The planet’s stocks of biodiversity, the mind-boggling variety of animal and plant life in the world, is like a huge vault or library of new potentially useful chemicals, pharmaceuticals and energy sources.
The many complex chemical pathways that plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms use to fight their corner in a world where everything is out to eat or infect them inspire chemists to make things that humans find useful or desirable.
A very significant part of Ireland’s economy is based on renewable biological resources from the land and sea. Farming, the agri-food sector, bioenergy and increasingly sophisticated industrial processes which make pharmaceuticals, plastics and other chemical compounds from biological raw materials are all part of this bioeconomy.
European Union and Irish strategies have strongly supported the substitution of industrial chemicals derived from climate-damaging fossil fuels with chemicals produced from crops, food waste and wild harvest. It is seen as a “win-win” for jobs, the economy and the environment. Ireland can both provide the raw materials for the bioeconomy and develop the science and technology needed to gain value from these raw materials.
We urgently need to find alternatives for the vast diversity of highly useful products that can be produced from oil, coal and gas. If we are to keep stocks of climate-damaging fossil fuels in the ground and prevent them from further polluting the atmosphere with climate altering greenhouse gases we need to find replacements.
The potential for constant renewal of biological resources and their long-term sustainability is a fundamental strength of the bioeconomy.
The bioeconomy is absolutely reliant on the preservation and investigation of biodiversity as the source of new products and processes. A fascinating example is chitin, the hard material that makes up the external skeleton of insects, shrimp, the hard rasping mouthparts of slugs and snails, the scales of fish and the cell walls in fungi. Chitin is naturally produced, very common in the environment and biodegradable.
A single chemical group can be removed from chitin, the acetyl group, producing chitosan. Chitosan is used in organic agriculture where it stimulates plants to mount their own complex chemical defences against fungal infections. It is also used in human wound dressings, in winemaking to remove impurities and prevent spoilage and has potential as an additive to vaccines to make them more effective. Chitosan is being tested as an ingredient in coronavirus vaccines.
We know that expansion of economic activity in general has led to the erosion of biodiversity, and for the bioeconomy in particular this is an erosion of its very foundations. The long history of overexploitation of biological resources in fisheries, aquaculture, agriculture, livestock management, forestry and bioenergy has reduced biodiversity and damaged the ability of ecosystems to renew themselves. The bioeconomy has a strong vested interest in maintaining the goose that lays the golden eggs, and there are commitments to sustainable practices in national and international bioeconomy strategies.
A commitment to sustainability, however, needs to be backed up with actions. One important way for industries in the bioeconomy to walk the sustainability walk is to mainstream natural capital approaches into their business plans. The natural capital approach seeks to make visible the stocks of biodiversity that underpin the delivery of goods and services to people.
Ecosystems not only provide products to the bioeconomy, they deliver many services for free to multiple groups in society and the wider economy. Only through the explicit consideration of how these often invisible providers of critical ecosystem services are impacted by the bioeconomy can we determine strategies for renewable and sustainable use.
To keep the bioeconomy goose laying those golden eggs it needs an intact ecosystem to provide food, clean water and natural pest control. That intact ecosystem may also provide useful surprises in the future, perhaps even more valuable than golden eggs.
The Irish Forum on Natural Capital provides the tools and training to enable businesses in the bioeconomy to start accounting for, and investing in, their real wealth, the stocks of natural resources that they rely on.
Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist, Irish Research Council laureate and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin