Giving The Green Light To Industrial Biotech

U.S. government will require purchase of crop-derived products.

The U.S. government is dangling a big carrot -- and some wheat and corn -- to encourage manufacturers to make more products from biobased materials.

A part of the 2002 Farm Bill known as the Biobased Products Preferred Procurement Program is in the final stages of fomentation. When its final rules are published in the Congressional Register within the next nine months, all federal agencies will be required to buy biobased products when they are available, affordable and perform as indicated. As part of the Farm Bill, the program aims to increase consumption of domestic agricultural products and byproducts, but it also is expected to accelerate market development for "industrial biotechnology," a new but growing market of products that use biobased materials and production techniques in industrial applications.

For instance, if a federal agency wants to buy polyester-type uniforms, a manufacturer of uniforms that contain a high level of DuPont's Sorona polymer would be the preferred vendor over a manufacturer of uniforms made from traditional polyester. (Sorona is one of several plant-based materials on the market, while polyester is derived from petroleum.)

So far, the government has designated 83 product categories for the program and will be adding more. (Twenty more are under consideration now, for instance. To see a current list and for more information on the program, go to www.biobased.oce.usda.gov.) A wide range of categories from janitorial cleaners to furniture to fuels to plastics are included in the program.

"This is a very infantile industry," says Marvin Duncan of the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses at the U.S.

Department of Agriculture (USDA). "We fully expect there will be more biobased products coming into the marketplace for uses that we haven't envisioned today. . . . At some point in the future, there will be biobased switches and computer chips."

Several large manufacturers such as Toyota, Procter & Gamble, DuPont, Cargill and Dow Chemical have biobased products either in the R&D stage or already commercialized. And OEMs such as Ford Motor Co. are including biobased products in concept vehicles and for parts. In the materials arena, several types made from corn, wheat and other plants are on the market. Also, fuels such as ethanol can be made from the edible part of corn or from corn stover, the non-edible remains of a corn crop.

The program requires that designated products have significant domestic content but don't have to be manufactured by U.S.-based companies. Duncan says, for instance, if an overseas manufacturer used a material made largely from fibers composed of U.S. corn or wheat, that company could become a preferred provider.

Duncan says the USDA is working with manufacturers to compile rules and specifications for designated products. Eventually, those rules and specifications will be open for public comment. Following that, the USDA will publish the final rules. Then, manufactures that qualify can claim preferred procurement status when responding to a bid.

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