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Secretary’s Column: Bioeconomy Brings Big Opportunity to Rural America

Today, small businesses and global companies alike have harnessed the power of America’s farms to create new biobased products that are used all around the world. Everything from cleaning products to packing peanuts originates in rural America, and the potential to create even more new products derived from the crops grown in rural America is nearly limitless.

Yesterday, I visited the first-ever Bioproducts World Showcase, hosted by the Ohio Bioproducts Innovation Center at Ohio State University. At the Showcase, I had the opportunity to see the latest and greatest in cutting edge innovation in the bioeconomy and speak with leaders across the bioeconomy about emerging opportunities and challenges in the bioeconomy.

In conjunction with the event, USDA also released a new report, titled Why Biobased?. The report is a precursor for a more comprehensive economic study to be released in the coming months that will capture the full economic impact of the biobased products industry in the United States.

Results from the new report show that the potential for future growth in the bioeconomy is significant. For example, two-thirds of the total volume of chemicals—more than 50,000 products and a $1 trillion annual global market—could be produced from biobased material. Recognizing this, many companies are forging ahead with the integration of biobased products into their market and product development design strategies. Estimates indicate that U.S.-based jobs for the renewable chemicals sector alone will rise from approximately 40,000 jobs in 2011, which represents 3%-4% of all chemical sales, to over 237,000 jobs by 2025. This employment level would represent approximately 20% of total chemical sales.

The expanding bioeconomy means more than just additional choices for customers or new growth opportunities for companies along the supply chain—it also means new jobs. For example, shifting just 20% of the current plastics produced into bioplastics could create approximately 104,000 jobs. The U.S. Office of Science and Technology has projected that the economic growth associated with just one application – cellulose nanomaterials in the paper industry – could create as many as 425,000 jobs in the U.S. by 2020.  Potential applications of nanocellulose particles include recyclable electronics, biobased plastics, paper and packaging materials with improved surfaces, flexible cement, automotive and aircraft components, and protective armor.

USDA has supported the growth of the bioeconomy through a variety of efforts. For example, our BioPreferred program, designed to help companies market biobased products, is now featured on more than 1,940 products sold in stores across the country. The 2014 Farm Bill expanded the BioPreferred program to include mature market wood products and other materials. Companies in over 40 countries on six continents are now participating in the BioPreferred program. Under President Obama, the Federal Government has prioritized these biobased products for procurement and use. Later this week, USDA will launch a new prize competition for developers, institutions, organizations and design teams competing to demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability of using sustainable wood products in high-rise construction. The competition will help spur increased sustainability in construction and will give priority to applicants that source materials from rural domestic manufacturers and domestic, sustainably-managed forests.

These are some of the many ways USDA is helping to revitalize the economy and create jobs in small towns across America. Collectively, these efforts help to support an innovative biobased economy in rural America, which supports agriculture, helps reduce our dependence on oil and ultimately creates job opportunities and supports economic development in rural America.

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