Green is the Irish colour. Historical, cultural, geographical and even religious reasons underpin this inseparable pairing. Today, green is also the banner of Ireland’s environmental aspirations, a country that has based its national development strategy leading to 2040 on environmental sustainability.
Ireland still doesn’t have a bioeconomy focused strategy. However, last February its government presented a “National Policy Statement on the Bioeconomy,” thus getting close to one. The Statement outlines three main actions to be undertaken in the coming years: promotion of better cohesion amongst the many sectors making up the bioeconomy; development of new biobased products and creation of relevant markets; and access to EU funding and private investments.
This Statement is matched by the initiative Project Ireland 2040, allocating €116 billion to drive Ireland’s development over the next 22 years. Ireland’s action against climate change represents one of the plan’s focal points, with a staggering €22 billion – about a fifth of the total budget – devoted to investments in this area, and targeting key sectors such as transport, energy and construction.
Actions against climate change
In particular, Ireland 2040 establishes a €500 million fund to tackle climate change, introduces a ban on selling fossil-fuel powered cars after 2030 – with a further objective of no fossil fuel cars on roads by 2045 –, and sets the objective of reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation with an extra 4,500 megawatts from renewable sources by 2030 and new investments for heat insulation and retrofitting schools, public buildings and 45,000 dwellings per year, as of 2021.
“The recognition of climate change as a serious global and local issue is seeing the emergence of a new economic model focused on two principal pillars: low carbon growth and resource efficiency,” writes Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar in the foreword of the Statement of national policy on the bioeconomy. “Ireland needs to move beyond simply a target compliance and carbon mitigation focus to integrating sustainable economic development into our economic model as we transition to a low carbon economy. Relying less on fossil-based resources and increasing our use of renewable biological materials is one significant way of accomplishing this shift, and this is an area in which Ireland enjoys important comparative advantages.”
The Irish vision beyond Brexit
The Irish plan aims high: to make Ireland a global bioeconomy leader through a coordinated approach able to fully exploit the country’s natural resources while respecting the four guiding principles. The first refers to sustainability, whereby economic activity must not interfere with the ecosystem’s resilience and biodiversity. The second involves the cascading use of biomass, preferring uses that generate the highest added value rather than focusing on energy recovery. The third, refers to pre-emption and focuses on environmental and population protection. Last but not least, the forth one prioritizes food and nutrition security, thus avoiding any conflict with food supply.
The Irish government strongly believes in the bioeconomy as a lever for sustainable economic growth, starting from rural and coastal areas. This will mean, according to Varadkar’s government, decarbonising the economy and above all creating jobs and increasing his country’s competitiveness. This is a crucial issue in Ireland, as they fear negative consequences on their economy as a result of Brexit. According to a study published in February by Copenhagen Economics, one of the leading economic consultancy firms in the Nordic region, Brexit’s effects on the Irish economy could cause a contraction of its GDP between 2.8% and 7% by 2030. This macroeconomic evaluation takes into account exports from Ireland to the UK currently worth 13.5% of the Irish GDP (the UK is second only to the USA for Irish imports). The “Ireland First” approach that the EU claims to have adopted in its negotiations with London might not be enough to reassure Dublin. Then again, a country that only a few years ago was described as the “Celtic Tigre,” only to be forced at the beginning of this decade to ask for 67.5 billion in international aid, and thus entering a three-year rescue plan resulting in hard austerity and increasing poverty, managed to improve its economy thanks to exports to the USA and the UK. According to the Central Bank of Ireland’s forecasts, in 2018 its GDP will grow by 4.4%. The institute, led by Philip Lane, also forecasts that in the next two years, 89,000 new jobs will be created, an annual growth of 2.2% and 1.8%, so as to reach a level of employment of 2.3 million, higher than the peak reached just before the crisis in 2007. However, in 2007 in Ireland, 1 job out of 9 was in the construction sector, which imploded when the real estate bubble burst. Today – the Central Bank points out – the picture is very different and it envisages that in 2019 only 1 worker in 16 will work directly in the construction industry.
