By Jeff Caldwell

The development of the bioeconomy in Iowa, the U.S. and the world will take coordination at all levels of government and the private sector of the industries involved.

This has already become part of the federal government's agenda, with the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy actively seeking ways to make the production of bio-based products and chemicals a substantial piece of the puzzle of nationwide economic sustainability. Even though they are delineated in purpose and industry, cooperation among officials within the two Bush administration departments is being fostered by a common mission, derived to them by the commander-in-chief.

"Let me assure you that, from the administration's perspective, President [George W.] Bush is very much committed to this new opportunity," Merlin Bartz, special assistant to Mark Rey, USDA undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said at BIO conference: Bio-based Industry Outlook, March 8, in Ames, Iowa.

Bartz was joined by James Fischer, director of the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, who addressed the necessity of policy promoting the development of renewable, specifically crop-based, chemicals and products to both boost a burgeoning industry in the U.S. and extend the lifespan of existing non-renewable fuel stocks that will inevitably dry up in the future.

"If we talk about the energy challenges, we can't continue to keep doing the same old things and expect something different," Fischer said. "The question becomes: How long can you continue to subsist on something you can't renew?"

The primary thrust of policy promoting renewable fuels began, according to Bartz, with President Bush's outlining of a national energy policy, in which he "gave and gives a prominent role to renewable fuels," making it a high priority amidst the cloud of potential legislation for both agriculture and energy from the early days of his 2000 presidential campaign through to today. The push for renewables hit an apex in the spring of 2002, with the signing of the farm bill, in which renewables were emphasized at levels it never had before.

"The President remains as committed today as he did in the Spring of 2002, when he signed the first farm bill in history...let me repeat that...the first farm bill in history that contained an energy title," Bartz said. "We believe that the energy title, as well as other strong farm policies, will do as much to promote energy security, protect the environment and also offer new economic opportunities, as anything else in history."

Coupled with the farm legislation passed by Congress and established in concert with USDA, the effort for the promotion of bio-based energy has been more strongly forged by a symbiotic partnership between ag officials and their DOE peers, according to Fischer. An important offshoot of this pairing has been the sharing of technology, to which USDA once had no access, but is now being jointly utilized. In return, USDA's financial resources make it easier for officials to utilize the technologies that can drive bio-based product research and development.

"In DOE, we have the technology, the energy efficiency and renewable energy technology. To get it on the ground, we need capital, loans and cost share. USDA has the authority to provide that," Fischer said. "So, if we want to employ this technology, it appears to me that it would be an excellent opportunity to partner together to make it happen."

Yet, despite the institutional coordination that is boosting bio-based products, Fischer said another summit must be reached in order to procure a future for the industry. The education of future producers, researchers and lawmakers will be excelled by partnerships with government departments and universities to provide educational opportunities now languishing.

"Our kids are not engaging in science and technology. We need to show them and get them interested," he said. "We want to work together. We can get more done to integrate all universities looking at energy efficiency, rather than on a one-to-one basis."

Ultimately, both Bartz and Fischer emphasized the importance of taking full advantage of the opportunities for economic sustainability the bioeconomy represents. Through the coordination each official's department is working toward, the bioeconomy will become more than a topic for discussion and legislation, but something that will stabilize the country's overall fiscal health.

"We believe we are witnessing a fulfillment of a dream of many of the forward-looking farmers across this nation, and in the state of Iowa, who have been working with bio-fuels, bio-products and bio-energy for many years," Bartz said. "We know that these are times that present excellent opportunities in the energy area."

The economy's rebound, of which the bio-based products industry will play a large role, is something that will ultimately be felt by everyone in the country, not just those involved in the industry. As such, its importance reaches well beyond the numbers on a balance sheet.

"The bottom line, and what we're all about in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is bringing that demand curve down and bring the supply curve up with renewables," Fischer said. "This way, we can enhance the quality of our lives."

Jeff Caldwell can be reached by phone at 620-227-1805 or by e-mail at jcaldwell@hpj.com.

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