In a recently released report entitled “Why Biobased?” the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) answers the question of why America should invest in a biobased economy.  The report explores the economic impacts of biobased products in the United States, which include more jobs across the nation, lucrative job opportunities for rural Americans and a stronger bridge between agriculture and manufacturing.  The report came at an opportune time as the United States is currently facing such challenges as climate change, trying to create jobs, generate new business opportunities and working to meet the growing demand for more sustainable processes and products.  

The biobased industry has shown great potential in creating new jobs and business opportunities across various sectors in the United States. BIO has projected that U.S.-based jobs for the renewable chemicals sector will rise from approximately 40,000 in 2011, which represents 3-4 percent of all chemical sales, to more than 237,000 by 2025. This employment level would represent approximately 20 percent of total chemical sales.  Additionally, by 2017, the USDA-Nexant Renewable Chemicals Market Assessment sees the potential of $775 million of value added per year for renewable chemicals with capital investment of $2.4 billion. By 2022, the value added potential is estimated at $3 billion per year with $6 billion capital. 

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“Why Biobased?” illustrates how embracing a bioeconomy means a stronger rural America.  The movement towards a bioeconomy can help rural areas grow economically by using local biomass to produce bioproducts.  One 2009 study titled Regional Strategy for Biobased Products in the Mississippi Delta by Battelle concluded that in a 98-county area in the Mid- South Mississippi Delta region, lignocellulosic feedstock processing utilizing less than 25 percent of available land would support a biomass industry worth over $8 billion annually and create 50,000 jobs by 2030.  For farmers, local production of energy and homegrown biobased products would reduce the supply chain costs of having to import and transport petroleum.  For manufacturers of biobased products and companies looking for bioenergy alternatives, rural areas are becoming more attractive locations.

The chemical industry too benefits from the emerging biobased economy. Innovation in the chemical industry was stagnant for many years. But with the advent of new renewable chemical platforms, we are seeing resurgence in innovation in the chemical space. Innovation is happening in pure-play bio-renewables and also in combining biobased processes with traditional chemistry and engineering.

Moving away from the use of petroleum-based feedstocks to renewable feedstocks means biobased products can produce a reduction in CO2 and other emissions related to climate change.  In fact many biobased products take carbon out of the atmosphere.  For instance, algae absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows and then sequesters that carbon when it serves as a feedstock for biobased products.  The carbon that algae removes from the atmosphere through photosynthesis becomes fixed or recycled in the product –grocery bags, plastic bottles, etc.  Moreover, the reliance on oil means the possibility of spills, pipeline bursts and the introduction of other harmful gases in the atmosphere.  A biobased infrastructure has a greener environmental footprint and is a safer alternative for fuel and energy choices. 

In the months to come, the USDA BioPreferred program will release a more in-depth study of the biobased products industry and its impact on the economy, utilizing the model developed in the “Why Biobased?” study.  The BioPreferred® program was enacted as a way to increase the purchase and use of biobased products.  As of July 2014, the USDA has certified more than1,800 biobased products in more than 187 product categories, much of which can be attributed to industrial biotechnology. 

BIO commends the USDA in issuing “Why Biobased” as well as the more in depth report to come.  The USDA should continue on this path by collecting and publicizing annual statistics on the benefits of biobased products and a bioeconomy.  Reports like “Why Biobased” recognize the industries’ work and accomplishments and highlight the future promises that the industry can deliver.  Continuing to grow the bioeconomy means more jobs, new manufacturing opportunities and a stronger rural America.  USDA should be applauded for their work in this area. 

Erickson is executive vice president and head of the Industrial & Environmental Section of The Biotechnology Industry Organization.