The bioeconomy could be a way of stabilising this positive economic picture, making it less reliant on the presence of multinational companies in Ireland. This is the view expressed by the authors of “BioÉire – A Bioeconomy for Ireland,” a document published in February 2017 as a precursor to the Statement of national policy supported by the Irish Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. “Eventhough much of the Celtic Tigre’s boom was due to construction and many jobs lost due to the recession were in this sector, the current recovery period offers an opportunity to find safe and sustainable ways to consolidate the Irish economy as a whole. The first example of how this could be achieved could be by using local biomaterials, getting better value from by-products and the waste generated in production processes, exploring and developing new products and processing opportunities for underused resources.”
The agro-food industry’s role
The Irish agro-food sector, including fishery and forestry, employs 8% of the workforce and creates 7.6% of gross added value, whereas its exports exceed €10 billion per year. An important aspect of this sector – as outlined by Project BioÉire – is its decentralised nature: while most of the food processing activity takes place in urban centres, agriculture, fishing and silviculture occur mainly in rural areas, which represent a priority for development within the EU bioeconomy strategy. While there is no specific strategy regarding the agro-food industry as a subsector of the bioeconomy, in recent years Ireland has put in place a series of plans to increase the agro-food sector’s output, including Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025. The latter, published in July 2015, identifies a series of ambitious and challenging goals for the Irish agro-food sector: export growth by 85% to €19 billion, increase in added value by 70% up to €13 billion, increase in primary production by 60% to €10 billion and creation of 23,000 new jobs along the entire value chain, from production to product marketing. To achieve these objectives, Food Wise 2025 identifies 400 sustainable growth recommendations with a coordinated approach amongst primary sectors, industry and government bodies.
The forestry sector
At the end of 2015, forests covered 10.7% of Ireland’s surface, with a production of 3.2 million cubic metres of wood per year, and it is forecasted that this could increase to 8 million by 2035. The forestry sector as a whole generates €2.3 billion for the Irish economy, with 12,000 jobs. This is why there cannot be a bioeconomy plan that does not take into account the forestry sector’s strategic role.
“Growing the Irish Forest Bioeconomy” is the title of a report published at the end of 2017 by Coford, the Council for forestry research and development, analysing the very contribution of the forestry sector to the emerging Irish bioeconomy. “There is no doubt,” claims Food, Forest and Horticulture Minister Andrew Doyle, “that the forestry sector plays a crucial role in the emerging bioeconomy. Nevertheless, its enormous potential can be further exploited by using new wood products and construction systems, as well as by increasing the use of wood fibre in a range of innovative products identified in the report. So I do welcome this report, highlighting the importance of the forestry sector in decarbonising our economy now and in the future.”
According to the report published by Coford virtually everything that can be made with fossil fuels can also be made with biobased resources. Replacing fossil fuels with sustainably-produced timber will help decarbonisation and the ongoing economic growth, improving environmental resilience while developing rural economies.
In this scenario of policies, aiming at decarbonising the country and promoting the growth of the bioeconomy, the Irish government has given research a crucial task. The same document for the national bioeconomy policy outlines how in recent years Ireland has created and funded several research centres focused on the bioeconomy. One of them is the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation, based in the National Bioeconomy campus in Lisheen, Tipperary County: a converted mine with an area of 455 hectares boasting an €80 million plant. At the end of last year, IBF secured a €4.6 million fund from Enterprise Ireland’s Fund for rural development to build a national pilot plant for innovation and industrial scale-up.
This plant, which should be completed by the first quarter of 2019, aims at becoming a benchmark for the Irish bioeconomy ecosystem, catalysing the development of technologies from the industrial and academic world while promoting the valorisation of secondary flows and waste from the agro-food and fishery sectors. The higher added value products developed will include ingredients for food and feeds, pharmaceutical products, natural chemicals and biodegradable plastics.
Dwelling on the marine sector in Monaghan, the biotech company BioMarineIngredients, has built the first pilot-scale biorefinery in Ireland. Moreover, a park for marine innovation Páirc Na Mara, has been created in Connemara to lead the sustainable growth of the marine economy at a local level. And there is more: through Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish government has invested €14.2 million in a bioeconomy research centre (Beacon) that will explore how to convert marine resources and food production waste into higher-value products. Beacon Research Centre’s headquarters are based in the University College in Dublin, but was born from a collaboration between the same university, Dublin’s Trinity College and the University of Limerick and Galway (NUI), the Agriculture and Food Development Authority (Teagasc) and the industrial world.
