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Government to buy more biobased products

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USDA BIOBASEDTo buoy America's farmers and cut the nation's dependence on oil, President Obama is expected to issue rules today to expand the emerging market for biobased products that are just starting to appear on store shelves with a U.S.-approved label.


Obama is scheduled to sign a presidential memo that requires the federal government to track and increase its purchases of products made from plants and other renewable agricultural materials — products such as hand soap derived from soybeans, furniture from sunflower hull wood or disposable spoons from potatoes.

"We want to get to the point where we're using everything we grow and everything we raise" to create jobs, help the environment and reduce petroleum use, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview. Obama is directing him to increase by 50%, within a year, the number of eligible products — now about 9,000.

These rules build on the Department of Agriculture's BioPreferred program, created by the 2002 Farm Bill. Last year, the USDA started a voluntary label that companies can place on their products if they prove a product is entirely or significantly biobased. The department has approved 500 products, many of which are now being repackaged to carry the "USDA Certified Biobased Product" seal.

"This is brand new," said John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation, which makes dozens of eco-friendly products such as laundry detergent derived partly from sugar cane. This month, some of its products began sporting the label, and he expects 95% of them will do so by the end of 2012.

Replogle welcomes the federal promotion of biobased products, saying it "encourages consumers to understand from what their products are derived." He said many don't realize that household products, including detergent, often contain petroleum.

"There are tremendous opportunities here to grow rural communities," Vilsack said, citing the plethora of petroleum-based products that could be produced from plants instead.

Yet, there are limits, especially with transportation fuels, said Alice Pilgeram, a research professor in plant biology at Montana State University. She found it would take millions of acres of camelina, an oil plant, to produce enough fuel to offset 10% of the fuel oil used at one major airport.

She also said some biobased products cost more. With a USDA study grant, she tested a lubricant made of canola oil that cost more than a petroleum-based alternative, but she said it performed much better. "You effectively use less, because you lubricate the chain saw less often."



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