Moving toward bio-based economy
Today, a college football player may just as likely get a facemask full of soy turf as natural grass. In the past five years, industrial uses of U.S. soy have increased 50 percent. During that time, many major college and professional sports programs have adopted a soy-based artificial turf over labor-intensive grass or the petroleum-based turfs of yesteryear.
This is, in essence, how a bio-based economy takes shape.
There are more than 3,000 companies nationwide producing more than 20,000 bio-products made from grasses, grains, oilseeds and agricultural waste, rather than petroleum. The products are common things like detergent, bed linens, ink, fertilizer and disposable cutlery. These cutting-edge innovations will help us break our dependence on foreign oil while helping to build a new industry of competitively-priced, American grown and made products. In fact, making these items employs about 100,000 Americans — many of them in rural communities — by fusing two important economic engines: agriculture and manufacturing.
We commonly hear about Iowa’s ethanol and biodiesel industries, but Iowa companies are also producing bio-based industrial chemicals, enzymes, lubricants, biocomposites, kitty litter and so much more. All of which add to our state’s bio-based economy.
At USDA, we think there is incredible potential for this industry to grow, innovate and create economic opportunity. So we have taken action to expand markets for these products. One year ago, we created a bio-based product label called USDA BioPreferred that will soon be featured on more than 500 products you can buy at a local grocery store or pharmacy. We hope the label becomes a powerful image of American ingenuity, much like our USDA organic label. Ten years have passed since USDA launched the organic label. Today, you see the organic seal on thousands of fruits, vegetables, meats or other goods at the local market, and more than two-thirds of Americans buy organic.
Bio-based products may hold even greater potential and its potential in our state is great.
Iowa contains one-fourth of the world’s most productive land. These productive soils combined with abundant moisture, pristine growing conditions and the strong work ethic of our citizens, in a state that dominates production agriculture situates us to become a leader in the new bio-based economy.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced steps to encourage the federal government to dramatically increase our purchases of bio-based products. Bio-based cleaning goods and construction materials like carpet pads and insulation are grown and made in America, as are lubricants, paints, oils and paint removers used in aircraft, motor vehicles and by the military.
As the federal government encourages use of these cost-competitive alternatives, it will mean more contracts for American businesses and more American manufacturers creating good, middle-class jobs. Of course, these options exist thanks to the ability of our farmers to drive many other sectors of the economy, including manufacturing and transportation.
Over several decades now, U.S. agriculture has become the second most productive sector of our economy. American farmers apply the latest in technology, achieve a nearly unparalleled level of productivity, contribute to a homegrown supply of renewable energy, and are responsible for 1 out of 12 jobs here in the United States. Our farmers feed people around the globe and yet still produce enough food to keep our grocery bill among the lowest in the world. In other words, no challenge is too great for America’s farmers.
As we lay the foundation for an economy that is built to last, this effort to establish a bio-based economy will create middle-class jobs, drive innovation, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and support incomes for farmers and ranchers.
John R. Whitaker is state executive director of the Iowa Farm Service Agency.