes and resource use tends to be exclusionary, and there is little accountability or redress for past and present damages inflicted upon traditional communities and local populations. This pattern highly contrasts with the bioeconomy’s lip service to socioeconomic betterment and rural livelihood support. Instead, this examination shows bio-based sectors are expanding on many injustices while creating new ones. The conclusion is that, alongside fossil fuel substitution, a just bioeconomy transition also requires sustainable farming and land use – as two transitions in one. Therefore, asking where bio-based goods are produced, how, and by whom is essential.
A justice lens helps assess the social sustainability of the bioeconomy.
Justice has distributive, procedural, retributive, and restorative dimensions.
Bio-based production in Brazil, India and Indonesia has mostly augmented injustices.
Inclusive bioeconomy experiences can be just and help redress historical exclusion.
A just bioeconomy transition needs equitable biomass production and improved access.