Micheal Martin Speech

‘Bioeconomy Vital for Ireland’s Future’

Speech by

Micheal Martin T.D., Leader of Fianna Fáil

CRÉ conference

15th March 2018

I would like to thank you for the invitation to speak to today’s conference about one of the critical elements of the bioeconomy.  CRÉ has been very effective in both building its network of members and reaching out to put your concerns on the public policy agenda.

I strongly agree with the idea that we are at a moment of truth when it comes to environmental and economic sustainability on this island and in the wider international community.  It is 21 years since the looming climate emergency led to the holding of the Kyoto Conference and agreement that urgent action was required.

Since then an entire generation has grown up understanding the nature of this emergency and increasingly engaged in wider environmental concerns.  It has also become clearer how much environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social solidarity are intimately linked.

There has been a lot of progress since then but it cannot be seriously argued that we have shown the urgency or ambition which the scale of the problem requires.

If we take Ireland’s position for example, there has been a marked reduction in the level of priority given to environmental transformation.  We have many valuable projects to point to, but we have not even begun to scratch the surface of the potential.

Ireland did respond to Kyoto and other environmental issues with significant steps.  There is no doubt that the coalition which my party formed with the Green party significantly accelerated action.  John Gormley’s waste plan in 2008 has yet to be fully realised and the climate action plan which he and Eamon Ryan led through government was unfortunately sidelined by successors.

As a result of this we are in many areas basically restarting earlier progress.

We have too often settled for low-impact evolutionary change in policies when what is required is more revolutionary.  Where once we aspired to emulate the spirit of Charles Parsons, the Irishman who opened up the world with a radical departure in the design of steam engines, we have settled for much less.

I have no doubt that we have in our country a breadth of skills and ambition to dramatically step-change our overall environmental performance, but in particular, to turn the bioeconomy from a general aspiration to a reality.  There are many examples in the last twenty years where we have succeeded in meeting major challenges.

A very good example of this is in terms of our deep expertise in the areas of biopharmaceuticals and key technologies.  Many of our largest employers did not exist twenty years ago, and those which did have transformed their Irish operations to be higher-skilled and high-valued.  This happened directly because of a decision to change policy across government to support research and innovation – to create the ability to attract, retain and grow employment even in a period of rapid technological change.  In education, new courses were created and a dramatic increase in support for advanced research was implemented.  In Enterprise, the development agencies adapted new priorities, changed their structures and expanded their skills.  It other areas, incentives were put in place, specific targets set and new ones developed when those were exceeded.

My point on this is that we should always remind ourselves that when we are talking about developing an ambitious bioeconomy this is not some vague and unobtainable objective – we have the ability to deliver on it if we have the will.

It is important to reassert the seriousness of the environmental issues facing us. From climate change to soil exhaustion to deforestation, it has never been more apparent that we need to rethink our relationship to the natural environment.

Nowhere is this more tangible than in our waste management sector. Waste is an inevitable by-product of almost every activity in our homes and businesses. In 2014 alone, Ireland generated nearly 12 million tonnes of waste. As growth has returned to trend levels, this is a figure that is, by all indications, rapidly rising. This waste must go somewhere, and there are big concerns about Ireland’s landfill capacity. In 2016, for example, emergency measures were taken on two occasions to provide additional landfill capacity. Given the considerable environmental downsides to landfill sites, as well as the appreciable amount of public opposition to them, it is just not realistic to keep building landfill sites.

To some extent, we have tackled this issue by increasing the amount of material in Ireland that is recycled. Following the establishment of Repak Ireland’s recycling rate has increased to the point where about a third of Ireland’s waste is recycled, a reasonable position in European terms with significant room for improvement.

Time and technology have moved on, however, and we must push ourselves to divert even more material away from landfill. The bio economy is perhaps the only realistic way of doing this. It is estimated that there are at least half a million tonnes of brown bin material generated in Ireland each year. Unfortunately, only about 32% of this material is recovered, with the remainder being sent to landfill.

There is no need for this. Where many people see food waste and items from the garden, we should actually see resources. Unsatisfied with the status quo, those involved in the bioeconomic sector create unlikely enterprises from unlikely raw materials. In doing this they are pointing us towards a successful and sustainable future.  They have helped to break the past idea that you could have a strong economy or care for the environment but not do both.

I have followed many of the developments in the sector.  For example the biogas facility which turns pig manure into clean electricity that powers the national grid. Still more are investing in facilities that can transform food and other organic waste into high-quality, peat-free compost. Others are in labs conducting high-end research into the potential to extract valuable chemical compounds from organic waste.  

These people are concerned not with how a given material has been handled or manufactured in the past. Instead, they are operating at the cutting edge of technology and innovation, seeking new purposes for old materials and new ways of making valuable inputs. They are fundamentally reimagining what a waste product represents. The implications of this for Ireland’s economy and broader society are huge. This is innovation in its purest form. 

In and of itself, the ability of the bioeconomy to dramatically reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfill is a crucial benefit.  It seems unlikely that we can end the need for landfill but we can end our overreliance on them. Quite apart from the environmental reasons, the hard reality is that the public is never going to change its attitude of opposing nearly all new facilities.

