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Developing Ireland’s bioeconomy

09 May 2020
Type Media Article

In this edition of the Research Field Podcast Maeve Henchion, researcher at the Teagasc Rural Economy Development Programme and the BioOrbic SFI Research Centre tells us about the bioeconomy and the research being done in Teagasc to support its development.

The bioeconomy

The is bioeconomy is fundamentally a strategy for sustainable growth. It is about:

  • producing renewable feedstocks,
  • using such feedstocks better that we have done in the past
  • to produce the 5Fs (food, fuel, feed, fibre and fertiliser),
  • creating jobs, particularly in rural areas, and
  • doing this in a way that enhances the soil, protects biodiversity and supports climate action.

Ethical aspects are also important; the bioeconomy should be developed in an inclusive way, ensuring groups that may not always get a say, e.g., primary producers such as farmers, foresters and fishers, and citizens are given a voice.

A lot of opportunities for the bioeconomy in Ireland focus on co-processing streams, e.g., adding value to whey and offal.  However, there are also emerging opportunities for a crop we produce very well in Ireland – grass. Teagasc has an advisory programme called Grass10 which aims to improve utilisation of grass.  And other research in Teagasc shows that we can produce 1.7 million t of dry matter (DM), surplus to requirements for meat and milk production, without any extra land.  We’ve been talking to colleagues in New Zealand - another country where grass grows well - across Europe and in Ireland to see if we can convert grass into higher value food, feed, fibre and energy, without involving the cow’s rumen. This may provide an opportunity for alternative and/or complementary income streams for our livestock farmers.

Social science

Policy makers and scientists are increasingly recognising the value of the social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, geography) in addressing challenges such as feeding a growing global population, climate change, biodiversity loss, and so on. Knowledge from these disciplines can help to understand the innovation system, the components within it, and the interactions between them. For example, it can help to understand farmers’ values, attitudes and behaviours so as to (co)design innovations that are suitable for them. It can also help to understand how consumers might view new technologies, how they might weigh up perceived risks and benefits, for example. Taking account of such perspectives in research commercialisation pathways can reduce the likelihood of new technologies being rejected out of hand.

Social acceptance of the bioeconomy

The bioeconomy has been driven by policy initiatives at global (through the OECD), EU and national level. While such top-down approaches are important to ensure that supporting policies are in place to facilitate its development, this approach often assumes an understanding of the roles, capabilities, resources and values of key actors (e.g., farmers) and that the aims and objectives of such policies are shared and accepted by these actors. It also assumes acceptance of developed products, and associated technologies, by the marketplace and society. These are not valid assumptions. Unless such actors are understood, and given an active role in the development of the bioeconomy, the bioeconomy will not be seen as a desirable future for them, undermining its development, and stated policy aims of achieving supporting sustainable growth. In practical terms, this would mean that farmers would continue to be commodity producers of feedstocks, rather than valued partners in the development of a sustainable, circular and inclusive bioeconomy.

Find out more in an interview with Maeve Henchion in the latest episode of The Research Field podcast.