Great oaks from little acorns grow. In bioeconomy-related research, some refer to such little acorns as ‘little tools’. They include the likes of strategy documents, budgets, expert reports, research protocols and algorithms. Of course, these little tools taken individually wouldn’t, say, enable societal shift towards a bioeconomy. But together, they certainly pack a punch. “When you study the bioeconomy closely, it becomes clear that it is made possible by a large number of little tools in use across government, markets and science. Documents are especially important across these three fields,” says Kristin Asdal from the Norwegian Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture. Atlantic cod makes for a pretty good illustration, which is why it was selected by Asdal for her research under her ERC-funded LITTLE TOOLS (Enacting the Good Economy: Biocapitalization and the little tools of valuation) project. From the perspective of this niche market, the bioeconomy implies a switch from cod caught in the wild to domesticated cod fit for aquaculture. It’s not an easy task: domesticated cod reproduction is difficult to control. It keeps escaping through nets and easily catches disease. Making it market-ready calls for a reconfiguration of biological and economic aspects. “Zooming in on one species allows us to work on how nature – the cod itself so to speak – and markets must be studied simultaneously. We have proposed the notion ‘co-modification’ to capture how both sides are worked upon and modified simultaneously. Concretely, we look into the little tools used by government, markets and science at the same time,” Asdal explains.
A complex net
Due for completion at the end of the year, LITTLE TOOLS essentially focused on gathering valuable data (the little tools of the bioeconomy) and analysing it. The list of tools considered ranges from consumer surveys and innovation documents to lighting technologies in fish cages. The idea is simple: Without grasping how these tools work and how they connect in larger assemblages, it is hard to comprehend how large transitions such as the bioeconomy happen – or fail to happen – in practice. The project has already contributed to major insights into how the bioeconomy and its predecessors have developed historically. A rich history that had never been told, as Asdal underlines. “We have conducted a deep case study that follows the marketisation of the wild Atlantic cod, along with the efforts to produce a viable domesticated cod. Other case studies have shown how the ‘blue bioeconomy’ is built upon calculations of future value production. Such an approach is highly problematic in terms of environmental concerns. The forecasts assume that all current environmental challenges will have been solved without even considering the environmental costs of achieving the expected growth. All in all, we face the serious risk of building a bioeconomy that is in fact a threat to nature and the environment,” she adds. So how do we prevent this from happening? “Our recommendation is to be more cautious in the planning stage and prevent the ‘precautionary principle’ (the notion that something is dangerous unless proven otherwise) from being sidelined by optimistic calculations of potential future growth,” Asdal notes. But there is more. She also urges politicians and governmental agencies to adopt a ‘holistic’ approach to aquaculture planning, in which all relevant considerations are actively taken into account and effectively balanced. “This is to avoid that nature and the environment are defined merely as externalities to value creation. What we need is to give serious attention to the massive pressure put by aquaculture projects upon our oceans, fjords, rivers and wild stocks of cod, salmon, trout and shrimp.” Eventually, Asdal hopes the project will help policymakers make more informed choices and be critical of optimistic growth scenarios.
LITTLE TOOLS, aquaculture, bioeconomy, blue bioeconomy, cod, Norway