Interview with Maeve Henchion, Head of Department of Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis at Teagasc
by M. B.
Agriculture, Food and the Sea: The Fundamental Elements of our Bioeconomy
Teagasc – the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority – is the national body responsible for providing integrated research, as well as advisory and training services, for the agriculture and food industry and rural communities. Maeve’s research interests span the supply chain and usually operate at the interface between social science and technical science. They include food innovation, sustainable food production and consumption, consumer and industry acceptance of novel food technologies, food quality, and strategic food marketing.
As far as you’re concerned, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the bioeconomy in Ireland?
“Ireland has many natural advantages including healthy and productive soil, a climate that is good for producing grass (and a well established agro-food sector based around this), an ambitious forestry sector, and an extensive coastline which positions it well for the development of new marine-based value chains, in addition to those based on terrestrial biomass. Ireland also has a coordinated research and innovation funding system and a very strong cohort of research producing organisations, researchers and companies actively engaged in innovation. Having a supportive national policy is also a strength upon which the future of the Irish bioeconomy will build.”
Who are the main bioeconomy players in Ireland?
“Ireland has developed a bioeconomy ecosystem which includes policy makers, businesses, investors, researchers, consumers and local communities.
At a policy level, leadership by the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minster’s Office), along with involvement of all government ministries through the Inter-Departmental Group, positions policy makers as key players. In addition, some of our large agro-food companies are actively involved in bioeconomy related projects including our dairy companies (e.g. AgriChemWhey), our mushroom companies (e.g. Fungus Chain), and our marine companies (e.g. BioMarine Ingredients).
On the research side, a significant amount of national funding for research has been allocated to the bioeconomy by Science Foundation Ireland, and by industry through the BEACON Bioeconomy Research Centre, which has its headquarters at University College Dublin, but is actually a partnership between University College Dublin, Teagasc, Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway, University of Limerick, and industrial players. BEACON is unique in the way that it combines science, technology, social science and business to address the challenges of developing a sustainable bioeconomy. In addition to Universities, institutes of technology are also active. For example, the EU funded Agriforvalor project that in Ireland involves IT Tralee and Teagasc (the Irish Farmers Association and the Irish Forest and Forest Products Association). This project was established to develop bioeconomy innovation design hubs in Ireland (and also in Hungary and Spain).
Local Authorities are also important. For example, Tipperary County Council have been instrumental in the development of a National Bioeconomy Campus in a rural part of Ireland, which includes a pilot biorefinery. Valorising agricultural waste and linking the circular economy and the bioeconomy are important aspects of the bioeconomy in Ireland. The Irish-led and EU-funded AgroCycle project, has the ambitious aim of delivering a 10% increase in agricultural waste valorisation by 2020.
The commercial forestry business and public-private company Coillte, is an important player in the forestry sector and has worked with COFORD (DAFM), Teagasc and industry, to produce a strategy document for the forestry sector in relation to the bioeconomy, entitled ‘Growing the Irish Forest Bioeconomy.’
Recently, the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation (IBF) was also established to provide a forum for key stakeholders (including policy makers, academics and industrial representatives) to come together under a single bioeconomy umbrella.”
Last February, the Irish Government issued the National Policy Statement on the Bioeconomy. Yet, some people in Ireland still complain about the lack of a specific strategy on the bioeconomy. Is this topic really part of the government’s agenda? From your point of view, what measures should the plan contain so that it can give practical support to the bioeconomy?
“I am still not sure if a national strategy is required. The policy statement, coming as it did from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Inter-Departmental Group, has given a strong indication of the Irish government’s commitment to the bioeconomy and a signal that various strategies need to align in support of the statement. With the implementation of the policy statement – that involves the aforementioned Inter-Departmental Group, co-chaired by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment – the vision is clear and the next set of key priorities for Ireland and the support frameworks required are outlined. The next steps for the implementation of the Irish bioeconomy, that have been established as requisites by all stakeholders, include: establishing appropriate networks; focusing on research and innovation translation so as to extend and intensify commercial opportunities; examining smart regulatory processes; and increasing communication to all key stakeholders in the bioeconomy. Whether there is a need for a national strategy to provide an overarching framework for existing related strategies, for example FoodWise 2020, will be clearer after this process and will be an area of discussion involving all stakeholders.
