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Forum: A Tradition of Bioprocessing Excellence

George Washington Carver and Henry Ford were bioprocessing long before the term was even coined. Bioprocessing describes the creation of new products from biological materials—whether that be antibiotics from blue-green molds or fuel ethanol from corn starch.

Carver (1864 - 1943) spent his adult years at Tuskegee Institute (today Tuskegee University) researching and promoting hundreds of new uses for peanuts, sweetpotatoes, and soybeans. He saw these crops as a way for southern sharecroppers to diversify their revenue streams and restore depleted soils long planted to cotton. Ford (1863 - 1947) focused considerable attention on creating new products from soybeans through “farm chemurgy”—the use of chemistry and other relevant scientific fields to turn surplus crops and agricultural commodities into new, value-added products.

Both men—peer professionals and friends—pursued their parallel interests with the shared goal of improving the plight of America’s farmers in the face of diminished prices, depleted soils, and other economic hardships. Carver’s investigations of the peanut’s chemical properties inspired him to propose many food and nonfood uses, including edible pastes, cooking oil, glues, plastics, and cosmetics ingredients. Ford, in the 1930s, built a car using parts made from soybean oil, meal, and other constituents. He, too, proposed numerous new food uses for the legume.

In 1938, well into the farm chemurgy movement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established four regional research laboratories. The purpose of each laboratory was to put multidisciplinary teams of scientists to work expanding the uses for surplus crops in their respective farm-production regions. (See “ARS Utilization Centers’ 75th Anniversary,” October 2015.)

The influence of early innovators like Carver and Ford continues today, though under the guise of “bioprocessing” rather than “farm chemurgy.” While the movement’s name has changed, the need for innovative new products from agricultural or other renewable sources has not. However, today’s needs are less about finding markets for surplus crops as they are about creating value-added uses and developing sustainable alternatives to using fossil fuels like petroleum.

Today, as in earlier times, USDA champions the development and marketing of bioproducts not only for new economic opportunities afforded to the nation’s producers and rural communities, but also for potential benefits to the environment and human health.

In 2002, for example, the Department kicked off its USDA BioPreferred® Program with two strategic goals in mind: “1) to advance the markets for biobased products and 2) to increase the purchase of biobased products government-wide.” As of June 2016, the program’s database listed 20,000 products, including lubricants, cleaners, paints, inks, and building materials. An additional purpose of the program is to spur economic development, create new jobs, and provide new markets for farm commodities.

According to the latest estimates, published in the October 2016 USDA report “Economic Analysis of the U.S. Biobased Products Industry,” this sector has supported 4.2 million American jobs through direct, indirect, and induced contributions (meaning businesses that benefit from a bioproduct employee’s spending in the immediate community); contributed $393 billion in added value to the U.S. economy; and displaced up to 6.8 million barrels of petroleum-based products in 2014.

The USDA also plays a supporting role in the Energy Independence and Security Act, established in 2007 under former President George W. Bush. Among other directives, the Act requires that transportation fuel sold in the United States contain at least 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels annually by 2022.

As USDA’s chief in-house scientific research agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is uniquely suited to clearing some of the hurdles that remain in making bioproducts competitive with those made from petroleum and natural gas. These hurdles include the comparatively lower prices of these fossil fuels, the seasonal availability of crops, and a lack of infrastructure to economically harvest, handle, and transport them to biorefinery facilities.

Fortunately, taking on long-term, high-risk research is an area in which ARS excels.

Over its 64 years of existence, the agency has acquired considerable experience and institutional knowledge related to all phases of the bioproduction process—from plant breeding and microbial discovery to field production, harvesting, and conversion into new products and materials. Hand-in-hand with that is ARS’s extensive and robust collaborations with private industry and other stakeholders to take these products to the next level. Moreover, we can conduct our bioprocessing studies across major production areas, thanks to ARS’s nationwide network of strategically located laboratories and regional research centers.

Last but not least are the scientists, engineers, and others who make up ARS’s multidisciplinary research teams. As you’ll learn from reading the articles in this bioproducts theme issue, they’re a talented and creative bunch, dedicated to problem-solving—just like Carver, Ford, and other bioproduct pioneers before them.

Gene Lester
National Program Leader
Product Quality and New Uses
Beltsville, Maryland

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Key Facts

  • Bioproducts from plant, animal, and microbial sources can diminish petroleum use.
  • Today’s bioproduct industry adds $393 billion in value to the U.S. economy.
  • ARS does research on all phases of bioproduct development.

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