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Economic and Environmental Sustainability: a burning platform or Ireland's opportunity?

Escalating challenges related to economic sustainability, climate change, biodiversity loss, resource scarcity, food security and growing populations highlight the need to transition to more sustainable, low-carbon ways of living. The bioeconomy concept offers one way to address these challenges, harnessing the optimal use of renewable biological resources and reducing dependence on fossil-fuel based resources, whilst still achieving economic growth. At the European level, the bioeconomy is estimated to provide employment for some 21.5 million people, with a market worth approximately €2 trillion.

These lucrative markets and sustainable, bioeconomic opportunities are only just beginning to be exploited, including in the Irish context. The BioÉire consortium hosts its first seminar in the Teagasc College of Amenity Horticulture, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin on the 3rd September 2015 to present some of the context shaping its current research activities and to provide input for its market development project. Outcomes of this workshop will ultimately feed into the process of developing a coherent, national bioeconomy strategy for Ireland. “This strategy is needed to help us to review and ultimately change, how we produce, process and recover biological feedstocks” according to Dr. Maeve Henchion, BioÉire project coordinator.

The development of a bioeconomy in Ireland producing biofuels, biofertilisers, biochemicals and bioplastics is particularly plausible given its abundant natural resources, thriving agriculture and marine sectors, growing forestry development, well-respected food industry and renowned research and development capabilities.

Speaking in advance of the workshop, Dr. Maria Hayes, Research Officer at Teagasc, reflects on the opportunities that are readily available in the marine sector in Ireland: a topic that she will explore in a keynote presentation. Commenting on the abundant marine resources around the Irish coastline, Dr Hayes states that: “The seas around Ireland contain a number of underutilised species, including seaweeds and Boarfish, that at present are not being exploited to their full potential. These species are potentially a huge reservoir for novel protein ingredients and functional foods compounds that may be health beneficial and can provide an alternative to dairy, meat and plant proteins. Furthermore, with the clever use of biotechnological processes, marine discards can be considered ideal candidates for generation of natural bioactive materials such as chitin and chitosan that have huge commercial appeal.”

Adding to this positivity, Bart Bonsall, Technology Leader at the Technology Centre for Biorefining and Bioenergy (TCBB), notes the further potential that exists to utilise resources from the Irish agricultural sector beyond the food industry to explore new biochemical and biomaterial opportunities. Speaking of the need to emulate advances seen in other EU member states, Mr. Bonsall highlights that: “The EU is transitioning its petro-chemical complex away from fossil-fuel based to biobased raw materials. Ireland has an opportunity to use its agricultural might to supply these enormous markets, over time matching or surpassing the value of its food outputs.”

“When you see now a global household name like Coca-Cola using patented technology to convert natural sugars from plants into renewable plastic bottles, then you have to ask yourself what should Ireland be looking at to generate new economic opportunities for biobased materials and products? Should Ireland produce renewable plastics and renewable chemicals from sugar beet or other agricultural, forestry or marine outputs?”

These, and other opportunities, will form the heart of the discussion at the BioÉire workshop that aims to act as a platform for determining which opportunities merit further investigation in an Irish context. The workshop will be attended by representatives across policy, academic, state and semi-state organisations.

Some of the speakers at the BioÉire workshop which took place on Thursday 3rd September in the Teagasc College of Amenity Horticulture, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin included Mr. Bart Bonsall (TCBB), Dr. Maeve Henchion (Teagasc), Mr. Paul O'Reilly (DIT) and Dr. Maria Hayes (Teagasc)