Farm bill supports homegrown innovation and Congress should pass it

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Agriculture is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy boasting a trade surplus. After a record-setting $42 billion surplus in 2011, the U.S. agriculture sector again produced a strong, $32 billion surplus in 2012. But the one-year extension of the farm bill passed on the first day of this year doesn’t do enough to ensure continued growth. By leaving out policies that support new technologies, the U.S. actually risks exporting economic growth and new employment opportunities to other countries. Congress must pass a five-year farm bill this year that includes a robust energy title and clears a regulatory path for companies bringing innovative technologies to farmers.

The energy programs that first appeared in the 2002 farm bill, and were expanded in the 2008 farm bill, have played a huge role in agriculture’s growth and economic vitality. These programs have been highly successful in driving private investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects by farmers and rural businesses in every state. Since 2008, the Renewable Energy for America Program has supported 6,600 U.S. projects employing 15,000 people that generate or save more than 7.3 billion kilowatt hours of electricity – enough to power 680,000 U.S. homes annually. This program helps secure private loans or provides grants for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in every state.

The Biobased Markets Program, with very modest funding, has driven the rapid expansion of the U.S. biobased product industry by establishing a BioPreferred label and giving federal purchasing preference to cost-competitive new biobased products. The program helps to drive market adoption of renewable chemical technologies, which creates manufacturing opportunities and improves U.S. economic competitiveness. There are more than 25,000 biobased products made by 3,100 companies – employing an estimated 100,000 people – that qualify for preferred purchasing. About 900 biobased products have gained the BioPreferred label since 2011, but no additional products will be able to because the program’s funding has been cut.

The Biorefinery Assistance Program, the federal government’s most successful energy loan guarantee program, has brought more than $1 billion in private investment for the construction of advanced biofuels facilities in nine different states, including Florida and New Mexico. Additional biorefineries have applied for the program, but they’ve been left in limbo without funding for the program.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program is the only federal program available to promote the development of new biomass energy crops. To date, it has supported more than 860 growers in 188 counties across 12 states who are converting 59,000 underutilized acres to energy crops. Without it, these farmers would be unable to consider producing these crops, primarily because lenders and insurers are unwilling to take risks on them.

Congress must pass a five-year farm bill to provide the certainty that producers need to continue innovating in the areas of biobased manufacturing, renewable energy production, and research to promote the commercialization of new agricultural innovations.

Ritter is co-director of the Agriculture Energy Coalition.