A $3 million program designed to grow the market for biobased products will be one of many under legislative scrutiny as discussions surrounding the next farm bill accelerate. 

The program, created in the 2002 farm bill and expanded in 2018, requires federal agencies and contractors to purchase biobased products. It also allows manufacturers to voluntarily apply to have their products certified with the Agriculture Department, which oversees the program.

But lawmakers and industry groups are questioning whether or not the current BioPreferred Program is operating effectively as the time for legislative reauthorization approaches.  

“It is working, but it needs to work better,” said Lloyd Ritter, the executive director of the Agriculture Energy Coalition. “The way that gets done is through substantive improvements in the next farm bill.”

One of the largest problems industry groups point to is the lack of information demonstrating federal compliance with purchasing requirements. Under current federal acquisition regulations, agencies are required to ensure 95% of new contracts are either biobased, water-efficient, energy efficient, environmentally preferable, non-ozone depleting or made with recoverable materials. But a messy reporting system makes it difficult to determine whether these requirements are actually being met by agencies. 

“It's unclear exactly what's happening from a purchasing and reporting standpoint,” said Jessica Bowman, executive director of the Plant Based Products Council. 

Jessica_Bowman_300.jpgJessica Bowman, Plant Based Products Council

Several problems when it comes to tracking purchases of biobased products do exist, according to an economic impact analysis of the biobased products industry commissioned by the USDA in 2019. Federal acquisition systems, in their current form, do not have a centralized reporting system for biobased products, which makes it difficult to tell how many biobased products are being purchased by agencies.

“Generally, agencies such as USDA, NASA, GSA, and DoD do a good job of ensuring the biobased products clause is included in contracts,” the report says. “However, the ability to actually track compliance across all agencies is severely hindered by the current forms of tracking provided in the Federal Procurement Data System Next Generation.”

The USDA has recognized over 139 categories of biobased products, which are derived from plants or other biological materials. Examples of these products include carpets, lubricants, paints, tissues, hand sanitizers and fire retardants.

Earlier this year, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a longtime member of the panel, wrote the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality and USDA, urging them to create a North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code to better track federal procurement. These codes were required to be developed under stipulations in the 2018 farm bill, but OMB had not done so by December 2021.

OMB’s decision to not develop the codes, according to a USDA comment left on a Federal Register notice, was partially because it did not see the biobased products industry as being big enough to warrant a product code. The USDA publicly expressed its disapproval of the move, saying biobased products provide over a half a million jobs and $59 billion in value added benefits and that OMB is legally required by the 2018 farm bill to create the codes. 

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“We offer this comment in part because while USDA’s BioPreferred Program submitted comments on the initial request from the DOC and reached out to ask if DOC needed any assistance, USDA was never asked to participate in dialogue to work on the congressionally mandated classification,” Karama Neal, the administrator of the Rural Business-Cooperative Service in USDA’s Rural Development agency, wrote in the public comment. 

OMB, however, has stated it is working on North American Product Classification System (NAPCS) codes, another classification system used for products, rather than industries. However, industry groups like the Biotechnology Innovation Organization have said that simply adding these codes “will not address the economic mapping needs for the sector.”

While Stabenow and Klobuchar said they appreciated OMB’s initial steps on NAPCS product codes, they wanted to see the department establish NAICS codes. They also called for more resources and training on BioPreferred products to be given to procurement officers by OMB and the USDA.

Debbie StabenowSenate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, federal procurement of BioPreferred products have failed to increase despite significant product innovations,” they wrote. “We encourage OMB and USDA to education procurement officers on the benefits of BioPreferred products and routinely measure the progress of the program.”

Stabenow, in a statement to Agri-Pulse, said she has seen more products from American crops like soybeans and corn be used for products since she introduced her Grow it Here, Make it Here initiative and will explore options to expand biobased production even more in the future.

“I’ve urged the administration to make a greater federal investment in biobased products and we will be exploring opportunities to strengthen the biobased economy in the upcoming farm bill,” she said.

Bowman, the Plant Based Products Council director, said the BioPreferred program needs more than the approximately $3 million it currently has to operate effectively. This is a meager amount compared to the $39 million allocated to Energy Star, a similar government program focused on energy efficiency.

“It's difficult for the BioPreferred program to really market its program to help consumers really understand what this label is and the benefits that bio-based products can provide in both an environmental and an economic standpoint,” she said. 

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