This opposition is not just about NIMBYism – it has a sound environmental basis too. As material in the landfills decomposes and mixes with rainwater, toxic chemicals can run into local rivers, lakes and other supplies of groundwater. This gives rise to considerable pollution issue, presenting a threat to health of humans and other forms of life relying on these sources of water. Furthermore, as organic materials, such as food and garden waste, breakdown and decompose they can release significant quantities of methane gas, one of the more potent greenhouse gases.

At a time when Ireland is already struggling to meet our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, this is a real problem. By diverting significant quantities of organic material away from landfill, the bio economyhas the potential to dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions and to cut down on the amount of landfill that we actually need. 

There are strong economic arguments to be made for the bio-economy too. 

For the agricultural sector in particular, anaerobic digestion and composting represent ideal opportunities to manage some of the trickier by-products of agricultural activities, such as manure, while maximizing resource efficiency. Effectively, anaerobic digestion and related processes help farmers to simultaneously reduce their electricity bill while also reducing the amount of nitrates and methane that their farm emits. Given Ireland’s strong reliance on our agricultural sector, these technologies represent huge opportunities that we must capitalize on. 

Our potential gains are not limited to the agricultural sector either. Ireland’s expertise in the realm of science means that we stand to gain a lot from thehigher-value end of the sector too. Glanbia’s recent announcement that it would be investing €30m into the AgriChemWhey project, which seeks to convert by-products from the dairy industry into bio-chemicals, is a promising sign of the types of growth that are happening in the Irish bio-economy. By replacing petrochemicals with biochemical, these projects can provide huge benefits to the environment, while also vastly increasing the resource efficiency of a businesses’ production cycle. Why should a company pay to dispose of a by-product, if they can instead make this part of their underlying business model? 

There is no doubt that the rising environmental consciousness of the public will lead to a wider demand for many of these products and services. We have seen this recently, for example, through the public’s rejection of single-use non-compostable coffee cups. Very quickly, following documentaries showing the unfortunate consequences that single-use cups can have on marine life and the natural environment, consumers were spurred into action. Within a matter of months, demands for alternatives to single use non-compostable cups skyrocketed.

Many of our European peers are pulling well ahead of us in bioeconomy actions. For example, a study by the Scottish government found that reusing waste products from the Scottish whisky industry could boost the Scottish economy by £276m sterling. By 2025, it is anticipated that the Scottish biorefining sector could be worth £1 billion sterling. Across the European Union, it is estimated that the bio-economy employs about 21.5 million people and has a market worth over €2 trillion. 

In terms of the core challenges facing the sector, the separation and sourcing of organic materials remains. As I have mentioned earlier, only 32% of the potential brown bin material that is generated in Ireland ever makes it into a brown bin. This relates back to poor enforcement of our waste regulations, which require bin companies to provide brown bins to its customers. Despite regulations which require bin providers to provide brown bins to households, there is strong evidence to suggest that this is simply not happening, particularly in more rural areas. Without the raw materials, the bio-economy cannot lift off the ground. It is incumbent upon the Minister to devote more energy and resources to enforcing these rules. 

There is also a need for better education for householders and businesses alike as to the benefits of using a brown bin to dispose of organic waste. One pilot project by CRE in Sligo, for example, found that a simple educational programme doubled households’ usage of their brown bins. For a relatively small investment in these types of public awareness campaigns, we can see huge pay off in terms of the amount of raw material available to the industry. 

I welcome the publication on Monday of the Government’s long awaited policy statement on the bioeconomy.  I understand that the objective was to focus on a broad framework of principle, however it is disappointing that so few hard actions are being proposed and there is no attempt to show an urgent prioritisation in terms of funding or regulation.  Certainly the spirit of active determination shown in the 51 submission made to government and the wider public consultation should have led to a greater level of ambition.

I and my party strongly support the idea of focusing on maximising recovery, introducing preferential procurement rules for bioeconomy firms and step-changing research and innovation supports.

We warmly welcome the commitment of funding to the Bioeconomy Research Centre in UCD and for the new piloting facility in Tipperary.  However this level of investment isn’t even close to what is required if we want to stimulate the industry in the way that other industries were stimulated.

Not to make too much of a political point about priorities, but this year more public money will be spent on advertising government policies than will be spent on supporting cutting-edge bioeconomyresearch.

In fact, Glanbia’s investment in AgriChemWhey will by itself exceed the entire public investment in the sector.

All of the evidence is that the need to move to more environmentally and economically independent practices is becoming more urgent by the day.  It is one of the greatest challenges which face us.  In response we need to show genuine radicalism.

We need to move from being a minor participant to being a world leader in this field.

In the face of compelling moral demands and considerable benefits for Ireland, we cannot afford to ignore the bioeconomy. Ireland, as a nation, has had many of its greatest triumphs and victories when we have harnessed the creativity of our people and been to the forefront of innovation. This must be no different, and I look forward to helping Ireland to build a truly strong bioeconomy sector.