Ireland can be a leader in the new bioeconomy
We have considerable strengths in this area. Can we position ourselves to take advantage?
The bioeconomy describes the part of the economy that relies on the use of biological resources, including agriculture, forestry and marine. Photograph: Thinkstock
After tomorrow’s general election we will have a clearer idea of the political landscape of Ireland over the coming period. What areas of the research and innovation landscape will present opportunities for Ireland over that time? Which of them have the potential to deliver benefits to rural areas, where fewer jobs are created from research and innovation than in major cities?
One term we can expect to hear a lot more about is the bioeconomy. At its simplest the bioeconomy describes the part of the economy that relies on the use of biological resources, including agriculture, forestry and marine. More recently, however, a new and enhanced approach to the bioeconomy has emerged.
Ireland, like other countries, needs to address challenges associated with food security, energy security, climate change and reducing our dependence on fossil resources. The global economy is dependent upon resources such as oil and gas. These nonrenewable resources are depleting. We must find new ways to make the commodities that enable our society to function, and attention is turning to innovative use of biological resources.
Over recent times, the bioeconomy has been predominantly focused on the production of food for human consumption and feed for animal production. Less than 10 per cent of all chemicals, plastics and fuels are derived from renewable natural resources. At the same time, waste streams associated with the sector present challenges to the industry’s ability to grow in a sustainable way. The bioeconomy has the opportunity to diversify its activities so that it can produce chemicals, materials and fuels needed by society, and add value to existing waste products. This will create new products, new markets, new business opportunities and new jobs.
A great example of what can be achieved in the bioeconomy lies in Glanbia’s creation of a global market for whey proteins, formerly a waste product of its cheese manufacturing process. Isolating these proteins from the waste delivered a product that is high in protein and low in fat, ideal for protein drinks.
There are more such opportunities for sectors using bio-based resources to add value to their business through the exploitation of waste. Part of this will involve conversion to high-value products such as biochemicals that can be used in a wide range of products, including paints, biodegradable plastics, green solvents, glues, and fertilisers.
Europe gears up
The bioeconomy is the subject of considerable interest at European level, where the sector has an annual turnover of €2 trillion and employs about 9 per cent of the total workforce. A public-private partnership of bio-based industries estimates that innovation in the bioeconomy, and exploiting biological resources such as agricultural waste and forestry residues, could create up to a million new jobs in Europe by 2030. Some 80 per cent will be in rural areas. Prof Kevin O’Connor of University College Dublin is playing a leading role in shaping the European bioeconomy programme as chairman of the Science Advisory Board for the joint undertaking, and believes Ireland can establish a leadership position.
“The economic and social opportunity that the new, modernised bioeconomy can bring to Ireland is enormous. The window of opportunity is here and Ireland needs to invest now to fulfil its potential and increase its global competitiveness,” Prof O’Connor says.
Tipperary County Council last year led a successful application, bringing together stakeholders from universities, industry and government, to be designated a model demonstrator region for the bioeconomy. It is one of six such regions receiving support from the European Commission to show the way towards sustainable chemical production in Europe by taking advantage of domestically available feedstock such as biomass or waste.
The bioeconomy represents a particularly good fit for Ireland, combining as it does national strength in agri-food with strengths in bioprocessing and pharmaceuticals. It needs a strong base in fundamental science, allied with the mechanisms and infrastructure to take discoveries out of the lab and into the market. Importantly, it also needs a steady supply of graduates and trained operators.
Building a new bioeconomy for Ireland presents an opportunity for new green jobs, economic growth and a sustainable society. Partners across academia, industry and government are combining in pursuit of this. Orla Feely is vice-president of research, innovation and impact at UCD