What do people know about the Bioeconomy? How do they feel about the changes it could bring? And how would they like to see it evolve? Researchers at the BiOrbic SFI Bioeconomy Research Centre are exploring people’s attitudes and willingness to engage with the Bioeconomy, because it is people who will drive a societal switch to more sustainable, bio-based products and services.

“For the Bioeconomy to be successful, it will involve substantial change for people, and we need to think about that broader societal context.”

Professor Maeve Henchion, a Principal Research Officer at Teagasc Ashtown, explains: “In order to replace fossil-based resources with bio-based resources and to address sustainability and climate change, consumers will need to buy different products and farmers will need to change what they are doing. For all sorts of rational reasons, people may not immediately see the value to themselves or to society, or there may be cases where people will need to switch to new jobs. So for the science and technology to be of value, people need to be engaged and involved, and the transitions need to be just and fair, otherwise the Bioeconomy will not have the impact it needs to have.”

With that in mind, Professor Henchion is leading a programme to explore the values, attitudes to and awareness about the Bioeconomy among citizens, consumers and primary food producers such as farmers. 

University College Dublin/Teagasc PhD student Kieran Harrahill has now mapped out a network of stakeholders in the Bioeconomy in Ireland, providing a foundation for researchers and others to approach the people who are key to bringing BiOrbic’s findings to life.

The research will now ask farmers, consumers and citizens about their awareness and attitudes about the Bioeconomy. “We really need to work with the farmers, the primary producers, to see what is relevant to them about the Bioeconomy and where they can find value and opportunities in it,” says Professor Henchion. 

“We also want to understand consumers’ perspectives on factors such as sustainability and biodiversity, and how citizens feel about engaging with the Bioeconomy, particularly when developments are happening close to them. If changes such as new facilities are needed in local communities, how can we work to ensure that these developments do not have negative implications for, and are of benefit to, the communities affected?”

Professor Henchion commends BiOrbic and SFI for building social science in at such an early stage of scientific and technical research, and she sees its value in defining issues as well as providing answers. “Social sciences help us to widen out the definition of problems and solutions,” she says. “It means we are not just identifying barriers and identifying solutions to overcome them, we are reframing research questions around the people and communities that will drive the Bioeconomy.”