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The Global Bio-Economy: Is Ireland in danger of losing out?

The European bio-economy employs some 21.5 million people and presents an annual market worth over €2 trillion, with significant potential for further growth, as EU member states supplement food production with sustainable technologies for production of biofuels, bio-fertilisers, bio-chemicals and bio-plastics. The EU is rapidly moving to replace the petro-chemical technologies that have created unprecedented historical wealth and prosperity with new, sustainable bio-technologies that utilise renewable resources. This development is designed to mitigate the resultant environmental issues caused by dumping billions of tonnes of petro-chemical emissions into the atmosphere, as well as social issues that will arise as finite supplies of mineral resources are depleted. Development of these new technologies opens up new, lucrative markets that are only just beginning to be exploited.

Ireland has many natural resources that can be leveraged to sustainably produce new forms of bio-products and engineer new process technologies; however, it is only beginning to use these resources to tap new bio-economic opportunities. The economic value of Ireland’s current bio-products are at the lower end of the value spectrum (e.g. commodity food products and bio-energy) and development of much more lucrative bio-chemicals or bio-materials outputs has not yet been prioritised. Other potential opportunities may be underexploited (e.g. the marine sector) or overlooked altogether (e.g. resource recovery and redeployment). In this rapidly changing environment is Ireland in danger of losing out in the growing bio-economy?

Given the broad scope of the bio-economy, it is necessary to identify which opportunities Ireland should prioritise to maximise national income, exports and job creation. A multi-disciplinary research team, led by Teagasc, and including the Technology Centre for Biorefining and Bioenergy (TCBB) at NUI Galway, Crop Science & Biosystems Engineering at UCD and the Environmental Sustainability & Health Institute at Dublin Institute of Technology, has been funded by a 2014 DAFM/Stimulus research grant to address how Ireland can capitalise on these new developments. Over a 2-year period starting in December 2014, this team will undertake research to assess Ireland’s natural resources and core strengths, and match these to global market opportunities. It will then systematically identify up to 8 commercial opportunities that could be viably deployed by Irish-based producers and companies in the short-term, and make recommendations on the development frameworks that could be introduced to underpin commercial exploitation of these opportunities. Such frameworks will relate to R&D programmes, policies, regulatory measures, market supports, funding mechanisms and other initiatives.

The research team comprises partners that have significant track records of conducting national-, EU- and industry-funded research in this area, and moving such research along the innovation pipeline to commercialisation. The project co-ordinator Dr Maeve Henchion of Teagasc says “Teagasc is very pleased that DAFM awarded €300,000 for this project, which will actively seek participation from the stakeholders that are needed to successfully develop Ireland’s bio-economy”.

Within Teagasc, the project will be supported by a 16-member working group with expertise, knowledge and professional networks from agriculture, bio-energy, forestry, food marine and waste streams, and from research, policy development and advisory/training perspectives.

TCBB’s Technology Leader, Bart Bonsall comments: “TCBB works with enterprises large and small to extract added value from Ireland’s existing agricultural and forestry outputs as well as agri-food and municipal waste resources. TCBB welcomes this opportunity to work with Teagasc on a project of such strategic national importance and we are of the view that the Bio-Éire collaboration will identify those areas that will enable Ireland to prosper in this new economy, quantifying, highlighting and developing the near-term market opportunities for Ireland.”

Centre Institution Researchers
Rural Economy and Development Programme Teagasc Dr Maeve Henchion, Professor Cathal O’Donoghue and Ultan Shanahan
Technology Centre for Biorefining and Bioenergy NUI Galway Bart Bonsall and Professor Vincent O’Flaherty
Environmental Sustainability & Health Institute Dublin Institute of Technology Paul O’Reilly and Professor Aidan O’Driscoll
Crop Science & Biosystems Engineering University College Dublin Dr Kevin McDonnell and Prof Jimmy Burke

Contact details: Maeve Henchion, maeve.henchion@teagasc.ie Tel: 01 8059515