Measure would boost biobased products

One provision under consideration in the U.S. Senate's farm bill would require the federal government to buy biobased products whenever they are found to be comparable in price, performance and availability to traditional products.

The provision would cover any commercial or industrial product other than food that uses biological products or renewable domestic agricultural or forestry materials.

The proposal would assign the Agriculture Department, working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the task of developing a list of preferred products.

The Agriculture Department also would be required to develop a labeling program to help stimulate public demand for biobased products.

The provision is tucked away in a farm bill that advanced out of the Senate Agriculture Committee last month. The provision was sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, whose state is a leading producer of corn.

Corn is the ingredient for ethanol-blended gasoline, which has been in production for a number of years but hasn't really caught on, partly because ethanol-blended gasoline is not readily available and often is priced above nonblended gasoline.

Harkin pointed out, however, that recently in Iowa ethanol-blended 89-octane gasoline was selling for the same price as 87-octane fuel without ethanol.

The ethanol industry's trade group is hailing the Senate measure as a move that would help build market share for their product.

Farmers also like the idea because, in addition to corn, it would boost markets for soybeans, which are used to make biodiesel fuel, plastics and other products.

The federal government is a big spender. Federal agencies spend more than $200 billion a year on a vast array of products and are the nation's largest consumer. They buy more than 1.1 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel each year.

With that kind of demand, Harkin's proposal would offer a shot in the arm to the fledgling biobased-products industry. It could mean a big boost to the production of ethanol-blended gasoline, and that could lead to greater availability and use by American consumers.