The development of business models, to ensure primary producers are not just suppliers of cheap biomass, will be an important area requiring support. Furthermore, ensuring awareness and understanding of the bioeconomy and bio-based products by consumers and citizens will also be important. These elements will be critical to achieving a sustainable bioeconomy.”
Project Ireland 2040 is the Government’s overarching policy initiative to make Ireland a better country. How is this plan connected to the development of the bioeconomy?
“Project 2040 and the national planning framework process, highlight the opportunities engendered in the Circular Bioeconomy. The three regional areas will further examine the bioeconomy opportunity in the upcoming year, so as to develop more regionally focused approaches. In turn, the government will establish funding opportunities through the national development plan, that will focus on delivering, in terms of climate change, the circular economy and sustainable economic development. The publication of the national bioeconomy policy statement, highlights the high regard with which the bioeconomy as an opportunity is held. In particular, with regards to its potential contribution to the achievement of the strategic policy objectives of decarbonisation, climate change mitigation, sustainable economic development, employment, growth, and development of regional and rural areas. Ireland’s bioeconomy will create significant economic opportunities in rural areas, where a large portion of industrial players in the bioeconomy are based.”
How relevant is the role played by the agriculture and food industries in the Irish bioeconomy? Also, how relevant is the role played by marine biotechnology?
“Agriculture, food and the sea are core elements of the Irish bioeconomy. In addition to primary production, valorising agricultural co-products and waste are also increasingly important areas of value for Ireland. The national policy statement specifically recommends the implementation group to ‘progress the leading value chain propositions identified in the BioÉire project by establishing the conditions required for their commercial viability and how these might be fulfilled.’ The top supply chains identified in BioÉire for development in the short to medium term are the use of 2nd generation feedstock for the production of biochemicals; dairy processing side-streams for sports nutrition products; horticultural by-product for biocompostable packaging; marine discard for functional food and feed applications; agricultural and food waste for bioenergy production; seaweed use for food and healthcare applications; and forestry residues for decentralised heat generation.”
Without the people on board, it’s really difficult to actually decarbonise. What is the public perception of the bioeconomy in Ireland? Are there plans for education and training?
“As is the case elsewhere, the Irish public do not easily relate to the term bioeconomy. It is a challenging term even for so called ‘experts.’ The implementation steps over the next year will start to increase public awareness of the bioeconomy.
The aforementioned BEACON centre, has a specific education and public engagement programme to engage all levels of society, from primary schools upwards, as a key aim. Teasing out consumers’ current understanding of the bioeconomy and its associated terms, their awareness and potential attitudes towards bio-based products, and developing a lexicon to help communicate the concept, will all be key components of the work I will be doing in BEACON. Indeed, we currently have a 4-year fully funded PhD opportunity in this area.
Through the development of a ‘knowledge hub,’ BEACON is integrating the perspective of consumers, businesses, investors, researchers, regulators, policy makers and local communities to enhance public understanding of the bioeconomy, its value and the opportunities it offers.”
Lisheen is the first Irish cluster dedicated to the bioeconomy. What is its role in supporting the bioeconomy? Can this case be replicated in other parts of the country?
“In Q4 2017, Enterprise Ireland (EI) announced funding through the EI regional enterprise development fund for a pilot biorefinery to be located in Lisheen Mines, Co. Tipperary. Tipperary County Council is developing a National Bioeconomy Campus in Lisheen Mines. Tipperary County Council is also due to become a designated Chemical Model Demonstrator Region, thanks to an award created by the EU Commission, and is currently the recipient of ongoing funded consultation to aid the development of the Lisheen project. Vedanta, the company currently operating in Lisheen Mines, has an ongoing working relationship with Prof. Kevin O’Connor in UCD (Director of BEACON) and is working closely with Tipperary County Council to remediate and source alternative enterprise activities for the site.”