Between Russia’s war against Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and steep fluctuations in commodity markets, the past five years have been deeply disruptive to global supply chains. As a result, industries around the world experienced a steep decline in availability of commodity chemical inputs that go into a wide range of everyday products. Consumers felt this pinch when shopping for an array of household goods. And the Department of Defense (DoD) was faced with an acute shortage of critical chemicals on which our military readiness relies. It became abundantly clear that our national security depends on a steady supply of critical inputs obtained from reliable, domestic sources.

The sheer diversity of our supply chain for critical inputs presents a daunting challenge for our national security and economic development, but it is a challenge that can (and must) be met. With sufficient investment in domestic scale-up infrastructure, bioindustrial manufacturing will be essential to strengthening the supply of key chemicals at home by leveraging and supporting some of America’s greatest assets: U.S. agriculture and our farmers and rural communities.

Bioindustrial manufacturing harnesses the power of biology to create and domestically source the chemicals and materials that comprise manufactured goods people use every day. From laundry detergent to nylon, cosmetics to bricks, biology is capable of making products that impact nearly every market. It does so locally, using feedstocks such as corn, soy and sugar beets, opens new markets for American farmers to access, and creates local biomanufacturing jobs that benefit rural communities.

The promise of biomanufacturing for our farmers is being demonstrated today. As you read this, corn farmers near Eddyville, IA are selling 90 million bushels of corn per year to local facilities that are using biotechnology to make starches, sweeteners, food and feed supplements, and other products. Soybean and flax farmers are selling their crops to a biomanufacturer in Ohio that uses soybean and linseed oil to make carbon black, a critical component for aerospace, automotive and other machine manufacturing. And California dairy farmers are sending their dairy waste to a biotechnology start-up, which is using its innovative production methods to turn that dairy waste into acrylic acid, a compound with multiple military and commercial applications. These start-up companies have been able to grow their business here in the United States, instead of going abroad, thanks in part to support from the DoD, which is focused on securing the critical inputs it needs to ensure our military readiness.

The challenge today is replicating these successes in rural communities nationwide. If we provide the necessary domestic scale-up infrastructure, we can help ensure that American innovations will lead to real products being manufactured here using American-grown feedstocks. 

Scale-up facilities allow entrepreneurs to cross the so-called Valley of Death – testing and refining approaches that will allow large-scale, efficient manufacturing and commercialization of product concepts demonstrated in the laboratory. Today, many U.S. companies must go abroad to access the scale-up infrastructure they need. Data from Europe indicate that they have significant facilities, many supported through funding from the European Union, that provide scale-up infrastructure for start-ups. China has invested considerable resources to grow their capacity to commercialize biotechnology, and countries in southeast Asia are working to establish their own facilities to better compete in the global chemicals market.

More than twenty years ago, U.S. policymakers determined that biofuels production needed to be a national priority. The 2002 Farm Bill gave biofuels producers access to the scale-up infrastructure they needed to test and refine the production methods necessary to make biofuels available in quantities and qualities the market would bear. 

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As with biofuels two decades ago, biomanufacturing needs a jumpstart for entrepreneurs to advance their products in the United States, without having to go abroad to perfect their processes and manufacture initial material for customer validation. The Farm Bill reauthorization is an opportunity to prioritize a robust, modern biomanufacturing ecosystem, just as we have done for biofuels. Coupled with DoD resources geared towards supporting both the defense and commercial biomanufacturing base, Farm Bill funding can ensure U.S. biomanufacturing start-ups have access to the pre-processed feedstocks they need to scale their manufacturing capacity. Updates to sections 9003 and 9002 of the Farm Bill’s energy title will help our nation secure a global leadership role in biomanufacturing, generate new revenue streams for farmers, and create significant off-farm employment opportunities for rural communities.

America’s farmers are the drivers of the world’s richest and most diverse agricultural system, enabling us to feed millions here and abroad, and adding biofuels to our diverse energy portfolio, which further enhances our energy independence. We are now on the cusp of using that same agricultural might to cement the domestic production of chemicals and materials critical to our economy and national security. To turn this opportunity into reality, Congress must once again lead the way, through the Farm Bill, to leverage our agricultural abundance and grow our bioindustrial manufacturing capacity. The time is now for legislators to empower agriculture to lead the way to a brighter, more secure future for America.

Doug Friedman is the CEO of BioMADE, a DoD-catalyzed, public-private partnership dedicated to securing the growth of the U.S. industrial biomanufacturing ecosystem and advancing the bioeconomy. He regularly serves as a subject matter expert on emerging biotechnologies, biotechnology policy, and national security topics at the interface of the biological and chemical sciences. Prior to BioMADE, Doug was the Founding Executive Director of Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC) and currently serves as its Board President. He earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Northwestern University and a B.S. in Chemical Biology from the University of California, Berkeley.

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